Who We Are and How We Work
A few interested parties have written over the past month asking, in one form or another, how West Branch operates. Every literary journal is structured differently, but in the interest of transparency I'm happy to set down how we go about doing what we do.
We currently have a staff of ten: myself (as editor-in-chief); Andrew Ciotola, our managing editor; an associate poetry editor in the form of one of Bucknell's fantastic Stadler Fellows (currently Jamaal May); and five associate fiction editors, who dive into (and out of) the submission queue at will. We also have two undergraduate interns each semester.
As a writer myself, I've always been frustrated by journals that keep work for the better part of a solar year (often before rejecting it with the usual photocopied slip or the e-mail equivalent). My eight years of working as an editor (first at The Iowa Review, then at The Kenyon Review, and now at West Branch) has left me even more convinced than I once was that there are few good professional reasons for a well-run journal to keep work longer than three to four months. Here at West Branch, we try to read every submission within four to twelve days of its arrival. Since we received 4,273 submissions last year, this represents a significant commitment on our part-to you, as our writers and readers. We read every single submission that comes our way. I wish we had time to comment on every submission, but of course we don't.
When a submission comes into the queue, it's typically read within two weeks by one of our six associate editors or by me. (I personally read, at one point or another, about three quarters of what comes into the queue.) Anything that interests us gets passed around, electronically, among the associate editors and myself. This can take anywhere from two weeks to two months.
Our five associate fiction editors are scattered around the country, so their input is, alas, limited to electronic opinions. The other five of us meet here in Lewisburg for biweekly editorial meetings. Work that has lingered in one or more of our memories-for whatever reason-eventually makes its way to one of those meetings. Sometimes a story or poem will make it into two or even three editorial packets as we sift and compare, thinking about how a given piece works with other pieces. As each issue fills with material, it becomes more difficult-a more challenging editorial puzzle-to fit additional pieces in: even beyond spatial and financial considerations, we like to make each issue work as an issue, meaning we spend considerable time studying how pieces complement one another.
For this reason, it's always best to try us in August, September, January, or February. That gives us the maximum time to think about your piece, not only on its own merits but in terms of other material we have already accepted, or are considering, for the journal. We do keep some work for up to four months, although that's quite rare.
The chemistry of whether we consider or accept work for West Branch's print edition or for West Branch Wired is difficult and approximate. Suffice to say that some pieces seem, to us, to work better in one or the other idiom. It's hard to imagine publishing a twenty-five-page short story on Wired, for instance-shorter prose pieces seem to work better there. Our standards of taste and quality are the same for both print and Wired.
We solicit work only rarely. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I like to think of each issue of any given literary journal as an artifact of a community: of writers and readers (interchangeably, in our culture). For that reason the regular submission queue becomes a conduit of community, the "raw data" (as it were) of the conversation West Branch crystallizes. Since I took over the journal in August 2011, the only work I've personally solicited has been in creative nonfiction, which we still-despite my earlier editorial note-don't receive enough of.
We're very glad to have our undergraduate interns each semester. Although they do not read submissions in the main queue, we do include them in our biweekly editorial meetings, as well as in every other aspect of the production process (layout, proofing, etc.).
Any editor will tell you it's hard to reject work (although any writer will tell you it's much harder to be rejected!). A great deal of what we reject is solid work, or even better than solid, that simply doesn't resonate with our particular tastes, however broad we believe them to be. And since we can only consider a fraction of the excellent work that comes our way, taste is always an issue. So is passion: I'd much rather publish a poem or story we editors violently disagree about rather than one that left us all feeling tepid, however pleasantly.