Writer addresses ethics of submission fees
I love this essay. I especially love how it confirms the choices I have already begun to make for myself. I am no longer an emerging writer, an emerging literary translator, or an emerging anything. And even if I were, I shouldn't have to pay abusive fees to offer up the fruit of my pen.
Technology and the anxiety to publish have combined to create a toxic ecosystem in which these abuses are not only possible but multiplying. As my friend Mexican novelist Jaime Mesa recently quipped on Twitter, everyone wants to be a writer and no one wants to write. This anxiety to publish is largely driven by the ever-hungry maw of social media. One must appear active! On fire! But the best writers I know have a plan for this: they are either 1) not on social media at all; 2) they are rich enough to hire someone to run their social media for them (see the 1% Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, etc.); or 3) they line up weeks of posts in advance lifting up others' work and ideas that are appealing, inspiring (this is my current strategy). Social media seems to be a necessary evil. I've had pubishers and agents tell me so. If you don't have an online community, they say, you're dead in the water. This is another topic that should be analyzed here at Lit Mag News.
The anxiety to publish makes a five-and-dime pay-to-play model not only possible but inevitable. Technology, like a chemical fertilizer, creates an overabundance of cheap publications (think junk food) that charge for submissions and don’t pay while simultaneously poisoning the literary ecosystem. In this bizarro world, it is more profitable to write "content" (oh, that skin-crawly word!) than it is to write literature, although AI will soon cut off that income stream, too.
Publishers charge as much as they think they can get. The so-called contests that charge sky-high fees are particularly barbaric. Take for example a literary translation "contest" held by a well-known indie publisher in England last year. It offered an attractive prize: a chunk of money, a great mentor, and publication of a book-length work by a famous author. The publisher solicited participation via Submittable, charged $60 per submission, left every single American submission out of the finalist list (I am 99.9% sure the British publisher had no intention of publishing American English in the first place), and then automatically charged all of us for a hideously expensive *ongoing* subscription to their books. This demonstration of bad faith was so extreme that it inspired a pop-up support group of broken-hearted American literary translators that continues to this day. We were radicalized by this experience. May the same happen to you, dear writers.
Magazines that have support from Universities should not charge and should pay. Many do this and they are the ones I submit to most. Magazines that fail to develop a reasonable business model should fold and stop depending on the community of creators for their existence. Publishers should pay literary translators standard fees and stop funding books by picking the pockets of the translation community with rigged contests and bad contracts.
I suppose the ferocity of the publishing climate made this essay’s author feel that she had to publish anonymously and that's too bad because what we need is leaders. My weariness with abusive submission fees is such that I am publishing this comment with my name on it, come what may. Writers need to organize, to take a public pledge as we literary translators did with the #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement led by the great Jennifer Croft. We need to make lists and check them twice to boycott abusive publications. We need a way to report particularly egregious submission structures. If we don't organize, there will be no change.
Anonymous makes some valid points, but submission fees do serve a few good purposes. Submittable makes it very easy to submit widely, and some writers may submit to a journal they've never read or supported in any way. This creates an enormous backlog of submissions that the journal's most likely unpaid staff will need to review, and many of these submissions will be outside of the journal's aesthetic. If a submission fee helps the writer pause to consider whether their piece is likely to be a good fit for a journal, I see that as a net positive. The writer will avoid receiving the rejection and the journal will have more time and energy to devote to submissions within their appetite. Secondly, while journals should be able to fund themselves in other ways, those other ways are limited. Online journals are expected to be free, and how many people actually subscribe to all of the print journals to which they submit? Submission fees are one of the few ways an independent journal can bring in money. Journals with the backing of a university or other institution may not need the fees to survive, but smaller journals rely on submission fees as perhaps their only source of revenue.
Submission fees do not feel like "pay to play" because paying the fee has no influence on whether or not a piece is accepted for publication. Yes, fees can add up, and for some they may be a financial burden, but many journals also have windows in which writers can submit for free. What seems most questionable is when a journal charges a fee and then takes a ridiculously long time to respond. I've paid a submission fee and never received a response for two years. Eventually the story was accepted elsewhere, and I withdrew the submission, but if a journal is going to charge a submission fee, there should be an expectation of a certain level of professionalism and expediency in responding. More journals should acknowledge their limitations and cap submissions to a number that can be handled in a reasonable timeframe.
While I sometimes choose not to submit because of a fee, it's usually not the fee alone and more an acknowledgement that the story is unlikely to fit within that journal's tastes. When I do pay a fee, I consider it a contribution to the literary ecosystem. It would be great if lit journals had more options, such as foundation grants, or dare I say it, even government support, but in their absence, submission fees seem a necessary part of the process.
I appreciate what you’re saying. You are right in that contest fees are too high. Recently they seem to have broken the $20 ceiling. However, $200/year, at $3 a pop, is not unreasonable. That’s 35 Starbucks coffees annually. In addition, any writer with drive and vision is not going to let that amount ( $.70) daily stop her from trying to publish. If the editors want to use the money for a few pizzas and a case of beer while they debate what pieces go in, I have no problem with it.
Why is this post anonymously written?
I also don't pay for subs. I will occasionally pay for contests or if I'm submitting a collection. However, having worked at a handful of lit mags over the past three years, I understand that publications and presses, especially those with staff, need money to cover costs (many of which are hidden!), pay accepted writers, and occasionally pay staff.
Expedited subs, subs with feedback, tip jars, merch, and editing services are great ways for lit mags (of all sizes) and indie publishers to keep their general submissions free but also generate some revenue, which they deserve as much as writers. We're collaborators, not enemies.
I agree that paid general submissions are exploitative and exclusionary if they are the only option. But there are lots of other options to explore. It doesn't have to be black and white thinking here.
Hidden costs for a small independent (no university, college, arts center, writers org) like Submittable, marketing, advertising, design, registration with Library of Congress, ISBN registration, proof copies, shipping, purchasing copies to distribute to all Contributors, envelopes to ship those copies, website, travel to bookstores to talk about the magazine, hosting an event and marketing copies? Sales tax,PO box, a computer, internet, a domain registration and filing dba, taxes and a volunteer staff.
Pizza & beer? Big money on declined submissions? No. Creating an opportunity to share wonderful writing and photography? Introduce new or existing talent to the reading public? Offering a print publication to share? Yes.
I know submissions fees are controversial and my small magazine charges fees -- we have gone back and forth on no fees up to $3. From my perspective my team of editors is doing a whole lot of work for other people for free, for zero, zip, nada, from reading submissions to answering questions and offering feedback to promoting work on social media and so on.
It's frustrating to hear folks complain about a couple of dollars. There's no magic money fairy out there passing out money to those of us who are trying to run/grow magazines and we don't have admins who work for us for free. I don't know how literary magazines made money in the past but I understand the publishing business as a whole is continually changing and there's not a lot of money to be made in publishing (in any format, unless you happen to be a superstar like Sarah J. Maas or Stephen King).
Perhaps someone could write a helpful article on how small lit mags can raise enough money so that they don't have to charge submissions fees, then perhaps the magazine could cover all their operating expenses AND even pay the writer (although paying someone $25 or $50 for a story that took countless hours to create seems both laughable and insulting!) And beyond paying the writers, maybe the editors could get paid too!
Even better, someone could develop a service to help small lit mags grow funding, but that person would likely charge for their service, and of course it should be offered for free since we are artists and artists should not have to pay for anything.
We are considering options like going to Substack or Patreon, having communities, other ways to engage -- but we'd charge a few dollars a month just like everybody else does on these platforms -- and I'm sure all the writers would complain because we should offer every service and all of our time and attention FOR FREE! Welcome to the free business model.
It would be lovely if writers could be more supportive of editors. Maybe we could all work together to keep lit mags alive.
All I have to say with regard to the submissions fee discussions is--look to genre fiction. Even the smallest, most literary SFF journal does not charge submission fees. Why? In part it's the oft-repeated aphorism that "money flows to the writer." In part it's also a testimony to the effectiveness of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, used to be "of America") in setting pay scales that translate to professional, semiprofessional, and for the love.
Smaller SFF journals use Submittable. They have big slush piles. Larger ones use Moksha or CWS. All have huge slush piles, but manage reasonable submission turnarounds.
To be blunt, it's about professionalism in handling MSs. One of the pro editors, Sean Wallace, is famous for turning MSs around in under 3 days. Same for the others.
Litfic needs to organize and follow SFWA's lead in emphasizing that money flows to the writer, not the other way around. But litfic also needs to develop a professional attitude about submissions, from both editorial and writing sides of the equation.
How can I get into Big Toe Review?
Web developer here. If anyone wants to build an open-source Submittable competitor, let's do it (though perhaps it's already on the Chill Subs roadmap). It genuinely isn't hard, save for perhaps some of the user experience nuance of multiple editors collaborating on reviews. I haven't used it in that capacity.
Honestly, there's a great business model here like WordPress where people could have it for free if they want to host it themselves, or pay $5-10 a month for hosting and upgrades, and it shouldn't be more than that.
What is even worse, however, is when unscrupulous outlets such as American Poetry Journal (and their ilk) will announce a chapbook contest, charge $15 -- then vanish without issuing a refund.
APJ did this to me; two years later they sent the world's sweetest rejection and added they were now open again for chapbooks! APJ had NOT published anything from their last call (but kept all the $$$).
* * FYI: Submittable recycles many paid submission opps even when an indie publisher is DEFUNCT.
EX: The defunct Black Mountain Press in Western North Carolina, who once published The Halcyone (or claimed they did). Reference: http://thehalcyone.com/index.html
Therefore, always check the website to see when the press has last published.
I more comment. If all the writers stopped writing, there would not BE any literary magazines.
I believe that submission fees at a certain level ($1-$5) are acceptable. What kind of alternative (and effective) business models are practical for publishers? Subscriptions? Insufficient revenue, I’d guess, except at a modest number of well established journals. Subsidies from well endowed universities? I’ve worked for a few such places; endowment funds are often earmarked for specific programs or purposes. And if your program (e.g., literary journal) is not on the list, you must compete with many other worthy projects for support.
As long as a journal regularly opens a free-submission window, it seems fair. My guess is that that most literary journal staff are paid little to nothing. I’m grateful for their labor.
When I first started out, 8 years ago, I refused to pay submission fees. Paying for rejections, I called it. But slowly the logic of giving $3 to the journal instead of the post office and saving a trip started to make sense. One journal in particular read blind (which I preferred, being unknown), so I broke down and coughed up the small fee. Lo and behold, I got my first poem published! Well worth the investment.
I still prefer the free ones, and consider it gouging when they charge $5 for three poems. Otherwise I’m okay with it. At the moment I still won’t pay fees to submit to online journals, since they don’t have the expense of printing and distribution. But who knows, maybe that red line will crumble too.
I totally agree. I do not submit anywhere that charges a reading fee.
However, I do still enter competitions. That might seem nonsensical but I guess I just see the risk as more worth it for a prestigious contest that has a really good top prize. It's as good as gambling, but as long as I know that, I'm happy to do it.
The worst offenders, other than those who charge submission fees and don't pay, are the publications that take almost nothing from the slush pile, publishing mostly novel extracts & stories from authors with a book coming out soon, yet clearly make a tonne of money charging those vying for the one open slot left in the magazine.
I agree with anonymous. I do not like it when someone posts as anonymous. It maybe out of fear of being blacklisted. That should be explained in the post.
I rarely submit to lit mags that require fees and when I do, it's unlikely I'll agree to pay more than $3. However, last week, fairly late at night, I took a chance on a themed issue of Sequestrum and paid $6.50 for the privilege. The very next morning, I received notice that my work had been declined along with a suggestion that I purchase a subscription to the journal. I can't help but feel the call for submissions was, in actuality, a call for funds. I've received my share of rejected manuscripts and understand that's part of the process, but it's unlikely I will submit to journals that require a fee and will definitely not pay more than $3.