Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ask the Moon: Submission fees prey on the vulnerable

My friend James writes to ask about submission fees. He and I share a basic churlishness about the practice. James writes,

I’ve been submitting a lot (for the first time in a while), and it seems like WAY more litmags have submission fees than used to. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on whether these fees are worth it, especially if (a) I’m simultaneously submitting (the cost adds up a lot quicker that way) and (b) the journal doesn’t pay anything (all I get back is “exposure” of some nebulous quantity). Today, I decided the fees were too much, but I also ended up skipping submitting to some magazines I thought might be a good fit.

There is a growing belief among journal editors that it is acceptable to put the burden of supporting a journal’s activities directly onto the backs of submitters. Submissions used to be universally free, but more and more often, magazines are charging what they consider to be a “small fee”—usually $3 to $5, although we all know of one magazine, Narrative, that charges a whopping $23 for general submissions.

It’s easy to see why journals charge submitters. Most beginning writers long to be published. They willingly cough up the “small fee” just to have an editor’s eyes on their work. Most submitters long ago abdicated their responsibility to contribute to the litmag community by subscribing to any of the magazines where they want their work to appear—in fact, they often sneer at subscription offers from journals. Journals have struggled to support themselves through a whole buffet of means, from vying for grant opportunities (which are drying up), to approaching private donors (who are hit from all sides), to sponsoring contests (which are criticized, maybe justly, for taking advantage of beginners).

So editors figure they’ll go where the interest lies and where the money is. While subscribers are not beating a path to their door, submitters are, and like most of us, they likely have some money to support their passions.

My beef with the practice is the attitude that some editors espouse about submissions. Even before the growing trend of charging submitters, I often heard editors complain about the numbers of submissions they received. Early on, they began to regard submissions as a problem, and it was easy to embrace fees as a solution.

Another complaint I have is that submission fees aren’t entirely equitable. If a journal solicits work from writers and allows the elect few to submit for free, think for a moment of what a gross inequity that is to the early-stage writer who is not being solicited and who, under that model, stands a very poor chance of being chosen from the submission pool. Honest to God, it’s a system where eager undergrads are subsidizing the publication of the work of National Book Award winners—on one end, people are paying what money they have in the dim hope of publication, and on the other, very special people are given the red carpet treatment because their work is a privilege to consider.

But damn it, every writer’s work is a privilege to consider. Almost all of it represents the best people have in them. It all represents time and effort and emotional investment.

Every writer has a mission to say something vital to a reader. It’s not a fashionable thought in a time when workshops tell us that our poems are broken widgets to be repaired in a spirit of total objectivity, but typically, a poet is trying to communicate an inner truth to readers on the outside. Truth is about as valuable a commodity there is, and editors are lucky to receive each and every submission. In a just world, they would pay writers just for the privilege of reading their words.

James asks whether I think the fees are worth it, and I’ve danced around the answer. In a practical sense, most journals charge them now, and if he wants to make progress in getting published and reaching audiences, he should probably formulate a budget for submission fees.

To target another aspect of his question, I believe simultaneous submissions are a must, especially with prose, which James writes. There are too few slots for too much work, and submitting serially instead of simultaneously would probably mean a very long wait for work to find readers.

And finally, James sees a scam at play with journals that charge fees but don’t pay writers. He’s correct to question this. If a journal gets at typical response of five thousand submissions and charges $3 a pop, there’s no reason it can’t pay writers a small honorarium—say $50—for their work. He may want to target his submissions toward those journals that do pay, even a little bit—not because he needs to recoup his costs, but because, like me, he bristles at the indignity and unfairness of the system.

I would remind editors that there are other ways to make money—ways that don’t prey on the most vulnerable, ways that were used before the submission fee trend began. Fundraisers, donation drives, contests, subscriptions, events, workshops—they’re a lot of work, but I’d like to see magazines go back to these funding mechanisms.

I won’t hold my breath, but still—I’d like to see it.


  1. Well said. Fortunately there are plenty of litmags that don't charge, and some of them pay very well - The Threepenny Review, Slice, and so on - I have a list of about a hundred.

    1. Thank goodness for them! Maybe if we support these journals, the other ones will change their ways. One can hope. :)

    2. Would love to see your list, BTW!