What to Look For in a Lit Mag

Last week, I had the misfortune of receiving an “acceptance” from a fake, online literary magazine called Violet & the Bird (pretty name, cute website, active Twitter page — very misleading). This experience reminded me why I haven’t submitted to obscure/new/online lit mags in the past, and I thought I would share my current rules of thumb for submissions (which I’ve held for a while, but obviously slacked on too much, recently).

Keep in mind that there are legitimate ‘zines and journals that do not adhere to these guidelines. However, it may be in those organizations’ best interests to start following them, and thereby increase their chances of attracting quality work.

So, without further ado, here are five* things to look for in a lit mag:

1. There must be a masthead.

If you don’t know what a masthead is, now you will: it’s basically a list of names of the people who run the magazine. In many cases — even in long-standing literary journals — there will only be a list of names, which are sometimes linked to other pages or the individuals’ personal websites, but usually it’s pretty sparse. This is fine, but if you only see first names (or nonsensical-sounding pseudonyms such as *cough* Honeysuckle Danse *cough*), you might wanna steer clear.

TL; DR: If the magazine you’re looking at has names and photos and the credentials of at least the editor(s) in chief, you’re probably in good hands. (See example below, or click here.)

Names, pronouns, positions, and photos that share their personalities. Plus, they show a description when you hover over each one. Snazzy AND informative!

2. It has to look good.

Presentation is almost everything, especially with online magazines. I’m talking font choices, spacing, background images, clean and clear mobile and desktop views, down to the last detail. If it’s not clear where to find the masthead vs. the submission guidelines vs. the current issue, that’s bad. If they use red text on a blue background or hot pink text on a lime green background, that’s bad. And for the love of God, why are online lit mags still publishing single-spaced poems with double-spaced lines?!

Maybe you can tell I’m a bit salty about poorly designed websites.

Update: If it’s blog-style magazine that posts new pieces on its homepage (or any page, for that matter), each piece or author contribution should have its own individual link for easy access later. The Ekphrastic Review and The New Verse News are examples of established, online journals that do this (although I think both their websites could be improved).

TL; DR: When in doubt, templates are best. Simplicity is your friend. (See examples below, or click here and here.)

3. It should have a purchased domain name.

No .wordpress, .weebly, .squarespace, .blogspot, .wixsite, etc. If you want to show true commitment to your literary endeavor, you’ll invest in a domain name that matches the name of your magazine. Also, change the avatar! That little icon in the upper left corner of the tab should be the same as the organization’s logo. (If you need help figuring out how to do that, just ask!)

Also, I don’t love .net domains (.com and .org are the standard, along with .edu for university publications), but if the website looks good, I can get over it. See examples above.

4. It should accept submissions through Submittable.

Yes, Submittable costs money, but the platform makes it so much easier for contributors to keep track of their submissions, and looks a lot more professional than accepting poems through a Gmail (or, God forbid, Hotmail) account. See example below.

Oh, and if the magazine doesn’t accept submissions through Submittable, then the rest of the rules become that much more important.

5. It should have at least a year’s worth of issues behind it.

New lit mags won’t like to hear this, because it reeks of that old ‘you-must-have-work-experience-to-get-this-job-but-you-can’t-work-until-you-have-more-experience’ paradox. But honestly, it’s too easy to start a lit mag these days, and too easy for them to fold when the editors decide they want to do something else with their time. Starting a publishing business of any kind is hard, and often comes with unforeseen challenges. But you’re taking on other people’s painstakingly chosen words, and no writer wants to see their work disappear when the online magazine that accepted it disappears three years later. That’s just tragic.

So, don’t be offended if writers are gun shy about sending you their stuff.

TL;DR: Go with your gut. If you like what you see and previous contributors are happy, submit!

*Payment would be ideal.

Again, it’s about investment, both on the part of the lit mag and the submitter. Yes, most magazines are run for free by volunteers, and can’t afford to do this (at least at first). But if you, as the author, are being charged for submissions (whether for a contest or regular subs), you should do your best to get something out of it. Rattle, for example, provides you with a subscription or subscription extension to the print magazine when you pay for an entry in their chapbook and single poem contests (the prizes are significant, and regular submissions are free). Foundry, though small and online only, doesn’t charge for submissions, and their website says they pay “$10 per poem via Venmo or Paypal shortly after publication” (I have not yet submitted to them, so I can’t confirm). Even if the journal can only pay you in (printed) contributor copies, that’s something.

TL;DR: Every little bit helps all parties look more professional.

To bring it all back to my experience with The Literary Magazine That Shall No More Be Named, this list is meant to help lit mags class up their acts, as well as to caution other writers against giving their work away too freely. In my case, the good news is that, although I initially lost a few bucks and got my ego bruised, I was able to get a refund, and I gained a bunch of new writer friends. I also found many more *legit* lit mags (shown here!) because of it.

The list goes on! Here’s the link to the thread.

Maybe all we victims of the dark side of publishing have in common is our writing and our trauma, and maybe these journals I’ve discovered won’t take my work. But the support from lit mags and writers alike have certainly made things a little easier to bear (and made my Twitter feed a whole lot livelier).

So, off with you! Go find some great literary journals and e-zines to submit to, and send ’em your best stuff. (Then tell me about them so I can submit…and also champion your/their cause.)

Happy writing!

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