There is, it seems, something of an unspoken conversation around what it means to write and engage with publications and editors. Some people feel that one does whatever it takes, whatever the personal cost, in order to attain another acceptance or a deal. Some don't and simply self-publish, bypassing any interaction or complications arising from it.
I'm somewhere in the middle. I realised pretty fast (in that I haven't been around that long) that I would make no money or a neglible amount, and I've never had an interest in 'being someone' in terms of writing. I just wanted to see if I could do something on my own terms and get better at it.
'My own terms' is somewhat loaded. I've had two agents. I left the first after a couple years, realising I would never get picked up by a UK mainstream publisher. The second agent I was with less than a year. I was locked into a year contract and fired in less than that. Reason? None given, bar I wasn't working out. They and I both know the unofficial reason was I pushed back repeatedly against pressure to do anything it took to get a deal. I've since made the decision to never pursue that avenue again, because I realised I didn't want to compromise who I was for writing gain in any form.
As a result, I have a list of people and places I will not work with (again). The reasons are mostly that this industry has a problem with facing its (well-hidden) misogyny and bias: there are stories about editors and even public admissions of behaviour that should result in those people never working with people (especially women) again, but the industry being what it is, and people being desperate to succeed, they are either dismissed as not too serious an asshole, predator, or just regarded as misunderstood. I assume we are adults: it is your decision to knowingly work with people like this and accept the possible consequences. Once I know, I choose not to, regardless of the cost.
However, something new to me recently occurred. Roughly a year ago, I had a piece accepted by a small magazine. The editing process was pleasant and I had no issue in that regard. I had been told there would be social media promotion to coincide with the publication; a normal statement. However, Twitter being the only platform I use, and having discovered the magazine on the same platform, I assumed they meant Twitter promotion. The piece's publication dates (it had been split into three parts) came and went, with no promotion on that platform.
I should have enquired at that point, but I did not, for two reasons. I saw the magazine tweet its most recent issue around that time (my piece was published outside of that for a separately run column), and RT such people as an editor at LARB. I had an experience a few years prior where, working for a print magazine, myself and my co-writer had been repeatedly passed over in promoting and never given credit in line with other regular feature writers. There appeared to be no reason other than we were unknown, so it seemed not to be deemed worth it.
This had always bothered me, since I remembered my editor's surprise when I begged for an extra promotional tweet at the time—they were completely distanced from that process. So remembering that, I assumed this was what was happening again. I tried to ignore it, and did, though I couldn't shake the feeling of upset that a piece I had worked hard on was rendered invisible.
Fast forward to the present, and cleaning up my follow list on Twitter, I realised the magazine unfollowed me. As a general rule, I don't care who does or doesn't: I use Twitter for some promotion but mostly as an escape, and so I have little interest in following people or places that I should see as 'important' or 'useful' in getting ahead, though I know it is its primary use for many writers. I also regularly unfollow people that I'm no longer interested in, and I hope people do the same if that's how they feel about me, rather than think I might be of future use. Given the reasons above (money, etc), I stopped referring to or thinking of myself as a writer, just as someone who writes when they have the time and inclination. The reason I was bothered by the unfollow was because in the context of the lack of promotion, I wondered why on earth they had even taken my piece to begin with.
I checked the site. The piece remained. Now I was definitely confused. Why would a magazine claim to welcome the essay and put in the time editing it, only to ignore it and the contributor (me)? I felt that, in frustration, I didn't want my work in a place like that. I politely requested a removal, but with no explanation.
The editor responded promptly and asked why. I explained what I felt had happened. The response I received shocked me. The editor asked another editor who dealt with the relevant issues for an explanation re: promotion and the unfollow. I quote the response that was passed to me. Firstly, in regard to promotion:
'I can confirm each of your pieces have been shared on LPB’s Facebook page. Facebook is by far our most active audience. Our twitter backlog is huge and your pieces are in the queue to be shared.'
and in regard to the unfollow:
'Regarding the follow, the more people LPB follows on Twitter, the lower the visibility of the posts. This apparently has to do with Twitter algorithms, as LPB has a business account and it means that if LPB follows a lot of people, twitter assumes it is to inflate followers and so posts actually appear on less feeds (and that means they made a decision to lower the number of people followed which has greatly increased the actual visibility of posts).'
It had never been clarified at the time of editing that Facebook was the social media platform that the piece would be shared on. This was an assumption I should have queried, but I had up until that moment not dealt with a magazine whose primary public engagement was Facebook. I had also not been told that I had effectively been, as I understand from the above, in a 10-month queue for a promotional tweet for a piece that had been live since August 2021. If I had been told, it is possible, probably likely, I might have withdrawn the piece at the time. In my experience in the years I have been doing this, I had never been told something like this. It goes without saying that no one has ever told me that as a small magazine contributor that it is deemed perfectly acceptable behaviour to keep the content and ditch the contributor in order to maintain the integrity of the algorithm and visibility of the magazine.
Call me crazy, but work and writer go hand in hand. Perhaps people who have the luxury of visibility can afford to distance the two, but being told effectively to your face that you can fuck off while your content stays is precisely the kind of business-first model that reveals the inhumanity of the industry.
There was a lot I wanted to say in response but didn't. I kept it as civil and brief as I could and reiterated that I wanted my work removed. The editor's parting response spoke volumes of the combined ignorance and cynicism that is so damaging to people who think that they can remain separate from the technical and professional maintenance of running a magazine/publisher/organisation. 'We’re all volunteers so I’m sure the social media team are just trying to do their best to promote the work of authors/artists/poets.' It left me wondering what they considered me, or was it just that there was a hierarchy in place of who was deemed worthy of certain treatment.
I was in in 'normal' business for a good fifteen years of my life. A company that runs its departments independent of each other is a business that is inevitably going to fuck up in a big way somewhere along the line. Not only must there be communcation, there has to be a commonality in terms of how the end-user (whether customer or writer) is treated. I have seen precious little professionalism in my time in writing, mostly because people still insist on treating professionalism as some antiquated, elitist idea of 'establishment'. To this I say grow up.
If you make the choice to be a part of something, you do so knowing you do your utmost—volunteer, full time, paid or unpaid. I'm not unfamiliar with being in that position as I was an editor for almost five years. I made it a point to be empathetic and professional and preempt unvoiced concerns like 'will I be getting equal promotion to someone with a big name', and 'when will my piece come out'. The one thing I didn't do was cynically place a business model or an algorithm above a customer or a writer, either in business or a magazine.
There's something I used to refer to as 'false sales'. When there was a big special being run, or a promotion for a trade show, you naturally get an influx of new customers wanting to take advantage of a deal. You can take all that money and ignore customers who you know the product isn't right for, or you can address those customer issues and tell them as best you can, that it is of course their choice to proceed, but given x, y, and z, you can see that long-term, this might not be the right thing for them. Doing the former is a 'false sale'. You get the money but it costs you in continued issues (which certainly equals labour and possibly money), ones you knew full well could have been avoided by being straight in the beginning. Whereas going with the latter option, I'd never come across anyone who wasn't anything but grateful (if a bit puzzled sometimes) that a business was actually telling them it might cost them more in the long run in grief and money and instead suggesting different, better options for them. But why not? What you get are people who trust you and would send other people who are right to you, and for the business, you ended up with 'real sales', not minus signs. Everyone comes out better simply because you treated them like a human being.
I don't see running magazines and similar much differently. Start with seeing people as human and not figures or content generators, and look at the entirety of the workings of your magazine/organisation and how it impacts the writers and creatives. Empathy and professionalism are key to this industry and it would behoove many editors, agents, and publishers to stop making excuses and start viewing and treating writers with humanity.