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Submission Fees Are Wrong
Writer addresses ethics of submission fees
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I don’t submit my work anywhere that charges a reading fee.
I used to. When online submissions first became a thing I was happy enough to give a few bucks to literary magazines versus the P.O. It saved me a trip! The cost of postage! Envelopes! Paper and ink! (Though I use most of these, anyway, and still make trips to the post office.) No great fortunes are being made in literary magazines, and they need my two dollars. (And everyone else’s two dollars.)
But I just don’t think that way anymore.
To be clear: I love literary magazines. I’ve subscribed to many over the years and bought copies at bookstores and newsstands. I’ve even worked at a couple, including having a graduate assistantship as an editor at one while completing my MFA during the days of paper slush piles and SASEs. I am rooting, always, for the success of literary magazines, and I fully understand that their environments are often hostile.
But that doesn’t mean that I think writers should have to pay to play. Lit mags subsisting off their submitters—their rejectees—is not the right or ethical thing to do. (Almost all submitters are rejectees; publication is, as it should be, highly competitive.) It’s not LuLaRoe by any means, but it feels like its smaller, more distant cousin.
A writer submitting work who is trying to place multiple pieces is easily looking at spending at least $200 a season. (This is not even counting contests, which I gave up longer ago than I did submission fees.) They might stop submitting excellent work purely for financial reasons. Maybe you’ll say submissions should be more targeted, but every serious writer I know always starts submissions with the most prestigious (or highest paying) publications. I’ll never forget the fellow graduate student who had a simultaneous submission out to “The Big Toe Review” and “BFD Magazine,” only to be accepted by the smaller journal just hours before getting accepted by “BFD.” (This was in landline phone times.) Would a less ambitious—and perhaps less costly—submission strategy be good financial sense? That’s right, kids: Aim low!
(You might be thinking that maybe the writer of this piece has to pay submission fee after submission fee because they just aren’t any good. Maybe that’s what the universe, those long submissions lists, the marketplace!, is trying to say. Sure, art is subjective, but this isn’t about sour grapes: I have an MFA from a great program, been awarded grants, have publications in well-regarded literary magazines, two traditionally published novels (in a category other than literary fiction), and a literary agent (they work with me only for novels, as there is not enough money in shorter work to share).)
Why do major magazines housed at large universities—or colleges with impressive endowments—need to rely on Submittable? Is there no one, not even an undergraduate computer science student in the 200 level poetry class, who could build a system, even if it’s with Google Docs?
Why do major magazines housed at large universities—or colleges with impressive endowments—need to rely on Submittable?
Do literary magazines view that submission fee as a barrier to entry? As a way to control the firehose of submissions? If so, for shame. Give us a quiz about your online issue then. Hide a secret code in sample work on your website, for crying out loud. And in the world of stored credit card data and in-app purchases, how much does paying a submission fee actually slow someone down?
If a lit magazine charges submission fees but offers no payment, is the poverty supposed to be the proof of our art? And what about journals that charge fees but pay very, very nicely? I don’t want to complain about writers actually getting paid (especially very, very nicely) but a publication like that is even more likely to solicit work, making the odds in the slush even worse.
Capped submissions, or capped free submissions, seem to be one way literary magazines try to address this issue, but when submissions are capped, are the magazines getting the best works for their publication, or rather submissions from the best-organized writers? (As if the academization of writing hasn’t already pushed us in this direction; the writer who can fill out forms is the writer rewarded.) If submissions have to be capped, will they all be the quality, aesthetic, and vibe that the journal or its editors seek? Do these caps lead to more solicited work?
Additionally, many writers are captive submitters, striving to build their C.V.s, be more attractive PhD applicants, go on the academic job market, fill in yearly performance reviews, or be eligible for grants. Are submission fees not akin to paying the company store?
Many magazines seem to be trying to take a conscientious approach to this situation. Some offer free submissions to underrepresented writers, which I applaud. Some magazines are transparent about their funding and use of Submittable fees (like Epoch). Some offer coupons toward subscriptions (like Ecotone). Some create revenue by offering extra services and feedback (like Event), or offer year-round submission windows to subscribers.
If we weren’t paying a few hundred bucks a year in submission fees, would we be able to subscribe to more literary magazines?
Look, I know two to five bucks on Submittable per submission might be less than the cost of postage. You’re welcome to choose to pay submission fees all you want. But charging fees to people submitting work is simply wrong. We can find a better way.