07 November 2020

Pay to Play -- Yea or Nay?

I have often said, at this blog, that I believe writers--novelists. nonfictioners, poets, short-story writers, whoever--should expect to be paid for what they write, and should never have to pay anyone else to get it published. I especially don't like the concept of "reading fees" for those who submit their work to publications. And I practice what I preach: I have submitted many, many short-story manuscripts, and I have never paid a submission fee, and I don't plan to. As the high-school troublemaker once said when asked why he didn't like school, "It's the principal of the thing." The spelling's different, but that's my explanation too.

But … I took part in a discussion about a month ago that offered a look at this issue from another perspective. It wasn't enough to make me change my mind, but for the first time I could at least understand why some publications choose to charge writers for their work.

Hear me out, here. I'd like to see what you think.

The argument against submission fees

For the past several years, it's become common for some publications, mostly literary magazines, to charge writers from two to five dollars or more to submit a short story for consideration. It goes without saying that most of those stories will be rejected, but even if they're accepted, their authors will usually be paid very little, and sometimes nothing at all. What a deal, right? Pay for a chance to win, and even if you win, you lose. Or at least you lose money. I guess what you would gain is prestige, but I find myself wondering how much prestige is involved in an arrangement like that.

As pointed out in the excellent Atlantic article "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" by Joy Lanzendorfer, this kind of thing is often scorned in all other areas of publishing. If a literary agent even hints at charging reading fees, writers are cautioned to avoid him or her, and the same goes for the publishers of novels and almost anything else except short fiction. But the editors of more and more magazines are doing just that.

And this is happening at a time when everyone's trying to make publishing more diverse, and more accessible to underrepresented groups of writers. I have to ask myself, How does the charging of reading fees fit in, there? The first thing that comes to mind is that the folks hurt the most by submission fees are the ones who might not be able to afford them. If you're already an outsider to publishing, and/or probably aren't among the wealthiest of writers, isn't this kind of thing going to do more to discourage your literary efforts than to encourage them? By the way, the more established authors are often not asked to pay these fees, which makes me wonder if the lesser-known writers are having to foot the bill for everyone else.

The argument FOR submission fees:

The magazines that charge these fees make what might be an understandable point. They say it's not so much about money; it's about the huge volume of submissions they receive. The electronic age has made it easy, maybe too easy, for writers to submit stories. No longer do we have to pay for stamps or paper or printer ink or envelopes or trips to the post office. We either email our stories to editors or use the online submission process via their publications' websites. It's all free, and convenient. As a result, more writers are sending in stories, some of them stories that should never have been written in the first place, much less submitted for publication. So part of the reason for reading fees (also called "processing fees" or "administrative fees") is to cut down on the number of submissions by--supposedly--weeding out the writers who might not be serious about their writing. I'm not sure if that's working, but that's the idea. 

The fees also generate money for the magazines. After all, many of these publications, some of which are college literary journals, don't have full-time people on staff and are struggling to make ends meet--so three or four dollars per submissions can give them some much-needed funds, they say, to do things like hiring more readers to handle the volume. 

So those are the two pluses, for the magazine: fewer unworthy submissions and more cash to pay the bills.

Back to my own views:

To quote Mr. Biden, "Here's the deal." I don't like the concept of submission fees, and by God I won't pay them. On the other hand, I do realize that these underfunded publications need some way to stay afloat. One answer to this, I would think, is for writers like you and me to support the magazines we want to write for in other ways. It would seem that the best of those are either donations or subscriptions. Sure, subscriptions can be expensive, but at least you'd be getting something back from an investment like that, while helping the publications themselves. (I admit that I'm exempt from some of this, because I read--and write for, and subscribe to--mostly mystery magazines, who don't charge reading fees, and not literary magazines, who often do. But I believe the argument stands.)

Now, having said all that, what do you think? Should magazines charge submission fees? Do you, or would you, pay them? Have you done so, in the past? Do you see, as I think I finally do, the reason these publications feel the need to charge fees? Do you think those reasons are valid? What would your solution be, if you were one of those editors? Are you a writer who subscribes to the magazines you submit stories to?

The whole matter is a volatile issue, and to some degree it still irks me when I think about it. But in my old age, I'm trying to be more understanding and more receptive to things I don't like and things I don't agree with. I'm not all the way there yet, but I'm trying.

And that's it. I'll be back in two weeks with a cheerier subject. (I don't know yet what it'll be, but it sure better be cheerier than this.)

Meanwhile, take care, and keep submitting those stories!


  1. I don't submit to publications that charge fees. I feel the same about writing contests. However, those who view writing as a hobby might feel differently. You present both sides of the issue fairly.

  2. Jacqueline -- I didn't mention contests here, though I've discussed them a lot in the past. I avoid most contests, period, but certainly those that charge fees. And you could be right about those who consider writing more of a hobby than a calling. Thanks a lot for the comment!

  3. I have never paid a reader fee and will not submit to any publication that charges one. The reasoning given for justifying them is, in my opinion, disingenuous.I do subscribe to most of the magazines that publish me, and to some that haven’t. Them’s my two cents — and I’m not going to charge you to read them.

  4. Good post, John, as always.

    I don't think I've ever paid a reader's fee. I know I avoided agents who charged one when I was first starting out. Many sources told me it was not an approved practice, period.

    When I first started writing, I paid entrance fees to a couple of contests. Eventually, I figured out a few things. First, my favorite stories color outside the lines enough so judges won't go near them. Second, some of the fees were ridiculously high. I decided if a fee was more than one percent of the prize offer, it wasn't a fair exchange. Twenty dollars for a five-hundred-dollar prize is insulting and absurd. And common.

    I don't enter "contests" anymore. I look more an more at anthologies (all my published stories this year will be in anthologies, unless one story comes out more quickly than I expect) because their guidelines are more flexible and interesting. AND they don't charge those fees.

  5. I have never paid a reader's fee and never will, nor do I submit to contests. For five years a friend and I had a literary journal (The Larcom Review), which accepted poetry, nonfiction, fiction, book reviews, and interviews along with black and white art. We never charged and managed to pay a nominal $25 for each acceptance. No, we didn't make much money (practically none), but we were proud of our work.

    There are ways around charging fees but the editors/publishers choose not to use them. First, since most of these journals are at colleges and universities, the publishers/editors can require students in creative writing classes to be readers during the term. The process and work will be educational. Second, seek out financial sponsors in the community (the local photocopier, etc.). Third, require at least one publication in a reputable journal or magazine before a story, etc., can be considered. (This sounds unfair but it really isn't; there are tons of outlets these days.) Fourth, admit that no one reads the entire story, and definitely not past the first page if it isn't worthwhile, so teach the readers/editors greater efficiency. As one who knows what comes over the transom, I understand the desire to eliminate the dregs of the writing world, but requiring fees is easy and tempting and not necessary. Too many good writers are turned away, to the journal's loss.

  6. This is my third and final attempt to comment on this post. This blog site is annoying.
    Never paid to submit a story. If the writer is an amateur and wants to pay – it's their money. A professional writer is a professional. I don't expect my lawyer to pay me to give her legal advice. My doctor does not pay me.

  7. I don't pay to submit a story to either a contest or a magazine. I do subscribe to a few, an I agree, that is totally different, and my choice.

  8. Josh, as usual, we're in agreement. I still need to be better about subscribing to certain magazines--I send stories regularly to a lot of different places--but I think that's the best way to support these markets.

    Steve, with regard to agents, they should not only not charge reading fees, they should not charge for copying, postage, or any other administrative costs--their money should come only from the money you receive as a result of their efforts. And that's a good point about anthologies--they never charge fees, and neither do any of the genre magazines I know of. As for contests, I'm with you. I don't enter my stories in contests. One reason is, I think the odds of getting a story published in a respectable magazine or antho are far better than the odds of winning first place in a contest.

    Ditto, Susan, on the contests. And thank you for those thoughts, on "other" things publishers of journals can do, besides charging fees. I'd never thought of some of those. I do spend a lot of time trying to research markets for short stories, and I'm AMAZED at how many litmags charge those submission fees. (Narrows down the places I need to submit stories to, though.)

  9. O'Neil -- Your doctor doesn't pay you?!??

    I agree with you completely--I guess if a writer's just starting out, and/or doesn't mind paying to submit, and/or isn't that serious about all this, he or she might go ahead and pay these fees. It's easy enough to do, with the automated way the payments are handled, etc., and the fee's rarely high--but again, it just shouldn't be done. It really IS the principle of the thing. But I have no doubt the practice will continue.

    Eve, I'm beginning to be encouraged, here--it seems that most, if not all, my writer friends, agree about this. It's a bad practice, and I'm sure it keeps a lot of quality writers away from those publications.

    Thanks, y'all, for chiming in, here. Keep writing stories, and sending them to the "good" places.

  10. Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away—in other words, in the early 1970s, when I was a teenager just beginning my writing career—Amazing and Fantastic, two science fiction magazines then edited by Ted White, implemented a 25-cent reading fee for unsolicited submissions from writers with no previous sales, payable in cash or the equivalent in postage stamps. The money was to pay slush pile readers, including Grant Carrington and Rick Snead.

    I dutifully submitted a story accompanied by 25-cents worth of postage stamps for payment of the reading fee. My story was rejected because, claimed the rejection, I had not included my reading fee. Well, I most certainly had, and I sent off a letter of complaint!

    I don't recall a response to my letter, nor do I recall submitting anything else during the remainder of Ted White's tenure as editor. Amazing has died and been resurrected many times since then, with a variety of editors and publishers, and, I suspect has never since charged a reading fee.

    In a twist of fate, Grant Carrington, one of Amazing's slush pile readers and an oft-published SF writer, later wrote a column for my fanzine, Knights of the Paper Space Ship. I did not charge him a reading fee.

  11. Michael -- Great story, on this subject! I'm a little surprised by that 25-cent fee they charged--I wonder how many folks took them up on it. Seems more trouble that it would be worth. I also wonder how many writers are paying the (mostly three-dollar) fees currently being charged by so many of the lit magazines. I suspect a lot of them are.

    As an editor yourself, of not just anthologies but magazines as well, I appreciate your input and insights on this. I really hope the practice of charging submission fees will one day go away. But I doubt it.

  12. O'Neil -- I forgot to address your comment about the problems you're have ENTERING comments. I'm seeing the same kind of thing, where it takes me several tries. All I can say is, must be the new version of Blogger.

  13. I understand their reasons for charging fees, but I won't submit to a publication that charges a fee.

  14. Me either, Sharon. It just seems wrong.

  15. I forgot to mention earlier, but congratulations to John for having "Rhonda and Clyde" selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2020 and to Michael Bracken for having "The Town Where Money Grew on Trees" selected as a Distinguished story for the year.

  16. Thank you, Steve--that's kind of you. I was fortunate and grateful that my story was chosen.

  17. I have never paid a reading fee, and never will. As to editors feeling that fees cut down on the number of submissions, I think a sharp first reader can decide aftr a page or two if a story is worth reading. That puts pressure on the rest of us to write compelling stories.

    On a related topic, though I am not, and never was, a full time professional writer, and I have only had limited success, my writing is more than a hobby. I am leery of submitting to non-paying markets and have recently, pretty much. closed those markets off.


  18. Hey Bob -- You're right, the do-I-submit-only-to-paying-markets? question IS a related issue, and the answer to that probably does determine whether one's writing is a hobby or something more serious. I admit I do still occasionally submit to non-paying markets, but not often, and usually not unless it's a for-charity market or one whose editor I know and respect.

    The thing that's REALLY hard to understand is that some writers continue to submit to non-paying markets that also charge a reading fee (???).

    Thanks as always for your thoughts. Take care!

  19. Once, in the last century, I paid to enter a story in a contest. I seem to be the only person here who has done that & admits to it! At the time, I had not sold any stories & I managed to convince myself that the story I was entering in the contest was obviously going to win & so it was an investment in my future success. Duh ... I don't even remember the name of the contest any more & I'm not sure they ever announced a winner. Possibly they just kept the money.

    I did win two other writing contests, which were free to enter, later on. The first paid only in bragging rights. The second paid $20 plus a very funny, entertaining book written by the contest judge.

    My favorite thing to write is flash fiction & recently I've been shocked to see how many flash "markets" are charging reading fees nowadays! I won't pay 'em.

  20. Elizabeth, you're to be congratulated on your contest wins, and I bet you're proud of the fact that those didn't cost anything to enter! My biggest problem with contests of any kind is that I can't shake the feeling that they'd be tying up stories that I might otherwise be sending to magazines or anthologies. Which would be true.

    I'm afraid I didn't realize that there are flash markets out there that charge reading fees (!). I guess no place is safe from them. Like you, I won't pay 'em either.

    Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!


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