If submission fees are controversial in the world of writers who submit to literary magazines, it’s because there’s a need to nurture writers rather than add to the haze of exploitation that has come to surround magazines. The growing reaction against submission fees speaks to deeper problems in the literary world that cause writers to resent the very members of the community that should be respecting them and building the community.
The submission fee started not so long ago. First it was a few magazines, an outgrowth of online submissions technology. But soon enough they became ubiquitous. Three bucks usually, though there are some extremes—venues that charge $18 or $20.
For some writers, it’s no longer such a big deal. They’ve gotten used to paying “a little more than the price of the stamps,” to use the justifying tag line magazines bandied at the inception of the fees. Even more, writers have gotten used to clicking a button after typing in a credit card.
Submission fees are now the cost writers pay to do business—the business being the unprofitable venture of paying to get rejected 25 or more times for every acceptance. When acceptance pays only a few hundred dollars, or zilch, ends don’t meet. And even if the loss doesn’t burn the largest hole in the writer’s pocket, the financial arrangement touches the writer’s soul.
Though writers may be more sympathetic to independent literary magazines on small budgets that are simply trying to keep the press rolling with small fees, it’s harder for them to justify paying highly rated journals at big universities that have endowments and M.F.A. programs that bring in money, where it’s a matter of allocation that boils down to an insult. One asks: Why do they need $3 from every writer who submits, especially those who cannot afford even to think about an M.F.A.? The practice certainly diminishes the range of writers who can submit.
Gatekeeping, of course, is part of the point of submission fees. Even if the $3 per doesn’t do a lot for a large, august university-based journal, it helps to keep the total number of submissions down in the era of easy electronic submission. Require a submission fee, and you keep the hordes away—but who among them?
There’s something ugly about the fees when the acceptance rates are so low. Duotrope, a writer’s resource, lists the top 25 most challenging literary magazines as accepting between 0.09% and 0.65% of the submissions they receive—just a few out of every thousand. Pretty tall odds. Then consider the fact that it often takes six months or more for the short, impersonal form rejection to come, and it might come at 2 a.m. on a holiday. Sometimes the rejection never comes at all. Then the writer asks: I paid my $3, and they can’t even give me the dignity of a low-tier rejection?
It’s a different thing for a writer to enter a prestigious contest, with the chance of winning a good sum and the attendant honor. You have to be in it to win it. Most importantly, you don’t have to be in it if you don’t want to pay.
But writers don’t really have the choice to beg out of regular submissions to the top 100 journals. Even if $3 isn’t too much for a person to afford, it can, for many reasons, still seem exploitative. And for those who can’t afford it, it seems like worse than exploitation.
When starting LitMag, we thought we could put both the pursuit of literary excellence and respect for writers at the center of our mission—respect, community, and openness to all literary comers. We charge no submission fees, and we pay pro rates. And we respond to the vast majority of our submissions within two months.
“Dazzle us,” we said. In came the submissions. We’re certain that a large number of writers submitted to us who would not have if we were yet another venue with a fee. No doubt we’ve accepted some. And we’ve received a lot of comments from grateful writers.
Marc Berley is editor of the new print literary magazine LitMag.