AMERICA's long-suffering writers have something to cheer about. On Oct. 19, the National Writers Union will sign the nation's first labor contract with a literary magazine.
The contract with Ploughshares, a prestigious 3,500-circulation quarterly based in suburban Boston, won't put an end to low pay and long, anxious waits by the mailbox.
But writers and editors say the agreement goes a long way toward improving conditions for some of the nation's most unappreciated artists. And, they say, it may even bring a new degree of professionalism to perpetually struggling literary publishers.
``As a writer, I suffer when I submit a story and I wait a year and a half while nothing happens,'' says Richard Burgin, assistant professor of English at Drexel University and editor of the journal Boulevard. ``Of all writers, literary writers are the most powerless. It's good to see their rights recognized. This contract is a victory for writers, and therefore, ultimately for society.''
The contact covers all writers who submit to Ploughshares, not just the 2,600 members of the National Writers Union. But members of other unions might question whether the contract actually improves conditions. It contains few of the wage and benefit guarantees that are the hallmark of effective union bargaining. Among the key provisions:
Ploughshares contributors are guaranteed a response within five months for unsolicited manuscripts and two months for solicited work.
Writers are permitted to submit work simultaneously to other magazines.
The magazine promises to obtain the author's approval for all changes to a manuscript before publication.
Writers are guaranteed a minimum of $10 for each poem or $10 for each page of prose accepted by the magazine.
But writers say the contract is a quantum leap forward from the setup at a typical literary magazine, where they have little more than well-intentioned promises.
``There's a value in the contract that goes beyond the black and white on the page,'' says Annie Proulx, a short-story writer who lives in Vermont. ``It tells the author that Ploughshares is serious and both parties are dealing with material that is valuable. It's going to make writers want to send their best stuff to Ploughshares.''
The New York-based writers union, founded in 1983, had previously negotiated contracts with eight general-circulation magazines, including The Nation, Ms., Mother Jones, and Columbia Journalism Review. It is currently negotiating with the Village Voice on behalf of several hundred free-lancers. Union official claim they have collected $250,000 through grievance actions.
The Ploughshares contract is the union's first effort in the highbrow world of literary magazines, where exposure and recognition are often more important than money. But writers say even the modest standards in the contract will be a big help.
Mr. Burgin says the contract would have prevented his three worst publishing experiences: waiting more than seven months for a response to a submission, waiting 2 years for an accepted story to be published, and having a story published with paragraphs in the wrong order.
``It was mangled just enough so that people thought I was stupid enough to have actually written it that way,'' he ruefully recalls.
Members of the Boston local of the union say the evolution of the Ploughshares contract may also be a first: Magazine management pushed just as hard for the agreement as the writers did. One reason, says managing editor Jennifer Rose, is that almost all literary editors are also writers, so they've experienced rejection from both sides of the mail slot.
Ms. Rose says the negotiations with union officials last summer were noticeably free from typical bargaining conflicts.
``I was almost more militant about some issues than the writers were,'' she recalls. ``They were just so used to being treated terribly.''
Rose, a poet, is proud of the contract. ``Ploughshares can't offer writers a lot of money, but we can offer them a code of good treatment. I don't think writers should have to wait for months and months without access to their own work.''
Union officials say a handful of literary magazines around the country are about to sign similar contracts. ``We negotiated the contract under the notion that it's a model that will be applied to other literary magazines,'' says Boston local member Sandra Storey. ``These were minimum standards we would apply to other contracts.''
``It's a good idea to have a more professional approach to the whole operation,'' says Beth O'Rourke, assistant director of the Coordinating Council for Literary Magazines, a New York-based trade group that represents more than 400 nonprofit journals. ``It can only help them get more submissions if the writers feel they'll get a prompt response.''
Kim Fellner, executive director of the National Writers Union, adds that the last thing writers want is to make life harder for literary magazines.
``We really have an interest in having the diverse publishing outlets continue to exist and be healthy,'' she says. ``It's important for the survival of free expression that that diversity continue to exist. This contract gives everybody a basis from which to start, and the moment you have a contract in place, you have fewer grievances, not more.''
But some editors are concerned that too much professionalization could subvert their labor of love.
``We're not Hollywood moguls making millions of dollars and underpaying our screenwriters,'' says Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review in Berkeley, Calif. ``The world of little magazines is the world of people who, for good or bad, have left the world of business. I'd be horrified if our world began to resemble the world of commercial publishing.''