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.