Publishing is evolving in ways that are both disconcerting and exciting, but this exploration into what people think about submission fees (a relatively new aspect of the business) came up when I happened upon a publication that charged $23 for poetry submissions (not a contest) and didn’t seem to compensate writers. Hmmmm!
Within reason and budget – we’re all going to define those two areas differently – I don’t mind lending support to the lit mags I like, feel make an important contribution, use some of the funds to compensate writers, and to which I may aspire. But $23! Yikes! I started to ponder ethics, exploitation, vanity and desperation, and also what in human services we would refer to as “barriers to entry.” I wondered what others thought and I put out a call for opinions. It’s taken awhile to collect them and my own thoughts. I’m grateful to the folks who responded. I think this is a topic that calls for more than one person’s perspective.
If you started writing a hundred years ago like me, you remember the days of typed manuscripts, manila envelopes, postage stamps, self-addressed and stamped return envelopes (for the rejection letter or letter of acceptance) and trips to the post office. You remember spending days at the library – not comfortably at home with your computer – studying magazines and journals to figure out what they needed and to make sure the submissions or query letters you sent were appropriate. After all, it’s not like there’s never been a submission “fee.” There’s always been a cost to doing business. It was just differently configured and seemed cleaner.
For those who may not know, I should point out at this juncture that commercial publications (v. literary) are a different game. The big boys are supported by mega-dollar corporate advertising as well as subscriptions and newstand purchases. In my experience most offer writers compensation, either on acceptance or on publication. The later can leave you in limbo for some time. Sigh! No matter how you cut your writerly cloth, it’s not easy. This is why most writer’s have day jobs, or teach writing classes, or hold poetry workshops. Many do work for hire. I’ve done a lot of writing for hire, especially back in the days when I had three others to support. A good friend of mine says of himself, “I am a writer. I do accounting.” That sums it up nicely.
From the publisher perspective, journals come and go. They struggle to survive, especially now with fewer grant monies available and with competition from blogs and websites that are filled with content, often good, and often well-targeted to their readers’ interests. The easy and nominal cost of starting a zine online also creates competition for even well established literary print journals. Literary journals tend to be understaffed. Staff tends to be under-paid or unpaid. These publications are not exactly cash cows. They’re about literary love. So, short story: it’s not easy for publishers either.
The responses I got to my call ranged from resentment to the use of discretion. Clearly some people simply don’t submit work at all, preferring instead to post their poetry in the poetry groups (of which there are many) on Facebook or on their blogs. Some writers and poets feel it prudent to limit payments to competitions. To keep this post a reasonable length, I’ve included the responses that cover the most territory and the widest range of sentiments. It was enlightening to learn that there are almost no submission fees in some countries and others are worse than the U.S. Thank you to everyone who responded.
From U.K. Poet, Anne Stewart:
I think you have to assess each one by how much you want to support it and, if uncertain, trust your instincts. If your gut feeling is that they don’t care about what they’re publishing and just want your money, then it’s likely that they are, after all, money-grubbing vanity publishers preying on the dreams of vulnerable people. If your gut is feeling more generous today, then ask yourself a few simple questions.
Do you admire the work they’re publishing? If not – perhaps because it’s not good enough or because it’s publishing good work but is clearly biased towards a style or demographic, or has an agenda, that you’re not keen on – then don’t waste your money.
Do they pay the writers anything? Are they creating opportunities for their contributors? e.g. with launch readings, additional publicity via websites, events listings and so on. If ‘yes’ to any or more of these, then they have to be in funds to do it and, except perhaps for ‘the big ones’, that’s hard to do by subscription-base alone. There are too many for us to subscribe to them all (and not enough room in the house – I’ve just sorted out three crates of poetry magazines from the last 20 years to try to find good homes for because, otherwise, there’ll be no room in my house for any more coming in).
In the UK, Arts funding is hard to come by and, even if it’s gained for a period of time, there’s no guarantee that it will continue, and most of the small press magazines are run and administered, and funded for any shortfall, by volunteers, unpaid, and who are using their time outside ‘the day job’ to do it. Most of them wouldn’t dream of charging a fee to submit to their regular issues. Many run a competition annually to help with their funding and this is a concept I support. Would I pay to submit to a regular issue of a magazine? Very unlikely, though I have, on occasion. Would I pay $23 for the privilege? Not on your nelly.
Paying to have your work published is generally frowned on in the UK. Would I pay to have my work published in something other than a magazine? Not generally. But, yes, if I’m keen to be part of a project and know it won’t happen without support from contributors, then I would.
Last thought: support what you admire. Don’t encourage what you don’t.
ANNE STEWART is a poet, reviewer, and provider of services to poets and poetry organisations. In 2000, she began working towards a life with poetry at the centre of it, joining the Post-graduate Creative Writing programme at Sheffield Hallam University. In 2003, she was awarded an MA with Distinction and in 2005, was selected as one of the “Ten Hallam Poets” represented in the anthology published by Mews Press (eds. Sean O’Brien, Steven Earnshaw and EA Markham). The anthology attracted high praise from top-calibre poets (Don Paterson, Julia Darling, Helen Dunmore).
In 2008, she won the Bridport Prize for her sonnet, Still Water, Orange, Apple, Tea.Judge, David Harsent, said of it “…what marks it out is the way this emotional commonplace is adapted to language … no line lacked a surprise … I liked its briskness – celebratory, but never cloying – and liked too, the fine-tuning: … a tone of voice that promotes brevity … where the notes in question sing and tease and intrigue … ”
Her first collection, The Janus Hour (Oversteps Books, 2010), “is characterised by a view of the world that is quizzical, appraising, unflinching yet non-judgemental: this is how things look from here, it says; take it or leave it. Her poems address, with the same deft lightness of touch, both uncomfortable truths about our time and the surreal in the everyday, achieving a rare consistency of expression without ever being predictable.” – Jeremy Page, editor, The Frogmore Papers.
From N.Y. Poet and Editor, Russ Green
Thank you so much for doing this …
So, here are some of my thoughts on publications charging submission fees. I was co-editor for an NYC based independent press for 4 years. Our press did not charge for submissions. In fact we sent a check for $10. to those who’s work we accepted. We regularly received thank you notes and some were very surprised in a positive sense that not only didn’t we charge to submit, but we actually paid them. It really created some good PR. Later we changed it to a free book instead of the $10 check.
Of course, we need to put this into context. As I said, the press is based in New York City. When I was with them we sold a few hundred books a year and in addition, we also had a weekly reading where we passed around the hat. Also, there were a couple of special events a year where there was a small admission fee to see a high-profile name we would have featuring for us. While certainly no one was getting rich. Anyone who knows anything about small independent presses knows that to simply break even at the end of the year is a triumph and to actually turn a profit of any amount is cause for celebration. We were always able to achieve this at least one of these goals and sometimes both. All of the editors, including myself, were unpaid as is the case for most independent presses I believe. It was a labor of love.
Now, I can understand a press operating out of some small Midwest town where they are not going to sell the same volume of books as we did in New York or take in the same amounts at regular readings and special events, (Not that it was a lot). In this context I can see a small admission fee being perfectly justified. Now this is a double-edged sword though. While it takes care of the problem of funding a publication it will also cut down on the number of submissions. Lets face it, most poets and writers don’t exactly have a lot of disposable income if any. I think we all know of some exceptions, but by and large, not really. So, most are going to look for presses with free submissions and if there is a fee there would have to be some prestige in order to sway us to part with that money and we would be talking 5 or 10 dollars max. I think a better way to generate extra revenue in regards to small presses is to hold a contest, either a chapbook contest or a poetry contest where there is a prize, usually monetary with an award and sometimes a ceremonial reading event where there are often raffles to generate a few bucks.
To be perfectly honest I haven’t submitted to a lot of journals. I have here and there over the years in addition to having my book out, but I haven’t submitted enough to consider myself an expert in the workings of presses across the country and I only worked with the one publication. So, any inside perspective is limited to that. On the other hand I’ve been active on the scene for a good fifteen years now so I’ve seen and heard a lot in addition to my first hand experience. So, those are the thoughts of a former NYC based co-editor, host and curator living on Long Island now just enjoying the writing process and looking forward to receiving the rejection letters and hopefully a few acceptances instead of being the one sending them out.
RUSS GREEN is a Graduate of Hofstra University. Over the years he has been co-editor at Great Weather for Media and has put on poetry and arts events around Long Island and New York city in addition to hosting and curating poetry stages at various festivals.
Russ has read his work from New York to New Orleans to Santa Fe and cities in between. He is currently focusing on humanitarian based events. His first book, Gimme Back My Radio, is out with Night Ballet Press. In addition, Russ has been published in a number of anthologies. He can usually be found communing with the mountains in Vermont with interesting artist friends or roaming the docks of Port Jefferson Harbor at night looking for signs of life in the starry night sky.
From poet and blogger, Kim Whysall-Hammond
Personally, I will not submit to any journal that charges a fee on principle.
They have 2 advantages to the journal — a source of income, and a reduction in the size of their reading pile.
However, reading fees exclude those who cannot pay, are excluding and non-compliant with any sort of diversity policy. They will act to twist and distort the sort of poetry published.
What is even more invidious is the partial reading fee — “we don’t charge a reading fee, but if you pay us, we will read yours first”
Kim Whysall-Hammond (The Cheeseseller’s Wife, Anything and Everyting, but mostly Poetry)
From Poet, Journalist, Editor and Publisher, Mendes Biondo
I’m very near to the post you wrote about the literary journal that asked a large fee for a simple submission. I can understand that they need moneys to continue their efforts but I’m afraid that their behaviour could be the beginning of what is happening now in Italy. It’s a sort of “literary mafia” here. So I felt the need to speak about our situation. I love your work as The BeZine and The Poet By Day and I love American and English magazines because this kind of dirty thing is not as prevalent, especially in England. I give you the permission to quote my name. I’m too angry with those Italian publishing houses to hide myself.
Being an author in Italy is not an easy thing.
I’ve been an editor in a publishing house and the mantra in there (was and) is: “Ask moneys to the authors to publish their works”. I was obliged to ask more than 4000 Euros for a novel and 3000 Euros for a poetry collection. I decided to fire myself from that work because of my moral choices, but that Publishing House is just part of the majority that works in that way.
Asking moneys of the authors happens because – listening to authoritative voices – Italian readers are not interested in the literary panorama. So publishers need to ask that dirty fee to continue their work.
What about the magazines in Italy? If you want to be published you need to pay. And I’m not talking about a fee for the submission. That is a “normal” kind of payment that many printed journals require. In Italy it’s a sort of standard to pay an extra bribe, a silent extra payola, to find your literary voice in a magazine.
This is why I decided to move to English magazines. I tried to avoid those one that ask a fee to submit because I think that a magazine should be able to live on it own success. It can be difficult, many times it can be very hard, but it is necessary to give the same chance to every one.
And the most important point is quality. If you believe that publishing people able to pay means to publish high quality works, oh well, you’re completely wrong. Literature and Poetry in Italy is living its worst period thanks to this way of thinking.Officially they present themselves to authors and to readers as traditional publishing houses but once you were selected, they ask you moneys. “Ask them moneys for the distribution in the bookshops – said to me one of those publishers – Authors do not know how it works here so they fall in our trap. You must tell them that distribution is not one of the elements we pay for. So they must do it on their own.”
This means that 3000/5000 Euros (3500/5800 $) were asked per title published at every author.
We have vanity publishers too and they are hated by authors, but if you think about it, when you ask them to publish your book, you already know that there is a fee to pay. In that case it’s a sort of extortion. This is why I decided to fire myself from those places.
Co-Editor and Co-Founder of Ramingo’s Porch
MENDES BIONDO was born in Mantua (Italy) in 1992. He published two books: the novel Trappola di cotone (Nomadepsichico, 2008) and the collection of short stories and poems Amanti bendati (ExCogita, 2010). He has become a recognized journalist by the Italian Order from 2013. In 2015 he obtained the degree in Aesthetic Philosophy at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan. He is as blogger, editor and journalist. You can find more about him at RAMINGO! La Cultura Come Non Te L’Aspettavi. His English works were published by Visual Verse and The Plum Tree Tavern.
Photo credit/Smith Corona (1953-1959) courtesy of CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
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