by Josh Piker
I’m frequently asked what it takes to publish in the William and Mary Quarterly, a subject that I’m happy to talk about, of course. I’m especially happy to do so with graduate students and junior scholars. But I find that I discuss strategies for having an article accepted in the Quarterly with the sense that I’m simply passing on platitudes about solid primary source-based research, effective argumentation, historiographical engagement, and clear writing. It’s all so TBD – true, but dull. With the exception, perhaps, of my schpiels about writing for a broad audience of early Americanists and the care and feeding of editors, I sound like a run-of-the-mill graduate mentor. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and it does serve to underline a larger truth: there’s no real mystery about what it takes to get your essay published in a top-flight journal. And yet I can’t help but feeling that the Editor of the Quarterly should have something more concrete to offer to people who ask the “How can I get my article accepted for publication?” question.
It has occurred to me recently, however, that there is one very simple but very concrete piece of advice that I can offer to scholars seeking to publish in the Quarterly: timing matters. By that I don’t mean finding the right moment vis-à-vis the historiographical wave, turn, or flavor of the month. You should, by all means, seek to do that, but “timing matters” gestures at something much more prosaic: if you can, submit your essay at the right time of the year.
Given the name of the journal that I edit, it will come as no surprise to learn that I need to publish an issue of the journal four times a year. Ideally, each issue will have four or five essays, give or take. It will also come as no surprise to learn that some essays that are published are slam-dunks and some are borderline decisions. Like you, when I read the journal, there are some essays that I enjoy more than others—essays that speak to me because they touch on my areas of interest, essays that I admire because of their ability to help me re-see a topic that I thought I knew well, essays that are just so well written that I find myself caring about a subject that I had long ago dismissed as someone else’s problem. But, again, I’m going to publish four issues a year, and that means that I need a new set of essays every three months.
Now, it’s true that I will sometimes—with an author’s permission—push an essay from an overcrowded issue back to a relatively sparse one. There are six essays for October but only three for January? Is there an essay in October that would pair well with one of the January pieces? Or is there an essay in October that came in late and that we’re struggling to move through the fact-checking and copyediting process in time for our production deadline? If so, and if it’s okay with the author, I’ll move that essay back. And it’s also true that enough scholars want to publish in the Quarterly that I can accept essays for issues that will be appear three, six, or even nine months in the future. Of course, there’s a limit to how far I can extend that timeline because authors and readers reasonably expect that the material published in the Quarterly represents today’s conversations in the field, not last year’s. But as I write this in early July—with this month’s issue about to go to the printer—October’s slate of articles is complete, January’s is all-but complete, and I’m accepting pieces for April. So, in short, there are ways to manage the flow of articles and thereby avoid the (Editor’s) hand to (reader’s) mouth experience of accepting whatever is available when publication time rolls ‘round.
In the end, though, there’s no escaping the fact that, to paraphrase that noted wordsmith Donald Rumsfeld, you go to press with the articles that you have, not the articles that you wish you had. Thus, when it comes time to evaluate a borderline essay, I consider not simply its quality but the pipeline. And what’s in the pipeline varies from month to month and season to season. Here’s a month-by-month breakdown of the number of essays submitted to the Quarterly from 2010 to 2014.
|**numbers include submissions and resubmissions|
Now, these numbers are likely skewed a bit by the fact that Chris Grasso stepped down as Editor on June 30, 2013. Submissions dropped off a bit during Eric Slauter’s year as Visiting Editor, an unsurprising response by authors to the transition at the journal. And, to be sure, the numbers show real variation from year to year. E.g., only four essays were submitted in May 2010, but sixteen arrived in May 2011. So, there’s no guarantee that one month will be have fewer submissions than the next.
That said, the trend is clear. The peak season for submissions is June to August, after which things drop off gradually until we reach a late fall-to-early spring trough that is broken only by a marked-but-brief rise to summer-like numbers in January. November and February combined have seen exactly as many submissions as in June alone, and December is almost as slow. That pattern makes perfect sense. Scholars finish up work in the late spring and summer, and then they send it in; and they do the same thing over winter break, putting the finishing touches on essays that they submit after the New Year.
What do these numbers mean to you? Well, at a bare minimum, submitting an essay to the Quarterly during a slow period dramatically increases the chances that your essay will go out to readers in an expeditious fashion. (In fact, looking at the numbers for last summer, I see why some essays wound up spending a good deal more time in the review process than I—or their authors—would have preferred. Fifty essays arrived from June through September, the most in any four-month period during these years.) Likewise, essays that arrive off season, as it were, are likely to spend less time in my “Needs Decision” file once the readers’ reports are all in. And while I try to give each essay the same amount of attention, it stands to reason that my decision letters can be more involved if I don’t have a stack of delayed files looming over me as I write.
But will submitting an essay at the right time actually increase your chances of getting it accepted? To be honest, I don’t know. Well-timed essays get through the review process more quickly, which certainly helps those essays appear more “of the moment” historiographically. That can’t hurt. Well-timed essays also appear on my desk when I have more hours to devote to any given decision letter, which likely allows me to give those authors better advice. That can’t hurt either. But do the journal’s standards shift from month to month? I hope not. I know that I’ve rejected several essays that were close-but-not-quite-there, even though I had empty spaces in a future issue staring me in the face. And I know that enough first-class essays arrive on my desk that waiting a bit longer than I’d prefer to fill out an issue’s TOC isn’t really that big a risk. So, again, I hope that I will be always able to say what I know to be true a year into my term as Editor: every essay that I’ve accepted for publication in the journal has cleared the same bar. But given that I need a handful of new essays four times a year, everything else being equal, it can’t hurt to try and time it right.
The moral: avoid the summertime blues.