Reading Fees: Should You Submit?
By Becky Tuch
If you’ve been sending your writing off to literary magazines, you may have noticed more costs associated with the process. Increasingly, it’s the norm for lit mags to charge reading fees, anything from $2 to $5, in some cases $20 or more.
In “Literary Journals, ‘Reading Fees’, and You,” the editors of Writer’s Relief explain the situation thusly: “Because so many literary journals have both online and print arms these days, administration fees have gone up. Literary journals that do accept submissions online must maintain websites and databases that make digital submissions possible. This costs them money. But—unlike paper submissions—online submissions don’t cost a writer a penny over what they’re already paying for their basic Internet.” So what might feel like a fee for reading a submission is, in fact, an “administrative fee,” in which the writer foots part of the cost required to keep lit mags running.
What do writers think of this? Some say a $3 reading fee is reasonable. Others argue that if you submit to twenty journals, that’s $60, no small chunk of change for a working writer. Still others wonder, “Why must I pay to keep a lit mag running? If it can’t support its own operations, perhaps it shouldn’t operate.”
Personally, I’m not so interested in whether reading fees are ethical or not. (If you want my opinion, our entire economic system is unethical. But that’s a topic for another blog post.) I’m simply interested in what today’s writers are up to. Are writers paying these fees? Are they resisting them? Why? Why not?
I asked around, listened in on conversations, read blog posts, and posed the question to the wise world of Twitter. Here is what today’s hardworking writers have to say:
YES, SURE, WHY NOT:
Michael Fitzgerald, writer and CEO of Submittable:
Charging $20 seems excessive (narrativemagazine.com) and straight-up capitalizing on the dreams of the inexperienced. But, for the most part, publishers don’t like charging. No one goes into indie publishing thinking… Oh, and then I make a living off the backs of poets! They find their way into publishing because they want to support and spread the work of the authors they admire. I think we’re all aware that a few are changing excessive fees– and most writers I speak to have generally lost respect for them as publishers– but there’s a huge difference between charging $20 and charging $3. Missouri Review, Sonora Review, Mass. Review, etc… these places obviously aren’t in this to get rich. They’re just trying to survive and slow the flow of inappropriate submissions. Most indie publishers work for free (or at a cost). Most editors are also writers. They know exactly what they’re doing when they decide to charge. And none of them come to that decision easily. To me, it makes a lot of sense for indies to charge $2-$3 per submission. (Longer article available here.)
Amy MacLennan, author of Weathering (poetry chapbook) and editor of The Cortland Review:
I have no problem paying three bucks. It is sooooo much easier to use Submittable to submit work. On the receiving end it's soooo much easier to select work. A lot of lit mags are barely keeping their heads above water money-wise. Yep, I'd rather paying a small fee rather than see 'em fold. So many editors are spending a ton of hours on these mags then having to go into their own pocket to keep them alive. I'm starting to have this discussion a lot. Most of the people that I can in contact with don't like fees. Then I ask how many hours they are volunteering to publish and promote the work of OTHER poets. And yeah, they generally just blink their eyes.
Jeanne Gassman, writer:
A $3.00 reading fee is still cheaper than first class postage with an SASE. I chalk it up to the expense of writing.
Janeen Rastall, author of forthcoming In the Yellowed House (poetry chapbook):
I don't mind submission fees. I buy back issues to journals where I submit my poetry, too. I want to support the journals and presses that I love. Submission fees are a small way to help.
Celeste Ng, author of forthcoming Everything I Never Told You (novel):
You can...do the math this way: printing your story costs about 10 cents a page, not even counting the amortized cost of the printer (I once did this math for paper/ink when I was debating buying a new printer. I know, NERD). An envelope costs about 5 cents as well. A stamp is now what, 45 cents? Include a cover letter (1 page), and the cost of submitting a 20-page story is $2.60. That's pretty close to the standard $3 submission fee--not even factoring in the cost, timewise and gas/T-fare-wise, of doing that 10-15 times and taking them all to the post office or mailbox. The journals aren't making money off those $3 fees; they're likely using them to pay to use the online submission managers (which they need to buy or pay user fees for). So you can decide whether you want your $3 to go to the submission managers or to the post office, paper companies, ink companies, and envelope manufacturers, but either way you're shelling out $3. That's the cost of submitting.
It's true that likely the journals won't pay for your work. However, I've done things for free that ended up leading to paying things later. Example: in like 2008 someone asked me to do a podcast for an online reading series (for free). I did it. An editor at Meridian heard it and wrote to me to solicit work. I sent her a story, which she took and published in Meridian (for free). Fast-forward to this spring, where that same editor--now at Gulf Coast--got in touch with me again. She solicited a story, which they took (and this time paid me for, way better than pretty much any other story I've published).
Or you can take money out of the equation: I had a story that I'd sent out literally 17 times; Bellevue Literary Review eventually took it. They didn't pay me because they don't pay. 9 months after that they told me they were nominating my story for a Pushcart, and it got lucky and won one. I am 857% confident that that Pushcart helped spark interest in my book when it went out...There can be intangible benefits as well as tangible benefits that come much farther down the line--you just don't know.
Adam Stumacher, writer:
Another benefit of publishing in journals (paying or otherwise) is that it helps you qualify for scholarships at conferences and residencies, not to mention paid fellowships, and the value of such experiences cannot be overstated. I see submission fees as a long-term investment. It does involve some financial risk, but all you have to do is land one story in a decent paying journal and you've recouped your expenses. And more often than not, you build your way up to the better paying journals by starting at smaller ones that might not pay. Also, I think a few bucks per story is a reasonable price to pay to avoid the expense (and colossal pain in the ass) of mailing a flight of submissions. Not long ago, we wouldn't even be asking the question because submitting for free wasn't even an option.
PERHAPS, MAYBE, DEPENDS:
Jon Papernick, author of, most recently, 5 Stories High and Rising (story collection):
Any reading fee above the standard $3.00 is a scam. The $3 fee is instead of copying and postage. Narrative Mag charges $20.00 reading fee. Pure scam. Totally unethical.
Allie Marini Batts, author of You Might Curse Before You Bless (poetry chapbook):
Depends on the cost, the magazine, and what they're putting the money towards. If they do it so they can pay authors an honorarium, or if they're putting together a print issue, absolutely. If it's a "just because it's work" fee, no. I give that at the office on the mags I work for and none of us charge a reading fee.
Matthew Silverman, author of The Breath Before Birds Fly (poetry chapbook) and editor of Blue Lyra Review:
I like the ones that give you a choice. I find it a little disturbing magazines that have not budgeted the fee to submittable. It costs us at Blue Lyra Review a mere 10 dollars a month so I don't see this as anything but a scam since it only takes 4 submitters to recoup! I should preface that we offer both expedited fee based and regular free submissions.
Luke Dani Blue, writer:
I pay occasionally only if it's $3 or less. Places like Narrative that charge >$10 stun me and I won't read even them.
Josh Medsker, writer and editor of Twenty-four Hour Zine:
I don't normally submit to magazines that charge a fee. Unless they have a good reputation and publish great work. My general rule is that anything over 2 or 3 dollars is a big NO.
Phillip Larrea, writer:
I am disturbed by the message that reading fees go to support Submittable, and not the mag itself. A very small fee to a mag that pays its authors is acceptable, Ploughshares, for example.
April Line, writer:
I only pay reading fees if they a) come with a subscription to the journal and the cost difference is <$5, of b) if they are approximately the same as the cost of paper, envelope + postage, so ~$5.
Wendy Williford, writer:
I am skeptical of fees for a few different reasons. I usually avoid them because I simply can't afford a reading fee for everything I submit to. I am the epitome of starving artist. Occasionally I will pay a $3 reading fee, but it never fails that as soon as I pay it, the story will get picked up elsewhere that required no reading fee. I understand the low fees if the publication is very small or in its infancy. That doesn't feel unfair or a scam, because typically you have 2 people working night and day reading the stories. But the big publications with a staff of 10-15 that charge high $ for fees and in return you get nothing but a publication credit and rarely monetary compensation feels like a scam, especially when they claim to only publish one or two "new" writers a year. It's even more insulting when a writer pays a fee and the rejection letter has no value to it. That has left me bitter on a few occasions. I find a lot of mags that claim they aren't looking for any particular genre/form/style,etc., charge a fee and I get nothing but a form rejection letter stating my story isn't the right fit for the magazine with NO other feedback. That's a flat out waste of money in my opinion. Three dollars isn't much, but it should buy me at least one sentence of constructive feedback. Otherwise, there's no proof my story was even read in the first place. Hence, my skepticism in fees.
OH, HECK NO:
Roberta Burnett, author of Trying Not to Look (poetry chapbook):
I refuse to submit if fees are req'd. It's so easy to get into the multiple hundreds in fees.
RW Spryszak, writer and editor of Thrice Fiction:
Don't submit to journals that require fees and do not require a fee for anyone to submit to ours. The amount of money it would bring in is inconsequential and I feel guilty enough about not being able to pay authors whose work we accept… Most journals pay the writer nothing to begin with, but to pay the journal just to be read? I wouldn't. Besides smacking of desperation, from an editor's viewpoint it is a stupid, troll-like toll…Bad enough writers get nothing for their work, but to PAY just to be read? Go join a workshop…
Alex Irvine, author of Buyout:
I've never paid a submission fee and never will.
…Vehemently opposed to submission fees from non-paying journals. Writers provide free work AND pay for it? Broken model.
Rob Williams, writer and host of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Reading Series:
"Reading fees" seem insulting at best and potentially a scam at worst. I paid one once and felt like a sucker.
What do you think, dear hardworking writer? Is it fair to have to pay to play? Will all lit mags eventually charge reading fees? Will you never pay?
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review, a website which reviews literary magazines and interviews journal editors. She has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council, and her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Briar Cliff Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Other writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, Hobart, Quarter After Eight, Folio, HTMLGiant, Night Train, Graze, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 her work was included in The Drum's audio series at the Boston Book Festival. She is one of the founders of the writing and publishing blog, Beyond the Margins. Learn more: www.BeckyTuch.comSee other articles by Becky Tuch