5 Facts About Submission Fees

by Jenn Scheck-Kahn

Literary magazines aren’t lone wolves; they’re pack animals. I started Tell It Slant, an online submissions and subscription service, because I believed that sending out submissions simultaneously was your best chance to see your work published during your lifetime, and I couldn’t understand why no system managed them for all journals.

Being pack animals means that literary journals thrive with the help of like-minded allies even though ultimately they take what they need to cultivate their mission. If a journal accepts a poem, shouldn’t the others to which it was submitted be notified? If a journal misses out on your story because it took too long to review it, shouldn’t an editor be informed of her loss?

Without a system like ours, the onus is on the writer to contact journals about acceptances and on the journals to devote time to finding the withdrawn manuscript among stacks of papers. There are many things that software can’t do for writers, but this is one it can. So I made a website that takes care of simultaneous submissions for writers and editors, along with other tasks.

Since I founded Tell It Slant 4 years ago, I’ve learned a great deal about the small, mighty world of literary journals, including these five benefits of submissions fees. They surprised me, and I hope they might surprise you, too.

1. Writer as philanthropist

Conventional wisdom follows that before online submissions, we always paid to submit our work, only our money used to go to the copy store for printing and mailing supplies and the post office for stamps. And that’s true, of course, but now that there’s a seemingly free medium through which we can submit our work, we want that instead.

But, as we’ve learned from the NYTimes.com and countless other websites with pay walls, nothing we value can sustain itself for free. Submission fees aren’t funding writing sabbaticals in Tahiti. They go toward operational costs. Maybe they are used to pay a stipend to contributors. Maybe they put cash in the bank, so that the next issue can be printed. Maybe they cover events hosted by the journal, events where you can have a drink with other writers as well as journal staff, inviting you into an actual (not virtual) community.

If you can’t subscribe to journals, no need to worry. Pay your submission fee and feel good about rewarding a journal that is important to you. Let yourself feel like you’re saving a literary institution because you’re part of a movement that probably is.

2. Writers earn a say

Most submissions made through Tell It Slant cost something. The amount varies based on the journal and whether it includes a reading fee, but the majority of submissions cost $3, $1.50 of which goes to us. I’ll describe later how that money gets spent, but the important fact here is that your $1.50 means you have a voice.

You are our customer. If you suggest a feature you’d like to see in our system, we listen. The bulk of what we do is manage the electronic submissions made through our site, but do you know that you can use our spreadsheet feature to keep track of all your submissions? That was a feature suggested by a writer as was the ability to replace a manuscript that you’ve just submitted with a new draft. In fact, you can use Tell It Slant to store all your manuscripts, even multiple versions of them, thanks to a writer who spoke up. I’m not saying that we implement every suggestion we hear, but because we’re a site for writers, we want to make it as helpful and beneficial as possible for you. And we feel grateful that you want to make us better at what we do.

Likewise, if you have a problem with our site, we want to help. What has surprised me, having no tech support background prior to Tell It Slant, is how much I like helping. If any experience can make a writer feel small, its approaching the daunting publishing world and feeling thwarted by a gatekeeper: that’s why a humane tech support response to a problem goes a long way. A very long way.

3. How that $1.50 helps journals, and writers too

Tell It Slant is 100% free to journals. I made that decision long ago, when I was both a writer, frustrated by long waits for editorial responses to my stories, and a reader for a journal that was overwhelmed by the number of submissions and the organizational chaos of a manual tracking system. Journal editors didn’t have the resources to design the system they needed, a system that would benefit submitters most of all. As a writer, I was willing to pay for better efficiency and accountability, and I was willing to bet that others would, too.

Journals get our system for free, as I said, because they might not be able to have it otherwise. That means we cover our software hosting, maintenance, and PayPal expenses from your $1.50. Also we fix bugs, add new features, and handle technical support concerns from writers and editors, as I mentioned. There are five of us who run Tell It Slant alongside full-time jobs; none of us is headed to Tahiti anytime soon.

4. If you don’t want to pay us, don’t pay us

It’s your choice. Not only do I advise our journals to continue accepting paper submissions, our system actually provides extra tools for managing paper submissions along with electronic ones. Here’s why: it’s not the responsibility of the submission medium to determine what might be published; that’s the job of editors. Computer literacy can’t be a submission guideline. Literary journals publish the best writing as they define it; the work of writers who are unable to access computers shouldn’t be denied on those grounds. I teach students in these situations, and I want their work to have the same opportunity as yours.

5. Submission fees mean better submissions

Almost all of our editors have told me that once they joined Tell It Slant, they began to receive better submissions. By better submissions, they meant manuscripts that are more polished and better suited to their “house style,” or the type of material, based on form and subject matter, that they are most likely to publish.

And that’s because paying for a submission makes a writer consider her decision more carefully. It’s just like the difference between the final edit you give your story before submitting it for a workshop verses the final-final-really-final edit you give it before your first public reading. The stakes are higher, even if the stakes are just a few bucks.

That benefits editors, clearly, but also writers whose biggest competition is not the thousands of other writers out there, as it often feels. Our toughest competition is ourselves. Let that fee egg you on, make your writing better than it was yesterday and better than you thought it could be tomorrow.

About the Author

Jenn Scheck-Kahn runs two online services for writers: Journal of the Month and Tell It Slant. Her prose has placed in contests hosted by the Atlantic Monthly and Glimmer Train, and appeared in a number of literary journals.

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