Thinking about Submission Fees

By following various interesting threads online, I found myself at the website of Brevity MagazineBrevity publishes nonfiction only and it has to be under 750 words. What caught my eye first, though, which was linked on Gravel Magazine's Facebook page, was this:

"Form Rejection Decoder Thingy"—a cootie-catcher or fortune teller filled with possible rejection excuses. At the link you can download the pdf and make one yourself (mine, above). It's printed on only one side of the page like a one-sheet book. I wish I'd thought of it. The rejections listed are gentle and true. As managing editor Sarah Einstein says on the blog: "The list of things it [the wording of the rejection letter] might mean is infinite. And the truth is, there is no way for you–the author–to know." No use twisting yourself into knots about it. Just keep sending out your work! And don't take it personally! Someone will accept it, somewhere, someday!

Intrigued by the encouraging tone of Sarah Einstein, I poked around the blog and website a bit and thought I might submit a nonfiction piece to the magazine…until I saw they charged $3 for each submission. I've generally made it a rule to shun reading fees, submission fees, entry fees, feeling that it's a lottery. I've always felt writers should be paid to write, not pay to be possibly be published. And I know the chance of acceptance is low. But still, there could be a chance, right?

In July of 2010, they asked the question: Should Brevity Charge for Submissions? They got 305 comments. According to the post, when submitting was free, college professors had been assigning their students the task of sending their essays to Brevity, whether they wanted to be published or not. Some students knew their work was crap and actually wrote that in their cover letters. So it was thought that the submission fee would screen out non-serious submitters. Asking for money up front would serve as a filter. A small fee, but effective, they hoped.

You can see a strong negative reaction to the fee. Many people felt as I do. One person mentioned that writers generally didn't have extra cash and that $3 could mean the difference between having and not having a meal. Another pointed out that those who went to MFA programs could afford to pay $3 since they had been able to afford their education (kind of a strange connection, actually. I read of someone who referred to her writing degree as an"MFA in Poverty").

Another argument in favor of the fee was that the old model of magazines selling ads and subscriptions is outdated, but that magazines still need to generate income. Although they aren't paying printing costs, the online magazines pay for Submittable or other submissions managers, web hosting and email (if they want to sit on something more than a free blog platform), and proofs if they are using a print-on-demand service. Meanwhile, the readers and editors and designers and working for love (or college credit), admittedly their choice.

Having heard these arguments before, I still wasn't convinced. Again, why should the submitters be responsible for the economic health of the magazine? It was pointed out that the fees were tax-deductible. But that still didn't answer my question.

But one line of comments stopped me. Kathy on July 15, 2010 at 12:52pm wrote, "…it costs a good 3 bucks to submit hard copy w/an SASE anyway…" I realized that when the magazine said $3 to submit online, free for snail mail, I had been packaging up the paper, sniffing at the online fee. Deluding myself? Bradley at 12:28 wrote, "When I was in grad school, this money was spent at the post office; now, that money goes directly to the magazine itself…" and he pointed out that "nobody's getting rich running a literary magazine—electronic or print." The choice of paper mail for free or the online fee has already been implemented for some of the higher-profile magazines that pay such as Iowa Review and Ploughshares.

On the one hand, how will the magazines pay writers if the magazines have no income? On the other, why should writers pay to compensate other writers? But, as much as we love the post office and getting paper mail, the reasoning that our money should go directly to the publication and support it makes sense to me. As an impact on the community, it means writers also have a better chance of getting paid.  

Another commenter felt that a good case was made for charging, but perhaps there could be "a submission-fee-free period once a year," which Brevity thought was a nice idea. (Glimmer Train does this.)

And someone else said she gives herself a budget for these kinds of submission fees. The idea that you give yourself $20 a year (and tax-deductible) to submit to magazines you respect and admire (and who pay their writers)  is not a bad one. Post office or magazine? You decide.


Sarah Einstein said…
Oh my gosh! I love that you actually printed out and made a Form Rejection Decoder Thingy! -- Sarah
Alisa said…
Thank you, Sarah!

It was fun! You could make a whole series: for decoding jargon…what to include in your bio…to inspire writing topics…names for characters…how to tell your family you are writing about them…
Landscapes said…
this is interesting! must be fun!