Round-Down: Rounding Up the Submission Fee Debate

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In recent years, most literary journals have begun to accept online submissions through popular managers like Submittable–many, too, have begun to only accept submissions in this way, eschewing the old-guard snail-mail submission method entirely. This new approach certainly has its upsides–in many cases the switch has resulted in faster response times, often more organized editorial deliberation practices, and ease of tracking submissions on part of the submitter. Online submission seems like an obvious solution to the problems of inconvenient post office trips and purchasing stamps. But this online submission process has garnered criticism for what many perceive to be an unfair tax on the submitter: nominal ~$2 to $5 submission fees.

Here, I’ve tried to round up some of the major press on submission fees and offer some insight into these fees and their ostensible necessity.

Earlier this year at The Atlantic, Joy Lazendorfer weighed in with the article “Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?” Lazendorfer indicts the fee as an obstacle to those not easily able to afford it, writing, “If this [fee] seems like a reasonable practice, it’s worth noting that this model is nonexistent in the rest of publishing, where it’s always been free for writers to send their work to editors.”

In January 2015, the Writer’s Relief staff published an article at The Huffington Post with a view that opposes Lazendorfer’s: “Simply put: It costs money for journals to maintain websites, create issues, and use an online submission manager. Many literary magazines are non-profit and are run by volunteers. Those that are run by colleges or universities are dealing with ever-shrinking budgets. Do you subscribe or donate money to every magazine you submit work to? Maybe yes, but maybe no. By charging an administrative fee, struggling literary journals can continue to publish.”

Several years ago, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review wrote this thorough post about why journals must charge submission fees. Nye writes, “One of the things worth recognizing is that the cost of submitting to a magazine is a fixed prospective cost: a cost that will be incurred and cannot be recovered. Submissions have never really been free. It’s simply that the cost (paper, envelopes, postage, etc.) has been paid to the post office, not the magazine.”

Becky Tuch at The Review Review rounds up commentary from established writers and editors in her article, “Reading Fees: Should You Submit?“: “[W]hat 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,” she says

At Electric Literature last May, Lincoln Michel covered both sides of the argument in his comprehensive “Is It Time for Literary Magazines to Rethink the Slush?“, offering an array of perspectives and opinions. Michel discusses the question with care and raises several possible solutions to the issue of fees: ways to reduce slush without charging, soliciting emerging writers, and defining aesthetic tastes.

As the current editor-in-chief of The Indiana Review, a journal that charges submission fees, I see these concerns and have thought long about them. There seems to be a common misconception that all university literary journals have deep institutional pockets; this is often not the case. In an effort to acknowledge that we must charge these fees even though we do not want to. We recently partnered with two other university journals that charge submission fees–Black Warrior Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review–for a 24-hour fee-free reading period this past Black Friday.

It’s a difficult question with no easy solution, but these and other articles provide better insight into the state of literary journals which, unlike successful novels and other literary ventures, rarely turn a large profit.

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