What Have You Done With My Manuscript?

Elisabeth Waters

From the June 1998 issue of Speculations. Copyright 1998 by Elisabeth Waters.

      During my years of working as Marion Zimmer Bradley's secretary, I have frequently been asked what she does with all the manuscripts she receives. Sometimes I suspect people fantasize that they're dealt with by magic, that she waves a magic wand over the slush pile of manuscripts, still unopened, and they sort themselves into two neat piles: "buy" and "reject." I wish!
      In reality, what happens to the manuscripts is a lot more work.
      In addition to MZB, there are four employees. Rachel E. Holmen works with MZB to choose the stories and does the layout and chooses the art for each issue. Margaret Davis works as Rachel's assistant on layout and helps with the considerable amount of clerical work to be done. Raul Reyes does nearly all the errand running (which usually includes a minimum of two trips to the post office each day) and makes certain that all of the payments for subscriptions, back issue orders, bookstore orders, etc. make it into the bank. I, in addition to working as MZB's secretary on non-magazine business, open the mail, do data base entry, and stuff lots of SASEs.
      First, Raul lugs all the manuscripts from the post office to our office. Then I sort them out from all the other mail and open them. Some of them don't get beyond that step. If there's no SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) the manuscript goes straight into the recycling bin. (We recycle a lot of paper.) If it has a SASE but doesn't fit our guidelines (i.e.: it's single-spaced, illegible, not fantasy, over 5500 words, etc.) it goes into its SASE accompanied by a copy of our guidelines with the part the writer obviously failed to read highlighted.
      What's left after this step is a pile of properly formatted manuscripts which appear at first glance to be fantasy short stories, and their SASEs. The SASEs get the name of the story written on them and are filed in accordion folders by story title. (This is one of the reasons I prefer disposable manuscripts -- all those large SASEs are difficult to handle in quantity.) The manuscripts are logged into our database: title, word count, market (Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine /SWORD & SORCERESS), date received, and whether the manuscript is disposable or not. If we don't already have a record for the author, we add him or her to our database as well. For authors we record name, address, social security number, phone, and e-mail address. Although we don't actually need the social security number until we buy something, it's very helpful to have it because it's the one thing that stays the same when the author moves, marries, gets divorced, changes his or her name, sex, etc.
      The computer prints out a cover sheet to be attached to each manuscript, and the pile of manuscripts and cover sheets goes to MZB. She reads them and marks the cover sheets, either "hold" or "reject." If the story is being rejected, she circles the number of the paragraph for the rejection letter. (We have about 35 reasons for rejection.) She does this on a daily basis; it's the high point of her day. I guess that's why she's such a good editor -- reading the slush pile certainly wouldn't be the highlight of my day.
      Some surprises crop up during her reading of them, generally perpetrated by authors who want to be sure that the editor has read their story. These are the people who put pages in upside-down or backwards, so that they can be absolutely sure that the editor read the whole thing. There are a couple of problems with this approach. Pages which are backwards can, for one horrible moment, give the editor the feeling that her eyes are going -- which is a real worry as editors get older. Upside down pages are merely a nuisance, but both are giving the editor a negative reaction, which is hardly a desirable goal. A really great story can survive this, but why make the job harder? (And it is a sad fact, but a very true one, that it is not necessary to read an entire manuscript in order to decide if you have the slightest interest in buying it -- usually the first three pages are plenty.)
      After MZB has read them all, the entire pile goes to Rachel Holmen (if it's for Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine -- if it's for SWORD & SORCERESS it goes straight to "hold" or "reject"). Rachel goes through the pile, reviews MZB's comments and reasons for rejection, and sometimes adds her own comments on the stories.
      Both Rachel and MZB have a tendency to write comments on the actual manuscripts, and this provokes very mixed feelings. Not only do they correct grammar and typos (you wouldn't want to send out a manuscript again with the typo still there, would you?), but they'll comment on word choices, character names, and how the writer chose to phrase something. There are writers who like this and deliberately send non-disposable manuscripts so that they can see what the comments are. But there are also writers to whom this comes as a nasty shock, writers who did not intend to reprint the entire story before submitting it to its next market and did not expect to get it back with comments scribbled on it in ink. (This is another reason I personally prefer disposable manuscripts -- it spares me the angry letters from some of the second group.) My best advice in this situation is this: if you don't want comments written on your manuscript, put a post-it note on the first page saying "DO NOT WRITE ON MSS." With any luck, this will work.
      Most manuscripts go to the reject pile, but about 5% make it into the hold pile.
      For SWORD & SORCERESS the hold pile is held until the deadline. The reading period is only a few weeks, so that doesn't tie up anyone's story for too long.
      For Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine , MZB and Rachel go through the hold pile together several times a year (usually just after an issue has gone to the printer and Rachel's job is marginally less frantic). Sometimes Rachel will ask MZB to take another look at something she didn't think much of on first reading, and sometimes she won't like something MZB loved. They discuss these stories until they both agree.
      If MZB and Rachel both like a story, it goes to me for contract processing. Otherwise, it goes to Margaret to get a rejection letter. She takes the basic form for the letter: "Thank you for letting me read 'title'..." and inserts the numbered paragraph specified on the control sheet. After the letters are signed, and Rachel adds her comments, if any, the manuscripts come back to me and Raul to be reunited with their SASEs and returned or recycled. (If a manuscript is disposable and has confidential information such as a Social Security number on it, that page is shredded first.)
      If we're buying the story, I produce two copies of the contract and put them in the author's original SASE along with a letter asking for a short biography and a copy of the story on disk, if possible. (We don't want them on disk before then -- MZB uses her computer as little as possible -- but it does save having to scan or retype them into the layout and reduces the chances of our adding typographical errors.) When the two copies of the contracts come back, MZB and Ann Sharp, who is the Trustee for the Marion Zimmer Bradley Living Trust, which owns the magazine, countersign them. We keep one copy for our files, and the other copy, the check, and the author's disk are promptly sent to the author.
      We also generally include a subscription form with the contracts. After all, if you like the sort of thing we print enough to write it, you should also like it enough to read it as well. There are a couple of other reasons for subscribing to a market you want to sell to. One is obvious: if nobody subscribes, there won't be a market. The other is less obvious; I've discovered in the course of doing statistical comparisons on our database, that the chance of a subscriber's selling to us is about fifteen times the chance of a non-subscriber. And it's not because MZB cares; she doesn't know who subscribes or not. I would guess that it's because subscribers have a much better feel for the kind of thing she's buying.
      One final word: if you haven't heard from us in six months and want to know what happened to your manuscript you can send me an e-mail or a postcard, giving me your name and the title of the story, and I can look it up and let you know its status. Sometimes manuscripts do get lost, and sometimes we do hold them longer than we meant to without notifying you. We're willing to be responsive about this, but don't start asking where your story is the week you sent it in. We're willing to answer reasonable requests, but we expect you to have some idea of what "reasonable" is.
      So here you have it: a worm's eye view of manuscript handling, straight from the worm's mouth.


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