Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The scourge of reading fees at lit mags

Since I’ve been ranting lately about the stacked economics of literature, I might as well add this irritant: more and more literary journals are charging reading fees. Here’s a piece in The Atlantic that lays it all out for you.

Should you be peeved as a writer? Mos def.

For decades, the model has been that the literary journal would read slush-pile material for free, mainly because the odds of acceptance were always so astronomical that to charge the poor schlubs for rejection felt…wrong. Plus there was this notion that we were all in it together, producing and publishing good writing for the good of the culture. The little magazines were funded by universities, for the most part, along with grants from the NEA and other arts councils and philanthropic entities, and the editors were usually English professors who were doing the job as one of their work responsibilities. Often grad students did the first reads, screening the material for the editors.

Writers were always encouraged, at least, to read the journal before submitting but also to subscribe. Often your rejection slip came with a subscription form. I remember being guilted many times into subscribing to the journals I submitted to, even if only for a year. It felt like part of the symbiotic give and take.

Now though, as a way of trying to reduce the crush of submissions, a lot of journals have instituted reading fees that range from $3 to as high as $25, effectively turning the submission process into a pay-to-play system. (See what else lit-pirate Tom Jenks has up his sleeve, in addition to charging us $20+ to submit to his mag, Narrative.) And, like I said in an earlier post, this eliminates many writers from consideration because they can’t afford the fees. Seldom does a story get accepted on its first submission, so even at $3 per, you might wind up dropping quite a bit of cash on serial rejections before you hit pay dirt.

Ironically, The Atlantic piece says that submissions have actually increased.

I don’t have an argument with the journals’ desire to survive. What’s probably as unjust as the reading fees is the drying up of other kinds of funding — in spite of the fact that universities are often sitting on gigantic endowments like Scrooge McDuck hoarding gold coins. But requiring writers to pay up front in the face of a 1% acceptance rate is like charging admission to the guillotine.

The truth is, we have a glut of writing talent in this country, a dearth of good outlets for publication, and technology that makes it easier to submit than ever before. Do the math and it’s easy to understand why a journal that gets 500 submissions a month (and a lot of them do) can’t say no to an easy $30K in new revenue — or as high as $150K at $25 a pop.

It seems like big American cities like New York and San Francisco are becoming playgrounds for the wealthy. It’d be a shame if our literary culture built a pay wall around itself too.

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15 comments on “The scourge of reading fees at lit mags

  1. Max Scratchmann
    February 4, 2016

    I have a rule never to submit anything to anyone who wants paid for the privilege of reading me!

  2. kingmidget
    February 4, 2016

    Yep. Truth be told, I just don’t submit much. Primarily because the odds are so stacked against me and I don’t write the kind of literary story most seem to want. We’ve discussed this before. There’s this MFA style of writing a story that most seem to want to publish and that’s not the kind of story I write. So, why bother. And then when they add on a $10 fee to submit … WHY BOTHER!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 4, 2016

      Same here. I got fed up with the cursory rejections a long time ago. And in submitting to agents, half the time they don’t respond at all. Such respect for the artist…

      Like so many things in this culture, money fux it all up!

    • ericjbaker
      February 4, 2016

      Honestly I can’t stand most of the fiction that gets published in literary journals.

      • Audrey Driscoll
        February 4, 2016

        This may be unfair, but your comment made me say it 🙂
        I’ve sometimes thought the only people that read those journals are writers wanting to get published in them, or (maybe) friends of those who have been published.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 5, 2016

        I’ve always suspected as much, Audrey! But I’m an unreformed cynic, so you can’t go by me. 😛

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 5, 2016

        Yeah. I gave up on them a long time ago. Then again, I gave up on a lot of things a long time ago. 😝

      • ericjbaker
        February 5, 2016

        I was going to call the whole thing a literary circle jerk, but this is a family blog.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 5, 2016

        The Addams Family, maybe …

  3. 1WriteWay
    February 11, 2016

    “The people who do [pay reading fees] are likely novice writers who might think their submission will be taken more seriously because they paid for the privilege.” And maybe they’re also thinking there will be a smaller pool of submissions because of of the fees, so they (erroneously) think their odds of getting accepted are better. Pretty depressing article. While I have no illusions of attracting an agent with my impressive array of rough drafts, I have harbored hopes that a few of my short stories would get published in small journals; but those hopes are now dashed.

    Eric has it exactly right: literary circle jerk. Much like the book publishing business, literary journals seem more interested in publishing known names than in discovering new talent.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 11, 2016

      Yes, it always used to peeve me when I’d see a Joyce Carol Oates story in some little magazine I’d submitted to. WTF?

      I think the little mag as I used to know it is a thing of the past, and in its place are lots of online zines nobody knows about.

      And speaking of nepotism, I heard that a couple of years ago a friend of Tom Jenks won the big story prize in his magazine, Narrative. What a co-inkydink!

      • 1WriteWay
        February 11, 2016

        How funny … I was going to complain about Oates as being one of those known names who gets published a lot. She can write as much as she wants. I just wish she’d stop publishing for awhile 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 11, 2016

        Yes. I do believe she’s had ample time to make her case … 😜

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2016 by in Writing and tagged .
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