Blog: Opening the Black Acid-Free Box

(Note: this is specifically in regards to writing. Visual artists had a different gauntlet that we may discuss later.)

(Double note: this is being published before decisions are finalized, as we’d like to explain our process to everyone who we reply to. It is written in past tense, but some of this is ongoing. If anything needs changed, we will do so.)


The point of an archive is simple: to put objects into acid-free boxes until someone expresses interest in them. Sort of. Technically, it is to preserve and organize information in a manner that it can be easily retrieved by future researchers. It is to Know, while the researchers’ purpose is to Tell.

We are, however, a particularly odd archive, not to mention a fictional one. As authors as well as editors, we understand that submitting can sometimes feel like dropping your story in an unlabeled black box and seeing if it gets spit out again. So, we want to explain what’s going on behind the scenes. How are stories chosen? Why are they rejected? And what does it all mean?

First of all, there was not a single story that we would consider “bad”. When we say we enjoyed reading a story, we truly did enjoy reading it. There were many, many stories we wanted to include but couldn’t.

The Numbers:

Total submitters: 216

Total submissions: 253

Continents represented: 6

(Note to any Antarcticans: please query, we want to bring that up to 7)

Budget: $500

(This was from our initial Kickstarter campaign. All of this was dedicated to paying contributors- our editors are not paid, and there are no lights to keep on, as we work by the light of the moon.)

Total accepted: 15

Percent accepted: 5.9%

The Process:

Our process is probably different from most any other literary zine, magazine, or anthology. First, we read blind, and to do so we had to separate pieces from their submission emails. We did that by downloading them and adding them to a shared file—a shared file which accidentally received the 3D model of a clown puppet due to an editorial error. This is the closest thing we have to a slush pile.

Stories were accumulated to sets of around ten, then read in batches in order to make it more difficult for the downloader to remember which story went to which email. From there, they were put in a file labeled ‘read’. Anything in traditional prose would be read through, but set in a separate ‘reject’ file (we enjoyed the stories, but we have a theme to keep). We tried to send rejections within a week of them ending in this folder. If something immediately stuck out with us, it would go into the ‘maybe’ file.

That doesn’t mean the judging ended with ‘maybe’ or ‘reject’. Our biggest file at any given time was just ‘read’—stories would move from there to ‘maybe’, or sometimes there to ‘reject’ as we read and re-read. The thing is that a good story is not necessarily one that packs an immediate punch—sometimes it’s the ones that stick in the back of the mind, turning over and surfacing weeks after we initially read them.

Next comes categorization. Folders for ‘Academic’, ‘Interrogation’, ‘Journals’, and every other form of story split the ‘maybe’ file into over a dozen categories. With a target of 50,000 words, to get a diversity of formats we needed to avoid redundancy as best as we could. At most, we figured we could have two stories of a given format, possibly three if some were flash. Here came the most difficult decisions. If a category had ten stories, we had to decide on two or three. Hairs were further split. Stories were read and re-read and read again. Stories we loved could be edged out on the thinnest of margins, but this doesn’t mean they were rejected. Instead, they moved back to the ‘maybe’ file as the rest faced the final round of judging.

Similar to the categorization, we then had to pour all the stories back into the same dish and separate them out by theme. Our EIC loves maritime stories, and it showed in the stories selected for the ‘maybe’ file. On the other hand, this issue is not themed—we couldn’t justify having six of our accepted stories be nautical. Likewise, we didn’t want more than one or two vampire pieces. Judgement was now between stories with similar subject matters, even if they were completely different formats. To show a breadth of horror, ironically, we would have to further narrow our choices. If we pared too far, close calls would be brought back from the ‘maybe’ file and judged anew.

In total, being selected wasn’t just about being a good author. We can say with confidence that every author who submit to us was good. It was about being some of the best of all the submissions, then the best in your format, and then the best of your theme. If that seems like a lot to ask, that’s because it is! This process also went on throughout the reading period before being finalized after submissions closed.

So, if you got a rejection this time around, don’t think we didn’t like your story. If we invite you to submit again when the submissions for the next issue open, we truly do want you to submit. If it matches the theme, feel free to submit the same piece! We want to read your work, and we want to share it with the world. Keep writing, and keep submitting!

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