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Literary Journals, “Reading” Fees, And You

readingfeesMore and more, literary journals are beginning to charge fees to writers who make online submissions. In fact, CLMP—the trade organization for literary journals—recently hosted a discussion with editors of various literary journals to determine which practices are ethical and which might not be. That way, literary journals affiliated with CLMP can make ethical choices.

It goes without saying that some writers are unwilling to pay fees associated with submissions; some even feel affronted, resentful, or begrudging. Throughout the history of literary journals, most have not required fees of authors who submit. So to ask writers for a fee is an adjustment.

Because we’ve been helping creative writers since 1994, we’ve observed that the way literary magazines operate has changed a lot in the last twenty years.

Here are just a few of the most salient points from CLMP’s submission fee discussion that illuminate some of the reasons for the practice.

1. Submission fees are minimal. Generally speaking, one to three dollars seems to be the accepted submission fee of the moment. An online submission fee of three dollars is less than what it would cost to mail the same submission by traditional post. So in a sense, making an online submission actually saves a writer money—even when there is a fee.

2. It’s not a reading fee. While most everyone agrees that reading fees are unethical, literary journals that do charge fees do not charge them as “reading fees.” Instead, they are administration fees.

Because so many literary journals have both online and print arms these days, administration fees have gone up. Literary journals that do accept submissions online must maintain websites and databases that make digital submissions possible. This costs them money. But—unlike paper submissions—online submissions don’t cost a writer a penny over what they’re already paying for their basic Internet.

3. Small fees can translate into more money for writers. The literary journals that are not using the fee to recoup money for the cost of their online submission platform are using them to actually pay their writers upon publication. Traditionally, the payment for publication in the literary journal is small or nonexistent. Minor fees associated with submissions could help change that.

4. Small fees curtail “inappropriate” submissions. In the CLMP round table discussion, Mid-American Review talked about a single writer who submitted online and sent seventeen different submissions at the same time. The editor pointed out that if there were a submission fee, it would have been unlikely this writer would have taken this step.

Because it is so easy for writers to submit online, and because it costs nothing, some editors report that the submissions they are beginning to get are inappropriate—they’re not right for the magazine. Writers can dash off their submissions now much more easily than they could in the past. As a result, editors are inundated by submissions from writers who don’t especially care about submission guidelines or editorial preferences. This wastes editors’ time. It’s also quite disrespectful.

Submission Fees And Literary Journals: The Bottom Line

The vast majority of literary journals don’t make money. Most are not-for-profit and they are staffed by a fair number of volunteers. Editors are seeing much-needed financial support decline at universities and colleges.

We think it’s fair to say that most writers do not subscribe to every single literary journal to which they submit their work. However, these same writers benefit greatly when a literary journal does accept them for publication.

We cannot take literary journals for granted. The work they do is important; writers depend on them. In a best case scenario, the relationship between writers and literary journals would be completely symbiotic—that is, mutually beneficial.

Would you buy an editor a cup of coffee simply to say thanks for all the hard work that he or she does on behalf of the larger writing community? We suspect the answer is yes.

And yet, the editors of journals associated with CLMP are not buying themselves cups of coffee with writers’ submission fees. They’re investing in online submission managers that can make the submission process easier for everyone and anyone who wants to submit.

Small admin fees can help struggling literary journals stay on their feet—and that’s good for writers. If a journal’s ability to stay viable is dependent upon charging a very small submission fee, then we at Writer’s Relief would support an ethical practice. We hope you will too.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: How will this change affect the journals you choose to submit to?

21 Responses to Literary Journals, “Reading” Fees, And You

  1. Two things. First, for poets it does not cost $3 to mail a submission via snail mail. You can fit a cover letter and three poems in a #10 envelope. Second, submission fees are indeed reading fees. I don’t know why the author thinks that’s such a bad thing. I have nothing against submission fees because most journals are barely surviving and because submission fees do, indeed, cut down on inappropriate submissions. However, let’s be honest about what they are: reading fees.

    Let me add that a lot of writers are offended to be asked for submission fees because they are supplying the content for the magazines, but this is a matter of supply and demand or, if you wish, simple economics. There are more people who want to publish their writing than journals who can take their writing. If it were the other way around, then no publication would charge reading fees. The sad truth is that literature is a buyers’ market.

  2. Many interesting points, but I do get a chuckle out of the magazines (and the author of this article) who go out of their way to explain that it’s not a “reading” fee, it’s an “administrative” fee.

    What’s the difference? The writer pays it. It’s a weaselly distinction. It’s like Comcast saying “No, no. We aren’t raising your rates. We’re adding an administrative fee.” Plus, I’d be quite surprised if a magazine that charges will “read” your submission if you don’t pay the “administrative” fee.

    That said, I’m fine with a small fee, and – as you’ve probably guessed – I don’t care what they call it. It supports the magazine, and may help pay the contributors, too.

  3. To say that $3 is less than submitting by mail might be true for a short story, but it certainly isn’t true for a poetry submission. I feel that poets, especially poets who specialize in short poetry, really are getting the bad end of the deal here. I find it hard to respect a publication that would require a poet to spend $3 to submit 3 poems of 10-20 lines each. Basically, a poet would probably end up spending $30 for every $5 paid for their art. It is a lose-lose proposition for poets.

  4. I am willing to pay a small fee, but am not happy about it. After all, does an actor pay to audition? A painter to have his paintings viewed by a gallery or agent? A dancer to try out for a company?

    The answers are, of course, no, they do not.

    I am not at all convinced that in this day and age of overwhelmingly digital submissions that fees are called for now more than ever…This makes no sense whatsoever.

    But, I have caved in recent years, and am willing to pay the occasional small fee.

    However, I just learned that Glimmer Train is requiring $20 in order to be read by them, and this in their “general submissions” (not contest) category.

    Ridiculous.

    After all the time, work, blood, sweat, and tears writers pour (or should pour) into their work, why heap insult onto injury?

  5. Steven Hutson,”self-employment” means your job is whatever you tell yourself it is. And if you tell yourself you’re a contractor, then you have to make profitable contracts. Getting charged a reading fee by a mag that only pays in copies (e.g. 34thParallel Magazine)? Bad business decision. $3 fee for possible $25 payment (32 Poems)? That’s roughly 8x ROE, so the math says this isn’t worth it if submissions are more than 8x publications. Better odds with a contest. If you include buying a sample copy to check the fit of your stories, the ROE gets even worse. With that model, you could end up losing money even if you get published.

  6. As I see it, we’re making things easier for them by submitting electronically. They can just cut-and-paste our submission into their publication and adjust the format with a few keystrokes, vs. having to manually re-type everything like they did in the old days. So the argument that it costs more to have the convenience of e-submission doesn’t wash. “Reading fees” for a lit mag are like “entry fees” to a contest–likely just as much competition, but the prize money is lousy. While I suppose the top magazines can function as a sort of “proving ground” that major publishers troll for new talent and can thus be justified as “advertising” for an emerging author, to the “starving artist” author, the potential ROE doesn’t justify the financial risk. Lesser literary journals may as well join the ranks of the vanity presses, because that’s how I see them.

  7. Thanks, Cathy Bryant. Writing is neither a “vocation” for me nor a well-paid job.

    I’m also on the executive board of a small literary press, Whispering Prairie Press, run by volunteers. We produce a high quality art and literary journal each year. Hard copy. We do not charge submission fees, and indeed, we pay our writers and artists. You know how? I just spent four days of my time and energy, along with input from other board members, to write a grant. And it was a draft. I’ll spend more time in February honing the grant. There will be another grant to write in the late spring to a different organization and other fundraising throughout the year, including donor outreach. The executive board spends a lot of time throughout the year raising money. We do that because we are also writers and we believe writers need recognition even if the check is small, even if we have to give up some of our own writing time to procure funds.

    Because of that, I only submit to journals who do not charge a fee.
    Grants aren’t that hard if you love what you manage to produce. And if you work to build relationships.

  8. Freelance writing is not a job; it’s self-employment. It’s business. When potential gigs arise, you either want them or you don’t.

    Like many, I quit my “day job” three years ago to work in publishing full-time. I gave up the security of a weekly paycheck, in exchange for the adventure and endless opportunity of entrepreneurship.

    I made a freewill choice. If I end up homeless, it won’t be because a publisher gave me a raw deal. It will be the natural consequence of my own bad choices. Or perhaps *gasp!* my writing didn’t pass muster.

  9. Ah, I see what you mean. Yes, I write because something deep inside draws me to do so – it’s who I am. It is also my job, however, and submitting to litmags is a small but vitally important part of that income. Last year I had 44 acceptances and they helped to pay the bills, along with comp wins, book sales, articles etc. It would be silly of me to dent my small-but-perfectly-formed income with submission fees – there were plenty of rejections along with those acceptances, over 200, and that’s a lot of $3 payments. I’ve just checked and my expenses would have been increased by just under a thousand dollars a year, which I certainly can’t afford.
    I write for love, but like everyone else, I have bills to pay.
    I subscribe to two litmags, and read and praise those I am sent, if they are good, and give them as much publicity as I can. These are my ways of supporting them. Support can come in ways other than by paying submission fees.

  10. Cathy – I think Steven is pointing out that running a literary magazine is not a job – not a business. It’s a labor of love. Writing may indeed be a job for some, though it is hard to see how contributing to literary reviews, per se, is a job – as there is no money in it. (I realize it can bring recognition leading toward future publication.) For most literary writers, I’d say its a vocation – we do it because something deep inside us draws us to do it.

  11. I agree with Steven Hutson – this is not a business. Yes, there are a few publishing scams out there, but I presume a writer has been savvy enough to check on the magazines s/he is submitting to. Most literary magazines are run by volunteers, as a labor of love, and they are hardly getting rich by asking for a couple of bucks from writers who – all too often – have never bothered to read their magazine, much less subscribe. Sydney Avey is right – this is a two-way street and we need to think of writing as a community. I try to read and subscribe to the magazines that publish my work (I can’t subscribe to all of them). This is not a them v. us situation – writers and literary magazines are in this together. As for great potential writers getting discouraged and quitting, great potential writers simply don’t quit, no matter what. It’s in their blood.

  12. I’m not impressed by the comparison to the price of mailing a manuscript – the litmags didn’t take a penny of that money. The equivalent of that is the price we pay for our internet connection.
    If a writer sends 17 submissions, then change the submission system so that writers can’t submit more than once per reading period. This isn’t an excuse to start charging a fee, but a reason to hone your submission process.
    Thankfully UK litmags haven’t started this ridiculous practice yet – they’re still free. I can’t see any that did start it lasting long, though there will always be a market for vanity publishing. That’s the genius of submission fees – it’s vanity publishing without the actual publishing. Congrats on a new marketing success.
    Thank you for the balanced article, and for playing ‘devil’s advocate’, though I think in this case that you’re on the side of the angels.

  13. About the time you thought you had figured out every way possible to milk a cow, up pops a new way. Not that fees are a bad idea in themselves. I believe selection among would-be writers are rather biased. I somewhat agree, and this fact doesn’t really bother me; maybe it would cut back on the number of useless or unworthy submissions. Where the problem lies is in the fact that every newbie writer has to begin their process somewhere, and many are strapped for funds and are writing in hopes of getting their work out there and being paid for it.

    Too many organizations are vying for newbie writer funds. A vast ocean of new writers are hoping to stake a claim in this writer world, and maybe find a few gold nuggets of their own. Alas this fee concept will work for a short while, but then many new writers will get discouraged and may give up before they become the next great writer over time. “Sorry, Poor Honest Abe, the literary world really doesn’t need to hear from you. They have plenty of academic folks to do your job, though we might all sorely miss your contribution, life goes on.”

    I think what will happen is that those who have will outlast those who don’t. There have always been the haves and the have nots; this will widen that gulf. If a great writer could rise from the ashes, this new practice of a fee would end that latter writer’s chances. I actually see good on both sides of this equation, being a well published sort myself. But I remember my beginning efforts, and it took a lot of stabs at this to finally get on board. I would not have attempted it, if it had cost any money at that time.

    Keep in mind many magazines already have a bank of writers working for them, so it is obvious they will mostly be in the business of collecting fees from many whose work will never be seen, let’s be honest.

    Someone had to be the devil’s advocate. For a while, this will be seen as a sort of scam right along with all of the other scam outfits out there who are in the business of grabbing the green stuff. This new practice of charging a fee, will make them seem guilty by association, even if they are honest as the day is long.

    Where eagles fly,
    Don Greywolf Ford
    Author of ” No Such Animal as Writer’s Block “

  14. I will admit to being quite miffed at confronting this for the first time in this submission cycle. I am aware that the acceptance rate in well established literary magazines is quite low and it feels like now I have to pay for the privilege of being rejected. On the other hand, I understand that a low fee can filter out inappropriate submissions.

    I wish I could afford the time to read and money to pay for subscriptions to all the literary magazines I submit to. I can’t. I think for me it will come down to revisiting my strategy. I would rather choose fewer publications and form a relationship with them…support with subscriptions and donations those who publish my work; this is not buying publication–that’s not for sale–it’s showing appreciation for publications that have chosen to support my work. It’s a two way street.

  15. Thank you for this helpful article. I hadn’t thought it through like that before. I agree with Arthur Powers’s point that some “simply never get back to you at all”. I think if a submission fee is part of the deal, then acknowledgement of the submission’s receipt by email should be obligatory. And yes I would be prepared to submit for a small mailing expense-type fee.

  16. You know, I don’t care how it is sugar coated. This writer will NEVER send money to have his work evaluated. And saying it is minimal is like the IRS saying the tax is only 1% now and 5 years later it is 20%. The journals can fold up and blow away in the wind for all I care.

  17. I suppose I can live with a fee of two or three bucks, but I’d be very interested in writer’s opinion of New Millenium or Narrative fees of $20, to name just two…

  18. Small fees for submissions have been around for a few years now. I’m very selective about the magazines I submit to, and most of them happen not to have fees. However, if I feel a magazine is worth submitting to, I don’t begrudge a $3 fee. As you note, it cost me that much (in current dollars) to submit in the snail mail days.

    As I rarely make multiple submissions, what I mind much more is magazines that simply never get back to you at all! There are quite a few of those. As an editor, I sympathize with them, but if a submission fee can help them to be administratively more efficient and get acceptances/rejections out sooner, I’ll pay the fee!

  19. In my experience, many writers possess a vastly overblown sense of their own skill or importance or market power. Freelance writing is self-employment; if you’re not willing to invest in your own career, then you chose the wrong career.

    And as the article points out, most publishers (mags and books) accept online submissions these days, or even require them outright. Which drives down a writer’s cost of doing business considerably. If a small fee can get you published, I say go for it. This is a cheap and easy way to build up your writing credits, which in time could impress a book editor.

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