November 2, 2011

Why Literary Journals Charge Online Submission Fees

Why does The Missouri Review charge $3.00 to receive online submissions? This practice is becoming more common among print journals that accept online submissions, including  Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, American Short Fiction, Southwest Review, just to name a few. TMR has had an online submission fee in place for many years, but the latest Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec) has just been released, and there are several articles on literary magazines, small presses, and what we’re doing to build community. Included in this issue is Laura Maylene Walter’s essay “Price of Submission” about why literary magazines charge for online submissions. It’s a good article – go read it! But there are a couple additional thoughts we’d like to add, some specific to TMR and some broader about our literary community.

One of the things worth recognizing is that the cost of submitting to a magazine is a fixed prospective cost: a cost that will be incurred and cannot be recovered. Submissions have never really been free. It’s simply that the cost (paper, envelopes, postage, etc.) has been paid to the post office, not the magazine. And I’m not saying that it necessarily should have. Freed up from (some) of the costs of submitting to literary magazines, has there been an increase in subscriptions? Has there been an increase in financial support of literary journals from writers?

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 overwhelming 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 as a revenue stream. Editors look at it 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.

Maybe editors are looking at this all wrong. Maybe writers have done the mental math that I’ve done above and said You know what, I support literary journals when I submit online and pay a submission fee so I don’t need to subscribe to journals if I spend $60 a year on submissions. Now, that would be really rational, so the thought appeals to me (I’m Mr. Roboto like that) but it would make sense.

Why, then, don’t we avoid the dreaded “slush pile” and just solicit work from writers we know? Good question. And it 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.

So, then: are writers doing the calculations of going to the post office and deciding online submissions are fine? Is it just way too easy to click a button? Do writers view paying online submission fees as “supporting” the journal, adding to our revenue stream, and therefore, they don’t need to subscribe to us? I don’t know. What I do know is that as a magazine editor, the initial idea of online submission fees was not to increase revenue but to decrease submissions. That hasn’t happened, and since submissions have increased, it is reasonable to conclude that writers clearly have no problem with submitting work to us this way.

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.

So, yes, TMR charges for online submission fees. No writer has to pay this fee if he or she chooses not to. What’s important about is two-fold: 1. To be fully transparent with our audience and 2. Remain open to new ideas as to how to strengthen our magazine, which includes our relationship with our audience and the biz-side of publishing TMR. Through a slightly different lens – communicating with an unseen readership, and being open to trying new things – writers are working on the same problems. 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?

When you’re ready, send us your work, online or hard copy. Either one works for us. We want to read it. We want lots of submissions. It’s what all of us are here to do: read, discover, then, finally, publish.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye 

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

14 Responses to Why Literary Journals Charge Online Submission Fees

  1. D Shoemaker says:

    While I appreciate your argument, I stopped reading when you wrote “us editor” instead of “we editors.” Seriously.

  2. Chris says:

    The increase in submissions has more do with more people trying to be writers, getting more MFAs, having to submit to more journals because of more competition, be unable to pay fees at every journal that charges them, or, if able to pay those fees, certainly not subscribing to more journals. It also just so happens that the streamlining of online submissions came at a great time: the world economy has been in the gutter for close to four years. I’m glad to be rid of the cost of paper and postage, but I’m not plunking those extra dollars down for more journal subscriptions. Yes, we keep hearing about how writers don’t have a lot of extra money, but that’s because, well, we (and you) don’t.

  3. Michael says:

    @D: Appreciate it! Even editors need editors. Corrected and updated. Thanks!

    @Chris: Maybe it’s a different conversation, but I guess there is a sense of what we value. Lots of people want to write. According to Duotrope, there are many journals and magazines: lots of people want to be publishers, too. So, why doesn’t anyone want to subscribe? I don’t have a good answer to that, and it might be a bigger cultural question of priorities, but I’m not sure it’s just a matter of money. There feels like a real disconnect from our audience, from each other, and that’s something I’m worried about.

  4. Pingback: PANK’s Sense of Humor, The Missouri Review’s Argument For Online Submission Fees | christopher cocca

  5. Kent says:

    My only wish in this whole lit journal economy is that lit journals would waive the fee for subscribers. New England Review does that, as does New South. Hopefully/maybe there are more. I like giving a special privilege to subscribers.

  6. Michael,

    I still have ‘t been able to find this idea palatable, even though I’ve been thinking about it & talking about it for years. For one, I have trouble seeing the relationship between lack of subscribers and charging submission fees. Lit mags have never had a good subscriber base. Why should we think they should now, or ever? And writers certainly buy and read literature. That they don’t subscribe to a specific lit mag doesn’t mean they aren’t doing such. Relating these two things–fees and lack of subs–seems like rationalizing charging actors to audition because people no longer buy theater tickets. Maybe some theaters should instead put on different plays. Or film. Who knows.

    The “convenience fee” idea makes the most sense– but I still can’t quite get my mind around it. The ease of new technologies should be a bonus, it seems. Why restrict new technologies (email, etc.) by comparing them apples to apples with an old model (mail)? Isn’t the new technology a benefit to all parties? It seems—again a comparison—like charging someone to phone you since they no longer have to pay for postage or a bus ticket.

    Now this next comparison might be a bit of a stretch, but I hope it gets across my general uneasiness of such fees—an uneasiness I wish I could get rid of: The entire idea seems like an employer charging job applicants to submit their applications. Like businesses are built on the backs of their employees, literary mags are built out of the work of submitting writers–solicited or not. It seems strange to charge them for this opportunity. Maybe it is more like charging employees to use the break room. It would seem more ethical to get rid of the break room with apologies rather than turn the break room into a source of revenue, in essence cannibalizing profit directly from the source of industry (rather than the resale of goods produced by that industry).

    Seems that got a bit strange at the end there. Hope it made sense. This idea of fees I think reterretorializes (or begins to) the nature and place of literary mags on the larger literary landscape, so it is of great interest to me.

    Thx.

  7. Sorry for the misspellings, etc., above. That was all sent from my iPhone and I have fat fingers. Am sort of impressed it came out as well as it did.

    Thx.

    • Michael says:

      @Travis: Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response. I really appreciate it. And kudos on Luna Park, which is a terrific site.

      Lit mags may have never had a strong subscriber base, broadly, but I don’t see why that has to be the case in the present or the future. It seems self-defeating. Partly that might be who and what we are. Some magazines – The Sun, Paris Review, and One Story all spring to mind – have strong and (for our biz) large subscription numbers. This is probably true of any and all publications, but no one seems happy with subscription numbers, which are falling, while submission numbers are increasing.

      Here’s the problem with both your analogies (actor/moviegoers and phone/bus ticket): online submissions are optional. A writer is always welcome to send work via hard copy. That’s a point I wanted to stress. Don’t like our online submission fee? Cool: just mail your work to us. That’s fine with us.

      We simply cannot ignore revenue streams. TriQuarterly and Shenandoah were forced to stop printing hard copies; Southern Review was under the gun; New England Review remains under it. Backed by a university, we need to make sure that we consider any revenue stream available to us or risk (and, judging from how universities treat publications like us, a high risk) of having our funding cut. Flatman Crooked took heat for making their fee service “expedited” with a tiered system, and that we do not do. When it comes to publishing, we only care about the quality of the manuscript, not how the manuscript got in our hands.

      But maybe the best support for the online submission fee just needs to be restated: our online submissions, and total submissions, have increased since the three dollar fee was put in place. Everyone (well, sorta: after all, we’re talking about it …) seems to have, through their actions, indicated this system works. It does seem this system, even with a fee, has been beneficial to both parties.

      No worries about misspellings (see the first Comment in this thread!). I’m just glad you read the post. Thanks again!

  8. Hi Michael,

    First, a quick note: The Southeast Review actually does not charge a fee for regular submissions. We do run an annual contest, however, that has a $16 entry fee attached to it. It’s that contest combined with a few other programs that enable us to print the journal biannually.

    We’ve stayed away from a fee for regular submissions for reasons that mostly echo the points Travis made above. Since the climate for many (most?) literary journals has grown chillier lately, and institutional funding for print publications is harder to come by now than it has probably ever been (a couple cases in point are TriQuarterly and Shenandoah, both of which now work solely in an online format due to budget issues), I can see the attraction of submission fees as a method of supporting a print publication from an editor’s point of view–it’s a constant challenge to stay solvent for most of us, after all–but as a writer, I still find them off-putting. It’s the writer in me that can’t justify it for SER.

    Even so, TMR’s fees haven’t kept me from submitting online, which I think comes down to the value I attach to the convenience of skipping the whole envelope-and-SASE procedure. I just wouldn’t want to assume that SER’s submitters all share that value. That’s why I think it’s admirable that your magazine does still accept print subs for free. You’ve left your submitters a choice. Not every magazine out there that charges for regular submissions has done that.

    Thanks for this post and for addressing this tricky issue.

    Best,
    Katie Cortese, Editor
    The Southeast Review

    • Michael says:

      @Katie: Ah, you’re right! I was thinking of Southwest, not Southeast, Review. I’m sorry for the mistake. I’ve updated the post. And, thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion: the more voices, the better.
      When I was at River Styx, we discussed taking online submissions, and what it came down to was that we didn’t want to open the floodgates. We had a summer reading period, we all worked there only part-time, and felt that what we received every year was more than enough to keep us busy. Lit mags don’t, after all, have to take online submissions, fee or no fee. But I do feel that it has been beneficial, ultimately, to all, though I do understand why writers would be uneasy with the system, especially if magazines don’t take the time to explain why the decision has been made.
      Hope all is well in Tallahassee!

  9. Michael,

    [Warning: This gets a little long. Sorry. Too much coffee, no doubt.]

    This issue really interests me, so I hope this isn’t a bother commenting again—-usually such things steer me away as a reader and reenforce bad behavior on the internet. Anyhow, I have some thoughts regarding your reply. And thanks for replying and writing originally.

    Regarding your examples of lit mags that do have good subscriber bases, I think it is first interesting to note that it is a very small list. And they are all independent from academia. Lit mags with (relatively) large subscriber bases are the far exception, never the rule. And even those subscriber bases don’t pay the bills. When I was at Tin House our subscriber base was fairly large and we still lost money with every issue—thankfully, like The Paris Review for 50 years, we were backed by someone with a lot of money. Jeffrey Lependorf nicely pointed out to me years ago that “Direct giving is the only growth industry in literary publishing.” I am with you and optimistic in this regard—I don’t think it has to be. But overall I think Jeffrey was right.

    I don’t think you really responded to the phone/bus ticket comparison. Meaning: why charge someone to phone you (new technology) just because they don’t have to buy a bus ticket—or drive a car, or send a letter—any longer to get you a message? It would seem exploitive, I think, to charge now just because there were costs in the past. New technologies—one hopes—reduce costs and effort. That’s what’s great about (most of) them. It seems to me that email and/or free or very, very cheap submissions systems such as Submishmash ways too submit both make things easier for the writer—they no longer have to buy paper, print everything out, go to the P.O., etc—and for the editors, as they don’t have to pick up huge buckets of mail from the P.O., store that mail, waste it, use manpower stuff and seal rejection mailings, etc., etc. So why—since things are getting easier—add a fee with the rationalization that “there was always some sort of fee”? Isn’t it a good thing there no longer is, or at least the fees are much, much smaller?

    As for “ignoring revenue streams,” that isn’t how I see it. This fee system is brand new for the most part, and so it seems that rather than editors ignoring possible historical revenue streams—such as bookstore sales on the anthology shelf rather than just on the magazine rack—editors have created a new revenue stream. Hence the (very minor) controversy over the matter. With this logic it would seem that not paying writers would be a more historically accurate budget increase. Ezra Pound said his best work he didn’t get paid for (eg. in the lit mags).

    I think, in the end, it comes down to how someone defines/understands the literary magazine both historically and—more importantly—in the present context. To answer the question: Why is a lit mag? This is another point I heard early on from Lependorf, when he told a bunch of fresh young(ish) literary publishers that the first question they needed to ask was, “Why are you making more stuff?” There was so much publishing going on he felt it was important people understood exactly why they were adding to it. Also, having thought about this would help them in all their decision making.

    Your reply seems to offer up the following idea regarding a definition for the lit mag today –> Lit mags function mainly as a service for writers wanting to get published. And so, with this logic, it makes sense to charge a submission fee when using an electronic submission service (whether email or database). I just have trouble getting behind this idea of a lit mag. I have always seen them as objects for readers, commodities for readers if you will, either to be given away for free or for a certain monetary price. (I think they exist in Lewis Hyde’s idea of the gift economy, which works alongside the general market economy, sometimes overlapping with it.) Robert Scholes in his book on literary magazines and modernism sees the editor of a magazine as functioning largely as an author of a book does; they make the thing and they put it into the market.

    I think, an editor—whether at The New Yorker or Georgia Review—is lucky to consider a piece of writing for possible repackaging and resale. For their own somewhat selfish use to be blunt.

    Imagine an author charging a subject to be included in his/her novel. It would be called advertising—and I suppose it already happens. But it still doesn’t make me feel good.

    ….And I’ve probably written too much, and much of this might not make sense. But thanks again for writing so much on the topic from your viewpoint. This has certainly been helpful for me—it has given me the motivation to try to write out some of my churning thoughts on the matter.

    Many thanks.

    -T

    • Patrick Lane says:

      A few counterpoints that I’m not arguing fully justify submission fees, but which flesh out the slate of real-world examples (particularly on the application fee/bus ticket idea):

      1.) Colleges charge application fees. They’re actually charging you for privilege of being considered as a potential customer.

      2.) Credit cards: for a time it was not uncommon to pay a surcharge to use plastic rather than pay with check or cash. With my current utility companies, if I want to pay my bill online with a credit card, there’s a additional fee. There’s an example of charging extra for using a “new” technology.

      Of course, surcharges have largely gone away for most major credit cards because VISA and MasterCard have policies against them (but the income stream is still captured by charging fees to the merchants for each transaction) — and we could do that, if the money were the only benefit to online submission fees. We could drop the fees and raise the cover price. However, if our mission is to get good work into the hands of as many people as we can, raising the cover price seems unlikely to further that mission. And that mission, I would argue (not speaking for the whole magazine) is more important than to seek out great new work to publish, because what’s the point of publishing something great if you have no audience you can provide for it? Some would argue, “But if it’s truly great, the audience will come of its own accord!” Well, if that’s true, then there’s the internet. If greatness automatically generates and audience, then put your work up online yourself rake in the acclaim. What is a literary magazine good for as a venue if not its audience?

  10. Pingback: More on Lit Mag Submission Fees | Laura Maylene Walter

  11. Becky Tuch says:

    Hi all. A rousing and lively discussion. A few points I’d like to raise:

    * We keep hearing all this talk about subscriptions for lit mags being in decline. Does anyone know if there is any data to suggest that this is actually so? It seems highly possible that subscriptions are not actually down, but rather diffused over the many hundreds of new literary magazines that we currently have. TMR, for instance, is now competing for an audience with so many more lit mags than it had to in the past. Thus the problem is not that writers don’t subscribe to journals (though of course that is part of the problem), but rather that the audience for journals is spread too thin.

    * Perhaps there is a solution that involves some kind of consolidating of lit mags (bulk subscriptions? lit mag reading clubs that offer discounts?) rather than charging writers. (And I’m not criticizing TMR’s decision one way or the other, just thinking out loud here.) Bulk subscriptions, for instance, could solve a problem by sharing the audience of subscribers among various journals.

    * Has anyone read Freakonomics? The writers talk about how when people pay for something, it often lends to them becoming LESS concerned about how they behave. They cited a study where people were consistently late to pick up their kids from day care. So the school began to charge a fee. Once this fee was instituted, parents actually came late MORE FREQUENTLY. The idea is that when you pay for something, it sometimes lends to an attitude of, “Well, I can do what I want now, because I’m paying for it,” or, in other words, buying off your own guilt….I wonder if this might be partly responsible for the increase in submissions you cited, Michael. Perhaps people who were reluctant to submit before now think, “Well, I don’t need to revise this again. I’m PAYING them to read it. I’ll send it off now!”…Of course I don’t know of the quality of the submissions you’ve received. And like someone above pointed out the increase in submissions could very well be the result of more MFA programs, more writers, and, of course, the prestige of TMR. I just thought I’d raise this issue, becuase I think it’s important when editors consider whether to charge fees. Will it actually help them? Will it actually serve as a kind of filter? Maybe, maybe not.

    Also, thanks for your transparency, and your thoughts above. And thanks to the others who commented, very interesting stuff.