Late last year, I was approached by the editor of a magazine and asked if I would consider submitting some photos. This editor and I have a number of mutual acquaintances, one of whom is a good friend of mine so, on the strength of that, I happily agreed.
Thus began an ongoing communication, during which I shot not one but two sets for the magazine, both of which I agreed to keep exclusive until after they had been published, and made sure I kept the editor apprised of the progress of both shoots as progress was made. No specifics beyond general themes were ever discussed, but since this editor came to me based on the work in my portfolio that he had already seen, he knew my style. The photos were submitted well before the deadline for the issue, and when emails were sent out to let contributors know which high-resolution images needed to be sent, I found out that one image from one set would be published, and the submission of the second set was not even acknowledged.
Flash forward a few months, and a dear friend of mine finds herself in an almost identical situation, with a different magazine; approached by the editor, asked to submit a photo set based on the strength of her portfolio with only a very general description of what they’d like to see, time and money spent on the shoot, photos kept exclusive and submitted well within the required timeframe and, after several attempts to find out the status of publication, finally given only a lukewarm “maybe” as to whether they’ll ever be used.
I’m not going to say, now or ever, that any editor is obligated under any circumstances to guarantee publication of unseen work, regardless of who initiated the contact. The editor’s job is to make sure all work published is in keeping with the quality and overall image of the magazine and, until you’ve seen the pictures, you can’t know they meet the criteria. So my issue with the above mentioned situations is not that the photos asked for weren’t used. My issue is with the communication, or rather lack thereof, from the editors’ sides.
In both of the above situations, the burden was on those editors to let me and my friend know as soon as possible that the work submitted was not what the magazine was hoping for. A simple “you know, I appreciate you taking the time to do this, but it isn’t quite what we’re looking for” would have been fine. A simple “you know, we’d love to see a set from you in a bar-type setting with mood lighting and a sheer black robe” prior to the shoot actually taking place would have been even better. What is not at all even a little bit okay is “just send something Christmas-y” or “we’d like photos of you wearing red lipstick” and then leaving the model hanging for an answer, or ignoring the submission altogether.
I do not consider myself the be-all and end-all of magazine editors, far from it. But I know what I want and I know the only way I’m ever going to get it is to ask for it, clearly and concisely, from the people I think are most likely to be able to provide it. Case in point: I received a cover art submission for an upcoming issue that was almost what we want. I emailed both the model and photographer and said “can you redo this same concept, making these changes and adding this?” They said “hell yes we can!” and I have no doubt that we’re going to have an amazing cover that is exactly what we want.
Communication. Is. Key.
And it’s not actually all that painful. Editors don’t like sending out rejection emails any more than contributors like receiving them, but you know something weird? I’ve lost count of how many emails I’ve received over the past year from people who have sent work that is not in keeping with what we publish, thanking me for taking the time to let them know we wouldn’t be using their submissions. They’re not thanking me for turning them down, because that would be silly and masochistic, but they are thanking me for not just letting their hard work vanish into a black hole of sent-and-never-answered emails.
To anyone who takes the bullshit line of not having time to reply to all submissions, no. Just... no. If you have time to ask for submissions, and time to profit from other people’s work, you have time to create a form letter that you can cut and paste as a reply to work that you don’t want to use.
Rejections are like band-aids. A quick and clean rip that stings for a second is far better for everyone than ignoring it until the adhesive rots and it falls off on its own and lands you don’t even know where until it gets caught in the vacuum cleaner belt and starts to smoke and stinks up the entire room.