The World of Literary Journals is Changing

In December I prepared to submit to a favorite literary journal. One I have purchased on many occasions. One I was planning to buy a subscription to. However, they had a warning up that they would respond to all submissions slowly, outside of the official reading periods. The next one started January 1st. I decided to wait to submit.

I went back today and found that they had added a two dollar fee. One dollar went straight to Submittable (their submission manager) and the other dollar went to them, but you received a one dollar off any of the products in their store. They do not pay their writers. They are a non-profit. They are using the money to keep operating. I wish they were getting their money from somewhere else.

I paid the fee. At least I knew explicitly where the money went. And I was glad they were encouraging submitters to buy issues.  However, it is part of a larger movement I am very leery of. In the last four years there has been shift toward charging writers rather than readers, because there are more people interested in submitting than in reading the publication. This is problematic on many levels.

When I first started submitting I was lost and overwhelmed, but I found Duotrope, a great resource that contained data on thousands of literary journals.

At the time Duotrope was free, but two years ago they started charging 5 dollars per month, or a flat rate per year. I reluctantly became a subscriber, because I already relied on them and regularly made the amount to cover the fee they charged from accepted submissions. However, for someone who never used it before, or rarely did, there is now a barrier up to using their services.

Because they rely on user inputted data about response times and acceptance rates this affects the services they provide. I think that ultimately, particularly in this last year, Duotrope’s services has started to suffer from charging a fee. I think the results are skewed because the only users are those so committed to the service that they pay for it.

When I first started submitting in 2011, I only encountered one journal that I wanted to submit to that had a fee. But it was a fee you only had to pay if you submitted online. Now many journals that do not have a postal submission option charge a fee. So that the only way you can submit is to pay that fee.

Now not all writers have other jobs, or other jobs that pay well. So they really have to focus on using the money they have wisely. $5 dollars a month for Duotrope or $2 to $3 dollars for submitting to a literary journal does not sound like that much. But it can add up.

On a busy year, I still usually manage to submit to 130 literary journals. If they all charged $3 dollars I would have to pay $390 dollars a year, plus my Duotrope fee ($50 dollars for a yearly subscription). It is highly unlikely that I would make that money back in payment from journals.

Also, some journals do not offer contributor copies, and I always make sure that I have at least one copy of the journals that publish me. Being a writer that submits to and is published in literary journals is heading in the direction of becoming an expensive side project for a writer who, like most writers, really would prefer to just write.

That isn’t even going into the submission fees for book contests and chapbook contests and all the other steps writers are often encouraged to take these days.

I am someone who has an MFA, who has been a professor for a number of years, who writes professionally about literary journals, and who plans to have a book out some day. Having a good publishing record helps you get good teaching jobs, it helps you get a book published, and is something I plan to continue. In many ways, my career depends on it.

However, the group of people who submit to literary journals is already not very diverse. It is mostly people who have undergraduate degrees in creative writing,  MFAs or MAs. Part of what I do when I write about literary journals is encourage writers who do not have an academic background to submit to literary journals.

However, if we continue to head in the direction where a submission fee is the standard instead of the exception, the writers who submit to and are accepted by literary journals will be even less diverse. Not only will they most likely be from an academic background, they will also need to have enough money to justify the process of submitting, which already takes a lot of time and energy. They will also most likely be writers whose careers depend on publication in such journals.

I find this shift towards charging submission fees to be upsetting, but I think that the long terms effects could actually be devastating. Not necessarily in a personal way, that is less significant, but to the loose community of writers at large. Literary journals will no longer reflect the larger community of writers at all, but just those who can afford to pay, or those whose career relies on publication.

I want young writers to be encouraged to submit. I want writers who are self taught, like Ray Bradbury was, to submit. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the direction literary journals are heading.

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