Why So Coy, Journals? A Plea for Payment Transparency
By Allison Williams
It’s easy to find out what a literary journal wants. Whether they’re seeking edgy flash fiction, genre-crossing lyric essays or formal poems. Whether to upload that work to Submittable or mail it in standard format with a SASE. How to buy a copy or subscribe, in order to see if one’s work is “a good fit.” What their mission is. How to donate to support that mission. It’s all right there on the About and Submissions pages of their website.
But despite the ease of determining if my work is “a good fit” for a particular magazine, it’s often difficult to find out if they’re a match for me—because my number one question is “Do you pay?”
Sometimes it's a long slog through their website to find this information. Sometimes I email the editors for it, or search online listings like Duotrope or Who Pays Writers? Responses are usually pretty quick, and mostly the answer is “if you have to ask, they don’t.”
Why so coy, journals? If you're a contributor/reader-supported market, own it. If you PayPal authors a $10 token acknowledgement, own it. But when literary publications avoid giving this information up front, they are—however unintentionally—contributing to the idea that writers’ work is valueless. That we should be glad just to be in print. That questioning the availability of cash compensation is somehow indelicate.
Some magazines do confront it head on:
Unfortunately, Literary Mama is not a paying market. We are all volunteers here: editors, writers, proofreaders, and editorial assistants. With the publication of each issue, we make a concerted effort to promote the work of our contributors via Facebook, Twitter, and our ezine.
Others dodge even direct questions:
Thanks so much for your inquiry. The details of author compensation will be communicated directly with the [Redacted] anthology’s accepted authors.
Really? Because when I apply for a position, I’d like to know if I’m volunteering or not. Don’t get me wrong—volunteering is great. When you find the right fit with a group whose cause you care about, donating your time and energy feels terrific. But charities make it clear up front, we’d like you to volunteer.
It’s not wrong not to pay. Writers need other things than money—prestige, resume credit, the experience of working with an editor for publication. Some magazines pay an honorarium on principle; some find it increases submissions. Asked about their payment policy, Brevity’s Founder and Editor Dinty W. Moore writes:
Well, it is only recently—about three years back—that we were able to land in a financial position where we could pay writers, so in some ways it still feels like we are bragging. But it does feel good to be offering payment, as small as it is ($45 per flash essay).
We are an online-only journal, so having payments to authors has helped to lend us legitimacy, which was a problem for many of our 17 years. I think online journals are generally more respected now, but it wasn't always so.
I wouldn't say there was a radical shift in quality once we began to pay, but I have noticed a small but measurable uptick over the past two years. Some authors who did not previously submit are starting to show up in our inbox.
Alvaro Morales, Managing Editor of Middle Gray, has a different experience:
In our website we state that we aim to give emerging artists space and opportunities to showcase their work while making sure they are compensated fairly, and that is what we’re striving for as we work hard to build a business model that allows us to do that.
…we’re in an initial stage where we’ve been focused on building a readership and establishing a community, so what we’re offering at this time is the opportunity of publication and ongoing promotion of their work to our community. We’re also not engaging in any kind of commercial exploitation of the artists’ work. The magazine is freely available and we do not have any advertising revenue, and all of our editors are volunteering their time and expertise. There isn’t any money involved in our operation at this stage, it’s more of a collaboration.
We are happy to explain the situation to whomever asks, of course. But we haven’t seen anyone ask outright if we are going to pay them. In our experience most people just submit hoping to be published.
We’ve been fortunate to receive a good amount of submissions of great quality, despite not mentioning any compensation policy.
One might argue that “making sure they are compensated fairly” is at odds with “not mentioning any compensation policy.” (Since that interview, Middle Gray has become primarily a promotional outlet for live happenings at their café-gallery).
Fundamentally, every journal has the right to choose the payment policy that’s best for their mission. Maybe they want to pay in the future; maybe it will always be about self-promotion or joining a literary community.
But when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn't be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a "literary" writer—to want to be paid. Before “amateur” meant “unskilled,” it meant “one pursuing an occupation for the love of doing it.” Artists often move between the amateur and professional worlds, choosing some projects for cash, some for prestige, some for creative challenges. I love writing. I love it a lot. And I would write whether I got paid or not. But one of the ways to get better at writing is to make it my job, so that I can afford to spend more time doing it. I can’t pay for Scrivener, computer repair, or office space with the warm glow of achievement. For many writers, whether or not a journal pays is a primary consideration when determining where to send our work.
There’s nothing wrong with being a copies-only, or a satisfaction-of-seeing-your-name-in-print market. Resume credits are valuable. Publication is valuable. Showing our work in print to our parents and friends is valuable. Some non-paying magazines are prestigious journals that authors are proud to be a part of. Some are entry-level markets where publication alone is still genuinely a reward for emerging writers. But all of them need to be open about whether they are asking us to work for free.
There are a lot of ways to put it:
We regret we are unable to offer an honorarium.
Contributors receive two copies of the issue in which they appear.
Sometimes we write for money and sometimes we don’t. We know that. Give us the dignity of choosing up front.
Allison K Williams is a writer and editor based in Dubai. She has written about race, culture and comedy for NPR, CBC, The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Smokelong Quarterly and Deep South; essays in The Drum and Brevity. She is a two-time winner of The Moth StorySLAM. Her forthcoming memoir is The Year of The Whore. Her website is www.idowords.net.