31 December 2016

The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"

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.)  


  1. D’accord, John. It’s bad enough when writers foot the publishing bill rather than the readers… assuming readers actually exist.

    There used to be heavily promoted poetry journals that employed the opposite model of the literary mags– for a reading fee they published everything that came their way, and then asked the the purported poet to purchase copies for family and friends.

    There is an exception to contest fees in my opinion. MWA and RWA regional groups often sponsor contests, usually with a fee of $10-20. The big draw isn’t prize money (although I won some), but critiques, often three by published writers. The critiques can help set a writer on the right path as well as get a hint what the market is looking for. To my knowledge, I don’t believe these contests publish works, only vet them, and it could be money well spent.

    Happy new year, John!

  2. Good thoughts, Leigh. And the contests/critiques you mention do sound worthwhile. I'm just a firm believer that money should flow toward, rather than away from, the writer.

    A happy new year to you as well!

  3. Good post here, John, and good point on critiques as well, Leigh. I agree on reading fees generally, and I don't pay them myself; however, I understand and empathize with the plight of many magazines who have far more aspiring writers submitting than eager readers subscribing, and importantly little overlap between the two--at the extreme, writers who have never even bought a single issue of a publication but keep submitting to it over and over again. While magazines like EQMM and AHMM don't charge reading fees, I'll be willing to bet they're in the same situation--with many submitters throughout the year not actually reading the magazine on a regular basis.

    I appreciate you putting out both sides of all this here, John, because even with the decision you and I and Leigh (and others, I'm sure) have come to, there are many layers to this and good to have our readers considering all sides.

  4. The sarcastic 85% of my brain wants to say that I can't comment until I've read your post and I charge $3 to read a blog, John — but just this once I'll ignore him and say that I agree with you 185%: reading fees, regardless of the reasoning behind them, are inappropriate, and I have never paid and would never pay one. (I also don't enter contests, regardless of whether or not there's a fee. Don't think there's anything wrong with them; just not my thing.)

  5. Congratulations on your banner year for short stories in print!

    I agree that writers should avoid evaluation fees or whatever they are called. The exception might be the rare contest that is up front about generating some support for a legitimate publication.

  6. I'm a professional writer. I don't pay people to read my writing just as artists don't pay people to view their paintings. I don't expect my doctor or lawyer to pay me when I go in for a consultation. They're professionals.

  7. Great post, John, and balanced thinking on both sides.

    Wow, twenty stories published. I don't think I've written twenty that were worth sending out...

    In my younger and even stupider years, I paid reading fees a few times, but figured out what you mention: the established writers had the inside track anyway so I was investing the money badly. A critique is nice, but they depend on the quality and insight of the readers, so that's a crap shoot, too.

    As for contests, I look at the reading fee against the potential prize. If the fee is twenty bucks and the prize is only a hundred, forget it. If the prize is more substantial, I'll think about it. But it's worth pointing out that there are several significant awards/prizes that involve no fees.

    Let's hope for a productive and satisfying artistic 2017. At least we have some control over that.

  8. Art, I agree that there's a fine line here--I want to support the magazines that support me and other writers, and I feel for those publications that are struggling. But I think that support should be voluntary and not a prerequisite to their considering what I submit. It is indeed an issue with many layers.

    Thanks for chiming in, Josh. I think "inappropriate" is a good (appropriate?) word to describe reading fees. As for contests, I've entered some, and even won a few, but I still prefer sending my stories to magazines and anthologies instead.

    Thank you, Janice, as always. You are right, of course, about some contests being worthwhile fundraisers. As Josh said, they're just not my thing.

    I like that view, O'Neil. I heard one author say that we writers should never feel that we're begging when we expect readers/editors to pay us for our novels/stories. She said we're providing a service (entertainment, enlightenment, etc.) and should be compensated for doing so.

    Thank you, Steve. Like you, I hope I've learned a bit, over time, about how all this works--but I still often make poor writing/marketing decisions. And you are correct: there are certainly some contests that charge no fee. I remain skeptical of those that do. I'm not saying that all of them are scams--I just don't think they're a wise investment of my time and my stories. (By the way, it's great having you here at SS.)

  9. While I avoid, and urge others to avoid, submitting to publications that charge reading fees and contests run by most publications, I find myself vacillating about writing contests in general.

    I have, over the years, served as a judge for several writing contests sponsored by writing organizations. The contests have been geared toward beginning (unpublished or minimally published) writers, and the money generated was used for one or more of several purposes: cash awards for the winning writers, publication of the winning entries, and/or paying the judges for their time, among others.

    These contests can provide a boost to beginning writers. Receiving an award and/or being published in the program/award booklet/etc. can boost one's confidence, and feedback from the professional writer who judged the contest can provide much-needed help and advice which, if heeded, might move one's career a step or two forward.

    I suggest that any writer considering entering their work in a writing contest evaluate the cost/benefit of doing so. Ten bucks to enter a contest sponsored by a local writers group where the winner gets $50, second place gets $25, and every entry receives a critique by John M. Floyd might well be worthwhile for a beginning writer. After one has made a handful of pro-level sales, these contests are probably no longer beneficial.

  10. I agree, John. A writer shouldn't have to pay to have his work published. I also frown on the practice of being charged to enter a contest. And I'm even more chagrined at the idea of paying for a review--something I'd never consider doing--and that goes for Kirkus and their kindred.

  11. I've been giving thought to a submission system where authors can choose whether or not to pay a submission fee. If their story is accepted, they would either earn the usual token compensation if they submitted for free, or they would earn the fees paid by all the rejected authors. The magazine would keep nothing for itself, but authors who want to be paid well for their work (and are confident of being accepted) would have a higher risk/reward option. Look at Glimmer Train: their submissions process is a contest. They charge $18 for submissions, the 'prize' is part of the cash pool as well as publication.

    I hesitate to try something like this because it would probably be misunderstood and viewed with suspicion, but it seems like a good solution all around.

  12. Michael, those are all good points. I probably should be more receptive to calls for contest entries. And, as I said earlier, I realize that many are not only respectable but helpful to the writing community. My bias is against contests in general, because I feel my stories have better odds of success at a publication.

    John, thanks for stopping by! This issue of paying-for-reviews is a whole 'nother animal. Let me just say that I agree with you completely. Paying for reviews can do nothing but cheapen the whole process. Sounds like a subject for another column. Anyone? Anyone?

  13. I've won two writing contests both with very small prizes. One was a nonfiction essay contest, prize $20 plus a very good nonfiction book by a writer I hadn't heard of. I split the grand prize in the other contest with another writer, I think because one of the judges liked my story best & the other judge preferred the other story. In any event that was a flash fiction contest & was great fun. The prize was a book of flash fiction stories.

    Years ago I paid a reading fee to Glimmer Train. Obviously nothing ever came of that ...

  14. Charles, that's an interesting concept. My first thought is one that you voiced already: I suspect that even though the approach is well-intentioned, many would misunderstand and disapprove. It's a complicated issue, for sure.

    As for Glimmer Train, I believe they have several categories, and their policy for "general fiction" submissions is that you can submit without a fee. But I could be wrong.

    Thanks for visiting SleuthSayers! I wish Mystery Weekly a great 2017.

  15. Hey Liz! First, congrats on the contest wins--I hate to sound TOO much against contests, because, as I said, I've entered some myself. One was a competition to write a 26-word story using every letter of the alphabet to begin the words (which I think I told you about)--and yes, it was great fun. I just hesitate to send my longer, labor-intensive stories to contests when I could be submitting them to magazines or anthos that might pay me and/or get wider exposure.

    Thanks for your views, and have a great new year!

  16. John, congrats on your number of sold stories this past year. As for reading fees, review fees and contest fees, we are in agreement, although I will admit to wasting some money on some contest fees in my earlier writing years.

    On the subject of contest fees, Michael Bracken mentioned local writer's club contests which is one category I may agree with, depending upon the rules and amount involved. However, my opinion on this may be colored by the fact that the three years I competed in a local writer's group contest, I had a win, a place and a show (in different years for each) with a check as prize for each one. All at the price of $10 an entry. Other contests were where the wasted money went. Of course, the situation in these last two sentences may be nothing more than the concept of a big frog in a small pond versus a small frog in a big pond, which I would surely agree with.

    I did submit once for free to Glimmer Train, but that was a lot of years ago. Their reply should be somewhere in my rejection file.

    Keep on writing, and have some Happy Holidays.

  17. Thanks, RT. All of us have spent that money for entry fees, at one time or another. With mixed results, right? As for the size of frogs and their ponds, I'm just a tadpole in a mudpuddle--but we all have opinions.

    Hope you have happy holidays, as well. Sure appreciate your insights!

  18. I don't really have anything new to add, John, but I agree with you about reading fees for magazines. Although I sympathize with the financial challenges magazines face, charging writers to submit stories doesn't sound like the best solution. As for contests that charge fees, I entered several for unpublished novels, mostly because I wanted the critiques or the chance to get my manuscript in front of an agent or editor who might be interested. Once, I won second prize in a contest but found the critiques so unhelpful that I just stuffed them back in the envelope and put it in a file. A year or so later (after the novel had been accepted by a publisher), I was clearing out files and decided to glance at the critiques again. Only then did I discover a check for $50.00 at the bottom of the envelope. I'd been so focused on the critiques that I'd forgotten there was a prize for second place. By then, of course, it was too late to cash the check. That was the last fee-charging contest I entered.

  19. I stay away from reading fees. To me those sites prey on new writers who are desperate to see their work in print. It also gives one an insight as to how well the publication is doing ... or not doing. Publishing stories is their bread and butter. They need stories. They can't put together an issue without them. Yet, they want to charge the writer to submit? It's like bringing a cup of flour with you when you apply for a job at a bakery.

  20. Interesting story in itself, Bonnie! If you were able to cash the check, it'd have a perfect ending. As has been said, I suppose there's an argument to be made for paying entry fees if critiques are offered. IF the critiques have value.

    Jody, we are in complete agreement. Thanks for the comment!!

  21. I wasn't completely awake this morning when I wrote my earlier post. Neither of the two writing contests I won involved paying a fee ... I'd already paid once to enter a Glimmer Train contest by then & was disinclined to pay again. The only thing I got from Glimmer Train was a cancelled check, no critique.

    I think you & I entered that same alphabetical story contest several years ago! How did you do? Me, I misunderstood the directions & instead started every sentence with the next letter of the alphabet ... duh ... it turned into a story of about 500 words ;-(

  22. Dear John, the check is in the mail, or at Paypal, or in a packet of quarters placed under the last gas pump on the right.
    BTW, I entirely agree - never pay reading fees.

  23. Liz, I wound up winning a $30 gift certificate from Amazon for that contest. This was my 26-word story, using every letter of the alphabet, in order: Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim, "Welcome. Xpected you. ZAP!" Not exactly fine literature.

    Thanks, Eve! You seem to be the only one who read the submission guidelines. I'll try not to spend it all in one place!

  24. Cool story! And you got more than $1 per word! I sent mine to a non-paying venue which published it. Considering the limitations I thought I had when I wrote it, the story turned out O.K., but there's an obvious gimmick. So I didn't want to submit it & give myself a bad name at the paying markets.

  25. Liz, the difference is, you thought it through and had a marketing plan. I just wanted the $30!!

  26. The check is in the mail, John. Great topic.

    I agree that I wouldn't pay a magazine to read my submission, however, I have paid to enter contests in the early years and won a few of them. I've also judged quite a few in the later year (no pay). I feel if you are getting a critique for a small fee it might be worth it. I've considered writing for the Golden Donut contest because the money goes to a good cause. Unfortunately, I've never been able to come up with a decent idea for the picture you have to base the 200 word story, including title, on. Maybe there's hope for me this year.

    For new writers, I'd say consider your chances and what you will get out of the contest to help you decide whether to enter or not.

    In general, I want to be paid for my writing. I've put too many years into this career not to be paid.

    Happy New Year!

  27. Pat, no hurry, on the check. Cash in an envelope works fine, too.

    The consensus seems to be that entry fees for contests are more acceptable than reading fees for publications. (I don't like either one.) I suppose the main thing is to know what you're getting into, and weigh the benefits. I must add, here, that a HUGE number of my writer friends absolutely love entering contests, entry fees or not. To each his/her own.

    Thanks for stopping in, here, Pat--and good luck with all your literary endeavors in 2017!

  28. What a great post, John, and wonderful way to leap into 2017. I've had many discussions with friends about this very topic, and I'm with you. I do understand that it is hard for publications to keep afloat and to pay their contributors, but I'm not paying anyone to publish my writing. For contests I can see where beginning writers might want to do it for the critiques (assuming it offers them) but I'd rather publish a story I feel is polished enough to have a chance in a contest. Happy New Year! May there be nothing but acceptances in your inbox! :-)

  29. Thanks, Sati, and Happy New Year to you as well. Best to you with all your writing projects!

  30. John,

    Great post, and as always, you're my hero!

    Every now and then I'll enter a lit journal contest. I think about it like this: 1) Do I have a story to spare that fits? 2) Would getting in that market make a difference? 3) Would I have a shot of finishing high enough to get published? 4) Would I be willing to pony up for that chance? Usually I hit "no" somewhere in there.

  31. Hey Bob--good to have you here.

    Thanks for the thoughts--those are good points. Like you, I find a lot of reasons NOT to send my stories to most contests. But I sure send a lot of them out to magazines and anthologies.

    Take care, my friend. Keep me posted--it's always good to hear about your successes!


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