Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.