Dispatches | March 10, 2014

By Michael Nye

Last week, we held our first class since the AWP Conference, which I wrote about last Monday. Several of our staffers were in Seattle, so the offices were a little quiet, though there was plenty of work to be done. The frequently repeated line from AWP was “We read year round” so we were sifting through stories, poems, and essays trying to finalize the summer issue and load up the fall issue. The work never ends. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

In class last week, we focused on submissions to the magazine. First, we talked about our submission system; second, we talked about how and where we receive our submissions and the fact that we charge for online submissions.

For years, TMR had a custom online submission system. We’ve taken down all the old pages, so I couldn’t walk my class through it, but, in memory, it went through something like twelve pages (really) and three or four different URLs. I was impressed anyone every submitted that way! Then, the uploaded manuscript was put in an Outlook Inbox that was accessible by the senior staff, graduate editors, and interns. There were several subfolders for each class, and on Wednesdays, everyone received a fresh batch of reading material.

The problem with this system is obvious: it’s not very secure and difficult to track the path of a submission. It worked for us—we had been using it for ten years, roughly—but it wasn’t the best way to keep track of our writers’ work. So we looked at submission management systems and made the change that best suited TMR.

We went with Submission Manager, Devin Emke’s program that is recommended by CLMP. Though my students use it all the time, they hadn’t seen the back end, so I walked through what I can do as an administrator: track a submission, run reports, mailing information, all kinds of really useful stuff that makes the magazine run more efficiently. We also looked at Submittable and Tell It Slant, two other programs we considered; the former is very popular and used by many other excellent literary magazines.

For the second half of class, we talked about online submission fees. TMR charges $3 for online submissions; postal submissions remain free and always will be. I asked the class what they thought of this, and most of them, knowing full well that TMR already has this fee in place, initially said, yeah sure, no big deal.

Finally, someone said, (paraphrasing) “I don’t submit to magazines that charge an online submission fee. I can always send it somewhere else” and we were off and running. Here are some quick questions that were (or should have been) posed to the class:

Do you find online submission fees to be ethical? Just because something can be a revenue stream for a literary magazine doesn’t mean it should be.

Is the terminology important (reading fee, submission fee, convenience fee, etc.)? Branding matters more than one might think: calling something a “reading fee” is different from an “online submission fee” in the minds of many, even if the end result is essentially the same.

What is the cost of a paper submission? Add it up. Twenty page story. Envelopes. Postage, on both the submission and the SASE. Time, getting to the post office, which might also be measured in gas for your car. The numbers are about the same …

Should the fee be different for poetry? But not necessarily for poetry, which can be stuffed in a #10 envelope.

Should writers get more for their money, such as a more detailed critique? It’s a fair question. If you spend money on an online submission, one might argue that the editors should spend more time with the manuscript. This is probably a misguided way of looking at things—there’s a worldview of spending money that entitles you to something that is disturbing (read: I cough up college tuition; therefore, I deserve a college degree because I paid money)—but if that’s the worldview we live in, how does a magazine prepare for it?

Do we spend enough time with each submission? It’s very easy for an editor at any magazine, not just ours, to look at the stack of submissions and fire through them quickly. Sven Birkets of AGNI once wrote that he only looks at the first page before deciding do proceed (I think this was in an editor’s foreword in an issue of AGNI, but I can’t find a link).

Is it solely a business transaction? After all, literary magazines are in a strange situation: we don’t have a magazine without unsolicited manuscripts. And, many of our submitters are our readers.

Other questions on my mind included the following: What do you think about waiving online fees for subscribers? Are writers our “customers/consumers”? Is there even a distinction? What business are literary magazines in? Why, if there is an explosion of MFA programs, and consequently writers, is there little to no financial support for literary journals? Must TMR or any other literary journal charge fees? Should submission fees come with some sort of incentive: a quicker response time, a more detailed critique, or something else?

It’s not a perfect or complete list of questions, but for my students, this is the first time they’ve been asked to consider online submission fees in-depth. It’s far too easy to say “Oh, well, we’ve always done it this way” without asking why it’s always been done this way. Maybe it wasn’t the most groundbreaking discussion in history, but when it comes to literary magazines, there isn’t any one right or required way to publish literature. And if that leads to students asking “Why?” or (maybe even better) “Why not?” in the future, then the discussion took us in the right direction.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye