Should Literary Magazines Charge Reading Fees?

Should literary journals charge submission fees, and perhaps more centrally—should writers pay these fees? This topic is apt to spur a debate on Facebook and elsewhere. But I want to examine it on a basic level: i.e. are editors and writers adversaries or allies?

If adversaries, the answer is no. This line of thinking would be that editors are trying to rip literary writers off. I find this difficult to believe, having been an editor of one sort or another side I was sixteen. Why would a person become a small press or literary editor—a thankless unpaid task—in order to exploit writers?

So let’s assume editors are supporting writers. This leads to a more ambiguous answer.

The ever thoughtful Devon Miller-Duggan has this to say about fees:

“I think it sucks and, in cases of institutions with big endowments, is unethical. But I also understand it, particularly with journal submissions, as a kind of repugnant, but desperate response to the impossible flood of submissions that have follow on the heels of simultaneous submissions becoming the norm. Tim Green at Rattle did a detailed post a couple of years ago (he’s ferociously opposed) in which he worked out the math and made it clear that the journals are not making any money on their $3. fees. Contests are different, though still irritating. I think that money goes to pay the judges and help with the prize money most of the time, though I do like it when the press sends me a book in return for my entry fee. I am effing sick of paying entry fees, mind you, but it’s the reality.”

My advice about contests may address this in a somewhat roundabout manner. I don’t suggest you put a lot of effort (or fee money) into contests. That is because your chance of winning a contest is much lower than having a manuscript accepted by a press you actually have a relationship to (follow, purchase from, read, admire). Contests have thousands of submissions—the average press is not that inundated with possible books.

If you feel you MUST submitted to magazines and contests with fees—give yourself a budget. A budget used to go to stamps and envelopes. Now it can go to fees. Set your budget for the year, don’t go over it, and tax deduct it. You’ll feel better if you exert some control.

The opinion from Alicia Marie Rencountre-Da Silva is representative of how fees negatively affect writers:

“I think it is a really hard thing to see something like a residency that we already know will be highly competitive and then to see that they charge 35 or 50 or 25 just to read our 250 word application and look at our work. If they need money I believe it should be factored into their costs in other ways.

For me it erodes my own sense of worth and place as an artist and writer. I feel “slighted” irritated and a strong sense of aversion and even bad-will or judgement towards the executer of the residency or exhibition or contest.”

However, there are some interesting perspectives outlined below by engaged artists.

Nate Maxson: If I can pay the submission fee and it’s not egregious, I don’t mind. It helps independent publications stay in operation. It’s not like anyone is getting rich off small press poetry. Lots of writers look at submission fees with the mindset of “but what does this do for ME?” and I find that smallminded and self centered. Gotta support your literary community.

Danny Sagan: It is difficult to make a living in the arts these days. If an organization needs to charge a fee per submission in order to keep the organization that publishes or exhibits in business, so be it. Think of it as crowd sourcing. I would pay a fee to be listed in a directory. There is a local gallery in town that works on a membership basis. We get to see the work, they get to exhibit it. The rent gets paid. No shame in that. If the government would subsidize what we all do , we would not have to pay to play, but this late capitalism in America.

Steve Peters I would never pay to submit to a journal. I mind less for residencies and grants if it’s a reasonable fee – I’ve been on enough panels to know that it is a lot of work to go through many proposals and I wouldn’t do it without being paid.


One additional note—it is worth asking that a fee be waived—not for a contest but for a residency application or even graduate school. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Grad schools often will, and I’m guessing well funded residencies will too.

My personal policy is to not complain every time a call for submissions comes up with a fee. I just pace myself, paying a very occasional fee for something. I also don’t do much in the way of multiple submissions. I know that is anathema in today’s world, but I don’t feel I need to flood magazines with my work. But the heart of my submissions policy is to see writers and editors as connected, and necessary, to each other.

3 thoughts on “Should Literary Magazines Charge Reading Fees?

  1. I don’t understand the outrage over fees. Pay them, or don’t. Editors put in long, unpaid hours, and often publication costs are covered by the editors! But there are plenty of zines that don’t charge fees, so writers who oppose fees have the opportunity to submit elsewhere.

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