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.
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 a number of excellent points and our editorial staff has gone back and forth about this very issue. Since 2010, Hypertext Magazine has been publishing without a safety net. In other words, we don’t have wealthy or famous founders like, for example, Paris Review. Most lit mags don’t. We do not operate under the fiscal umbrella of a college or university. We are wholly independent. For years, we operated on less than $5,000 a year and, because our largest grant has been $6,000 (secured in 2022), it feels like every issue will be our last. Because of this and a number of other reasons, Hypertext charges a $5.00 fee for submissions (less the percentage charged by Submittable). During the pandemic years, we waived the fee.
And here’s why.
Every bit of Hypertext’s online content is free. But we pay contributors, we pay graphic artists, we pay interviewers, we pay for hosting and hosting security, we pay for the online store platform, we pay our editors (not our founder) small annual stipends. In addition to publishing an online magazine, we publish a biannual print journal. Last year, our hard-earned revenue (from working our tails off to write/secure grants, individual donor contributions, & Submittable) was $16,000. Our expenses were $13,000. Sixteen thousand was the most we’ve ever had in our bank account. Thirteen thousand was the most we’ve ever paid out.
I formed Hypertext as a nonprofit in 2017. Apparently, big foundation grants shifted in 2018 and foundations that used to write $60,000 grants stopped that dreamy practice. Many Chicago lit mags closed shop after that. Good timing on our part, right?
Every online service that used to be free or inexpensive has skyrocketed. Back in 2010 when I started the magazine on Wordpress, I think we paid $60 for hosting. In 2022, we paid over $2500 split between hosting, security, WooCommerce, website optimization, redesign (we have a hell of a lot of content and that’s expensive), etc.
We charge $15 for our print lit journals but our lit journals cost (between contributor stipends, printing, design and art, etc.) over $3,500 to produce. We’ll never make that back but we do it because, I mean, it’s print and it’s beautiful and we want our contributors to see their work in print.
We’ve been with Submittable since they started and the service is invaluable to us as a small lit mag. Back in the day, they didn’t charge for their basic service (or, perhaps, it was a nominal fee). Mind blowing, right? Additionally, it would be very costly and difficult to duplicate Submittable.
We publish because we’re committed. It’s a shit ton of time and energy to do what we do and we will never be adequately paid for it. Most lit mags are like us; every issue feels like our last. Throwing all lit mags into one category is a disservice. It makes us seem greedy when nothing could be further from the truth.