Q: I am confused by the term "simultaneous submissions" as applied to short story markets. I understand that newspapers in the US do not care if the same article is published in other US newspapers if they are not in competing areas, but national-circulation newspapers will not accept this arrangement. When it comes to short stories, does "simultaneous submissions" mean that if a publisher accepts them, the story can also be published in two or more publications? Or, if one publication accepts, should the story be withdrawn from other publishers?
-- John S., Singapore
Thank you for the question. Actually, this is two questions, for while "simultaneous submission" and "simultaneous publication" sound similar, they refer to two very different issues.
"Simultaneous publication" means that the same material is published at roughly the same time by several different publications. When you offer work for simultaneous publication, you are granting non-exclusive rights to several different publications to use that work. The publications may be fully aware that other publications are also using the work -- but because their readership does not overlap, they don't care. A good example of simultaneous publication is a syndicated column, such as "Dear Abby" or "Dave Barry."
"Simultaneous submission," on the other hand, is generally understood as the practice of sending your work to several different publications at the same time -- but with the understanding that only one of those publications will actually acquire the right to use it. When you send out simultaneous submissions, you are usually offering exclusive rights to the publication that chooses to accept it. If more than one publication wants to use the piece, you will have to choose between those markets, and withdraw the piece from the others.
The difference between these two terms lies in the question of rights involved. When you submit material for "simultaneous publication," you are offering "one-time rights." One-time rights are non-exclusive, which means that they can be used by more than one publication at the same time. You are not promising any single publication the right to use the publication "first," or the right to be the only publication to use your work.
Simultaneous publication works well with publications that do not have an overlapping readership. This applies particularly to newspapers, which are often distributed regionally (within a single city or county). Regional newspapers often have no overlap or competition with, say, the paper in the next city or county (though you can't always count on this, as I'll demonstrate below). Consequently, a newspaper in Peoria probably won't care that you've sold the same article to a newspaper in Memphis, because the readerships of the two papers do not overlap.
That changes, however, as one moves higher in the regional "hierarchy" of newspapers. For example, in Olympia, Washington (where we lived a few years ago), there is a "local" paper (The Olympian) that is read almost exclusively within the town and county. In the next county is a much larger town, Tacoma, which also produces a paper -- and because this paper is larger than The Olympian, it is read in Olympia as well (even though The Olympian is rarely read in Tacoma). At the next level is the state paper, The Seattle Post, which is read throughout the state. And finally there are national papers, such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or The New York Times, which are read not only throughout the state of Washington but throughout the country.
If you were seeking "simultaneous publication" in Washington State newspapers, you could not sell the same article to The Olympian and The Tacoma News Tribune, because these papers are competitors. For the same reason, you could not sell the same article to one of these papers and to the Seattle Post, or to a national paper.
However, you could sell the same article (theoretically) to The Olympian and to a newspaper in, say, Yakima, which is in a very different part of Washington and has no reader overlap with this area. You could sell the same article (theoretically) to The Seattle Post and, possibly, The Los Angeles Times, because there is again little reader overlap between these two papers.
Unlike newspapers, however, most magazines rarely accept one-time, nonexclusive rights. Traditionally, most magazines seek "first rights" (e.g., First North American Serial Rights). Some magazines accept "reprints" after you have already sold first rights, but even those often prefer some degree of exclusivity (e.g., you may have to sell reprint rights sequentially rather than simultaneously).
The primary reason for this is that, unlike newspapers, most magazines' circulation is not defined by geography (except, of course, for regional magazines). Most magazines are based on "interest" rather than "location." Consequently, every magazine that focuses upon a particular interest is in direct competition with every other magazine focusing on that interest. And each of those magazines wants to be the "first" to publish whatever material it chooses to accept.
When you offer "simultaneous submissions" to several different magazines, therefore, you aren't offering those publications the right to "simultaneously publish" your work. Instead, you're effectively turning your submission into an auction, asking "Which one of you wants this?" or even "Which of you will give me the best deal?" Unfortunately, that is a situation that most editors absolutely hate.
Writers and editors have been haggling over this issue for decades. From a writer's perspective, simultaneous submissions offer a distinct advantage: They offer a way to "beat" a system that has never been writer-friendly in the first place.
The traditional way to submit material is "sequential." You send your work to Publication A, and wait 6 to 8 weeks (or more) for a response. If you receive a rejection, you send the material on to Publication B, and wait again. If you receive another rejection, you try Publication C, and then Publication D, and so on. Obviously, this process is very time-consuming: It could take months for you to find a buyer for your work. But what if Publications A, B, C, D, and so on could all look at your work at the same time? Then you'd have to wait only 6 to 8 weeks total to find a buyer!
That sounds logical, and I always have a terrible time convincing writing students not to do it. The "traditional" way leaves a lot to be desired -- but trying to beat the system has consequences. The most significant of these is "angry editors."
Editors hate simultaneous submissions. While a few accept them, the vast majority still do not. Nor are they simply being arbitrary grouches, chuckling over the pain they inflict on hapless writers: Editors have their reasons for disliking this system.
The reason is simple: Most editors make their buying decisions based on how a particular piece will fit into the context of a specific issue. Once an editor has made plans for an article or story, the last thing s/he wants to hear is that the piece is no longer available -- because it has been sold to someone else. Editors become particularly irritated if this happens when the issue is about to close, and they must now scramble to fill the "hole" left by the withdrawn piece.
But what about publications that do accept simultaneous submissions? Should you take advantage of that opportunity and submit to several publications at once (assuming each has the same policy)? You can -- but you should be aware that this procedure has its risks.
One risk is the chance of offending an editor. If more than one publication offers to accept your material, you must choose between them -- which means withdrawing your story from a market that has expressed an interest in your work. If you withdraw your material, you risk alienating an editor who might otherwise have been a good market for your next story, and your next. That editor may regard your future submissions with suspicion: How does s/he know that you won't withdraw again?
A second risk is jumping too soon, and accepting the wrong offer. What if one publication offers you a contract and you accept -- only to be offered a much better contract by another publication a couple of weeks later? The sad fact is that you're stuck with the first contract you sign, no matter how good a subsequent offer may be. (If you really want to alienate editors, try breaking a contract after you've accepted an offer!) This is where "sequential submissions" have an advantage: If you start at the "top" of your market list, with the markets that offer the best rates and terms, and work your way downward, you'll never have to worry about waiting for a "better" offer. (Never start at the bottom of your list and work up!)
The bottom line is that simultaneous submissions involve risk -- to the writer and to the editor. That doesn't mean that you should never choose this route, but it should be chosen with caution. A better option, I believe, is to write more stories or articles instead, so that you have enough original material in the pipeline to keep your work in front of several different editors at the same time -- and if they all say "yes," you won't have to disappoint any of them.