On Submission Fees and the Belief that Publishers Are Pirates
Lit mag editor addresses the issue of submission fees
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
It’s funny how “the universe” can sometimes make you feel like it gives enough of a shit about you to tailor schadenfreude at your expense. I say this because only this year, seven years after starting The Opiate, I decided to implement a two-dollar submission fee, from which I get $1.64 and then still have to pay a monthly fee in order to use the submission manager in question. It also seemed to be this year that a lot of writers felt obliged to come out and speak against the presumed slight of having to pay a submission fee and “carry” publishers on their already own poverty-stricken backs. As though small publishers are these fat cats hoarding all the gold coins they make from the writers that sell a hundred copies of something, at best.
The money-grubbing attitude that has arisen of late is not a coincidence, of course. Everyone is feeling the strain of their financial destitution as the cost of living rises and wages do not. Some people are lucky and have finagled a scheme or situation where they don’t have to feel the pressure as much as others, while many simply have to swallow the shit of being underpaid and overworked. Anger is a natural reaction. And anger, as usual, needs a place to be funneled into since few people can afford to tell their employers to fuck off and die. So why not funnel some of the anger into the “evil” micropublisher “stealing” your two dollars, of which they don’t even get the full cut?
People told me for years to charge a submission fee, and I wanted to avoid it at all costs. I, too, saw it as “unprincipled.” This was also when I was paying out of my own pocket to pre-print a certain number of copies of the issue and provide free ones to contributing writers. After my credit card was maxed out and I stopped working in Corporateland, I had to come up with a more workable system. 1) Print-on-demand and 2) no free contributor copies. I made the amendments required to keep putting out this magazine, which I’m thoroughly committed to because I believe in the importance of the literary magazine to the culture of literature as it pertains to nurturing and showcasing talent.
For as many writers that were off-put by my updated method, many didn’t bat an eyelash at the “no free contributor copies” caveat. Writers are, after all, among the most accustomed to receiving no payment for the work they do. And yes, that’s a crying shame. But it’s a reality many have been forced to expect because, well, there’s no money in publishing unless with the Big Five, the last juggernaut in literature that has lately sought to maintain its profits by coming for libraries scanning their materials as a form of “controlled digital lending.”
These are the penny-pinching pirates that you might want to look to rather than the small publisher you just paid a few dollars to for some of their still-underpaid productive labor. Not just “underpaid,” but mostly done as volunteer work. There’s nothing else comparable to what the indie publisher does, certainly not academia, where a paid faculty member or researcher is reading the work.
Understandably, certain submission fee rates do seem excessive, e.g. when they crawl all the way up to twenty and twenty-five dollars. And if you do see a charge like that for something that’s not a manuscript, one would highly recommend doing more research and investigating into the background of that publication instead of assuming it must be a very high-brow and legitimate place to submit precisely because the fee is so high. The point here being, don’t lump all publishers into the same category of being “scammers” and “pirates.” Because in most cases, the only scamming going on is the publisher doing it to themselves.
There’s nothing else comparable to what the indie publisher does.
In every industry, there is an unspoken “pay to play” rule, fortified all the more by our collective capitalist indoctrination. Still within the writing realm, one can even consider screenwriting, another oft-accursed “racket” that people pay extremely high submission fees to so as to enter contests that will likely get about ten pages of their script read, if that. Every artistic field that can charge will do so—not just because they know it’s easy to cash in on people’s hopes and dreams, but because, like the writer, they’re trying to “get by.”
In the micropublisher’s case, that means simply enduring. Because yes, it works within the framework of capitalism, but it’s not actually a capitalist venture. Most of us are lucky if an independent bookseller—the very thing that’s supposed to care about The Art of the Written Word—will give us the time of day (the majority will not).
“Surplus profit” is not a term that exists for something like The Opiate, or any other lit mag operating in a vaguely similar fashion. But, going by the capitalist “philosophy” we’re all at the mercy of until the apocalypse is brought on by neoliberalism, if someone has a good or service that another person wants to partake of, society as it is currently set up dictates that a charge can be made for that good or service. Publishers aren’t charity operations (though it often feels that way), despite the enduring myth that there is something noble and good about the literary industry. It’s still a business, and it’s still operating under the same suffocating tenets of capitalism that writers are. Lumpenproletariat or not.
Alas, the writer’s personality consists of the yin and yang qualities of self-hatred and self-aggrandizement. It is the latter quality that so often comes into play when they submit a piece. They think their writing is special or “god’s gift” and that it should therefore not only be immediately accepted, but that the publisher should waive any fees for the sheer pleasure of reading their work. But newsflash: reading submissions is not a pleasure. About five percent of the pool will actually be enjoyable. It’s that five percent that keeps the publisher going. Fighting the fucking windmills while the schlock in The New Yorker is touted as some sort of literary high standard. And no, that rag does not charge a fee because they have major financial backing spurred by a vastly larger readership than what the indie mag can secure. They’re a “right proper enterprise.” Feel free to submit to them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support The Man as if they need any more of it. And only get more perhaps precisely because of how unattainable it feels to a writer to ever be acknowledged or accepted by The Establishment.
In one sense, charging a fee is viewed as another gatekeeping form of elitism. In another, that’s sort of the point. It weeds out the casual mass submitters from the serious ones. The former category so often has never even read the magazine, and just wants space in which to disseminate their “genius”—it doesn’t matter where, so long as it happens. They could be published in Fascist Fashions magazine for all they care about the actual content and voice of the publication. That’s where the submission fee is actually a lovely floodgate to keep from a deluge of shit.
What’s more, as much as one thinks that being a writer is thankless, being a small publisher is even more so. And it’s actually a detriment to writers who seek more spaces to be published in to constantly lambast the dwindling percentage of small publishers that keep soldiering on. It amounts to publishers being pelted with nothing but signs to cease and desist in the face of a total lack of interest in literature save for a very niche population, Amazon continuing to absorb most alternative “small” outposts (see: Book Depository shuttering) and running what generally amounts to a nonprofit organization—minus the part where there’s a tax break.
It’s actually a detriment to writers who seek more spaces to be published in to constantly lambast the dwindling percentage of small publishers that keep soldiering on.
I understand that amounts are all relative. Two dollars might be nothing for one person, and the difference between eating and not for another. If that truly is your situation, I would urge you to contact me and explain it. At the same time, it seems like everyone thinks they’re too broke to contribute to the till of a small publisher. Small publishers that, might one remind, are part of the literary world at large, and a certain degree of participation in that world is implied by submitting. If you would “prefer not to” and engage in your own form of passive resistance that you think might make some cataclysmic alteration to the world of publishing, please do that instead of getting on the mountaintop and crying, “Thief!” “Crook!” “Capitalist pig!” of the small publisher charging a fairly reasonable submission fee (to me, this is anything five dollars or under).
It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in as a publisher to have to ask writers for money/not be able to pay them for their work, especially as the backlash seems to mount. If I had the money, I would love to do it. Unfortunately, most people in publishing are not nepo babies with a stack of cash to dispense at will. No one who is actually in it for the love of this art wants it to be this way. But it is. And it’s hurtful as a publisher who’s not only making no money, but actually sinking money into a publication (this includes the cost of any “marketing” attempts) to be told things like it’s “morally wrong” to charge a submission fee. Honestly, get the fuck outta here. Then don’t submit and find a magazine that’s noble and good and beneficent who won’t charge you. If you think that’s The New Yorker or The Paris Review or n+1, more power to them, evidently. But if you want the minor network of indie micropublishing to survive, writers need to put more than just their words into the community.
In this manner, submission fees are almost like a tithe. If you “love” indie lit so much, then stop expecting to get so much out of it when you’re unwilling to put anything in other than complaints and criticism about how you could do it better (and then never do). Buying the magazines (tell your “richer” friends who don’t work in the arts to support this way as well) and paying the submission fees is the best way to do that. That is, if you actually want these magazines to keep persisting as opposed to just wanting to appear in print for the purpose of serving the ego. Because it’s about investing in this niche community as much as it is getting your work published. It’s not monetarily profitable for anyone, and it’s not going to be. Eliminate that idea from your head. It’s all ultimately being done solely for the sake of keeping this medium, this “thing” alive. Because once it dies, the dolts really will inherit the Earth.
Wow! This is a pretty harsh assessment, and quite a stereotype: "Alas, the writer’s personality consists of the yin and yang qualities of self-hatred and self-aggrandizement." I stopped reading after that, which is too bad, because I had some sympathy with the author until that point.
This is another false equivalency and specious argument for fees. No one submitting a novel or book of poems or book of short stories to a legitimate publisher pays a fee unless that publisher is a "vanity press". No one. No one submitting story ideas or stories to niche or general interest magazines pays for that. No one. ONLY literary journals ask for fees to be rejected or accepted. That's because few journals will do the work it takes to find patrons, sponsors, advertisers or other means of support. It is egregiously wrong headed that some universities are scrapping previously strong departments of literature, the source for student workers on university-sponsored journals. This not only harms the growth of literature teaching, it harms the principles of foundational and broad education for the immediate lure of departments for purely financial reasons vs reasons to support learning in the humanities. That's a whole other discussion. Will a lot of journals close of poets and flash writers stop paying fees? Yes, and that's fine. The number of publications now hovers near 3000, far too many to be financially feasible and many are vanity projects for the publishers and editors. I implore journal staffs to approach their publications like all professional publishers and seek financial support via advertising, grants, and sponsors. Be creative and wild. Think of it as saving the arts and humanities of this part of our culture. And, pay the writers! Pay the staff. Otherwise, you're hobbyists, not business people, and publishers ARE business people, creating exciting reading for people to enjoy.