On Getting Paid: Literary Magazines and Remuneration

February 15, 2012 | 42 9 min read

David Lynn began his Editor’s Notes for the Autumn 2004 issue of The Kenyon Review with some necessary questions: “How much is a fine story worth? What monetary value does a superb poem possess? How much — and this is the inexorable point — should authors be paid for their long, solitary work?” The questions were particularly appropriate to his magazine: The Kenyon Review published writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, and yet the magazine closed in 1969, and was not revived until a decade later. Lynn assumed the editorship in 1994, and the magazine “struggl[ed] toward financial stability,” only paying contributors “fifteen dollars per page for poetry and ten dollars per page for prose.”

Lynn’s introductory note served two purposes. The first was to announce an increase in payment rate for writers, which managing editor Tyler Meier attributes to the generosity of “a great Board of Trustees [at Kenyon College].” Lynn admitted that even an increased rate could not compete with the dwindling “commercial magazines” who still published fiction, but his qualification leads to the second purpose for his introduction: a philosophical consideration of the economy of literary magazines. Lynn wonders about the rewards of writing, quipping that “a fiction writer may serve an apprenticing of sorts by fashioning short stories (all the while harboring a fantasy of blockbusters and screenplays down the road)… [while] poets, even the best poets, daren’t delude themselves in this particular way.”

Lynn engages a prescient point: are literary magazines an end, or a means toward an end, for writers? From an economic standpoint, he reaches a practical conclusion, shared by most writers involved in the submission process: while publication in literary magazines might be an aesthetic end, it is no means an economic one. Since “many authors today hold academic positions… promotion in the academy often depends on generating vitae with lists of publications that otherwise have earned them little beyond the price of a meal or two.” The obvious irony needs to be unpacked. Scan the contributor notes of any contemporary literary magazine, and you will find Lynn’s statement true: writers are often employed by university English departments, or are students in MFA programs affiliated with those departments. Other than a few and often notable distinctions, the economy of literary magazines appears to be a closed system: writers publish in literary magazines that are often read by writers. Money is tight, payment is low, and subscriptions and institutional support appear to be the final hope for sustenance. Does it have to be that way?

The Kenyon Review paid me for a story they published in print and online. They, like Shenandoah, West Branch, and other magazines, mailed me a contract. The process felt official and professional; in fact, even if I did not receive monetary payment, the exchange felt necessary, a recognition of acceptance beyond an e-mail or phone call. Contemporary literary magazine contributors are often remunerated in three ways: a nominal to generous monetary payment, contributor copies, or simply the exposure, and sometimes status, of publishing in a particular journal.

Like most Americans concerned with mortgages, bills, and the prospects of frozen wages, I would not mind the first form of payment. Publishing in literary magazines does not constitute the majority, or even a significant minority, of my income, but it certainly feels a necessary one, in the professional sense. Writers sometimes lament the dearth of paying markets, but they should be reassured that often nobody wants to pay writers more than those same editors, who are increasingly subject to institutional budget reductions. When faculty jobs must be cut and tuitions raised, the “little magazines” become difficult to justify.

In May 2009, Middlebury College’s Budget Oversight Committee recommended that the college end its financial relationship with the New England Review, a magazine the Vermont school supported since 1987. College president Ron Liebowitz extended the magazine’s grace period for a few years, but was clear that a reevaluation of the university’s support of the magazine was necessary:

Given current financial circumstances… I find asking families who are paying $50,000/year in comprehensive fees to, in effect, subsidize a literary magazine that serves a very small slice of the general population and is known only to a handful of Middlebury students, a very hard sell.

Middlebury College has recently extended its support of the magazine through 2014, but Carolyn Kuebler, managing editor of the magazine, notes that “we continue to seek outside support.”

Of course, when a magazine struggles to simply remain publishing, paying writers becomes of secondary concern. But writers should take heed that the philosophical concerns are never ignored. Kuebler said that:

…we believe that most writers would probably publish with us without the monetary incentive. We also think it’s important to offer this payment, which is more of an honorarium. It matters to writers to get even a small check for their work, as it makes their writing something more than a hobby. And it helps, as the word implies, to “honor” their contributions.

Writers should remember that most editors — often writers themselves — understand the desire for monetary payment, but are sometimes forced to decide between remuneration and publication.

New England Review’s conundrum will likely be repeated elsewhere; in fact, other magazines, such as The Southern Review, based at Louisiana State University, have had to reassess elements of their operating budgets. For other magazines, paying contributors has not been a possibility, regardless of institutional support. Alaska Quarterly Review offers contributors a copy and a one-year subscription, but no monetary payment. Editor Ronald Spatz explains: “[we] would love to be able to pay authors for their work. But we simply do not have the funds to do so. We use all available funds for the production and related costs of the books, ensuring that each author’s work is elegantly showcased.” Several years ago The Idaho Review became a paying market; usually $100 a story. Editor Mitch Wieland thinks the moderate payment is complemented by the magazine’s strong track record with “prize anthologies,” which helps “attract good work.” Wieland also cites the goal “to make each issue as beautiful and elegant as we can — a book that would look good on the shelf in years to come.”

Some magazines, like The Missouri Review, have been able to weather the budget storm. For managing editor Michael Nye, the key to success is having:

…several revenue streams. We are based at the University of Missouri, which provides institutional support; we have a large subscriber base through print and digital subscriptions as well as through library services like Project MUSE; and we have a loyal and generous donor base that has supported us in the Columbia community for over thirty years.

The Missouri Review pays $40 a page for all genres and, though subscriptions certainly help, Nye admits The Missouri Review is “unique” in its consistent receipt of other support. But what of magazines that have already lost, or will soon lose, the support of a sponsoring institution? Or the many independent magazines whose print runs seem tenuous at best, with each issue nearly being the last?

David Lynn’s earlier statement feels even more prescient, and perhaps troubling, as universities move toward part-time, adjunct employment, while also reassessing the financial realities of tenure and benefit structures. The world of literary magazines is at a complicated intersection: can, and should, literary magazines remain affiliated with the universities in an economic sense? Do the educational benefits of such an affiliation justify the parsing of funds?

A change in system seems to be in order, and both new and established magazines are offering possibilities. Electric Literature is one such publication: the paperback copy uses the print-on-demand model, and they also publish “ebook, Kindle, iPhone, and audio versions.” The magazine pays $1,000 per story. Six issues into the magazine’s run, co-editor Andy Hunter reflected on their experience: “We have been able to pay writers and our rent, and sometimes make a small profit which went to our staff, but Scott [Lindenbaum] and I have never been able to pay ourselves.” In order to maintain such a generous payment, the magazines needs “to get more than 1000 paying readers” for each issue, which is “a lot of work,” but it is “the minimum level to make a model like ours function.” Paperback copies of Electric Literature can be purchased for $10; digital versions are half that price. Hunter elaborates: “we want writing to be a sustainable career choice. It doesn’t take much money to pay for literary content that makes our lives infinitely richer. Everyday, I see people pay for lattes, beers, and cupcakes.” Certainly Electric Literature’s record of publishing established writers has helped — Jim Shepard, Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and Lydia Davis have appeared in their pages — but Hunter qualifies this:

We also championed new writers, for example Patrick deWitt, who was just short-listed for the Booker prize. This is why we didn’t choose to publish single stories for $.99 each, which is one model we were considering – we didn’t want everyone to buy the Michael Cunningham and let the unknowns languish.

Do the editors of Electric Literature think such a successful model should be tested by other publications? Hunter thinks “university-supported magazines should take this approach, especially if they have the money to pay their staff. But they are very slow to evolve, and few are publishing digitally even now.” Independent literary magazines “likely don’t have the money” to sustain such a model. Hunter “admire[s] anyone who puts out a
 literary magazine, especially the independents; it’s always a labor of love” and “hope[s] that most publications will eventually emulate at least parts of our model, like accessibility across platforms and compensating writers.”

Even if they do not directly appropriate Electric Literature’s model, established print magazines are being forced to reconsider their modes of publication. Shenandoah and Triquarterly shifted from print to online-only issues. The Kenyon Review introduced KR Online, which has become a place for writing that is “more timely, and a little more experimental.” Print magazines have made the shift toward electronic submissions, with some using the model developed by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and others selecting a sleek alternative, Submittable. Both services cost the participating magazines. Some magazines using these electronic systems, such as Sonora Review and Hunger Mountain, have begun charging a “nominal” fee for electronic submissions. There is no industry standard definition of nominal: when New England Review and Brevity use such language, they mean 2 or 3 dollars; Narrative means 15 or 20 dollars. The latter example might sound steep, but Narrative has a generous payment structure: “$150 to $350 for 500 to 2,000 word manuscripts, $350 to $1000 for 2,000 to 15,000 word manuscripts, $50 minimum for each accepted poem and audio piece,” and additional payment for stories and poems of the week. The magazine’s Content Supervisor, Joshua Clark, explains their approach: “submission fees help fund administrative costs and writer payments, and also fund our annual $5,000 Narrative Prize.” When asked if advertisements that populate Narrative’s site help defray costs, Clark notes “sources of income such as advertisements and donations allow us to expand our features and reach out to larger audience, but they won’t necessarily replace submission fees in the future.” Two of Narrative’s articulated goals include “giving our content to our readers for free, and paying our writers well in the process.” Despite the high payment rate, in such a system the onus for revenue is placed on writers rather than readers. Is that good for the economy of literary magazines, or will it continue to perpetuate the idea that literary magazines are an insular, provincial artistic world?

Narrative has gained a reputation for being one of the best paying online publications. Most online journals must rely on the third potential payment for writers: exposure. Pebble Lake Review, edited by Amanda Auchter, made the switch to online in 2009. Contributors to the previous print edition received complimentary copies. Although the online version is not able to provide monetary payment, potential contributors do not pay a fee to submit. Save for “a grant or a big fat check from an anonymous donor,” Auchter doesn’t see the rate changing, noting that “Indie journals and presses [publish] out of love and stewardship. I think that the writers who submit to such places understand that and don’t do it for the cash.” Such a perspective is shared by Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist, an online monthly from Dzanc Books. Bell says “the money’s just not there” to compensate contributors. He adds “I think of what we’re doing together [the magazine and contributors] as being engaged in the making of art and community, rather than an exchange of goods or the manufacture of a product.” Bell’s point is worth considering, and extends the economic conversation. The Collagist has done well to cultivate a particular literary community, “thousands [of readers] per issue” who are “interested in unconventional and innovative literature.” Bell applies such a philosophy to his own writing, saying he’s “much more interested in the writing a magazine puts in its issues than the dollar amount it puts in its guidelines.”

Brevity, edited by Dinty Moore since its inception, switched to fee-based submissions after 12 years of publication. Moore said that the online journal’s move “took a lot of soul-searching, but we send all of that money back to the writers.” Brevity now pays 45 dollars an essay, and Moore says “it feels very good to pay our writers. It has buoyed our faith in what we do.” The magazine has applied for non-profit status, and has a volunteer staff.

Recent years have also seen an increase in fee-based, magazine-affiliated contests. While the purses are higher than the usual payment rate — the Iowa Review pays $1500 to the winner of its fiction contest, nearly ten times its regular remuneration — the monetary pool is still built by writers: all of whom, save for the winners, leave empty-pocketed. Writers who view their entry fees as donations to the magazines are taking the more optimistic opinion. The opportunity always exists, unfortunately, for such contests to descend into exercises in nepotism.

Where does this all leave writers? It would be selfish to merely balk at editors, to complain that magazines are uncaring when they expect writers to be satiated with publication. Jeff Crook, editor of Southern Gothic, an online journal from 2003 to 2007, speaks to the problem: “Writing is work, and people should be rewarded for their work.” Crook’s magazine closed, and though he paid writers, he did so on his own, not under the auspices of the magazine. It’s a curiously fine line, but it speaks to a concrete philosophical distinction. Some editors and writers view the literary magazine world a necessary one for the ends of aestheticism and intellectual conversation: for, simply put, a piece of writing to live, and to be read. Yet those who hope for monetary payment are not automatically writing for that sole purpose; often times they are part of the mechanism that allows the system of literary magazines to survive. It is possible to write for the passion of the art, the possibility of discovery and revelation, and still want to get paid.

Image: Self caricature as poor artist, Edith Mahier, via Wikimedia Commons

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.