Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Like most writers who wish to publish new writing, I spend considerable energy submitting unsolicited poems and stories through online submission managers, and to a lesser extent, the snail mail. In the old days, of course, writers would send all their submissions through the post office: a buck or two for the big envelope plus a single stamp for the SASE. Lately, a number of highly-visible literary journals have begun to require reading fees, typically $3.00 a pop, for online (slush pile) submissions. The journals defend this practice by reminding us writers that we’d spend just as much on postage; many indicate that the reading fees help them to defray the administrative costs of producing the periodical. I don’t wish to dispute either of these explanations, but at the same time, journals cannot demonstrate that they’ve actually considered the submission. They cannot demonstrate that they’ve provided a service (evaluating the submission) for the fee ($3.00) they require to accompany the writer’s creative work. At least by paying postage in the old days, I knew that the U.S. Postal Service had delivered the submission, and later, delivered the response; the post office had provided a service. If the journal didn’t choose to appraise my writing, that didn’t matter, because the journal didn’t profit from my correspondence. Similarly, if I upload an electronic submission for free, the magazine can choose to reject it outright, since it doesn’t profit from my interest in becoming a contributor. Unfortunately, these fee-for-submission literary magazines may have entered fraudulent terrain. Who’s to say they don’t delete poems and stories, while pocketing the money? If they receive several thousand submissions, then they may profit considerably without exerting much more effort than clicking a mouse. I would imagine that many thoughtful writers (as well as those who lack the means to submit) are offended by this practice and aren’t participating in the fee-for-reading environment. This would potentially shrink the population of viable writers contacting a given magazine, and to me, reinforce the sense that fee-for-reading journals solicit most of their published material on the dollars of those willing to pay the toll. In order to squash this perception, a journal should offer personal feedback to any author who’s submitted $3.00 along with a sample of writing. There must be incontrovertible proof that editors have dedicated time and consideration. Otherwise, more and more journals slither into gunk, junk, murk, mud, slime, grime, oil-spill, habitat-wreck, flight-of-species, blight-of-planet.

Cultural Affairs Week Editorial Schedule

March 2: Crows & Owls
March 4: Literary Magazines That Charge for Slush Pile Submissions
March 6: Kits


mark wallace said...

The desperation for cash swallows everything--and I'm thinking now too of those publications that "publish" writers just because the writers pay, and for that reason only.

I do wonder though, where in the lit mag past we can go to look for a clear sense of ethics--although I guess the answer is, give me a clear sense of funding, and I can give you clear ethics.


The old practice of sending in the work, awaiting (most likely) the rejection, or (once in a while) the acceptance was an anxious endeavour (Brit. sp.) but there was plenty of dignity in it. (Unless you got a nasty response, but that's another story altogether). Now, magazines are shifting the burden of fundraising onto those who are most likely not ever going to appear in the pages of the publication. I don't see why anybody would submit to those publications, especially since they probably just send form rejections that don't demonstrate any familiarity with the submitted work.

The ethics don't bother me much if no money changes hands. You may spend time sending in a submission, but if it's unsolicited, then you aren't, in the end, entitled to anything; not even a rejection letter. But when mags start taking money -- the equation changes.

If I submit four times to fee-for-reading publications, then I've spent $12 on getting rejected. The USPS has been cut out, and the journal is pocketing the cash. Instead, I should probably walk down to the beer store and buy a six pack or two. Good stout has never rejected me, I must say. It's the best literary journal I know.


mark wallace said...

I think that's true, about the shifting the burden of fundraising, although in some cases that's because some of these bigger journals used to get grants for some/all of their funding. Others did it the old-fashioned way, by soliciting donors, which people can do if, of course, they already know the right sort of people. It's gross for sure, this new practice, but I guess I'm trying to say that we have to see the magazines doing this as part of a larger environment that they didn't entirely create.

In any case, the whole (larger) print journal concept is collapsing; they'll be a few here and there in the future, maybe. The university-connected ones are all going to die if they haven't already. Online is maybe the way to go these days? Certainly my work in online journals is the work that other people READ, and that makes a difference too.

Excellent post, by the way.


Many journals in which I've published in the past have since switched to fees for submissions. I did a little bit of that at first, seeing as they'd supported me once upon a time. But I never had the sense that my writing was ever getting any consideration, and I tired of forking over $3 by $3, when it appeared as if the journal was just pocketing the money.

The economics of this would interest me. Presumably, fewer people are submitting work. So the journals may have lost grants or subscriptions but are making up the loss by charging people at the submission manager. How are they doing (financially) would be the question. Is it working?

I don't argue against the practice. I just argue that a submitter should be able to feel as if he or she has received a service for the fee. Maybe they should just send you an issue or at least a festive t-shirt. What I wouldn't do for a festive t-shirt!

Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate your comments. I too find that the online publications are what people tend to read. An old issue of many journals -- cannot be found, ever again. Still, I think that this fee-based reading strategy does apply to a number of online mags too.

It's inside the (expletive) perimeter!


mark wallace said...

Totally agreed that a service should be received for the money. That's why I like the practice of certain presses of giving you a book when you submit, say, an ms. to a contest.

How about this? (although I see a few flaws already). People who submit to a mag probably have some ethical obligation to read the mag, just as the mag as ethical obligation to them. So, in the case of some mags anyway, how about upping the fee to $7 or so and receiving the next copy of the mag? There's no shortage of copies--and it was also discourage those people who just send poems to every gdamned mag under the sun and make the lives of editors miserable?

Ultimately, it's still the person-outside-of-the-know who would get most screwed.

As for online mags charging a submission fee, that seems total bullshit.


Right, I mean, there has to be something. Either they

(1) Reject you in a way that lets you know they really read / considered what you sent -- and even then, you'd have to decide whether it was genuine or not; or

(2) They give you something. A subscription, a copy, a t-shirt, a commemorative pin, a wet kiss under the mango tree.

One of the problems is -- what if you have the thing they're offering? I mean, I personally read these mags before I submit. Maybe I'm the only jackass who does that. So, I mean, it all comes down to -- are they really reading what you're sending? From my general set of insights -- my sense is, No.

Your example of the book publishing contest is a good one. In many cases, you get a copy from the press' catalogue. It's not perfect, but at least you get something that you don't have to begin with. At least you're not entirely pissing your money away.


Anonymous said...

Dan & Mark,
Great post and back-n-forth. Mark, you're no doubt right that many of these pay to play journals simply need some kind of revenue stream to continue their work. Dan, you're not doubt right that these editors should provide some kind of evidence that the work was actually read and actually considered. So... it's no doubt sleazy to get no reply at all. When I worked as a student intern at the Kenyon Review, my job was to route the rejection letters. We had two stacks, one was ivory and the other cream. Not, mind you, elephant tusk and whipped whole milk, but the colors, one a bright white and one a light muddy beige. The ivory one was a version of "This sucks, please don't send us more submissions." The cream one was "This isn't quite right for us now, but you have promise and we would like to see more of your work in the future."
-- Casey


Hi Casey,

Many years ago, I was invited to be an associate editor at StoryQuarterly, where I managed the submission review process, which included readers all over the world. SQ was one of the first publications to adopt a (free) online submission manager. We responded personally to most of the submissions -- even though we took no money from them. Whatever one may think of SQ, at least we responded to many of the writers who tried to correspond with us. Still, we had a form rejection for someone who clearly had never read any literary magazines, anywhere, but that accounted (as I recall) for a small portion of the submissions we received. But we didn't require a fee for reading, no matter what. Thus, if we received, for example, a violent pornographic story, we would simply use the form rejection. What I'm saying is -- good folks are sending in good poems and stories and getting the form rejection. Which is fine if there's no fee -- but with a fee, it looks shady.

Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the insights into KR.


Anonymous said...

Great post Dan! I also noticed this happening a couple of years ago and after a couple of tries stopped submitting work to journals that ask for that $3 reading fee. Thanks for the reassurance that I made the right choice. Fitz


Hey Fitz,

Thanks for reading the post. I myself just can't pay those fees anymore. It's also likely that I won't read said publications, either. Magazines seem to be deterring interest (in submitting and reading) through these fees. "Fuck off, reading fees!" Talk to you soon.