Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?

Publications are increasingly charging fees to consider submissions—a practice that’s bad for the writing community at every level.

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It’s fall, the time of year when literary journals open their doors for new submissions. Around the country, writers are polishing poems, short stories, and essays in hopes of getting published in those small-but-competitive journals devoted to good writing. Though I’ve published short stories in the past, I’m not submitting any this year, and if things continue the way they have been, I may stop writing them altogether. The reason, in a nutshell, is reading fees—also called submission or service fees—which many literary journals now charge writers who want to be considered for publication. Writers pay a fee that usually ranges from $2 to $5—but sometimes goes as high as $25—and in return, the journal will either (most likely) reject or accept their submission and publish it. Even in the lucky case that a piece is published, most journals don’t pay writers for their work, making it a net loss either way.

If this seems like a reasonable practice, it’s worth noting that this model is nonexistent in the rest of publishing, where it’s always been free for writers to send their work to editors. In fact, literary agents who charge reading fees are usually considered shady, and writers are warned to stay away. But over the last few years, more and more literary journals have started charging fees, including well-known publications such as Ploughshares, New England Review, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and The Iowa Review. While most journals are still free, every few months, a new journal seems to announce that it’s going to start charging writers to submit their work—a trend that’s slowly threatening the inclusivity of literature when it comes to new, diverse voices.

A $3 fee might not sound like much, but the average short story might receive around 20 rejections before it’s published, meaning writers can be us much as $60 in the hole per story. Ideally, a writer is producing more than one story a year. If you’re trying to build a career—and yes, that’s still possible—you’re investing a lot just to get started, with no expectation of financial return.

To make matters worse, being poor is already the norm for writers. A recent industry survey showed that more than half of writers earn less than the federal poverty level of $11,670 a year from their work. I know what this feels like. There was a time when I made two cents per word as a writer and worked part-time as a waiter to pay the bills. I lived in a bad part of town, slept on a blow-up bed, ate on a card table, and owned a 1978 TV with a broken channel changer that I had to turn with a pair of pliers. When that was my life, these fees would have added up so quickly that I couldn’t have afforded to write fiction at all.

Reading fees also pose an extra obstacle to the literary community’s efforts to be more diverse. The fraught issue received renewed attention last month when a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson successfully published a poem in Prairie Schooner under a Chinese pseudonym that was later accepted into a prestigious anthology, The Best American Poetry 2015. The literary world was justifiably appalled by Hudson’s actions, which seemed an insult to the community’s goal of publishing more women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.

However sincere the intentions, saying that you want to hear from marginalized voices rings hollow against the literal barrier of the reading fee. It’s hard enough to submit to a system you’re outside of without having to pay to do it. Fees ensure that people who have disposable income will submit the most. So it’s fine to charge fees if you’re targeting mostly white, male writers who went to elite schools and who have a financial safety net. It’s not so great if you want to hear from the single mom working two jobs who writes poetry at night.

Surprisingly, the major reason literary journals charge fees has less to do with money, and more to do with the enormous number of submissions they receive. Around the country, MFA programs are graduating people who want to be writers, so they submit creative writing to literary journals. The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed with submissions and take a long time—sometimes six months to a year—to reply. Most writers can’t wait that long for a single response, so they send their work to more journals. The whole thing snowballs and soon these tiny publications are receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions a month.

In some sense, then, writers are to blame for blanketing journals they haven’t even read with their work. The Internet has made this process easy: Do a search for “literary journals,” click on the websites, and fire away, submitting to one after another. Charging a fee, then, began as an attempt to slow electronic submissions down. The thinking was that if people had to pay to submit, maybe they’d consider what the journal was looking for and only send their best work. This attempt to force writers into behavior they should have been doing all along may seem reasonable until you consider that it doesn’t work. Instead of slowing things down, fees increased submissions 20 to 35 percent.

So the slush pile is getting bigger, but is it getting better? It’s unlikely, since professional writers with skill and experience are trying to get paid for their writing, not the other way around. Even if they make time to publish for free as a labor of love or because they want to build a literary reputation, they aren’t going to pay to submit. The people who do are likely novice writers who might think their submission will be taken more seriously because they paid for the privilege.

And yet journals don’t publish that much from the slush anyway; some estimates say it accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of published submissions. Instead, editors solicit work from writers they know, or writers who have name recognition. If a journal does pay its writers, it pays solicited people first. This produces an ethical problem: When a journal takes reading fees from the slush pile and then pays the writers they solicited, they’ve created an exploitative system where the unknown writers are funding the well-known ones.

While some journals only allow paid submissions, others have begun to allow writers to submit for “free” if they pay $20 to $50 for a yearly subscription—a policy that poses a similar financial burden. For other journals, the only free option is the now-antiquated process of mailing a hard copy of their submission. One of the most troubling arguments for reading fees is the idea that since writers don’t have to pay the post office to send online submissions, they should give the money to the journal instead. Look at it as supporting the community you love, some might say, like a tip jar. But it’s a flawed comparison—tips are optional, which means submission fees are more akin to being charged to audition for a play or to interview for a job. Instead, many writers like myself choose to support literature by buying work we like and subscribing to journals we admire, when we can afford to do so.

And yet it’s easy to sympathize with literary journals, many of which are struggling. The editors are often unpaid, the budgets from universities don’t always cover operating costs, and readership is small. Often it must feel like the only people paying attention are the ones trying to get published, people who, perversely, don’t buy or read the very journals they want to be in. A revenue stream, no matter how small, must be tempting. It’s harder to develop an audience, get advertisers, and apply for funding than it is to take money from the people sending in submissions. But if literary journals are about championing good writing, using prospective writers for revenue goes against the heart of that mission. Worse, it changes the journal from a publication with relevant content to something closer to a vanity press that exists as a place for MFA students to submit work.

Maybe it all comes down to this: It’s convenient for journals to charge fees because of submission software like Submittable. All an editor has to do is click a box requiring writers to pay, and she has an instant revenue stream. Meanwhile, Submittable takes a cut of every fee. Before Submittable came along, literary journals rarely charged fees, and the few that did, like Narrative Magazine, were an anomaly. Then a writer with a background in computer programming developed submission software with his partners and promoted it to the literary community, vowing that it would “always be free to indies.” Suddenly, there was an affordable (free) way to manage online submissions with an option to charge built right into the software.

These days, Submittable is used by NPR, Playboy, and the Harvard Review alike, and it’s no longer free for independent journals, though the company gives them a discount on pricing. While not the only submission software out there, it has become such a staple in the community that I’ve heard editors of smaller journals discuss charging fees just so they could afford Submittable—rather than using email, which is what most national magazines do.

However understandable the predicament of literary journals is, reading fees are ultimately exploitative. It’s bad enough that creative writers can’t expect to be paid for their work, but now they have to pay just to be considered. If all publications did this, there’d be no professional writers, only be people with other jobs who write on the side.

Clearly literary journals that charge fees are struggling to survive in the age of changing technology and may not fully realize the negative effects of their editorial policies. Aside from the fact that fees do nothing to solve the bigger issue of how to attract and keep readers, profiting off writers poses major problems for underrepresented voices in literature. And that should concern those of us who want to see more creative writing that reflects new perspectives—there’s just no way to tell who reading fees are pushing away.