by Jed Hartman, 7 November 2010
For the past couple of years, we've been receiving a surprising number of notes from authors, a week or a month after they submit a story to us, that say things like:
I was looking at this story again, and I realized that it's not good enough. So I'm withdrawing it. I'll send you a better version later. [Alternatively: I'm attaching an improved version to this email; please consider this new version instead of the old one.]
I submitted a story to you a few weeks ago, but I just realized that I submitted the wrong version of the story. Please discard that version. Here's the right version; please read this one instead.
(The other most common reason for withdrawing is having sent us a simultaneous submission, but I'm not addressing that situation in this entry. Please don't send us simultaneous submissions.)
In other words, one way or another, the author is in the unfortunate position of having sent us a story, or a version of a story, that they no longer have confidence in.
Which is too bad, and I can sympathize.
But it's not really fair to us editors to ask us to switch to a different version.
When you send us a story, we have to assume that that story—and that version of that story—is the story you meant to send us. We put it in our database; we read it; we write comments about it; we discuss it; we spend time on it.
So it isn't a good idea for an author to tell us that the story we've been considering isn't the one they want us to consider.
If they tell us early enough, before we read the story, then in some sense there's no harm done—it doesn't take me that much time to do the appropriate recordkeeping. (But it does annoy me.) But the author who sends such a query generally has no way of knowing whether we've read the original story or not.
There have been so many withdrawals lately that we've instituted a policy: just like we don't normally consider unsolicited revisions of stories we've rejected, we won't generally consider replacement versions of stories that the author has withdrawn.
So if an author really feels strongly that the version we have is worthless, then they're allowed to withdraw it; but they can't then revise it and resubmit it to us. They can still submit other stories, of course; we just won't consider the same story more than once.
(And if they withdraw more than one story, we're going to start being reluctant to spend any time considering their work at all.)
In some of these cases, what's happened is that the author has discovered that the version they sent us was an old version of the story. I sympathize—everyone makes mistakes—but that's why our submission form says to make sure that you're submitting the intended version of your story. When you open up the word processor file to save as RTF, take a few minutes to look over the story and make sure it's the latest version.
I suspect that in most other cases, the author was sitting around biting their fingernails about whether the story would be accepted or not, and they decided to take another look at it, and they started noticing flaws in it. So they corrected the flaws, did some revising, and then decided they didn't want us to consider the story they sent us after all, because the changes they've made have improved the story.
And again I can sympathize, but again it's not fair to us editors.
So I recommend following this procedure:
- Before you submit a story to SH, read through it carefully. Examine it, think about it, look for problems. Make absolutely certain that the story is as good as you want it to be (and that you won't need to change it for at least ten weeks, since that's our max response time). Don't spend too long on this step (or you'll never actually send the story out), but do spend a little bit of time on it.
- When you're submitting the story, make absolutely certain that you're sending us the version you meant to send us. Don't click the submit button until you're totally sure.
- After you submit the story, don't look at it again until you hear back from us. (Every time you're tempted to look at it again, go write something else instead.) If you look at it, chances are you'll notice problems, and sooner or later you'll get nervous and be tempted to withdraw it. Remember that the story will never be perfect; at some point, if you want it published, you'll have to let go of it.
- If you do find yourself looking at the story while we're considering it, and you see a typo or two, or even a clunky sentence or two, just don't worry about it. Like most editors, we would never reject a story on the basis of a couple of typos. That kind of thing just isn't a big deal. (If there are dozens of typos, that's more of a problem—but if there are a multitude of big mistakes, you should try to find them before submitting.)
- Give the system a chance to work. Let the editors be the judge of the story. If it doesn't match our tastes, the worst that'll happen is that we'll send you a polite rejection note. (And then you can revise it to your heart's content before you send it elsewhere.) We won't mock you or blacklist you. If we say no to this story, you can send us another one, and we might say yes to that one. You career doesn't depend on our buying this particular story.
By the way, there've been times when authors have told us that they've done a thorough and total revision of a story, a complete rewrite—and then I've done a document comparison and found that the revision amounts to a few typo corrections, a character name change, one or two paragraphs cut and another one or two added, and a few phrasing improvements. So although I know this isn't universally true, I think that authors often believe that the changes they're making from one draft to another are much bigger changes than an objective reader would consider them to be.
Anyway. I should reiterate that I do sympathize with authors who find themselves in this position. But I strongly recommend that you do your best to avoid finding yourself in this position.
And as always, even if you're furious at us about this policy, it cannot have any positive consequences for you to complain to us about it. It's not a perfect policy; we usually strive to be author-friendly, and this is not a very author-friendly policy. But the volume of withdrawals that we've been getting lately (especially withdrawals of stories that we've already read and decided on but haven't responded to yet) makes it impractical for us to be more flexible about this.
(I posted a different version of this on my personal blog in 2009. We've been getting a lot of withdrawals lately, so I decided it was time to write an updated and more focused version for the SH fiction blog.)