Submission Fees: What are They Good For?
It's safe to say that no one likes submission fees. Writers don't like paying them. Editors don't like having to charge them. Nonetheless, they are becoming increasingly common in lit mag publishing. Here, two editors discuss their positions on charging writers to submit.
Joseph Levens, Editor-in-Chief of The Summerset Review:
When we first learned of submission fees, our thoughts were not completely unfavorable. We understood many readers and editors have not conditioned themselves to review material on a computer screen. We share the same stigma. We need that colored marker in our hand, we love the curlycue cross-out, the notes written vertically in the margin. And so, we realized a journal's office needed to invest in a good printer, ongoing ink replenishment, paper, and time. It also needed to subscribe to and install an electronic system such as Submittable (formerly Submishmash) or Submission Manager (first introduced by One Story). Subscribing to one of these services costs a nominal fee. For example, Submittable will likely run a journal approximately thirty dollars a month.
Now, several years later, we've had a change of heart. While yes, costs for ink, paper, a submission system and what-not will cost a journal in overhead expenses, the cost is not very substantial. Compare this to the overall expenditure of producing a print issue. A run of a thousand copies at a reputable printer will cost over three thousand dollars. This excludes distribution and all work by staff to review, copy-edit, layout and produce the issue prior to sending it to the printing house. It excludes all tools and software used, all editorial and contributor fees, and other miscellaneous expenses that markets have incurred long before the time of electronic submissions.
You might say that years ago in the paper world, authors used their own funds and resources to print out their work, bought their own paper, their own envelopes, paid their own postage. Even the little metal paper clips cost money, we don't deny it. Perhaps at the end of the day, this expense came close to three dollars per submission, and so, you might think: What's the difference?
There is a difference. Although the author was spending his or her own funds to send hardcopy material to markets, fundamentally, the markets themselves were not charging for submission review. They simply opened the envelope, reviewed the material (well, we like to believe they did, anyway), and tucked a small rejection slip in the enclosed self-addressed stamped envelope. By the way, the rejection slip was printed by the journal at no cost to the author.
Also, we recognize that the economy has been tough lately, and many colleges are squeezed for funding. We don't think that imposition of submission fees is the right place to try to get a little extra revenue and sustain a journal that is threatened to be cut if it cannot place itself in the "black." Journal staff should look for ways of refining expenses. And though it may be very difficult to change the mindset of college financial management, we hope that somehow messages can be put out there, effectively, speaking to the necessity to sustain art.
It is a bit disheartening to see many journals, many reputable journals who continually blow us away with amazing stories, essays, poetry, and art, imposing this fee. Our hats go off to those who continue to take electronic submissions without charging, and especially those who, in their electronic rejections, say something, however small, that give a glimmer of indication they truly enjoyed the material when they could not accept it. If any of you reading this right now are connected to such a place, please know we have utmost admiration and respect for your journal. You are doing the good thing and genuinely portraying an interest in reading unsolicited material. We ask you to send this article to those on your staff who might appreciate this perspective.
Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review:
No. Not at all.
Because of this, supporters of online submission fees, like me, tend to take a more realistic and business-centric approach: there is a revenue stream that we need to capture. It is, however, a pretty small revenue stream; we earn significantly more through subscriptions. There isn’t a print literary magazine that can be sustainable—even in the most basic sense of covering its printing and mailing costs (let alone paying its staff)—solely through online submission fees.
Opponents of submission fees feel that it’s a tremendous burden on writers, who are overwhelmingly described as poor, noble, honorable (and so forth) (and, yes, I’m a writer, too), and that the practice is unethical and unlike any other business model. Further, opponents believe that it is an easy system to rig – solicit work from writers that the editors know, then charge writers we don’t know to submit – and that because of a greater need for transparency in our community, we shouldn’t do this.
Fair enough. I’m a big believer in transparency. So. Here’s what editors ask fellow editors when discussing charging online submission fees: Will this mean I get fewer submissions? Editors don’t even look at submission fees as a revenue stream. Editors look at fees as a way of slowing down submissions.
In fact, submissions increase significantly. This varies from magazine to magazine, but the increase in submissions is somewhere between twenty to thirty-five percent.
This really gets to the heart of why literary magazines exist and why writers want to publish in them. It is all about discovering a new voice from a new writer. It’s about finding that one really amazing story or poem from a writer we have never heard of before, and then delivering that writer’s work to a larger audience. We can’t do that if we solicit work because, of course, we don’t know who that new voice is. That’s what we – and I mean all literary journals, not just TMR – are most proud of. Literary magazines are all about discovery. The response to online submission fees is that we receive more work to read and consider, but also more possibilities of finding a new, unpublished writer.
It is also important to recognize that TMR continues to accept paper submissions. If a writer does not believe online submissions are ethical or fair, then he/she can mail work to us. We continue to, and will continue to, receive paper submissions. I think it’s crucial that we leave that option open.
It’s the same struggle for all of us—how do I create something true and authentic while also bringing it to the widest audience possible?
These essays appeared, in a slightly altered form, on Summerset Review in 2013 and The Missouri Review blog in 2011.
Readers, what do you think? Are you okay with paying submission fees? Have you had it up to here with paying to be read? Share your thoughts. If you have trouble posting your comments below, please email us.We welcome all comments.