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April 15, 2015

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I'm not rich enough or desperate enough to pay people to read my work.

Aw, man, I was getting all excited about the you dipping your feet back into the poetry publishing waters bit, and then you pulled the rug out from under us.

I made my first couple submissions about a month ago so nothing to report, still "in-progress"!

This is exactly right. Point for point. Even paying an entry fee for contests gives me the creeps, because I assume most of them are rigged, too, as Jorie Graham's example shows. (Although I'm okay with Buy-a-Subscription contests.) I’m not sure, but I think part of what drives this fee-business is poetry’s shift from having a readership to being an academic exercise, where the main purpose of getting published is to create a line in a curricula vitae.

And that's just looking at it from an ethical perspective. When you look at it from an economic transaction standpoint, it makes even less sense. Newspapers (including online ones), streaming services, and everything else charges readers - for the content they gain access to - and advertisers - for the exposure. In every other business model, there is a specific gain rendered for the fee paid. When writers submit work for review, they gain nothing in return. For literary magazines to expect submitters - 99% of whom gain literally NOTHING from submitting - to pay is laughable.

No punches pulled here; well said in terms of the main bout; but there is also a contender in the wings as well: "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." This could be the start of a great "How to Try to Make a Litmag of Merit" -- I admire the spirit of the startups for whom the attempt is a labor of love; and the digital age can level the playing field in a way; look at how Rattle started out, humble beginnings I believe; the more the merrier for other reasons too involved to explicate in a comment. Suffice it to say the proliferation of online litmags particularly, most of which indeed fall by the wayside sooner rather than later act as a stimulus to submission and thereby are a catalyst for more poetry, granted bad, good, and indifferent, nonetheless this type of emerging "infrastructure" expands the possibility of 1).finding a hidden gem for the consumer (reader/listener et al.), 2). finding a home for the work of the content producer (the poet) and 3). finding another piece of the puzzle for the curator (editor/publisher). It all somehow works itself out in a literary universe not governed by greed and pecuniary interest.

I totally agree. I've had to accept getting paid nothing for poems, but damned if I want to pay someone for reading my work.
The only fees I'll pay, and those only occasionally, are two or three a year for attractive open readings of manuscripts or once in a great while a contest that pays and that I think I have some chance of winning or placing in.

Hi. My friend works with the Poetry Has Value project, which interviews editors of paying journals to get a big picture look at the various funding methodologies. It's a great resource. http://poetryhasvalue.com/

Cheers!

I have to say that, in my experience, your calculations here are skewed. This is something we discussed a lot at a university-based magazine I worked for (will not mention, though the info can be easily found) and ultimately had to discard because of bureaucracy and red tape. We'd lost significant funding from the department and were struggling to keep afloat and continue paying writers; sub fees would have filled the gap that nothing else did, even if we'd seen a reduction. The alternative, for some established outlets, is to give it up, and though I don't work for them anymore, I'd hate to see an established, paying market disappear. There's enough of that going around.

I can understand why sub fees feel unattractive, even unethical. But they made me, personally, more careful. I'd think, is this piece really ready? Am I ready to stake a couple dollars on that? In a few cases, it saved me time and trouble and preserved my chances. But I also only sub to magazines I like and read and want to support anyway. I'd rather that money go to, say, Hayden's Ferry than Starbucks, and in that vein, I also donated to Duotrope before they went to a pay model. I support the things I care about in a way that matters. In return, I like to be supported, which is why I'm also a fan of the Poetry Has Value project mentioned above -- even though I'm not a poet, I think there are messages there that all writers need to be thinking about.

@Amy Minton and AAKarabinus-- this is such an important discussion. I have really enjoyed the thoughtful posts and wide sampling of opinions at the Poetry Has Value project as well. Thanks for this article, Timothy!

Thanks for having the courage to speak up with disagreement. What part of the calculations do you think are wrong? I can only project from information that's publicly available, so if I'm wrong about something I'd like to know. You can give details about the numbers you're thinking without revealing the journal, right? There's no doubt submissions would drop, though -- that 50% reduction has been repeated again and again, and makes intuitive sense.

As for the other point, of course I fully support supporting journals, I just think there are other ways to support that are positive for the community. For magazines that need more money, the first question to ask, I think, is why sales and subscriptions are so low.

I have an interview with her that will go up at some point, saying much of the same things, from the opposite end. I think it's great to pay poets (of course), but still more important not to charge submitters.

And when you pay just to submit, there's no way to even know that your poems were READ at all.

Literary magazines are different from other publications, because it's a highly interactive niche art -- almost all readers are writers; it will never be self-sustaining unless we find an audience outside of poets, but that's hard, because reading poetry makes you want to write it. If it were a regular business, it just wouldn't exist, couldn't exist. That's why these are social benefit organizations, and as such, we have to hold to a higher ethical standard, I think.

Tim--
Nobody likes paying submission fees but if it's that or the print journal goes out of business I'll pay the very minimal $3 fee that some journals charge via Submittable. I've also seen a "Tip Jar" option occasionally. Online journals proliferate while print journals struggle and too often fail to stay alive.

I believe that Rattle has a wealthy benefactor. Most editors/journals do not have one. They need money to survive.

I don't think it's really fair to say that this practice is unethical, a charge which implies that editors are unsavory characters. I just don't buy that. Nobody's getting rich on my $3.

Hi Timothy, just out of curiosity, what percentage of Rattle's budget is covered by donations and grants, and what percentage by copy sales? Would you be willing to share this?

The reason I ask is that the submission fee debate, like the literary economy debates in general, too often puts all lit mags in the same big bucket, which is economically inaccurate when we're talking about the ethics of various revenue streams like the sub fee. A journal that gets funding from e.g. its university is very different from a journal that is going it on sales alone. This difference is rarely discussed or addressed. And I think it's an important one to keep in mind.

I do not see the sub fee as always or inherently a capitalist choice (just to give it a name here, one that is implied in your piece and others against the sub fee), though I know from a recent encounter with a major journal's editors that it is seen that way, and in opposition to their own "Communism" (their word choice, not mine). I'm also not saying that I'm "for" the sub fee. But I do think that we can improve this debate by seeing the submission fee in at least two positions: either as a capitalist action from a well-funded journal ("we have money and we want more") or a socialist action from a self-funded journal ("we all chip in for the good of all"). And I believe there are other positions within this range.

Thus my question about Rattle's own funding streams. It's not meant as an accusation, so I hope you don't read it as such. I simply believe it's important that we are more precise in our discussions about the submission fee, and that can start, at least in part, with breaking down the literary journal "classes" (if we can...)

Hi Diane--

Thanks for continuing the discussion, I think it's an important one, so important to continue.

It might have been obscured by other statements in this post, but one of my main arguments against submission fees is that it is not an effective business strategy. I want literary magazines to thrive, not go under, and the money that these fees generate is not enough to justify the long-term structural costs -- let alone enough to fully fund a magazine. The money generated isn't enough enough to cover the paper a journal is printed on. Submission fees disincentivize subscriptions, and damage the kind of community spirit that's necessary for a journal to prosper in the 21st century.

The fact that Rattle has a single benefactor is irrelevant -- every journal our size has benefactors, whether that's one, or many, or most often an institution's support. We're all subject to the same budgetary constraints, and economic conditions, and Rattle actually has the smallest operational budget of any journal our size by a good margin, and the smallest budget deficit that I'm aware of, because of the business practices that I use, which are all geared toward the support of a vibrant community.

I did not say that editors were unsavory characters, nor did I say that anyone was getting rich from this system. Those are straw man arguments. Good people make poor ethical choices all the time, and we all have the capacity to learn from our mistakes. And, as I made quite clear in the post, all literary magazines are some form of non-profit, operating not to get rich, but for the public good.

I forgot to add that, if there was any evidence that submission fees were the answer to solvency, I would have no problem with them under a few conditions:

1) That solicited submissions don't have a free back door.

2) That either something of real value was provided for the fee, or there was a way to submit at certain times or certain ways without a fee.

Mainly, though, I just think it's a self-defeating practice in the long-run.

So what is a poet to do? As more and more venues, both new and well-established, institute a reading fee, are poets to feel ashamed because they pay it? If a poet doesn't have an MFA or well-connected literary or academic friends, they need to build poet-cred in order to make it past the slush pile (because yes the quality of the poem matters but for many journals, your CV matters just as much) so they often turn to small, new, online ventures that yes, charge a 3.00 fee. Or perhaps they should start their own "press" so they can at least publish their own work, and build poet-cred by the title of "editor of..." Of course we'd need the time and some other form of income to sustain it. Will we reach the point where we are all charging each other to publish each other's work, while the rest of the world world goes merrily on its way? What strange times these are for poets. And I am also curious about how Rattle sustains itself- a wealthy benefactor, is that true? I suppose we could all crowd-source each other's chapbooks. Sigh.

Even with a 50% drop in submissions, adding the standard $3 fee (seems standard) would have covered much of printing costs (and when I edited an indie mag, it would have more than covered our costs, too). At the university mag, we were relying mainly on funding from contests once the department pulled money -- thanks to one really good year -- but there's such a glut of contests that I don't think it's a very dependable line. It's a great way to push subscriptions and I'll enter contests sometimes just for kicks because I want a subscription. But there are so many magazines and so many choices and so many contests and no one can support them all.

We need to find new ways to get people to support magazines, and have magazines support writers, I agree there. But I don't take much issue with the sub fee, for reasons above, and for the old saw about postage and all. I'd rather pay a few bucks, knowing it's going to a good cause, than mail anything, ever, or track submissions in Gmail.

Hi Megan--

It is murky territory, because a hesitancy to talk about money is culturally ingrained for some reason. I have spreadsheets of data on this for dozens of the larger journals, but I, too, feel uncomfortable detailing too much of other peoples' business, even if they are public record. The ranges that I provided are accurate, though -- any print journal with a circulation over, say, 1,000 to 6,000, costs at least $150,000 per year to produce (up to $500,000 or so), and earns somewhere between $10,000 and $85,000. The losses range from 60% to 85% across the board, and almost all of it is covered by wealthy benefactors in some form, whether it's other charitable foundations, a university's board of trustees, the CEO of Pepsi, or the founders themselves. It's just the reality of our capitalist system. There are some government grants that go to literary magazines, but they're a very small percentage of the funding.

As for Rattle, we're a 501(c)3, so we have to make our tax returns publicly available. For 2014, Rattle cost $185,000 to produce, and earned $80,000 from sales and subscriptions. Frankly, that's the low end on expenses, and the high end on income for a journal our size. Printing alone is $40,000 per year. We pay poets about $20,000 per year. I work very hard specifically at building a community that wants to subscribe to the magazine, and also at saving on production costs. I work from home so we don't have to rent office space, and do all graphic design, web design, and grunt-work myself. It's not easy keeping the expenses as low as they are for us -- which is why I say the revenue generated from these fees is insignificant.

Small magazines and online magazines are in an entirely different situation. I actually started a different web journal myself, so I know how that works, too. That's cheap and you pay out of pocket because you love it, and donate your time reading submissions and adding them to the website. I think people who do that should be able to find a way to be compensated for their time, too, and as I said in this post, in those situations I think it's mostly just a self-defeating system, charging fees.

Hi Sarah--

See the other comments below for more detail, because I'm starting to repeat myself, but all of the larger literary magazines have benefactors -- that's just how it has to work. For some it's universities giving teaching deferments and office space and equipment. For others it's wealthy patrons making regular donations or contributing to endowments in their wills. Small magazines don't cost much, but are all volunteer and difficult to sustain. No matter what the case, I think submission fees are self-defeating choices in the long run, which is the main reason I thought it was worthwhile to speak out against them.

As for what's a writer to do -- just keep writing and publishing in the best ways you can find! There are plenty of journals that don't charge submission fees, and hopefully it will stay that way. I'm strongly in favor of self-publishing books. Print-on-Demand is often a much better deal for authors than a typical small press book contract. The goal of making money publishing poetry is a fantasy, so the real game is having your voice reach as large an audience as possible -- readers are the true currency -- and there are plenty of ways to reach them.

Thanks for the input. It's been so long since I did the university mag thing (15 years) that it's hard for me to remember budgetary details. Even if that's the case (and I'm not saying it isn't), I'd still argue that blanket submission fees are a detriment to growth and other revenue streams in the long run. It's hard enough to sell magazines when 99% of your readers are jealous -- let alone jealous and cynical. That's what it really comes down to.

I think the currency of poetry in the 21st century is really audience—how many readers can I speak to by publishing through a given venue or modality? That's why fostering participation and interaction are so important.

Thanks for the additional information. I've also run a lot of data here, roughly breaking it down between journals under 2000 print runs and journals over. In most cases, the "larger" journals in my own studies were externally funded. Sounds like Rattle is too. I think that if we're going to condemn certain journals for their financial choices, we should be willing to be transparent about our own. And it's fairly easy to deduce, at least, whether a journal is externally funded or not. Actual figures are harder to come by (and that's actually something I'm working to change).

The submission fee debate is actually a kind of red herring, and that the real problem is the broken economy in which we're operating. Submission fees, for most larger journals, likely only cover a small percentage of costs, and are by no means the bread&butter of revenues (that comes from outside sources). However, for smaller independents, fees could indeed be a valuable stream of revenue. You didn't really respond to this issue of a kind of classicist mentality in the sub fee debate, though...

Rather than setting up sides between who charges and who doesn't (and these posts like yours come around every month, and they all basically say the same thing), we should start talking about how to build our community infrastructures in better ways to help us all sell the magazines we make (our "core business", if you will). I'd simply like to see this debate progress, rather than the same arguments repeated. For example, the solutions you put forward are nothing new, and journals aren't ignoring those options, but these options clearly aren't working either, or we wouldn't be having this debate. (I also happen to ethically disagree with a journal that runs a new Kickstarter for each issue...so there's that.)

Dear Tim,

So, I'll chime in here. We are a brand new literary journal (www.originsjournal.com) with just one issue out and a second one due out in the next few days. We just made the decision to charge submission fees beginning May 1. The submission fees are earmarked to pay writers. We will not use any of that money for any other administrative purpose. Period. We want to pay writers, even if the amount is symbolic in the beginning.

I'm also a writer and have paid submission fees to magazines in the past. I've never had any qualms about this. As I see it, it's an opportunity to make a tiny financial contribution to a journal I care about and, in return, an expert will take the time to read and assess my work, possibly even publish it. It's one incredibly inexpensive way that I can support the lit mag machinery. (Buying subscriptions, etc. is also key, of course.)

If editors were pocketing my money and not reading my work and then rejecting it as a matter of course, well, THAT would be unethical. But there's nothing unethical about charging submission fees per se when the money is being used responsibly and transparently. And I say this with all due respect, truly: to paint editors in the lit mag world as unethical--even if indirectly--is counterproductive. So is calling for the practice to be shamed out of existence. I can't imagine a single editor doing this work out of self interest or because he/she wants to take advantage of writers.

As with anything else, I do think we have to be conscientious about the amount of the fee, providing writers opportunities to submit free of charge some months out of the year, etc. I also like the idea of providing more tangible consideration in return for the fees (e.g. feedback on work, expedited responses,).

I've been following this debate over the last few weeks and see excellent points on both sides. Of course we're all doing this for the love of literature, but running a journal takes A LOT of time and money. Origins is working hard to institute several revenue streams (donations, personal funds invested, subscriptions, etc) to cover operating costs. Would I like to make a profit someday? Yes! But my immediate goal is to create a journal that is sustainable. We don't have seed money. We don't have a wealthy benefactor. The team of editors and our art director--we're all volunteers. Right now, the only way I can pay contributors is by instituting the fee. If an angel investor comes along one day with $150k, I will happily open up the submission process so that it is free of charge. No need to shame it out of existence.

--Dini Karasik, Editor

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