Saturday, September 25, 2010

Universe Annex zine

THE MARKET
  • Zine: Universe Annex
  • Editor(s): Sam Hidaka
  • Pay Rate: 5¢/word
  • Response Time: None per se; selection occurs within 3 months of last revision
  • Description: The Universe Annex will emphasize discovering and developing new writers, as the Introducing section of Jim Baen's Universe did. Publishes sf/f adventure.
  • Submission Guidelines: www.grantvillegazette.com
NOTE: Universe Annex, a department of the Grantville Gazette, has a rather unique submission process. So, this time around, I’ve decided to give you guys a rather unique Market Scoop.

THE SCOOP
1. Your acquisitions process is fairly unique, where writers initially submit to a sort of writer's group for critique. How does this process work, exactly, and where can writers find clear instructions?

The submission instructions are rather long.  Here is the short version:

- A writer submits a story by posting it in the "Baen's Universe Slush" forum area of Baen's Bar -- the web forum of Baen Books.  The Bar is a password-protected members-only forum, so the writer does not risk losing first publication rights.

- Others read the story and post comments, in the associated "comments" area.  These others who read include:
  1. other writers who are participating in the forum 
  2. non-writing fans of Baen who hang out on the Bar
  3. and members of the editorial staff
That other writers would critique a story is normal; it's how most writers' workshops operate.

To have non-writers comment on stories might seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually not.  These people are a good representation of the SF/F reading public.  They might not be able to comment on technical writing issues, but they can provide a reader's perspective on which parts drag, or when something that needs more detail is glossed over.  And most important, they can tell you if they like or dislike something.

And multiple members of the editorial staff look at every story, every version of every story -- and they frequently post comments.  Most writers find the comments of experienced slush readers considerably more valuable than a "doesn't meet or needs at this time" form-letter rejection.

- The writer has the option to revise the story and post the revision.  There is no limit to how many times the writer can post revisions.

- If we like a story enough to want to publish it, we will post a notification in the story's comments thread, to let the writer know.

This part of the process is still a work-in-progress, that we will fine-tune in the course of time.

When the slush forum was used for Jim Baen's Universe, a member of the editorial staff (usually me, as assistant editor) would post a notice asking the writer to email the manuscript file to one of the staffers (usually me).  The staffer would give the manuscript a detailed edit, and then work with the writer until both were satisfied that the story was as good as it could be.  Most publications only edit stories after buying it, but we added this pre-purchase-decision edit in order to increase the odds that the purchase decision would be positive.

For the Universe Annex, I'm thinking about skipping the step of plucking a story out of the slush for a purchase decision.  Since I'm fairly active in the forum, I might just post in the comments thread of a story that we want to publish it.  (This is what Eric Flint did in the very early days of the forum.)

- There are no formal rejections.  Rejections tend to discourage further revisions, and a subsequent revision might be the one that breaks through.

- If three months pass since posting a story, then the writer can take that as an implied rejection.

2. What are the benefits, both for you and the writer, of a preliminary critique? Do you believe this type of workshop creates better writers and raises the standards?

There are many good online writers' workshops.  They help writers to write better.

But our slush forum has a somewhat different focus.  We seek to help our writers learn to write publishable commercial fiction.

Granted, for most novice writers, learning to write better is a major part of becoming publishable.

But it takes a lot more than that.  Being able to string words together into smooth, clear, and concise sentences is necessary -- but it isn't sufficient.  At least as important -- possibly more important -- a commercial fiction writer has to be able to construct emotionally compelling stories.

Having read over ten thousand submissions to a pro-level SF/F publication does tend to give a slush reader some insight into what works and what doesn't, when it come to storytelling.  And the writers in our slush forum can benefit from the feedback by experienced slush readers.

For our part, we benefit from getting the first read of the stories from some very promising future-star writers.

As to raising the standard . . . no, I don't think so.

I have no illusions that we can make the writers we work with better than other pro-level writers.

What we can do -- and we have a pretty good track record here -- is help aspiring writers more quickly ascend the learning curve to reach the point where they can compete at the pro level. 

3. How does the quality of Universe Annex stories differ from the quality published by your competitors, thanks to this process of critique? Is there a definite indicator, such as an astounding number of awards?

The "Baen's Universe" slush forum has not produced any major award winners . . . yet.  But you have to keep in mind that the slush forum was originally set up to find and develop new writers for the "Introducing" section of Jim Baen's Universe (the section specifically set aside for new writers -- with "new writer" defined as being not yet eligible to join SFWA).

The Introducing stories were fairly well received, though.  For example, Lois Tilton often remarked in her short-fiction reviews that a story in the new-writer section was the best story in the entire issue.  And during its 4-year run, JBU was the highest-paying market in short-form SF/F—so we had a consistent flow of very good material from major writers.

A few of the writers who had stories published in the Introducing section of JBU had one or two previous pro-level sales.  But for most of the writers, their Introducing story was their first pro sale—and for many of those writers, it was their first sale at any level.

4. Would you say this type of critique system increases your acceptance rate compared to similar markets?

This is more complicated than you might think.

First, we don't get major name writers—those who might submit "over the transom" but wouldn't submit through a slush forum.

So if you compare our acceptance rate to other pro-level publications, with name writers taken out of the equation . . . our acceptance rate is probably higher.

Second, for administrative purposes, we treat every version of a single story as a separate submission.

If you count a story and all its revisions as one story, then the acceptance rate becomes substantially higher.

5. Technical support for this submission process must be intensive. What are some of the common technical mistakes writers make, and what are the solutions?

Yes, I suppose.

If by "technical," you mean computer or forum issues . . .

"Baen's Universe Slush" operates on Baen's Bar—the web forum of Baen Books.  So for any of the technical issues that require the web administrator, we just pass along to the people who run the Bar.

The most common mistake of this sort is that someone posts in the wrong forum area of the Bar.  There are three forum areas that have "slush" in the name—"1632 Slush," "Baen's Universe Slush," and "Slush Pile."  (The "Slush Pile"—despite its name—isn't a submission venue.  It's a pre-slush workshopping area, to help writers polish works for actually submission.  But because it's been a part of Baen's Bar since the 1980s, it hasn't been renamed, as a matter of tradition.)

If by "technical," you mean writing craft issues . . .

These issues are plentiful and unending—which is, perhaps, why a forum like ours is of value.

For more scoops, go to marketscoops.blogspot.com.

D.L. Snell writes with Permuted Press. He edited Dr. Kim Paffenroth twice, John Dies at the End once, and provided a constructive critique to Joe McKinney on his next major novel after Dead City. You can shoot D.L. Snell in the head at www.exit66.net.

To reprint this article, please contact D.L. Snell.

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