Once upon a time I was regular contributor to the London Magazine. I’d send a batch of half a dozen poems, and by return of post, or at most within a day or two, Alan Ross, then the editor, would reply – a handwritten postcard, saying which ones he was taking (and when he hoped to print them) and which not, and why.
Today I had an email from an editorial assistant at the London Magazine thanking me for sending 24 for 3 for review and stating that the LM ‘is always on the look out for material to review and welcome you to send us new publications regularly [sic]’. Actually I sent all four CBe books, along with a note pointing out that their design was modelled on the old London Magazine editions of the early 1970s, and I sent them over four and half months ago, in mid-November of last year.
What do people do in offices? Rhetorical question: I worked in several myself, and I know. In one of them I read Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nowadays those years of solitude are a sentence imposed by many publishers, magazines and agents on writers who have the cheek to send them manuscripts.
Recently I talked with a woman who sent some chapters to an agent, who liked them and asked her to send the complete manuscript, so she did; that was a year last February; last Christmas she got in touch with him: the manuscript was on his desk, he said, and he was still looking forward to reading it. It seems to be quite normal now for publishers to take months to get back to writers about books they’ve submitted; I’ve heard of periods of over a year. Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 was submitted to another publisher before CBe; by the time the first publisher got back to her she’d given up on him and the CBe book was already in print.
(And still there’s the etiquette that requires a writer to submit to one place at a time, and wait for a response before sending somewhere else. Ditch that rule. Sending work to several places simultaneously requires a degree of self-confidence that many new writers don’t have; but there’s no good reason why they shouldn’t.)
Oh, and even after a book is in proof, the writer’s sentence of solitude isn’t necessarily over. I’ve come across two instances in the past year of publishers putting back a publication date, in one case by over a year, without bothering to tell the author.
What prompted Alan Ross’s fast responses was not, I’m sure, any idea of ‘efficiency’. The speed of his replies expressed confidence in his own judgement; an impatience with things piling up; and basic courtesy to the writer. Maybe someone could put in place an Alan Ross Award, to be given not to the editor whose books sell most copies, but to the one who best encourages new writers and shows them understanding and courtesy. Except that Ross wouldn’t like that; if there are to be awards, he’d want them all to go to writers.