Pay to Play Poetry Journals: Is This Right?

NOTE: This post is 8 years old. A lot has changed in the market, and I’m not completely sure how much of this post I still stand behind. It’s getting harder to find publications that don’t charge, so I find myself willing paying fees more frequently. 

The Nov/Dec issue of Poets and Writers magazine ran a story on what may be one of the most important issues facing the literary community, or at least the literary journal community, today. The article discussed the emerging trend of literary journals charging writers for content submissions.

Several journals, including the Missouri Review, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review charge a fee of $2-$3 for writers to send in work for possible publication. Some, like the Ploushares, only apply that fee to online submissions while others require the fee from all unsolicited submissions. None of the journals mentioned in the article or in online conversations that followed it charge authors for solicited submissions.

The fee issue created a little hurricane in several blogs and forums for obvious reasons. At one point a private listserv conversation by editors belonging to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) was made public, eliciting more outrage from both writers who read the emails and the editors who (rightly) didn’t want their debate on the issue made public.

Now of course I know that times are tough for literary journals. They’re facing three primary problems. First, funding for literature (particularly in university-affiliated journals) has been significantly cut. Second, the workload continues to increase as the number of people who want to get published (partially fed by expanding MFA programs) gets overwhelming (one editor said he receives about 1,000 submissions a month). Finally, while interest in getting published increases, subscriptions decrease—less people are buying the journals.

So of course that means that both money and time are stretched thin. I get that. I work in consumer magazine publishing myself. I understand the problem of shrinking staff/resources and shrinking budgets. I never met a dollar I didn’t like. What I don’t understand is how the answer to the problem is to charge the very people whose work publishers should be embracing and without whom they’d have no product to publish.

A few editors commented that they hoped charging writers would limit the amount of submissions they received. So far the results haven’t proved that. If they want to receive less submissions, how about shortening the open submission period? I have trouble understanding a paradigm in which an abundance of artists is perceived as a problem that requires a punitive response.

Do writers expect special treatment when they’re paying for their work to be read? Many journals use interns or grad students to screen their open submissions—I was one of those when I was a grad student 20 years ago, so I know how it works. How long do these readers spend on a submission? Often they only spend a minute or two on a piece, maybe less (and still take six months to respond). In their defense, bad writing singles itself out quickly; however, if a person has paid for the privilege of submitting should that person expect a more thorough reading, maybe even something more than a generic, unsigned rejection form? Maybe a faster response? If you think money doesn’t influence expectations in a relationship then just ask to borrow money from a friend and see what happens.

While I don’t like contest entry fees either, I see a big difference. With contests there’s the promise someone will get a big payoff (hundreds or thousands of dollars in some, book publication). Most literary journals pay little if anything. The most frequent payment is a copy or two of the journal.

A few of the journals who charge fees for unsolicited submissions also note that the acceptance rate for open submissions is less than 1 percent. This means the 99 percent are essentially subsidizing the work of writers who were invited to the journal and didn’t have to pay the submission fee. How is that fair?

On the Facebook page of an editor on a well-know literary pub (a pub that doesn’t charge fees) I made the comment that a journal that needs to charge its rejected writers in order to survive needs to examine its business model and maybe rethink its product into something people are more likely to pay for. Or the product could be redesigned into something that cost less to produce/mail.

I was quickly shot down by another editor for the blasphemy of equating an art journal to a business or product. I understand the sensitivity considering the political climate and all, but what I meant and believe is that if the publication is not able to find a supportive audience without imposing a submission tax then that is a publication that needs to wonder about the need it is serving. I’m not saying a literary journal that’s losing money needs to shut down, but it should think seriously about its place in the community and whether or not it’s doing a good job. If readers aren’t willing to pay for it, is there something wrong with the publication? Is there something wrong with its outreach or marketing?

One of the rationales for charging for online submissions is that the fee of $3 is roughly the same as we’d be paying for postage and envelopes. That may be the case for fiction writers who mail 25 pages at a time, but for poets who mail 5 or 6 pages it’s not even close. And even if the costs were the same, why does the saving in postage now have to go to the journal? Why does a journal get to profit from the opportunity to reject you? Let’s be honest, with acceptance rates of less than 1 percent, they’re profiting from rejection.

So if ultimately the problem is a lack of paying readers, how about solving that problem rather than creating a new ethical problem?

One of the problems with submission fees is that they inadvertently discourage subscriptions. Hopefully most writers feel some sense of obligation to the journals they’re targeting and especially the journals they’re accepted by. Hopefully that sense of obligation occasionally results in a purchase or subscription. But with submission fees the writer feels that he or she has already met that obligation, but at a much lower cost (and without the benefit of receiving the journal). Why feel obligated to buy a copy when the writer has already done his part by sending in a $3 rejection fee?

Right now I’m subscribing to seven  journals at a cost of about $95 a year. I send out about 30 poetry submissions a year. From some of the editors’ comments on the leaked listserv I should be subscribing to 30 journals a year. Is that really reasonable? Next year I’ll re-subscribe to about half of those journals and subscribe to three or four new ones so over a number of years I’ll be able to sample a wide range.

Some editors suggest the option of only allowing subscribers to submit. The problem with that is that it creates a closed little club. The journal turns from a public forum to a private one, and it greatly reduces the pool of qualified writers.

I do recognize the problem. Really I do. But the burden shouldn’t be put on the people whose work creates the journal. Even more, the burden shouldn’t be unevenly put on the people who are least likely (due to high rejection rates) to be a part of the journal’s forum. If journals look at this as a reader problem, not a revenue problem, then they won’t leap to the most vulnerable population available to be exploited. They’ll instead be forced to look at themselves, their audience and their mission and come up with creative solutions to the problem.

So far I personally haven’t faced this situation since none of the journals I’m interested in charge fees, but many editors seem to believe that the fee model is bound to become the norm. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’m interested in hearing what other people think.

Read comments from the Missouri Review here.

Read the opinion of Gian Lombardo, editor of Quale Press, here.

Go here for the blog of Laura Maylene Walter, author of the Poets and Writers article.

Please add your comments below. If you believe this is an important topic, please forward, post, tweet and share.

28 thoughts on “Pay to Play Poetry Journals: Is This Right?

  1. I certainly can’t afford to subscribe to (or read every issue of!) every journal I’ve ever submitted work to. None of us can. I’ve been published in one good journal that charged a reader fee and also pays an honorarium (greater than the reading fee, but not by much.) I didn’t really mind. Most of the places that have ever run my work have paid in contributors copies or a subscription. If I like and respect the magazine and its editors enough, I don’t bat an eyelash at coughing up $3, even though I empathize with every single argument against it. This is a hugely complicated issue, and you’re right that the ever-swelling CAFO of the MFA machine is not making things better (and yes, I obtained mine in 1993). I screen mss (for free) for a small poetry press and the amount of illiterate doggerel they get is astounding. For the few journals that pay anything at all for the poems they publish, the competition for the limited space is ferocious — imagine having Don Share’s or David Barber’s slush pile for a second. To me, as long as they remain notional, reading fees can be seen as evil and nasty or they can be seen as a sort of good-faith tithe, a way of offering a small gesture of your support to a publication who has, probably, far more submitters than readers, an overworked, underappreciated staff, and fading prospects. BECAUSE I can’t afford to subscribe to every journal i like (i keep it to two or three a year and rotate), I tend to be okay with the $3 fee… I can always choose to submit elsewhere if I don’t think it’s worth it, right?

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Amy. I’m just worried that journals are ignoring the more serious problem (readership) and just passing the buck onto the slush pile. By the way, I saw your coffee poem in Poetry Northwest (one of the mags I continue to subscribe to). “In ritual we fall into the sea…”

  3. I wish the mags would have a “pay to publish” option . . . I’d pay a hundred dollars to get a poem published in a prestigious magazine, if they would only take bribes. They could solve their funding problems that way, maybe.

  4. There’s a much bigger problem: You know what they say, these days everybody writes poetry but nobody reads it.

    If poetry was more popular, it wouldn’t be an issue. Also, soooo much of the stuff that is written today is just BAD.

  5. the mags have paid advertisements, don’t they, and in those ads a poem might sometimes be printed,

    so why can’t they have a price-plan set-up where anyone can pay to have his or her poem(s) published,

    why can’t i pay to have my poem printed on a page right next to a real poet’s poem, (the mag could put a note above my poem saying ‘paid publication’)—

    would the real poets mind if my “paid to be published” poem was printed on a page before or after theirs if they knew that my payment was helping keep the magazine afloat,

    my pay-to-publish verse wouldn’t detract from the quality of theirs, would it, and indeed the contrast might well enhance theirs by comparison—

    this scheme would be a win/win for everybody

  6. Bill, have you tried that? I’d be very interested to hear about it. Consumer magazines have what they call “advertorials” or “paid editorial” sections all the time. Politicians buy spots like that frequently in news mags.

  7. Grant, no i haven’t tried it because i don’t know of any mags that have such a price-paln for publication—

    but i would do it, I would pay a fee to be published if prestige mags like the ones you mention above, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review

    offered such “paid poem” spots to be inserted in their issues . . .

    New England Review would never publish any of my poems in the normal course (‘ve got nothing but form-rejections from them),

    but if they need money desperately enough that they charge for submission,

    why don’t they go a step further and publish poems for a fee—

    the money from “adververse” could probably save some of these mags—

      • but a “new literary journal” of pay-to-pub poems wouldn’t help

        these prestigious mags Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review et al

        which in their desperate need for funding have been forced into making submitters pay a fee—

        these and many other worthly litmags need new revenue inflows, and the scheme I’ve suggested here might be a viable one—

  8. AdVerse would be an entirely appropriate name for it. Not only would the “paid-to-print” poems not enjoy the prestige of the editorially selected ones but they would, I suspect, suffer an anti-prestige effect by comparison.

  9. so what’s the problem, Cleveland Wall?

    if my pay-to-publish-poem was clearly labeled as such, then snobs like you wouldn’t read it to begin with,

    but some readers of New England Review might give it a try, maybe,

    one or two of the cognoscenti who subscribe to NER

    might read my unworthy-to-be-published-free-but-published-here-for-a-fee poem,

    and of course NER would benefit from the money I paid

    to have it printed alongside the legitimate editorially selected verse,

    and then NER might not be forced to close due to lack of funding and ergo

    they could continue featuring the real poets of value, the legitimate poets

    who would otherwise be deprived of a prestige venue if NER was defuncted—

    I don’t understand why this scheme wouldn’t benefit everybody, NER and the real poets they currently publish

    and of course unpublishable poets like me—

    • I see how it would benefit NER and the “legitimate” poets, but I don’t see how it would benefit you. As I understand it, the reason you want to be in NER in the first place is the prestige, but paying to appear there would negate that benefit, so what do you get out of it? One doesn’t have to be a snob to notice the editors saying “this poem we value, that one we do not”. If the readers didn’t trust the editors’ taste, they wouldn’t be reading the pub, would they? My point is that the paid-to-pub poem, regardless of its actual merit, is bound to appear worse in this light.

  10. Grant — thanks for the mention on the PNW poem…. They’re a regular read for me too, and not just because they’ve been unusually kind to my poems. The magazine’s always got great stuff in it.

  11. Bill Knott: I know you’ve been nursing a lot of frustrations for a long time, but I must note: I have seen Don Share beg you in public to submit work to him. Do you think he’s messing with your head or something? Because I don’t. And I can’t imagine getting an acceptance, much less a public solicitation, from Poetry.

  12. and anyway your trivial gossip re Share/Poetry is an ad hominem non sequitir— it has nothing to do with the point

    I’m making here, which is that I and perhaps many other poets

    who have been rejected by the New England Review and other prestige journals

    would pay to have our poems published in their pages—

    if these magazines want to survive, they must find alternate methods of funding,

    such as requiring submission fees, and my scheme would be another way

    for them to raise money—

    I’m just trying to be helpful, that’s all—

    I’m not ad homineming anybody here, so please don’t do it to me—

    criticize my plan if you disagree with it—

  13. all the commenters above are objecting to this new practice of magazines requiring submission fees,

    but they aren’t suggesting other ways that New England Review et al

    could solve these funding problems— the commenters are just complaining,

    they’re not offering suggestions to help these journals overcome their
    financial dilemma—

    maybe my scheme of pay-to-pub would not bring in enough revenue
    to offset their shortages,

    but at least I’m trying to offer a positive solution,

    not a negative whining disparagement—

    • Bill I respect your effort to offer an alternative solution. I doubt it would work or that journals like that would accept it though. I do think it’s important for editors to look at this issue not as a revenue problem but as a readership problem. Rather than focus solely on coming up with more money, they should be focusing on their lack of readership and how to correct it (which would bring in more money) as well as question their mission and how well they’re fulfilling it. You can throw all the money in the world at a project, but the public may still reject it if the project is not right for the community its trying to serve.

      • “Rather than focus solely on coming up with more money, they should be focusing on their lack of readership and how to correct it (which would bring in more money) as well as question their mission and how well they’re fulfilling it.”

        —in other words, you’re saying that the editors of Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review et al

        are failures,

        and that they are at fault, they are to blame for not publishing the kind of writing that would ensuring a larger readership,

        and that the writers/poets they publish are failures

        because their work “is not right for the community”—

        You want the editors of Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review et al

        to “correct” their “lack of readership” by dumping the writers/poets they currently publish,

        and to find other, different writers/poets who would gain their journals a greater audience—

        that’s your plan? That’s your suggestion? Really? You’re going to advise those editors that the editorial choices they’ve made are wrong and that they all need

        “to question their mission and how well they’re fulfilling it”—

        good luck with that—

        and I’d like to see the editors of Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review et al

        respond to your advice—

  14. I think it makes perfect sense to charge a nominal fee. There’s an undeniable cost to reading and engaging with submissions. The fact is that electronic communications have made the process to submit way too easy. We can submit with the click of a button. As a writer, I’m suspect of places that don’t change, the big ones at least. I can’t imagine how they read all those submissions. A small fee will cut out unserious or inappropriate submissions. It’s no different than college applications. If those were free we’d all just apply to hundreds of colleges, making it a number game instead of targeting the colleges we’re really interested in.

    • Hi Mark,
      According to the Missouri Review (see the link at the bottom of the post) submissions have actually gone up (other editors in the now deleted listserv echo that). I assume the reason they’ve gone up isn’t because of the fee, but because every year more people graduate from MFA programs (I’m not dissing them–I did mine in 1993) and want to be read. But imposing a submission tax still doesn’t answer the bigger question–why penalize submitters when the real problem is a lack of readers? If you perceive the problem as too many submission then just limit those. Impose a monthly cutoff or a very short submission period. The major lit journals solicit most of the work they publish anyway.

      • Hi Grant,
        Thanks for this. I guess, I don’t see it as a tax; it’s a simple cost of service (i.e. a stranger reading our work). And I definitely don’t see it as a penalty for give a stranger a few dollars to read and engage with my work. I just spent months and months writing it. (And I just gave the coffee guy more than that for bad coffee and snarky service.) If we’re serious about the work, $2-3 dollars is nothing compared to the time we’ve put into it. And now I feel the publisher will actually have the time and resources to read it and publicize it rather than just being buried in potential spam and inappropriate submissions. I want to publish in healthy institutions that have the resources to market and sell their wares. I want a editor to truly engage in my work.

        I think the editors should be paid for their time. We (writers) tend to look at it in terms of ‘us vs. them’. That’s not it at all. Every editor, esp. the indies, got into this because they wanted to evangelize certain visions and art. But if a system is broken (Story Magazine, TriQuarterly, etc) they making tweaks is absolutely appropriate.

        Thanks again,

  15. hell no i won’t help you—

    i’m on their side of the issue—

    unsolicited poets SHOULD be charged a fee to submit to these mags—they should pay for the opportunity of having their work considered by these prestigious journals—

    in fact i think they should be charged MORE than the current rate

  16. I have no problem with the fees under certain conditions. Those are:

    1. Writers are PAID – in green paper, not glossy.
    2. Unsolicited submissions are the norm, not the exception.
    3. A fee-free snail-mail option exists. I’d hate to see good writers lose opportunities because they were dirt poor.
    4. The journal is high quality, whether print or online. If online, I don’t want to see ads.

    I’d gladly pay $3.00 (and have, a couple of times) to submit to a quality journal that paid its writers well. I would NOT pay the crazy $15.00-20.00 asked by Narrative (which does not accept postal submissions), and would NOT fork out any money for a thrown-together no-pay lit mag run on a blogging platform. Do low budget mags have their place? For sure. But if I’m expected to write only for the love of it, an editor can edit for the love of it. Likewise, if an editor has no problem compensating me like a pro, I have no problem defending that editor’s right to be compensated like one, as well.

  17. Pingback: More About Journal Submission Fees | UnIambic

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