Piping the Payer

Posted on November 14, 2011


A few more thoughts and developments on the literary magazine submission fee debacle (or is it debate?):

Stephen Pierson, publisher of Canteen (and who took responsibility for posting the private listserv digest), has posted on his site that he is “conflicted about removing [the digest] and thereby, in some small way, privileging the interests of publishers over writers.” For one thing, just by the very nature of the power dynamic, publishers are privileged over writers. However, it’s a good and skilled editor or publisher who can stand this privilege on its head and negate its harmful effects.

One of the purposes of the CLMP listservs is to provide a safe environment for editors and publishers of literary magazines and presses to exchange information. Most people who start a literary magazine or small literary press have no formal training in publishing. Yet technological advances allow anyone with a PC or a Mac (and the requisite software) to start their own “publishing” venture. As someone who has had more than thirty years of experience providing editorial, design, production, project management, training and consulting services to other publishers (and who has been teaching more than ten years in a graduate publishing program), I can attest that publishing is a very highly skilled profession requiring a fairly sophisticated knowledge base. If anyone does go through an undergraduate or graduate publishing program, they know very well that there are extremely few paying jobs in the literary publishing field. Instead, they opt to go into trade, educational or corporate publishing. Only a handful of editors at the most prestigious university-affiliated magazines, or at the extremely few mags funded out of Occupy’s 1%, have decent salaries (and some sort of publishing background). Most are unpaid, and have had no formal training in publishing.

This is where CLMP comes in. It’s a non-profit trade organization founded to help literary editors and publishers. The listservs serve a vital function in letting the members teach each other about publishing practice. CLMP also offers workshops and seminars. Seeing the need for concrete, practical publishing information on these listservs lead me to initiate a non-credit Literary Publishing Certificate Program through Emerson College’s Professional Studies division. Every June (since 2010) for five days I lead a dozen or so eager editors-to-be through a crash course in publishing — pointing out pitfalls and benefits. The more we can educate ourselves, the better editors/publishers we can be. Even as a teacher, I learn more about publishing every day in order to prepare my students for a future in the ever-changing field of publishing.

What Pierson had done by leaking the digest was essentially throwing open the doors to a classroom at a fixed moment for bystanders to then judge the participants (all equally teacher and equally student).

One last thing I’d like to note is a little bit of personal history. Way back in the 1990s a friend was an editor of a very well-known and influential literary journal housed at a university (sorry, I won’t name names). He had gotten fed up with the huge size of his slush pile and the dearth of subscriptions. He was pissed off about this. After all, he had founded the journal many years before as an undergrad and had nursed it to its success. All he saw was people wanting wanting wanting (to be published) but not not not wanting to help support the journal (by subscribing). He had had enough so he instituted a submissions fee for unsolicited work. When I found out, I called him, trying to persuade him to change his mind and revoke this policy. Our discussions (I’m hazy on it but I seem to recollect a couple phone conversations) became heated. As I said in my previous post, this is an emotional issue for me since it ties in with concept of the primal relationship between editor and writer (and being both I see the issue from both sides). And for my friend, I could very well understand and sympathize with his anger. I gave it my best shot but I don’t think just my words convinced him. My parting shot was something like, “Well, if you do this, then soon enough everyone will follow suit.” I was very worried that such a prestigious journal would provide a model for the timid magazines.

Needless to say, the policy did not last that long. Others associated with the magazine were against the submission fee policy and it was rescinded. But it was years before I spoke with this editor again. One thing I regret. Friendships are important. But running a business from an emotional framework is a recipe for disaster. And that’s why we get back to square one: in literary publishing, where there’s not much at stake financially, most of the gains are psychic and emotional. And there’s my catch-22: getting really worked up that there’s not enough business acumen in literary publishing.