April 2, 2015 by Nathaniel Tower
If you want to piss off a writer, charge a submission fee. It seems like nothing bothers writers more than being told they have to pay for something. How dare a magazine charge us just to read our work! It’s an outrage! They should make their money by selling subscriptions and ad space! More ads, fewer fees!
I’ll be completely honest here: I have never submitted to a magazine that requires a submission fee. Why not? It’s because I’m a cheap ass, not because I’m morally opposed to submission fees. I suspect many writers are the same. I want to make money on my writing, not lose it. (Note: I’m only referring to regular submission fees here, not contest fees. Contest fees are a different animal completely, and they are much more acceptable in the literary community.)
But here’s an interesting thing: what if I could make money by spending money? Well, I guess it depends what the odds are. People play the lottery all the time. But that’s just gambling with their money, not with their money and their art.
Recently, a writer went to town on a magazine for charging $3 for submissions. Yup. Three lousy bucks. Oh, the horror. How is a writer to scrape together that much money?
My own personal habits regarding submission fees aside, allow me to play devil’s advocate here.
Submission fees are not evil. They are not immoral. They are not abhorrent. They don’t ruin lives or create massive inequality in the world. They really aren’t that bad. Here are 5 reasons why submission fees aren’t the outrage we sometimes claim they are.
- Submissions have never really been free.
It’s true that most lit mags didn’t used to charge a fee (and most still don’t). But submitting your work was never historically a free thing. Back when I first began sending work to lit mags, I mailed most of my submissions. I had to print them, put them in envelopes, affix postage to the envelopes, and place a SASE inside the envelope. On average, I spent about $2-5 per submission when everything was said and done. How dare those postal employees demand money to send my stories to lit mags that would ultimately just reject my work!
Now, with tools like Submittable, it’s much easier for the publications to collect the submissions online. This is also much more convenient for writers. The internet has created this false expectation in us that everything should be free. We think of online banking, social media, and email as free things. Well, none of these things are. Everything costs money to maintain, and we are getting charged for all of these things even if we don’t see it coming out of our pockets. But that’s another topic. The point here is that paying a few bucks to submit your work to a lit mag is nothing new. The new part is who is getting the money. Wouldn’t you rather that money go to the literary community as opposed to the post office?
- Submission fees keep writers in check
Too many writers submit stories that just aren’t ready to be submitted. Too many writers spam out their stories without paying attention to submission guidelines. A $3 submission fee stops this. It’s a small fee, but it’s enough to make a writer really think about whether or not a story is ready to go. In other words, it raises the stakes in a way that benefits the writer. Rather than dashing off a story as soon as the first draft is finished, the writer will actually try to make it as good as possible. The writer knows to make every submission count. $3 is too much to spend on crap.
- It reduces the workload for overworked lit mag editors
For the most part, lit mag editors are volunteers. Of course, that’s their choice so we needn’t pity them. Turnover is pretty high in the slush reading industry. Why? Because many of these volunteers quickly get tired of reading tons of stories that have no business being submitted. A submission fee weeds out these bad stories. When there’s no risk involved, everyone thinks they should send out their stories. This leads to many grumpy editors who have to read far more (and far worse) work than they should.
- There’s almost always a free option
Almost every magazine that charges fees for online submissions also provides some “free” alternative. Whether it be an open reading period a couple times a year or the option to snail mail your submission, there’s usually a way for you to get a story to that publication without giving money directly to the magazine. If you don’t want to pay, you don’t have to. Interestingly enough, the venue that was ripped to pieces in the aforementioned article offers both of these free options.
- Submission fees can help a magazine exist
There are many ways to pay the operating costs of a literary magazine. It’s important for writers to understand that lit mags cost money. There are domain fees, hosting fees, submission manager fees, marketing/promotional fees, printing fees, etc. It can really add up. Most lit mags are not profitable. Yes, this is the choice of the editors. But there needs to be some funding to back it up. That money can come from a variety of places: the pockets of the editors, subscription fees, ad space, donations, book sales, crowdfunding, or even submission fees.
While you may not like the idea of potential writers being the ones to provide the monetary support, that’s the choice of the magazine. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to support it. Personally, I think it’s a lot better than the magazines that subsist off their own writers by forcing them to buy copies of their own books/publications at full retail price. But even that’s a choice. No one has to buy these copies, no one has to pay submission fees, and no one has to read a lit mag at all. Ultimately, writers need venues to publish their work. A venue that supports and promotes writers by collecting a nominal submission fee is certainly not the biggest evil in the publishing world.
Now, there are times when submission fees are not justified at all. When a lit mag charges fees but doesn’t even compensate their writers, that’s bordering on the absurd. Why would anyone pay money to subsequently give their story away for free? It’s also not right if the venue isn’t honest about what they do with those fees (you know, if they line their silken pockets with them). For the most part though, magazines that charge submission fees are not evil. They are just trying to stay alive.
I’ve been running Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine for almost eight years. During that time, we have never charged fees for regular submissions. We’ve managed to scrape by (without making any money) through other means. Personally, I’d rather close the magazine than require fees from writers. But that doesn’t mean it’s universally wrong or unethical for venues to charge fees.
Ultimately, no one forces you to pay a submission fee. If you don’t want to pay to submit your writing, don’t do it. There are over 8,000 lit mags and presses open for submissions. The majority don’t charge submission fees. Rather than griping about the ones that do, find one that doesn’t. But most importantly, please actually read and support the magazines if you are going to spend your time trying to get published by them.