31 December 2016
The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
Yes, I know, it's the last day of the year. And yes, I know everybody's talking about resolutions and the best and worst things that have happened to us over the past twelve months, etc. On the good side, my wife and I welcomed a seventh grandchild into the world in 2016, and I had 20 stories published, and 30 more in a collection; on the bad side, we all lost a number of fine authors and actors and musicians and national leaders, and we had to choose a president from two of the most unpopular candidates ever to run for office. But that's all I'm going to say about the past. I'm treating this as just another day, and this is just another column about writing. I do hope, though, that all of you have a healthy and prosperous 2017. Now, back to the matter at hand . . .
Consider this. You're a fiction writer, you've completed your short story or novel, and you're looking for a publisher. With manuscript safely on your hard drive and/or in your outbasket, you do your marketing research, you pick out a magazine or anthology (if it's a story) or a publisher or agent (if a novel), and you study their submission guidelines. And you discover that they require the payment of a "reading fee."
Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?
Here's the deal. In the case of short stories, with which I'm more familiar, writers are sometimes asked to pay reading fees in order for the publication to consider their work. (A few agents and novel publishers do, as well--they used to be called "evaluation fees"--but they shouldn't do this, and most don't.) Short-story publications that charge fees are usually literary journals that publish both print and online versions. They often say these are "administrative" fees that help defray the costs of the websites, databases, etc., that allow writers to submit manuscripts electronically. Most of the reading fees I've seen in submission guidelines are around three dollars, but some are higher.
The question, of course, is: Should you send stories to markets that charge these fees?
Before giving you my opinion (which if converted to cash wouldn't be enough pennies to jingle in your pocket), let me list some of what I've heard are the pros and cons of this issue.
On the positive side:
- Reading fees provide financial support for the magazines. It's a way that we as writers can say thanks to those editors and help them keep their publications in business.
- Since most markets now allow electronic submissions rather than hardcopy subs, a reading fee--especially if it's in the three-dollar range--probably costs the writer less, per submission, than he/she would've had to pay for the postage, paper, printer ink, and envelopes involved in the snailmail process of the Olden Days.
- Reading fees might help those publications to pay (or pay more) to writers for their stories. Some publications, many of them literary magazines, pay only in "copies."
- Fees can "weed out" writers who aren't serious about their craft. Casual or hobbyist writers probably won't go to the expense of sending in stores if they have to pay to submit them.
- Many of the publications that charge reading fees are those that don't pay the writers anything for their stories. And a lot of writers feel that the idea of writing for free and then paying to get published is unfair and even insulting.
- Some of these fee-charging publications have turned out to be scams. The potential for abuse is certainly there, anytime a publication takes money from the writer.
- Reading fees have the hardest impact on the least-wealthy writers. There are some who feel that fees help to create a world where the wealthiest writers have an advantage over those who are less (financially) fortunate. In an Atlantic article, "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" Joy Lanzendorfer said, "Fees ensure that people who have disposable income will submit the most."
NOTE 1: Lanzendorfer even points out that some literary magazines' tendency to publish only a tiny percent of unsolicited stories while publishing (and paying) mostly established writers has produced an ethical problem: "When a journal takes reading fees from the slush pile and then pays the writers they solicited, they've created an exploitative system where the unknown writers are funding the well-known ones."
NOTE 2: Thankfully, I can't think of any current mystery magazines that require reading fees.
My take on the subject:
Don't pay reading fees. Period. I realize it's expensive to publish a magazine, and certainly to
maintain an online submission system, etc.--but there's something I really don't like about paying someone to consider a story. It's almost the short-story equivalent of vanity-publishing a novel. If what we create is good enough, why must we writers have to pay anyone anything to get into print?
I know that position is a bit extreme. But I even feel the same way about contests. Some writing contests require an entry fee of twenty dollars or more. I can't imagine doing that, when the odds of my placing my story at a respected market are probably much higher than the odds of winning first place in a contest. Besides, contests want original, previously-unpublished stories, and those are prime candidates for the best magazines. Bottom line is, I don't submit stories to publications that require reading fees or to contests that have entry fees. Again, my opinion only.
This has become a point of argument among writers, just like outlining vs. freewheeling, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, literary vs. genre, past-tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, etc. What are your thoughts?
By the way, please send me $3 with every comment. And . . .
Announcement: Next Saturday in this time-slot Herschel Cozine, an old friend of mine and of SleuthSayers, will post a guest column on the goofiness of the English language. Please tune in for that! (No payment required.)