A lot has changed in the fifteen-plus years that I’ve been submitting my writing for publication.  When I started out, you had to buy the great big Writer’s Market volume and cross out the journals you knew wouldn’t like you in the first place before printing out your manuscripts on a daisy wheel word processor.  Finally, you’d go to the post office and try to explain to the postal employee what a SASE is, even though you think they should already know, seeing as how they work at the post office.

Things are different today.  Paper submissions are simplified by cheap laser printers.  Electronic submissions are easier still; you just attach a Word file, click “submit” and cross your fingers.  Perhaps the biggest difference when it comes to offering our work to editors is the rise of the reading fee.

Fifteen-plus years ago, paying a reading fee would be unthinkable.  Actors don’t pay to audition for casting directors.  Musicians don’t pay to send their demo to a record label.  Why should writers pay between two and four dollars so an editor can read the first three pages of a story and click “reject?”

The issue is more complicated than this shallow assessment.  I am sympathetic to the reading fee for a few reasons:

  • The fees are (sometimes) lower than the cost of hard-copy submissions and are easier.
  • Most journals, especially small ones, are not getting rich off of reading fees.  I can’t remember who it was, but I saw a kind and impassioned argument from an editor on Facebook.  Someone had criticized him harshly for having a reading fee and part of his respectful response was to point out how little the journal had made off of the fee.
  • Though they’re not getting rich, journals need money.  I get it.  I need money, too.  (Consider purchasing one of my eBooks!)

On the balance, however, I think reading fees are not the right direction for our community.  Why?  Well, we always talk about wanting to include marginalized voices and underprivileged writers in journals…those people may not be able to afford to pay $1.50 to Submittable and $1.50 to a journal for any logical number of submissions.  (I certainly can’t!)

Many journals that charge a reading fee don’t pay writers for their work.  It seems tacky at best to ask a writer to pay to give their work away for free.  Would this be acceptable in any other profession?  Is being a creative writer to become a form of multi-level marketing?

And if we’re being honest, submissions are, to a great extent, a crapshoot.  A poem that is rejected by an editor today may be accepted by that same editor next week.  You could write the world’s best story about a divorce, only to have it land on the editor’s desk the day he or she woke up to a Dear John or Dear Jane letter.  Editors tell us what they are looking for (with varying levels of clarity), but editors find themselves violating their own list of wants all the time, which is as it should be.  The only way to get things published is to submit a lot to the journals that make sense for your work.

The reading fee also reveals the oligarchic nature of some journals. Say The Big-Time Journal has 20 open spots for short stories each year.  How many of those are filled with agented submissions?  How many of those are filled by stories contributed by people like Joyce Carol Oates, a great and popular writer to whom you would not and should not say “no.”  Perhaps it’s because I’ve lost so much hope for myself in the past few years, but it rubs me the wrong way if The Big-Time Journal collects thousands of dollars to consider hundreds of stories for a dozen spots.  (And are people like Ms. Oates paying the $3?)

But here’s my biggest problem with the rise of the reading fee.  I assure you that I am not a Ayn Rand-esque capitalist monster.  I do, however, need money.  You need money.  We all need money.  Maybe not piles the size of the cash mountains Roger Ailes skis down in the summer.  But we need money.

The reading fee contributes to the loss of the profit motive in the literary community and reinforces our insularity.  Journals, just like car companies and widget distributors should survive, at least in part, by getting other people to purchase their journals, cars and widgets.  Instead of allowing the reading fee to become standard, we should all take to heart what I’ve been saying for a while: we need to make more readers.  The financial survival of the creative writing community can’t depend on contributions from other creative writers alone.  We must become a part of culture again.  AMC didn’t pay you to watch Breaking Bad.  AMC got money from Mad Men and used some of it to make Breaking Bad, hoping the show would appeal to enough people for it to become a financial success.  Writers need to appeal to enough people to bring more money into the shrinking industry.

Further, Starbucks doesn’t ask their employees to chip in when the store gets an electricity bill.  Starbucks doesn’t charge the coffee cup company to make the coffee cups.  Instead of looking for money from those on the inside, we should be getting money from the outside.

I wasn’t lying when I affirmed that money is not my primary concern.  Unless you are a sixth-grader, I have less money than you do and many of my life choices have been in the interest of trying to make a difference and blah blah blah.  I’m just saying that we can’t continue to ignore the culture at large and funnel MONEY FROM WRITERS to those who make and bind books (for a profit!) and who run ISPs (for a profit!).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling a bit peckish, so I shall go to my favorite local restaurant to see if they would like to pay me an eating fee to consider letting them give me a free meal.

YZzTBKy

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7 thoughts on “The Real Problem With Reading Fees

  1. A cogent look at an issue that concerns many writers. Subconsciously, the practice is intimidating, like the bag man who collects a fee from the guy running a small business to avoid having his legs broken. I refuse to submit to journals charging fees. Internet access, stamps, paper, ink, and envelopes are my costs of doing business. Paper, printing, staffing, and adjunct costs of publication are theirs. The Starbucks analogy is spot on.

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  2. Fees eliminate writers who cannot afford to pay, and that means we’re all missing out on their talents and contributions. To me it makes no sense, especially if contributors are not paid for their work. It is not a level playing field.

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  3. Nice essay, though I think your “sympathetic with a fee” points are pretty weak (as they are when journals put them forth). As a poet, it’s not my responsibility to help a publication figure out a profitable business model. The fact that there are many who have done so makes the choice of those markets who look to those providing their content (usually uncompensated, as you note) to underwrite their publications even more shameful.

    I encourage all writers to boycott every market on this list (with which I am not affiliated):

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    1. Areteo, very interesting link. You’re right; I don’t want everything in the world to be governed by Darwinian natural selection, but there’s a problem if the literary community is producing work that is of little interest to the wider culture. Instead of complaining that few people enjoy literary journals…why don’t we work to make literary journals more enjoyable?

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      1. I’m not sure what you’re responding to in my comment…but I agree. And I think that keeping the playing field level for submissions from all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds and financial situations can definitely help with this, as Valorie notes above.

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