Paying the Piper

Posted on November 12, 2011


Dear Reader (if I have any left),

It’s been 8 months since my last post. (As an apostate, my Catholic roots are rearing up: “Dear Father, It has been 8 months since my last confession…”) I feel a certain amount of guilt that I have broken some sort of trust with you. But a lot has happened over the last 8 months: fixing up & selling one house, packing & unpacking, and working feverishly on the new house. Uprooting after 17 years in one place is fairly traumatic (& I have blogged about it here previously). I just can’t do everything, so something — this blog — went by the wayside. I’m hoping it won’t happen again, but you never know what fate has in store for you…

But a couple of interrelated incidents in the literary publishing world has prompted me to take five from my full-time teaching duties, part-time publishing services obligations, part-time work on Quale Press, the trees that need to be planted in the yard before the ground freezes, the trim and doors that still need to be painted, and last year’s wine that needs to be racked, etc. etc.

A few weeks ago an editor of a very important (at least in my mind) literary magazine posted on a CLMP listserv asking for other editors’ thoughts on charging submission fees. That post initiated a firestorm of posts — both pro and con (and with varying degrees of emotion). I also posted towards the end. The premise behind this listserv (as well as others run by CLMP) is that the posts are private and the forum is designed to serve as a way for editors of literary magazines and presses to have a free interchange of ideas and information. It has a basic rule: no one copies posts or quotes from posts outside of the forum. These listservs perform a valuable and needed function for presses, and privacy is a key tenet for them. For example, the editor for one press might put up a post on how to sell translation rights abroad for a book published by the press. Innocent, but the editor might not want his/her employer to know that s/he does not know how to handle that situation.

So, this exchange on the issue of charging submission fees occurred from Oct. 26-28. On Nov. 10, at 12:17 pm, someone at Canteen magazine posted a digest that included all of the posts on this issue from the CLMP literary magazine listserv. On Nov. 11, at 11:01 am, Garth Risk Hallberg posted a notice at that Canteen had put up this “candid” digest. Later in the afternoon, Don Share posted a link to Hallberg’s notice at TheMillions on Facebook (the FB link & comment stream have been taken down). A link was put up on the Poetry Foundation website and quickly taken down when privacy issues were raised.

Supposedly, according to the editors of Canteen, the names were either changed or redacted so readers could not identify who was saying what. I was changed to “Gina.” I’d like to thank the editors of Canteen for brilliantly masking my name, and for my sex change. Now I can become the circus bearded lady I’ve always wanted to be. But I found at least one instance where the editor’s name was not changed. Another editor whose remarks were included has stated that his name was not changed, or partially changed. Another magazine’s name and URL were not changed at all. Another editor’s name reduced to his initials. Very sloppy work in changing and redacting. And then, even with the sharpest editorial eye, to a well-informed reader of literary mags, even with the names changed, it would not be very hard to figure out whose post is whose.

On the one hand, I am not particularly concerned that my remarks were made public. I’m not shy about my stance about submission fees, reading fees, handling fees, contest fees — whatever you want to call them. But I am very concerned that a member of this private exchange went public without gaining all of the participants’ permission, and in such a shoddy manner. Ostensibly, the publisher of Canteen, Stephen Pierson, said he did it for the purist of reasons (without any vested interest) as a means of furthering debate on Canteen‘s website as they debate the issue of whether to charge submission fees. Needless to say, there was a firestorm of disapproval on the listserv. Pierson took responsibility for posting the digest, offered a very backhanded apology, neglected to admit to doing any wrong, invited members to “flame” him privately, and took down the digest.

From my viewpoint, I don’t see anything innocent about what Pierson did, and I find it a very calculated move to garner publicity as the center of yet another literary scandal. You all know what they say about getting press — that no press is bad press, and bad press is good press. I’ve got the feeling hundreds (if not thousands) more people will know about Canteen than they did before. And I say calculated because all members of the CLMP listserv know the rules of the listserv. And a good editor should know the implications of making public private conversations. This digest is not the literary equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, nor is it indicative that the editors and publishers on the CLMP listservs are one big literary cabal out to screw writers. For the most part, these are dedicated, hard-working people trying to make a go of endeavors that have all the odds stacked against them. They are all reaching out for mutual support. This stunt by Pierson is akin to kicking the chair from underneath all of these good people.

Bottom line: If you want an intelligent and respectful debate, start out by being intelligent (knowing ramifications) and respectful (gaining permissions). And do a good job making names and mags anonymous.

What I also found a bit disturbing on Canteen‘s site was a poll on how visitors stand on the policy of charging submission fees. It’s like, “Well, if the majority of respondents don’t have a problem with it, then it’s OK.” I’d like to counter with the fact that we need to have an understanding of the issue and its underlying principles. It’s like polling people on abortion or the death penalty. Some issues have to go beyond popularity polls and be tackled with earnest and clear thinking.

From my vantage point, I see more and more magazines wanting to find some sort of authorization for instituting submission fees, whether it’s a poll of readers or website visitors, or the fact that Mag X and Mag Y did it, so we can jump on the bandwagon. Conformity in its worst sense. I suppose if a majority of people think it’s OK to stop teaching evolution, then it’s fine.

My position is that I am against submission fees (and any others such as reading fees for contests, etc.) under any circumstances. I would include my post on the CLMP listserv here, but I’d like to make sure that is OK with CLMP. If there’s no problem, then I’ll post it as a comment to this thread.

Essentially, my reasoning against fees are thus:

1. “Electronic submission saves writers paper/photocopying/postage, so therefore that money should go to the magazine since the author would have had to pay for it anyhow.” I’m not buying this. Literally. What if an author dropped off his/her submission personally? Do you charge the author a $1 since s/he saved that on postage? Also, what about some mags having a preferred class of authors who bypass paying by sending email submissions directly to editors?

Very few prose writers and exceptionally few poets can make a living directly by their writing. Most need a full-time other job (teaching writing, for most), or at least some sort of part time work to augment income. There are also very few writers of independent means (i.e., trust fund babies, or those that retired after making a killing in the stock market). Many mags will try to justify submission fees by saying it’s the cost of a coffee or an ice cream. But multiply that by 50 or 100 for the average beginning writer because it might take them that many tries to get work published. So we’re talking $100 or $150 minimum. At the U.S. federal minimum wage, that’s 14 or 21 hours of work. For someone working as a barista at Starbuck’s, waiting tables on the weekend and paying off student loans for undergrad and that MFA, that’s serious money. Would it be a boon for writers if magazines could save them money? Less stress on writers? More time for them to write better poems/stories? More respect? Reading or submission fees might not hurt the well-heeled writer too badly, but it can be devastating for the writer writing out of poverty. The fees come from a privileged point of view. Also, maybe if writers had more pocket change left over, they might use it to subscribe to a literary mag or two or buy more small press books.

2. “Well, our online/digital submission system costs money, so we need to pass along the costs to writers.” Hmm. Everything costs money, except for the time editors and publishers donate to their presses. Why not charge fees also because it costs money to print and mail magazines, or print and ship books? It’s a cost of doing business and, as a magazine, you wouldn’t pay for an online submission system unless it saved you time (and money) down the line. (If not, you are making exceptionally bad business decisions.) So, here’s the catch: the system is creating an offsetting savings for the mag, but the mag wants to pocket the savings and charge extra for it.

3. “The submission fee is the equivalent of the old SASE.” Not quite. Remember the definition of “unsolicited” submissions? In the old days, if you sent something to a publisher unsolicited, the publisher was under no obligation to reply or respond in some manner. If a writer wanted a response, s/he also included an SASE. If you apply a submission fee to snail mail submissions, that’s an extra charge to the writer. If you use an online system, that editorial response costs nothing (so the analogy to SASE breaks down). However, if the online system does cost the publisher, one needs to factor in any time savings (see #2 above).

4. “We get too many inappropriate submissions. Charging will help decrease these.” If you believe this, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. From the anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from some mags, charging for submissions does not decrease the amount of inappropriate submissions. People are hungry to get published. They will do anything, including waving dollars in front of your face.

5. “I get tired of people wanting to get published; if only they’d subscribe to our magazine.” Don’t take your anger out on the people who supply you the material you publish. Charging them submission fees will be less likely to create an environment where these folk have more money to subscribe to your mag. Creating an incentive like not charging submission fees to subscribers creates classes of contributors. Do you magazine editors really want to force people to subscribe? Also, how many of these writers really stand a chance of getting published?

6. “The slush pile is just way too big. Charging fees will reduce it.” Possibly, but probably not. Many mags shifting to fees do not see an appreciable decline in unsolicited submissions. Again, people are hungry to get published. If the pile’s too big and the chances of anyone making it from the pile to the mag are slim to none, why take unsolicited submissions? Duh.

7. “We just can’t keep publishing our magazine unless we charge submission fees.” OK, first off, you don’t have enough subscriptions and/or single copy sales to float your magazine. Maybe you should think about how to increase these numbers. Are you publishing what someone might want? Are you reaching the people who might be interested in what you want? Just printing your magazine is not enough. Are you spending way too much money on your print product? How can you save money? POD for mags (see: Go online/digital only? If you cannot keep your magazine going financially, something is desperately wrong. Charging submission fees is the ultimate expression of denial.

To reiterate what I said in my CLMP listserv post: There is an incredible power dynamic at work in publishing. In all these discussions on this topic it’s the elephant in the room. Editors/publishers hold the power to publish. That’s the dream of every writer: to get published. History is replete with stories of what writers will do to get published. Editors/publishers can stipulate whatever they want to applicants who want to get published. The power is in their hands. What I earnestly wish is that editors/publishers gain a full realization of the power they hold and then be reasonable, sympathetic and respectful in their requests of writers.

I am also incredibly frustrated that in these discussions about fees, everyone is ignoring the other, much larger elephant in the room. Namely: HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO SUBSCRIBE TO LIT MAGS OR TO BUY BOOKS? All of this palaver about fees saps our energy from dealing with this central issue of literary publishing (and publishing as a whole).

In the end, though, I’m very cynical. I can see the writing on the wall, and it saddens and maddens me: The trend is that more and more magazines will charge for submissions. Nothing I say or do will persuade those intent on instituting fees from doing so, or persuading those who have instituted fees to drop that policy. The argument runs along lines akin to religious fervor. (And I’m no exception: for me this argument is intensely intellectual and intensely emotional.)  In a few years, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a magazine that does not charge for submissions. That’s where the trend is going. It’s like “monkey see; monkey do.” As I said above, if it’s OK for Mag X, then Mags Y & Z will do it. If it’s OK for them, then another handful. Twenty years ago, there were far fewer contests and reading fees. Now it’s the norm and rare to find any small press without a contest and its attendant fees. But doing so still hasn’t solved the fundamental problem of selling books or lit mags.

All I know is that I’ll be damned before I pay any sort of reading fee, and I’ll be super damned if Quale ever charges one.

Notes: I started Quale Press to work on projects that would support the writers that I firmly believe in and who might not otherwise get published, as well as to champion the genre of prose poetry, and alternative ways of shaping prose, and progressive (politically) poetry. Quale is not non-profit. I take whatever I earn from the publishing services (my freelance work) side of Quale and put it into the press to publish 4 to 6 books a year. I teach publishing courses full-time and do my freelance Quale work in my “free” time as well as Quale publishing projects. Sales of books covers about 20% of my costs with the press. The freelance work covers another 70% of the costs. Subventions, from authors’ sponsoring universities, account for another 8%. The remaining 2% or so comes from contributions — primarily from Quale authors. I bless their hearts. I know that one day I will rue how much money I put in from my own pocket — that money could be best put aside to augment the funds I contribute to my son’s college education, or the money I put aside for retirement.

With all my time commitments, I decided when I started Quale that I would not read unsolicited work. Quale’s policy is essentially “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” (In fact, I’ve had someone call after 11 pm at night to complain about this policy. Thankfully [for him], it went to my voicemail.) I know I might be missing out on some spectacular book by not accumulating and reading through a slush pile. That’s just the breaks. There’s always something that gets away. I have a set group of writers that I support by publishing their work. And I’m able, through their recommendations, the journals I read, and recommendations by other writers who I respect, to have enough solicited work to read through May and June each year. And the point of Quale is to support these writers and keep them in print for as long as I can physically, intellectually and financially do so.