To Withdraw, Or Not To Withdraw – A Question Of Ethics

The topic I’ll be addressing in this article – to paraphrase the Bard, is: To withdraw, or not to withdraw? That is the question! And what a question it is, right? I mean, context is everything.

As writers, most of us submit our stories to any place we think could get us published, or which might in some way advance our writing careers. I know, I’ve been submitting stories to publishers, magazines, and anthologies since 1991 – since even before the now ubiquitous internet rose to dominate the publishing industry.

Let me start off by establishing that there are certain types of behavior as a writer that are to be considered professional and unprofessional – acceptable and unacceptable. I don’t mean, in this case, what the politics of the writer in question are at any particular time – but in how they conduct themselves in interacting with other entities in the writing/publishing/editing field.

Central to this discussion is the submission of a piece by its author to an anthology – and the subsequent withdrawal of that piece from the anthology to which it was accepted, by that author.

There may be some very good, extremely valid reasons why a writer would want to withdraw their work – which they submitted earlier – from a publication. Let’s take a quick squiz at the few I can think of just now:

  • The writer might have developed a case of cold feet re the style/content of their work.
  • The writer may have misgivings about their work, or feel the story is not what they hoped it would be, developed doubts or feel it’s not good enough or doesn’t reflect their best talent.
  • A previous submission to a paying anthology or publishing offer came through in the meantime.
  • The writer didn’t understand what ‘no simultaneous submissions’ meant, and submitted the same work to multiple anthologies at the same time – jumping at the first acceptance letter that comes along – and then felt regret at not waiting a little longer for a paid opportunity.
  • Issues regarding copyright or libel etc. in the content – the author doesn’t want to get sued, and neither does the publisher.

Let me be clear about one thing: the manuscript and the rights to it should always belong to the author. My intent is not to undermine that in any form – just to inform writers to be more aware and to advise them to treat others with a measure of consideration. Let me explain.

I’ve been operating a sideline doing copy-editing work for individual writers as well as for small presses since 2016, so I’ve already racked up some experience in this regard – most of it good and positive, but there is always the occasional exception.

As an editor I’ve worked with authors of all kinds – the English majors, the mysterious types who work under pen-names, the eccentrics and the plain ordinary folks who hide their luminescent creative streaks under gray jerseys and masks of conformity. There are those who are overly particular about formatting, who deliberately make the same errors over and over again – even pointedly arguing with the editor about where quotation and punctuation marks go in relation to each other, or about differences between English US and English UK up to and including spelling and apostrophe usage – and deliver lectures complete with finger-waving about what constitutes “real English”. Even my wife – a poet and non-fiction writer – dismisses US English spelling as “lazy” and “incorrect” in a very Brit-sounding accent despite never having left the country… while almost as if to rile her, I adopted US English conventions over a decade ago to make my writing more appealing to publishers in the largest reading market on the planet!

I still edit in English UK for those who desire it – and even English South Africa. I make a point of asking non-US writers which editing language they prefer me to use, except where the book itself is destined for a US-based publisher. That aside, I’ve always done my level best to deliver the best service I can. It’s important to maintain a professional ethic and also to be fair, but also to be objective. Compromise is important too, but sometimes it can be difficult, as I will attempt to demonstrate.

Being a writer myself, I have, I believe, fairly realistic expectations when I’m sent manuscripts or other material to edit. That said, I treat other authors with the same measure of respect and consideration I would hope to receive from anyone handling any of my own submissions/manuscripts in turn.

Even if I can’t use a piece in an anthology, or if the mush the writer sent me is probably the worst bit of writing I’ve ever seen, it’s not nice to tell that person so. “This is absolute crap and I’ll have to completely rewrite it from the ground up just to make it publishable” simply won’t fly. I’ve had my share of rejection letters – most impersonal and vague, and one or two really nasty bits of literary character assassination – and I don’t like to visit that sort of nonsense on people who did me the service of either answering my call for submissions, or who want to pay me good money to panel-beat their work! Honestly, there are more constructive ways to do things!

If you want to help a writer, be constructive – list the problems you found in their work, mention the faults, suggest ways for them to improve – but absolutely, positively, DO NOT break the writer down in a way which could cause them to chuck it and even quit writing! You don’t have to accept their work, you don’t have to like it or even to agree with it – and similarly, you don’t have to be nasty about it. If it’s not good enough for your exacting standards, or you feel it’s inappropriate for your anthology, just be diplomatic about it and say ‘no thank you’ without sticking a boot in. Leave the nasty comments and personal remarks aside – keep them to yourself.

In private commissions by individual authors, I am paid a set fee for editing that manuscript by that author. When it comes to the editing (or in most cases, copy-editing – which implies a good deal of rewriting and creativity on the part of the editor) I do so on the understanding that the writer knows what they want, has a definite picture in his or her mind of how the finished product ought to look – and might have just stumbled a little in smithing the words just right. It becomes my task to help them achieve that.

To do so, it might even require a complete rewrite of a story from word 1 to the last word – and although this falls under the liberally applied term ‘copy editing’, it also in my humble opinion, blurs the lines between copy editing and ‘ghost writing’ somewhat – but that’s a subject I think, for another article.

Over all, authors are and have been extremely happy with the results of my work in editing their stories.

Back to the subject at hand – withdrawing a piece already submitted for publication.

Some of you might recall that over the last four years or so, I made several calls for submissions to anthologies of short stories. Now I shouldn’t have to tell you – or rather, I wish I didn’t have to – that gathering submissions for an anthology while relying on input from people who see your calls for submissions on social media like Facebook, is a tiresome, slow process.

In relation to the ninety or so people who may view your appeals for submissions, maybe sixty will click ‘like’, perhaps five will share your post, and about ten will make comments or send messages to ask for more details, and only about five or six will ever send you anything. Most of these items will need a little of the editor’s attention. One might need to be completely rewritten, and one, maybe two will be really, really good and might just need a typo here and there to be fixed.

Bear in mind that the writers submitting these stories don’t pay for editing services (or for inclusion of their stories into the finished anthologies). Editing is provided free to the writer in these cases. Typically with small press anthologies, the arrangement is thus: the publisher either sends submissions they’ve already acquired to the editor for editing; or the editor collects the submissions and does all the editing and then sends the finished product to the publisher. The editor and publisher make their own arrangements for payment between them, usually a single payment for the entire volume, or less commonly, a percentage of any resultant sales.

That said, the income generated from such anthologies gets split between the publisher and editor (if that’s part of their arrangement) – and any other role-players involved. Costs need to be covered – labor is a cost too. As an editor I don’t typically do formatting work on commissioned projects – that usually gets handled by someone else, who also needs to be paid.

The writers who submit short stories to most small press anthologies like this typically don’t get paid for sales either – the carrot on the stick in this case is called “exposure” – the premise of which operates on the notion that people will buy the anthology, like your story and look for more work by you that you might actually get paid for, or leave a good review mentioning you or your story. At least, that’s the idea – not entirely without merit, as it can happen. It sounds very good in theory, but it doesn’t often deliver the accolades we desire as writers, does it – but at least it helps to pad out the old writing CV and bibliography a bit, doesn’t it?

I’ve submitted stories to this sort of unpaid anthology before myself, as many writers do. We live on hope though, don’t we – because getting paid for writing is not as easy or as common – or even as profitable as some would have us believe!

Anyway, so one anthology I was working on a few years back was just reaching the “I need one more story and it’s done” mark. Then, out of the blue, one writer – who shall remain forever nameless – sent me an email to inform me he was withdrawing his submission because he’d got “a better offer” elsewhere.

Just like that.

As if it was nothing.

Oh, and he said he was terribly sorry for the convenience – as though that should just make it all magically alright.

“Er… What?” I thought, stunned.

I was absolutely astonished! After all, the chap was previously unpublished – as in completely – and had come across as being ever so very grateful for the opportunity to be finally published in an anthology – even a non-paying one! This was a complete unexpected turnaround!

My mind boggled at all the time and effort I’d spent cleaning his story up, trimming off the excess, fixing typos and spelling and grammar and pruning off the green bits!

Trouble was, it was a really good piece – really good – which made me even more upset. Losing it detracted quite a lot from the rest of the anthology, I felt – and not just in terms of word-count! Before this guy pulled the piece, I was just about 5,000 words shy of the required 50,000 threshold – now, thanks to this act of unmitigated thoughtlessness and spite, the anthology would be an extra 6,000-odd words shorter on top of that!

Then as I realized the implications, I became annoyed – and as I mulled over the situation further, I became increasingly so. Why? Let’s take stock of the consequences of this single act:

  • Books have an expected minimum word-count. The expected word-count of the final anthology drops by the word-count of the withdrawn piece which has to be made up again, causing a delay while you await more submissions. Many publishers set deadlines – which have their own implications for the editor.
  • Waste of time and effort by the editor in reading, evaluating, editing and preparing the first piece – and time and effort lost in procuring replacements.
  • Unnecessary and avoidable resentment, ill-feelings and frustration!

As a writer I would NEVER knowingly, deliberately do that to an editor (or publisher)! I view that as absolutely unprofessional!

If you’re going to submit to multiple publishers at once – and I’ve done that too, a lot of writers do – the least you could do is adopt a first-come-first-serve policy – or wait until you’ve received a response from the entity you really WANT to publish your work before sending it to others who might actually accept it before they do. And most importantly – once you agree to a story being published, stick to the agreement YOU made – don’t literally fuck someone around just because someone else has offered you money for it after the fact! Speaking from experience, it won’t be that much for a short story (no matter how good) – and it’s certainly not worth the cost of your professional reputation!

This sort of behavior is likely to get writers blacklisted with editors and publishers, I should think – and I can’t blame editors or publishers who would be reluctant to accept pieces from writers who’ve jerked them around before – it makes those having to review submissions a mite twitchy when receiving submissions from people who demonstrate an unreliable streak because it sets a precedent for future behavior. How would anyone be expected to react the next time the same person sends that editor or publisher a story?

As an editor, I’d rather accept a story in need of a drastic rewrite from someone else – than an easy to read well-constructed page turner from someone who I suspect might randomly pull the story from an anthology after I’ve already accepted and edited it – again!

Tip for newbie writers trying to get published: This is not how you treat other people in the game – it’s a slap in the face – and it will only come back to hurt you in the long run. As writers we can’t afford to burn bridges we may need to cross again.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Have a great week – and happy reading!

Digital Autograph Christina Engela


If you would like to know more about Christina Engela and her writing, please feel free to browse her website.

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