Saturday, January 31, 2009

Pay to Play?

How do you feel about magazines that charge a fee to read your submissions?

On the one hand, there are contests, some of which are better than others. And there are lots of variables in contests. Is the contest judged blind? Is the judge announced ahead of time or only after the winner is chose? How big is the prize? Are finalists published? What is the entry fee and does it include a subscription, or at least one copy of the magazine? (My personal guideline is that I'll enter a contest if the fee includes at least one issue of the magazine, and if the prize is worth the trouble, which means it needs to be in the neighborhood of $1000 for first place.) The merit of contests has been well debated. Check out the article by Jacob Appel (who has won or placed in lots of contests) in Poets & Writers about his experience.

On the other hand, there are some magazines that charge a fee just to look at regular submissions, and that's what I'm talking about here. The first magazine I was aware of charging for online submissions was Missouri Review, which, come to think of it, was the first magazine I was aware of that even accepted online submissions. They charge $3, payable by credit card, but for writers who don't want to pay the fee they also will accept submissions sent by post. If you are submitting a 20-page short story, you've paid $1 for photocopying and $2 for postage including the SASE, so that's about a wash. Might was well pay the fee and save a tree. Some other magazines have adopted a similar approach, with small fees charged for online submissions, presumably to offset the cost of operating the system, but with optional no-fee submissions allowed by post. Sonora and Meridian come to mind, both of which use the ManuscriptHub.com submission system.

An increasing number of literary journals use the CLMP Online Submission Manager, and until recently I thought that was a mostly free service. That has changed, though, with the introduction of American Short Fiction's fee of $2. They don't seem to offer a no-fee option, though, and some writers are upset about that. Probably the objection is not just about the money, however. As noted, a typical submission sent by post actually costs about $3, a little less if you're sending to Subtropics, which doesn't want the SASE since they're going to contact submitters by email anyway. But there are privacy concerns with the use of credit cards for online purchases, and that, it seems to me, is a legitimate worry. ASF won't be getting submissions from those people.

And then there are the magazines that charge real money for reading submissions. Narrative and Glimmer Train are the primary examples here. Both have short open submission, no-fee periods, but some writers suspect that submissions during those open periods are given little or no attention. It's hard to know what the facts are, but I can't blame writers for being suspicious.

So, what's your view? Do you pay to play?

20 comments:

Matt Bell said...

Personally, $2 for a submission that I don't have to mail is well worth it for me. Not only are magazines who are using Submission Manager or something similar saving me printing/mailing costs, drive time, and trees, they're also almost all speeding up their response times once they switch to Submission Manager from paper submissions (which, as I can tell you from the offices I've been in, takes up a lot of time just with cataloging incoming submissions, mailing rejections, and so on). I think if you look at magazines that have switched recently, you'll find some that used to take six months to respond, but now their "most recent response" times are at least half of that. All of that is easily work $2.

Should reading be free? Preferably, of course. But it does cost money to buy and maintain these programs, and lit mags don't generally make any money. I don't think of $2 as a reading fee at all I guess-- It's so little, and it's so obviously less than what it costs to send the story by mail, that I just can't get upset about it.

Also, Missouri Review and Meridian are both incredible magazines, and treat their submitters really well in my experience, and so I've never felt ripped off by having to pay the fee. Both of them have been excellent to deal with, in my experience.

Clifford Garstang said...

I don't disagree, Matt, although I look at all the magazines using Submission Manager that DON'T charge a fee, and that, from my point of view, is the best deal. Maybe if I landed a few more stories in magazines I'd feel better about.

Congrats on "The Leftover" in the latest Meridian, by the way.

Matt Bell said...

Oh, I agree-- Obviously, free is better. But look at it this way: In a postal sub system, it costs the submitter money and time to submit, and costs the magazine nothing, besides the time needed to catalog and record the submissions. In a free electronic sub system, it costs the submitter neither time nor money, but costs the magazine money, to pay for the program itself.

So if the submitter pays $2 (which is, theoretically, less than a postal sub will cost him) and it still costs him no real time, and now the magazine's costs are taken care of, now the submission cost both sides less time and less money than a postal system did. So technically it's a win-win?

Although I wholeheartedly agree that in a perfect world it'd be free for submitters, I guess I can understand why it's not, in the few cases where we're asked to pay some small fee.

Also, there's other less obvious benefits to charging two bucks-- It does force the writer to be a little more serious about submitting, as opposed to a free system, just because of the slight increase in effort, in the same way that postal subs do. I'm sure this eliminates some bottom percentage of the submissions received.

And yes, I know you lose some good submissions because people can't/won't spend money online. But these are all magazines that regularly turn down great stories, and are in no danger of not having enough truly great work to publish. Or at least that's my take on it.

I'm glad to work through this stuff, and glad you posted it about it. I actually feel better about these $2 submission fees than I did before.

(And thanks for the congrats-- I appreciate it! That's obviously a case where this worked out fine for me.)

T. J. Forrester said...

At the moment American Short Fiction does not have an alternate means set up to sub for free, the only mag I know of that has chosen this route. They may get so many good stories they won't miss the few from writers who are unable, or unwilling to pay online, but the fact remains this is an exclusionary practice that will increase the divide between the haves and have nots.

Does that matter?

I guess the answer depends on if the writer is a have or have not.

Perverse Adult said...

I feel like Narrative's system is perhaps the most controversial since the fee is so high... it's not just a processing fee like Missouri Review's, it really is a reading fee to cover the cost of their overhead.

But if you go to their website, they really take care to explain the rationale behind the fee and really frame it as a donation to the operation of an important non-profit cultural institution, which makes me feel somewhat better about it. Still, I suppose many would prefer to choose where they make donations separately from where they submit.

So from a writer's perspective, it seems kind of fucked... but when I look at it with my non-profit funder hat on, fee-for service stuff can be a really great way to diversify your funding sources and to become less dependent on foundations and individual donor campaigns that take a lot of staff time and energy... if Narrative were one of my organization's grantees, I think I might encourage their process.

I think Glimmer Train's technique of calling such a large percentage of their submissions "contests" is a lot more creative, though... and has the potential to give something back to the writer... if their work is accepted, then they have a contest win to add to their bio. ...I think it's interesting thought that even with the contest fees, Glimmer Train's website still says they don't break even (or maybe it's that they barely break even? I can't remember).

...in response to TJ's comment, I'm not sure "free" postal submissions are any necessarily any more accessible to "have-nots" than are online submission systems with a small processing fee.

I think I'm most suspicions of these for-profit writing class programs that promise they can teach "anyone to write that novel they've always wanted to write." Something about that feels a little bit more exploitative to me, like exploiting the somewhat misguided hopes of a lot of vulnerable and unfulfilled people.

david said...

It would be interesting to know what percentage of Glimmer Train submissions are for contests vs. standard no-fee submissions, and then compare that to what percentage of published stories come from the contests vs. standard submissions. That would be very illuminating. Wonder if they would give us an idea of such a thing.

Clifford Garstang said...

Yes, the cost to the submitter is the same (photocopy, postage vs. $2 fee) but the have/have-not issue is more than just about money. Lots of people can't/don't have credit cards, or even checking accounts. How do they submit to American Short Fiction? I think that's TJ's point.

And while I guess I'm willing to pay the $2 myself, especially in lieu of postage, I'm not completely convinced that passing the cost of the system on to the writer is the most equitable approach to financing a magazine. For one thing, the OSM will be paid for by the first 200 or so submitters; after that, the fee pays for other magazine expenses. Why should writers cover those costs?

Because someone has to, you say? Yes, true, but the right place to impose that burden is on the reader, who is the consumer of the magazine. If writers can and want to subisidize literary magazines, they should subscribe rather than acquiesce to submission fees.

I think.

T. J. Forrester said...

I contacted the editors at American Short Fiction. They are concerned about this issue and will address it during their next meeting.

I agree with the concept of shifting the mag's financial burden to the subscriber instead of the submitter, but I also think mags have the right to run their show any way they like, and if that means they want to charge for subs, so be it. However, in fairness to all, each mag should provide an alternate sub method for those who can't ante up online. Narrative and Missouri Review, both top notch mags with reading fees, understand this issue and handle their subs accordingly. (Narrative has two free sub periods and MR allows free snailmail subs.)

Gay Degani said...

I have paying money, but after years of submitting the old paper way and waiting months and months for a response, I much prefer the innovations brought about by the internet.

If I respect a magazine and the fee seems reasonable, I don't mind making a "contribution."

And that's how I look at it. I want the markets to be there.

The only thing that I watch out for are obvious "lets have a contest so we can make a buck" scheme.

Laura van den Berg said...

For what it's worth, having worked for a magazine that uses an OSM in the past, I've seen firsthand the extra charges that are incurred with online submissions (not only the cost of getting a submissions manager, but also increased printing, which really does add up over time, for readers and editors who feel they need to see something in hard copy to give it a closer read or to discuss the work in editorial meetings). Incidentally the mag I worked for doesn't charge a fee, but I think that was more because other projects took precedence over re-vamping the submission/payment process.

As a submitter, I personally don't have an issue with a processing fee that's a few dollars, though I'm a little more uneasy with high fees just for a regular read. And, whatever the fee, it does seem reasonable for magazines to have a snail mail alternative for someone who doesn't have reliable internet access, doesn't have a credit card, etc.

GO said...

I was involved in the early formation of the National Writers Union and mainly participated in the poetry group, but also as the NY Secretary for the Union I held out with journalists (a majority of those in the Union in the early days were journalists) and a very sparse number of fiction writers. The poetry group was mostly ideological wrangling and ego bumping, but there needed to be a reason for existence for the ‘union of poets’ and everyone being very cognizant that there was no money to be made out of the small presses where the poetry was being published, the raison d'être became Quality of Life. If we could not get paid as poets we at least expected to be treated fairly.

A paper with demands was made up and mailed out to a list of small press publishers for their signature. Things were asked like give us more than one complimentary copy, or to respond to a submission within three months. A few publishers were sympathetic; the majority ignored the letters totally. A general response at the time was an uptick in the appeal by publishers for writers to subscribe to the publications that they were in turn asking to be paid by for their work.

Keep in mind the journalists were rightly and with good effect asking their publishers for money while they were somewhat looking askance at the poets wondering WTF who are these weirdoes? The poetry presence in the Union did not last long and went down the drain within a few months. Some of those journalists did become mainstream, the poets faded into oblivion. A major portion of the small presses vanished and were replaced with new ones.

My bringing this up is to the effect that at one time writers were not asked to pay anything to submit to a small press publication and in fact had dreams that possibly someday they may actually be paid. Granted that writers were paying for their postage, and there was NO acceptance on the part of publishers of the idea of simultaneous submissions.

I have no problems if a publication wants to recover cost, and granted there will be writers who do not have the means or tools in place to pay with. What does strike me though is an us-them perspective that comes up on occasion and the idea that writers make demands on small press publishers as if publishers have some sort of magic resource in the background to give, or that those publishers are predatory on poor writers. My response to a lack of resource on the part of either the writer or the small press publisher -- go out and get the means. Though as a writer I fully believe that our work is important and vital to national security and all that there are a whole lot of nut cases running around writing, and submitting – it is not such a bad thing to have thresholds. If there are thresholds in the route to publication and that is where we want to go then we need to jump the hurdles and move on.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind paying modest amounts but would prefer to get a copy of a journal if the fee exceeds 10 bucks. Narrative and Glimmer Train have left a bad taste in my mouth. I'm not sure that even paid submissions get that much attention. Why send something to Narrative...so many of their 'winners' are associates of the editors or Joyce Carol Oates...like she needs the money...geesh.. Fees that cover costs of materials should never run over 10 bucks in my opinion. As a new writer who has found himself in print six times in 2 years I feel luck so far..none of the publications required any fee. I just think there are too many sharks in the water that will take advantage of the hopes and dreams of new writers.

T. J. Forrester said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
T. J. Forrester said...

One last comment on this discussion:

When talking about this issue, I continually hear writers compare snailmail cost to a meager online sub fee, saying if the costs are similar they should just as well sub online. This is the argument American Short Fiction puts forth to justify their fees. Is it a valid comparison or simply one that appears to work on the surface?

Shouldn't the cost-fee comparison be made between online sub systems? Isn't that the only apples to apples in this discussion?

Most mags with online sub systems charge a big fat 0 for subs. I sub to them for FREE.

One day, all mags will use an online sub system and consider the ramifications if each mag charged two dollars per submission. At the moment, I'm subbing a story that's gone out to 38 mags. Thirty of these subs were sent online and didn't cost a cent. I spent approximately 16 dollars on snail mail subs, an amount within my budget. If the nightmare scenario I described comes a reality, it would have cost me 76 dollars to make those same subs. That's if the fee is 2 dollars. If it's 3 dollars, like at Missouri Review, then it would have cost me 114 dollars to sub. And that's just one story!

Story placement is supposed to be about talent. If these fees continue to multiply, only the rich will place stories. Think of it--two writers of equal talent, one who can afford to make a 1,000 subs a year and one who can afford to make twenty.

Is that a fair scenario?

Waldo Jaquith, VQR said...

I understand that I'm returning to this far too late for this comment to be useful, but I just can't help myself:

At the moment, I'm subbing a story that's gone out to 38 mags. Thirty of these subs were sent online and didn't cost a cent. I spent approximately 16 dollars on snail mail subs, an amount within my budget. If the nightmare scenario I described comes a reality, it would have cost me 76 dollars to make those same subs.

T.J., that's precisely why places are charging. 38 magazines? That's not submitting work, that's spam. That's why, at VQR, we limit people to one story every six months. So many of the submissions that we receive are from people who clearly have never read VQR, and the work is totally inappropriate for us. But that work still has to be read, and we pay our readers per-piece, so each of those cost us real money.

Online submissions aren't going to work out if writers are going to respond in kind by using that lower barrier to entry to submit their work to seven times more publications than they should. It's an arms race.

VQR received over 10,000 submissions last year. Just a few percent of those authors subscribe to VQR. The math just isn't working. It seems to me that more lit mags should be charging, if that will prevent writers from submitting a single story to 38 magazines simultaneously.

Clifford Garstang said...

Waldo, I think you misunderstand TJ. He didn't say he's submitted that story to 38 markets at one time, so your 'spam' comment is unfair.

At least I don't think that's what he meant. Personally, I submit to a handful of places at one time and when I get responses from those places I submit to another handful. It takes awhile to build up to 38 submissions for one story, but it takes even longer when magazines take 4, 5, 6, 9, 12 months to respond. And the longer it takes magazines to respond, the greater pressure there is on writers to send to even more magazines.

Online submissions aren't going to work unless magazines do a better job of responding in a timely manner.

Waldo Jaquith, VQR said...

Waldo, I think you misunderstand TJ.

I may well have and, if I did, then I apologize. There are authors who are using online submission systems to submit their work to dozens of publications simultaneously, and I appreciate that TJ may not be such an individual.

Online submissions aren't going to work unless magazines do a better job of responding in a timely manner.

It's a vicious circle. Magazines go online, the number of the submissions that we get double, and then we can't possibly keep up with the new volume. The good news is that we can deal with submissions faster by avoiding paper, but the bad news is that efficiency doesn't make up for the deluge. Delays get worse. People, tired of delays, submit to more publications. And so on.

I have to wonder, though, whether charging a reading fee is what would make it possible for publications to respond faster. Although our readers are compensated for their work, my understanding is that the norm is that they be paid nothing. If payment is a motivator to work, then charging reading fees that go straight to the reader may go a long way towards getting responses out faster.

Clifford Garstang said...

If money would make the magazine respond faster to writers--I doubt it, by the way--that burden should not be placed on writers, but rather should be borne by readers. Reading fees would speed up the process by reducing submissions, I expect. Desirable from your point of view, perhaps, but unfair to writers without the means.

sexy said...
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