After publishing my first book of poems, I stopped writing. I couldn’t stomach self-promotion, but felt a duty to my publisher to self-promote. It was like eating my own vomit every day, and for a few years, whenever I sat down to write, I could see the future of the potential poem before me blooming and wilting in a time-lapsed montage of death: If I actually liked whatever I was about to write, I’d have to submit it to a magazine, then put it in a book, then give readings and beg for blurbs and reviews and post about it on my stupid blog and my stupid Facebook page and my stupid Twitter feed to 1,000 other poets trapped in the same nauseating self-promotional pie-eating contest.
The only way I could get back to the part that I loved—getting lost in an image and shuffling words around a page—was to promise myself that I wouldn’t publish anything. And then actually not publish anything.
I didn’t publish or submit any of my own poetry for about five years, even when solicited for projects that sounded exciting. Only recently I’ve gotten over this childishness—it really is childish—and have started dipping my toes back into the ice-cold—
Wait ... submission fees are acceptable now?!
I can't believe this has normalized. I know I’m going to upset a lot of publishers when I say this, but so be it: Reading fees are unethical, and the practice should be shamed out of existence.
If an agent charged audition fees only to turn down 99% of those potential clients, we would call him a con-artist. In other fields, just the process of submitting completed materials for consideration, or "working on spec," is considered unethical—even without submission fees! We're already skating on thin ice by paying so little (if anything at all) for the work that we publish, for tying up that work for 3 months to a year and then having the gall to say NO SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and for making it seem like the "exposure" of appearing in a magazine reward enough. But now we also want submitters to pay for the privilege of being rejected?
What is the purpose of a literary magazine? Don’t forget that we’re all non-profits in one way or another. Don’t forget that the average circulation of a print journal is 500 copies, that the average Alexa ranking of an online journal is about 5 million, and that most of the people reading them are also submitting to them. So what is the purpose of a literary magazine? Who do we serve and why should we exist?
If you think literary magazines exist to bolster the prestige of the editors and the institutions that produce them, then submission fees make a lot of sense: They raise some money, and they cut down on that nasty “slush pile” we all have to wade through to get to our desks in the morning. Submission fees generate a few thousand dollars, while cutting submissions by 50% or more—and who wants to read all that junk, right?
But to me, and I think to the rest of the community, literary magazines exist in the service of literature—they bring new writing to a wider audience, foster artistic dialogue, jumpstart careers, and provide a historical chronicle of literary development. I often wonder how many Emily Dickinsons there have been throughout history, who weren’t lucky enough to have a Lavinia, whose siblings found a trunk full of poems and left them in the attic. Literary magazines exist to keep that work alive, and to encourage the continuing participation and development of the art.
Submission fees are anathema to that purpose—they’re exploitative and exclusionary and stifling. Having read submissions for a decade, I know: the majority of submissions have no chance at ever finding publication, even on a fair playing field. Editors sift for diamonds in the rough, and it’s mostly rough, and we all know it. Charging money for nothing more than the 30-second skim it takes to see the obvious, when that small effort is simply the social good that you’re supposed to be providing anyway, is egregious.
And that’s not even considering the practice of solicitation—a large percentage of the work that’s published in most magazines doesn’t come with a fee, because the editors asked for it directly. There’s a reason why unsolicited submissions are derided as “slush.” When you take this into account, the experience starts to feel less like a literary service, and more like a rigged game at a carnival. We’ll pretend you have a genuine chance as long as you keep laying your dollar down.
I know you know that it’s true; you feel that it’s true in your gut every time you think about it. I also know the arguments used to justify the practice, but none of them stand up to scrutiny.
Magazines need the money.
Literary magazines are very expensive. The established magazines, with circulations of a few thousand, cost between $150,000 and $500,000 annually to produce (non-profit tax returns are public record, by law, so you can check for yourself). 15% - 50% of that is made back through sales and subscriptions and advertising, but all of the rest is red—to be filled in with ever-dwindling grants and donations. It’s a truly precarious financial situation, and anything that provides a small degree of stability is a blessing.
But this is such a small degree. As far as I know, Rattle receives more submissions than any other literary magazine, besides Poetry. In 2014, it was 22,000 packets of up to four poems each. If we charged a reading fee of $3 per submission, that seems like a lot of money—$66,000! But we wouldn’t get all that money, though.
Submittable takes a cut for service fees, and the banks take an even larger cut for credit card processing, and with that, we’re down to about $40,000. But if we added the pay wall, submissions would be cut in half, at least—$20,000, which is enough to print and ship an issue or two. That’s the extremely optimistic number, though, because few literary magazines have ever received as many submissions as we do. Realistically, for the more established journals, we’re talking about maybe $5,000 of income on average. This, against and deficit of $100,000 or more—it’s a drop in a leaky bucket, not a step toward sustainability. And it’s an ethically expensive drop, too, that is paid for by the silencing of voices who can't afford the fees, or can't live with the embarrassment of paying for their own rejection.
But what about small magazines that don’t have any funding?
For newer, smaller magazines, submission fees generate even less revenue, because they receive far fewer submissions. Moreover, an established magazine has the prestige to survive a submission fee and still receive submissions, but how is a small magazine ever going to become established if it’s insulting both its potential authors and its potential audience? The growth of a magazine comes through building a community of support around it, and that community won’t grow if it isn’t respected. For a small magazine, the potential rewards are greater by percentage, but so are the negative consequences.
Poets used to have to pay for paper and envelopes and stamps; a $3 reading fee is less than it would cost then, now we’re getting the money instead of the USPS.
And people used to pay to have blocks of salt carved out of desert basins and hauled hundreds of miles on the backs of camels, so they could preserve food and not starve to death. Isn’t technology great? Next.
Submittable costs money to use, so we have to charge for submissions to pay for Submittable.
Submittable is a wonderful service run by hard-working people who make our lives as editors much easier, saving time, which is money, which completely justifies the cost of using Submittable. Rattle needs the highest package that they offer, and it's worth ever penny to us.
And if it doesn’t save enough time to justify the cost, then don’t use it. For nine out of ten years, I handled a larger volume of submissions than most, with nothing more than a free Gmail account. New submissions went in a folder called “To Read.” Once read, they were moved to other folders called, “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.” After that, it’s easy to harvest addresses and mail-merge replies, or just paste in boilerplates by hand. It’s really not that hard.
But some magazines use the submission fees to pay their authors, and isn't paying authors a good thing?
Of course, paying authors is wonderful, but not at the expense of all the other poets who never had a chance and never even knew it, sorry.
So, if submission fees are unethical, how else am I supposed to raise funds to keep the magazine afloat? Isn’t existing with reading fees better than going under?
There are plenty of ways to generate revenue without taking advantage of those you should be supporting—ways to generate revenue that actually build a sense of community, rather than destroy it. Buy-in contests work great—enter by ordering an issue or subscribing, so you’re actually receiving something in return, even if you don’t win. Sell merchandise, sell ads, sell real feedback or fast-tracks on submissions. Kickstart each issue, and only publish it once you’ve reached the fundraising goal—use that to remind your community that they really care about reading the magazine. If that doesn't work, trim the fat.
And if none of that works, yes, consider going under. If I had to steal from my customers to keep my hot dog stand in business, I’d find another business. Strong words, I know, but I feel strongly about this.
If you disagree, though, let’s debate it in the comments. I’m out of space here, but I have plenty more to say and welcome further discussion.