LAST WEEK, THE SPALDING MFA Alumni Twitter account tweeted about my small online lit mag:
"@slushpilemag is accepting #fiction, #poetry, and #cnf submissions through @submittable & will provide feedback!" it cheerfully announced.
The post got a handful of likes and retweets. Then came this: "Do you pay your contributors?"
I grimaced as I typed my response: "Only in mugs and tote bags, I’m afraid."
A few minutes later came the inevitable reply: "Yeah…that’s not payment."
Exchanges like this happen from time to time--sometimes over email, sometimes over Twitter. Often they seem undergirded by an assumption that lit mag editors will reap some monetary reward for publishing an author's work while denying them the compensation they deserve. So I thought an explanation was in order.
Following is an overview of the sad but true economic reality of literary magazines, and what writers should know as they stake out the terrain.
Literary journals don't make money
"There is no such thing as a profitable literary journal. To the best of our knowledge, all surviving literary journals are supported by universities and/or by individuals who love short fiction and are willing to put their own time and money into them." -- Glimmer Train
In the age of the internet, people are loathe to pay for content--in print or online. The decline of the print publishing industry and the constant near-collapse of the news industry has seen publishers of all stripes frantic to monetize a readership that continues to dodge online advertising and refuses to pay for any form of subscription.
Meanwhile, print periodicals--including, and perhaps especially, literary journals--are extremely costly to produce and continue to lose subscribers as readers increasingly move online. Which is not to say that literary journals have ever been financially viable. Even the illustrious Harvard Review, my literary alma mater, would disappear were it not for generous donors. This is true of all but maybe two or three journals.
As publishing industry veteran Jane Friedman notes: "A literary journal's costs are rarely, if ever, covered by subscriptions, but by a combination of grants, institutional funding, and donations. Even extremely well-regarded, award-winning journals have found themselves on the edge of the precipice--and continue in part due to dogged persistence and commitment from their founders and staff, who repeatedly raise the funds needed to continue […] It's a misnomer to talk about a business model for print literary journals; they're nonprofits and continue mostly due to charity and goodwill."
And in recent history, much of this funding has begun to disappear: "After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership," said Ted Genoway in an article ominously titled "The Death of Fiction," which he penned all the way back in 2010.
While the overhead for online literary journals is much smaller, they are also far from free and even further from being profitable since, unlike print publications, they aren't in a position to offset any of their costs with subscriptions.
So the first thing to understand is that if a literary magazine is paying you for your work, they are likely doing so out of grant money, not pockets deeply lined by the publishing of literary fiction and poetry.
People who work at literary journals don't make money
"No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction. It doesn't matter that there are exceptions. The rule stands." -- Stephen Elliott, founder of The Rumpus
In a manner of speaking, submissions cost--not make--lit mags money.
Lit mags receive a lot of submissions--this can range from many hundreds to many thousands each year--which they read and then accept or decline. Those declined are read carefully, often reviewed by several (unpaid) readers each. Those that are accepted go through a minimum of two rounds of editing (often more). Then the work must be formatted and proofed, and, at last, when the issue is completed, it is promoted on social media and by whatever other means possible. This process represents hours and hours of time. And while some lit mags can afford to pay some members of their staff, many are entirely staffed by volunteers. If you consider that, in their non-literary lives, these same people are paid to do things, you could think of every hour they spend working at literary journals as negative money.
They do it because they love it, of course. Editors of small journals are often writers themselves. Almost without exception, people who work at lit mags are burning the midnight oil writing fiction and poetry, just like you. They're writing the same cover letters, paying the same submission fees, receiving the same rejections. They, too, are having their work published in literary magazines that can't afford to pay them for their work. This is not an "us" vs. "them"--just an us on both sides of the imaginary divide.
So, while on the surface it may be tempting to lump non-paying lit mags in with publications like the Huffington Post that are financially solvent but "pay" their contributors in "exposure," it's very different. Nobody in this equation is bringing home the bacon.
If literary journals don't make money or pay writers, what good are they?
"Writers sometimes lament the dearth of paying markets, but they should be reassured that often nobody wants to pay writers more than those same editors." -- writer Nick Ripatrazone
Duotrope lists about 1,400 publications that publish literary fiction. Of those, 38 pay at the "professional" level and another 73 pay at the "semi-professional" level. An additional 74 offer "token" payment--we won't include these since you can't pay your rent with contributor copies. This means that about 8 percent of literary magazines are currently paying.
I suppose it is possible to build your entire writing career submitting only to the 8 percent of literary journals that are in a position to pay you, but here are a few reasons why writers submit to the other 92 percent:
1) To build up their writing credentials
The majority of literary journals that pay are also the biggest, oldest, and most prestigious. Consequently, they are also the most competitive. While it is true that many journals do their best to read submissions "blind" it is also true that others don't, and the strength of your previous publications may or may not impact the quality of attention your manuscript is given.
What's more, the response time for top-tier journals is often six months to a year, which means that while you may succeed in placing your piece in a journal that can pay you a few hundred dollars for it, the process could easily take several years.
2) To reach a maximum number of readers
Refusing to submit your work to 92 percent of literary journals limits your readership. If your goal as a writer is to get as many eyes on your work as possible--and arguably, it should be--limiting your submissions to 8 percent of available publications does seem a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
3) To work with editorial staffs who have the time to care
Larger publications receive a staggering quantity of incoming submissions. This both limits the amount of attention the staff can give each submission and means the journal is unlikely to accept pieces that are less than perfect because they already have more "perfect" pieces than they can publish.
Smaller publications run at a less frantic pace. They often do have the time to offer feedback or spend time polishing up a diamond in the rough. This is, I believe, perhaps the greatest value that non-paying journals offer writers. As Deborah Triesman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, said in a recent interview: "It's crucial to have readers. Writing is a kind of contract with an audience, so whether that audience is your best friend or an editor or a fellow student, it's crucial to have somebody else look at your work."
Evelyn Somers, associate editor of The Missouri Review concurred: "At The Missouri Review, we do pay our writers and have for a long time. Author payments cost us a little over $20,000 a year if you don’t count our prize awards. With those, it’s around $40,000, and it’s money very hard won. But the most valuable thing writers receive when they are selected for publication is a generous quantity of the editors’ time and attention--for which the editors are not always paid since a fair amount of it may be off the clock. That includes time preparing work for publication and also time promoting the authors, nominating work for prizes, sometimes reading or reviewing their books on their own time."
Working with editors makes writers better. The more editors you can work with--especially of publications you admire--the more you will learn about your writing and how to make it stronger.
4) The editor who can't pay you today may be able to pay you tomorrow
A few years ago I convinced a local weekly magazine to begin running a monthly fiction series, which I edited. This was a publication that did pay its writers and promised to pay mine. I went back to all of the writers I'd worked with at Slush Pile and published their fiction in this new paying market.
This particular story has an unhappy ending--sadly in keeping with the theme of this article--which is that the weekly magazine turned out to be financially insolvent and didn't end up paying anyone. But I think the moral of the story holds. Which is that editors aren't stationary. Hopefully we, like you, are constantly moving on up. And as we do, we want to take you on up with us.
5) Editors really, really want you to succeed
Aside from the fact that editors of literary journals truly care about literature and championing it, they are also deeply motivated to see you succeed. Their success is predicated on your success; their reputation is built on the strength of your reputation--it's why they do what they do. They want your story to win the Pushcart Prize or end up in Best American Short Stories. They want you to be the next Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith. Because the more writers they nudge and nurture into the limelight, the more likely it is that they will end up with the one paying gig in the world of literary publishing: Deborah Triesman's job.
You're not going to pay me, but I have to pay you to submit? WTF.
Reading fees are another hotly debated topic among writers.
An article ran in The Atlantic a few years ago in which Joy Lanzendorfer explains that she may stop submitting to literary journals all together because she feels that $3 reading fees are "bad for the writing community at every level" and threaten "the inclusivity of literature when it comes to new, diverse voices."
"It's fine to charge fees if you're targeting mostly white, male writers who went to elite schools and who have a financial safety net," she says. "It's not so great if you want to hear from the single mom working two jobs who writes poetry at night."
In truth, the entire enterprise of writing and publishing short fiction isn't--and hasn't ever been-- particularly welcoming to the financially burdened. This has, again, primarily to do with the terrible economics of literary publishing and is a problem that many publications do their best to mitigate through various means. It has very little to do with the advent of submission fees.
Submitting to literary journals was never free. In the analog age, there was the cost of the paper, the envelopes, the postage, the infamous SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), not to mention the typewriter. The current system of electronic submissions is more--not less--inclusive, as most (if not all) journals will waive the submission fee in response to a simple email stating financial hardship.
Submission fees exist to cover the cost of submission managers (like Submittable). They are not bribes being offered to the editorial staffs of literary journals in exchange for reading submissions. And while it is true that submission fees have become an unexpected boon to some literary journals in this time of dwindling subscribers, the money they bring in is, if anything, making up for a portion of lost revenue, not creating a surplus.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that submission fees have helped keep many journals alive in an age of dwindling bookstore sales, reduced ad revenue, and perennially reluctant subscribers," said Christina Thompson, editor of Harvard Review. "It's a cost to the writer, to be sure, but it's a small and broadly shared cost which goes a long way toward supporting the entire ecosystem."
And speaking of said ecosystem: "The proliferation of outlets and editorial sensibilities since the 1970s has supported the rise of literary pluralism, but undercut the way journals previously leveraged cultural hegemony and scarcity to generate revenue," said Daniel Pritchard, poet, critic, and editor of The Critical Flame. "It used to be that only these kinds of writing by these sets of writers was literary, and only certain journals published those writers. People paid for access to a relatively narrow concept of literary merit. So we’re not just talking about revenue models and payment here. We’re talking about which aesthetics and whose voices--literally--have value."
It's also worth noting that many publications waive submission fees for subscribers. This is, in my opinion, the most equitable system. Any publication good enough for your work ought to be good enough to financially support in some way--whether through subscription or submission fee. Does this reduce literary mags to an exercise in vanity publishing? Perhaps. On the other hand, writers are readers. As such, they have always been primary patrons of literary enterprises.
Where does this leave us?
"Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood." -- Ted Genoways
Perhaps I've succeeded in convincing you of the value of submitting to non-paying literary journals. Or perhaps I've succeeded only in convincing you that the whole enterprise of writing literary fiction is a complete waste of your time.
The upshot, I suppose, is this: Your work does have value. You do deserve to be paid for it. But if you started writing short fiction thinking it was going to be your bread and butter, you should brace yourself for the reality that you're going to need a side-job for many years; possibly for your entire life. As I recently told a despairing writer friend who was thinking of "giving up" writing: you didn't get into this for the money; if you could be doing anything else, you would be.
And so would I. We're all working two jobs and writing our poetry at night. Or, in my case, this very article. Which, I think it bears mentioning, I was not paid to write.
Previously published by The Millions
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M. Rachel Thomas is the editor of Slush Pile Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, The Millions, and elsewhere.