The Cost of Rejection
Academic weighs in on the cumulative costs of submitting to lit mags
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
Before becoming a writer and literary translator, I was (and still am) an academic. It came as no surprise to me that being a writer and translator required thick skin and lots of rejections. In academia, we are no strangers to criticism and rejection when it comes to our writing. In fact, there are endless jokes and memes dedicated to Reviewer 2—the stuff of academic nightmares, the pompous blind reviewer whose scathing criticism makes you feel like it was a miracle you made it out of kindergarten let alone a PhD program.
Criticism in academia serves at least two purposes. One—the more optimist of the two—is to make you a better writer and better researcher and ultimately enrich the quality of academic discourse in your field. The second is to keep those who are in positions of power—the securely tenured blind reviewers who know so much more about the field than you could ever hope to—in their lofty positions while you remain standing at the bottom of the mountain of privilege.
I have had many rejections of my academic writing at journals in various fields, but I never had to pay for them. That was something I was not prepared for as a fiction writer or translator. In academia, peer-reviewers read your article submission for free and then give you their opinion on its merits or its failings or a bit of both. This is actually extremely useful because if they offer you a revise and resubmit, you have a clear roadmap to publication, and even if they give you a stinging rejection, you now know what some of the perceived weaknesses of your scholarship are and you can revise and submit to another journal without shelling out a dime. The turnaround time is long for sure; they don’t usually pay for publications, and they don’t usually allow simultaneous submissions, but they do at least account for starving independent scholars and graduate students by not charging any fees.
Not so in the world of literary magazines and journals. Although there are some free ones to be sure, though significantly less that accept literary translations in addition to original works, many require a reading fee—$3, $5, etc.—even if there is no promise of payment if your work is in fact published, and then on top of the reading fee they request a donation. None of these reading fees or donations guarantee a publication, of course, and unless you pay even more money you likely will not even receive any type of feedback beyond a boilerplate rejection letter.
Let’s say you decide to go all in and pay the additional $10-15 for feedback, there is no guarantee that the changes recommended by the reader will lead to a publication in another literary magazine or journal since each one has a distinct set of criteria for the works they choose to publish. Initially, I always paid for feedback if it were an option. Who wouldn’t want feedback from a more experienced author or editor when you’re starting out? But what I quickly realized was that—unlike in the realm of academia where there is at least some consensus within given fields around what good academic writing should look like—the feedback for literary works was completely subjective. One reader might say a poem lacked musicality but used metaphors effectively while another reader reading the exact same poem would say the poem was beautifully lyrical but mixed metaphors. Both rejections. Since there’s no revise and resubmit option, what is one to do with this kind of feedback?
It’s entirely possible to spend $20 or more trying to get a short story or poem published and either not get it published at all or finally get it published for less than you paid in all your submissions. And that’s not even factoring in if you used any subscription-based services to help you find the magazines or journals to submit to, copyediting services you paid for, or pricey literary workshops you participated in while developing your story or poem. You, like the rejected academic writer, are standing at the bottom of the mountain of privilege but with significantly less money in your pockets.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work of readers and editors at literary magazines and journals (I have volunteered my own free labor to be a reader), but the cumulative cost of rejection can be a major barrier for many writers. Some magazines and journals now waive their fees for underrepresented writers and that is a step in the right direction but having fees waived at a handful of magazines and journals is not sufficient.
I’m currently in a writer’s group with someone who got a short story published after 75 rejections. I was impressed by this writer’s perseverance, and they were proud of the fact someone finally recognized their story’s literary worth. I didn’t have the heart to ask if the monetary value of the journey was equally worth it.
In my long academic journey to get both a PhD and an MFA, I was never under the illusion that I would be making a six-figure salary on the other side of all my hard work, but I also wasn’t prepared for the accumulating costs of rejections. I was fortunate enough not to have large amounts of debt from graduate school. Not everyone is so lucky. As an emerging author and translator, the path that was recommended to me was to build up publications in literary journals and magazines before reaching out to publishers about writing and/or translating a larger work, such as a novel or collection of short stories. I decided to cast my net wide and send short stories to lots of different publications assuming that most of them would be rejections. To be honest, I haven’t added up the monetary cost of all my efforts and the publications that I have gotten have all been unpaid, leaving me to wonder (at least for myself) if this could ever be sustainable, even just as a hobby.
I don’t currently have a solution to this problem, but I am potentially optimistic that doing more to support magazines that do not charge writers to submit, as well as authors self-publishing their own original works coupled with self-promotion through social media, may be ways to level the playing field. The cost then becomes time and research rather than money, and I think as an academic and writer that is a cost I am much more willing to pay.
Does anyone know when lit mags started requiring submission fees? My short stories started being published in the 1980s and I don't recall ever paying to be read. I've published two short story collections and not one story in those books was published after paying the magazine. And I was paid for many of them.
I escaped academia many years ago to write and review full-time, but in my transition to writing fiction full-time, I was still working on some academic writing, specifically about the affect (feeling) of shame in the work and life of Edith Wharton. I had a handful of articles accepted by academic journals. One of the most influential in the country rejected a piece with a withering two-page reader's report about how the work was 1) unoriginal and 2) pop psychology. I enjoyed writing a reply to point out that the work was of course original new because nobody had ever published an essay on the Wharton novella in question. I knew that because I had consulted the author of the forthcoming Wharton secondary bibliography. As for "pop psychology," a major speaker's series at the university sponsoring the journal had recently had a lecturer on, yes, shame. The editor replied somewhat abashed that readers could be "over-enthusiastic."
I've had fun skewering academic pomposity in many forms in my Nick Hoffman mystery series, which is what got me my first NYTBR review.