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.


  1. Thanks for this article, Nick. One tiny thing I would qualify: the Kenyon Review has had tremendous support from the Kenyon College board, particularly in promoting the mere existence of the magazine as it started publishing again in the late seventies. There were people who believed in the magazine back then when it was financially inconvenient to do so. We continue to have great support from Kenyon.

    But the more recent solid financial ground for KR has come through the leadership from our own, independent board of trustees. The Kenyon Review Board of Trustees is an awesome, committed group of individuals that have guided us back to a sustainable publishing model, one that is almost wholly financially independent from Kenyon College. And like the Missouri Review, our current funding model as a non-profit depends on a variety of sources of income, not just revenue from publishing the magazine. The stability that comes from a diversity in funding sources is what allowed us to up our author payments in 2004, and we got there with a lot of methodical hard work and expert guidance from the KR trustees.

  2. In 1999 when I was an undergrad studying poetry I bombarded my professor with questions about publishing in literary journals. On payment he said that most journals pay you with a couple of contributor’s copies and on the occasion that I got lucky or talented enough, I’d receive a check large enough to take out my girlfriend to a nice dinner. But for the most part, he advised that I just trade my payment for copies of the journal to give to my family, friends, and other writers as a calling card. I have, in the few occasions of receiving payment for my work, mostly just traded in my check for more contributor’s copies.

    Only on rare occasions do my individual poems “make” money, and when they do, it’s usually $30-$60 that I receive 3-6 months after publication. In other words, it has little impact on my lifestyle, but a huge one on my confidence. I do like getting paid for my work. Like Ripatrazone says in his article, it gives me validation as a writer. I really wish all journals would pay something which would have an impact on the costs I incur being a writer. One payment of $30 could help offset costs of printing paper, envelopes, and stamps. An additional $30 would buy me a printer ink cartridge. It sounds frivolous but these expenses add up. If 2-5 poems published a year brought in on the average of $50 a piece, I would probably use that money to fund book contest fees (which are high), thus the money would be recirculated within the industry. And if I published 10 or more poems a year at an average payment of $50, I would replace the 8-year old laptop I own now by paying for it with a credit card and using the poetry money to make the monthly payments. Again, we’re not talking Lexuses here, but these things mean a big deal for me–I who am not a professor or even an adjunct–if journals paid their writers.

    I think it’s time for the economics of literary publishing to change. And I am more than willing to make adjustments. I would not mind at all paying to submit my work in return for two things: 1) payment upon publication; and 2) a faster response time. If paying a small fee to submit will help journals stay afloat, I’m all for it. If it helps me get a yes/no in a month’s time, sign me up. (Charging for each submission will hopefully reduce the workload for editors and up the quality of submissions.)

    This will only work if all literary journals get on board and standardize the model. Journals can be tiered by prestige (the reality) and the higher the prestige, the higher the submission fee and payment. So, the Kenyon Review can charge a $5 submission fee, but pay out $100 per poem. A 3rd tier journal can charge a $2 fee, but pay $25 per poem. A writer could also opt out and choose a “contributor’s copy only” option. She can pay maybe only a $1 (to help the journal), but if she has a poem taken, she would be paid with two copies of the journal. Or there could be a sliding scale submission payment in which the amount of money you are paid will depend on the amount of money you paid for a submission fee. For example, a $5 fee pays out $100. A $3 fee pays out $75. Et cetera. A journal can keep conflict of interest at bay by keeping the amount of money paid for a submission, or not, a secret. The fee paid or otherwise would be only be revealed until the piece has been accepted for publication.

    If you’re reading this, you probably make more money than me. Trust me. So coming from someone without a lot of discretionary income, I’m willing to pay for submissions if i get paid in return. Regardless of whatever model is the best, the current one has to change. Literary journals are always in danger of folding. New journals go defunct in three years’ time. Poets and writers are starving. The pay-as-you-submit/get-paid-when-you-publish is mutually beneficial to both parties.

  3. I think submissions fees are simply wrong, but the fact that some publications think they need to charge them is symptomatic of another root problem: a lack of imagination of how to market literature. The editors of the best literary magazines work very hard to produce what appears to be a quality product, but the goal of any publication should be readership. Every day, an editor should ask, What have I done to put the work I’ve so lovingly produced before the eyes of readers?

    Editors are smart, well-trained people when we’re talking about the language and production of literature, but—and I’m including myself here, as the editor of Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture—we are largely untrained when it comes to marketing. Just think of any “little” magazine you want to: when you pick it up, or click on its link, how do you know what it is? Are there any blurbs to let you know what the material is? What about the table of contents? Does that give any indication of the differences between the pieces, or is it just a list of titles?
    As I see it, the attitude of “Hey, we’re publishing Literature with a capital L, so readers have to come find us” is unsustainable. Editors need to try harder to court readers for the work we produce. And, if we truly believe in what we’re publishing, it shouldn’t be that hard.

  4. Yes, Chris has it right. It is the responsibility of editors to create a finished product that sells. And of the magazine staff to build a readership for their journal and for journals in general. Do professional sports rely only on athletes for their financial support and attendance? No, there is a whole industry built around creating and captivating an audience. I’m not unrealistic; I don’t think the literary world can do that exact thing, but there could be some parallels. Here are some thoughts from a marketing person with experience working for IBM, Microsoft, and Ogilvy.

    1. Hire editors who are not also writers, or if they are writers, are able to write despite being editors. Have them be editors first. Editing vs writing use different parts of the brain.
    2. Have at least one person on the staff who thinks like an acquisitions editor, not like a recent MFA student.(MFA types are good to have around, also.) With all the shakeups in publishing it shouldn’t be that hard to find such people.
    3. Have a plan for building and engaging an audience that includes how you appoach acquisitions–it shouldn’t just be what stories excite you, but also how and why you plan to excite your audience, some mix of that. This involves knowing your audience, the first tenet of marketing. Are your subscribers primarily writers hoping to get into your journal? How does that affect how they read? Does that affect your publication decisions? Does publishing for them help you expand your readership? If not, reconsider what you’re accepting. For example, I know that even if you have a circulation of 2000, and if most of them are aspiring writers, there’s a good chance that 1/2 don’t even open your journal on any given shipment. Who has time? Everyone subscribes to 2-10 journals.
    4.Your plan should also include tactics, such how you will promote, including social media but also including being present in your local community, and also the format of the actual journal. Leaving aside the question of online-only journals, which I still think are a risk for writers, since your credit goes away if the journal disappears and the site vanishes… Is a perfect binding the best format? Does it engage the reader? Does it feel like it can be read at breakfast, spilled on, read on the toilet, shoved into an airplane carry on and left in the waiting area for someone else to discover, does it invite you to scribble the draft of a poem in the end pages…and in the end… can it be recycled? Because I think people don’t actually like taking perfect-bound journals into their homes. They like being published in them, but for the average, non-writing reader, what are they going to do with all those magazines? It’s better to have a regular magazine-type format that you can neatly recycle. And then are the pieces online so once something wonderful is discovered while on the exerbike or the plane, the subscriber can rush to post it to Twitter or Facebook? Promotion for the journal in a number of ways. It’s interesting to me how often I get a contrib copy and have to nudge the editors to update their website so I can post to FB that the issue is out. If I even want to, because the website is often so lame to begin with.

    The Sun markets well. Good format. Interactive feeling (readers write). You need not be online to feel interactive. I noticed Poetry has not had a letters section in the past few issues. I had always turned to that first. I think people like conversation, discussion, exchange.

  5. People always have these big ideas about sustaining publications profitably and they have ideas using more imagination to market literary magazines etc. as if editors just sit around content with the status quo. All these great ideas people throw out have been tried. They really have.

    The struggle of the modern literary magazine is not even remotely about a lack of imagination, vision, or effort. It’s not about editors who are writers. It’s not about MFA programs. It’s not about a lack of planning or ignorance when it comes to social networking or interaction. We’ve tried these ideas and then some. Editors are full of awesome ideas as evidenced by the magazines who are actually surviving.

    If it were one or two magazines who couldn’t make money, yes, perhaps, the problem would lie with the magazines themselves but such is not the case. Nearly every single magazine in this country is struggling, no matter what rhetoric editors want to spin. Some magazines break even. Few magazines turn a profit. Most editors don’t get paid right alongside all these writers not getting paid. This is not to say that magazines are perfect or that editors are perfect. Every magazine can look at how they’re run and improve. There are all kinds of flaws but those flaws are not what’s breaking the system apart.

    Part of the problem is saturation. There are 2,800 literary magazines because there are too many people who want to be an editor instead of a member of an editorial team. There are too many people who think, “I have a literary vision that must be shared with the world,” and not enough people who find ways to get involved with existing magazines. With so many magazines marketing to a relatively limited audience, it is unrealistic to expect that financial success is a possibility for all or even most of those 2800 magazines.

    Magazines do need to market beyond the literary community and they do need to market beyond writers in particular but it is hard. Magazines try to do this outreach but there is little success to be had. Survival of the fittest suggests we are selling a product no one wants to buy which means we need a better product but given the quality of most magazines, I am comfortable saying it isn’t about the better mousetrap.

    Magazines, even small ones, receive 8,000-15,000 or more submissions a year because writers would rather be published than subscribe to those same magazines. We have somehow spawned an environment where we equate publication rather than subscription with participation in literary culture because there are so many magazines and it is so easy to get published. Of course, that implies that writers should be the ones sustaining these enterprises so we come back to this matter of marketing beyond this community.

    Oftentimes, people do not want to pay for content. They just don’t. The magazine I edit recently got a nice shout out from the New York Times and will be in the print version of the Style Magazine this weekend. The article got shared a lot online, and we got lots of pats on the back. We got no new subscriptions and a great many new submissions. I can’t tell you how disappointing that was. Magazines regularly get this kind of attention but it doesn’t translate into sales, even when you get national exposure. You can have the better mousetrap, you can put yourself in front of an audience beyond writers, and it’s still not enough.

    Now, the burden of sustaining magazines cannot rely on writers. It simply can’t, otherwise we’ve created a closed ecosystem that will feed on itself until it becomes extinct. I also believe writers do support magazines, but with more than 2,800 out there, there are just too many to support adequately.

    Submission fees are troubling but for many magazines they are unavoidable. I continue to think Narrative’s $20 submission fee is cynical and a bit insane but obviously crazy works because they get enough submissions to pay writers. Writers are clearly comfortable with the notion that they should pay for the chance to maybe get published and paid. These are grown, consenting adults. If they are willing to pay the fee, that is their choice. There are plenty of magazines out there that don’t charge submission fees for those writers who don’t feel like they should pay for the privilege to submit their work. The problem is that more magazines are adopting submission fees and some day most of the top tier magazines will charge submission fees. That fee is generally $3 now but it will probably increase and soon, a certain kind of writer will be priced out of the submission game if they want to simultaneously submit their work.

    There are no easy answers here and it’s important to have this question. It’s important to ask, “Should we continue sustaining these losing enterprises?” The answer for me will always be yes. Literary magazines are flawed and struggling but they matter and more often than not, they are helmed by people who give a damn and who are committed to the preservation of literature and who are committed to innovation.

    As a writer, I would love to get paid more than I do. As an editor, I would love to pay the writers I publish. There are a number of reasons why magazines are failing, but many of those reasons have anything to do with magazines, how they are marketed, or what they publish. We live in a time where audiences are not interested in what magazines are selling. We need to figure out how to respond to that lack of interest, how to adapt and evolve, but to assume editors aren’t trying their hardest to do this would be incorrect. We may not always get it right but we do try.

  6. The whole “editors should just figure out how to sell lit mags!” line is really a bit insulting. Do you really feel that out of the hundreds of lit mags out there, none of them are trying to do this? That none of them have innovative ideas?

    There simply isn’t a lot of money to be made in this realm. It is what it is. Most people, even most readers of niche literary fiction, don’t’ care about lit mags. They’d rather wait for the books.

    For better or worse, lit mags main service is to writers. They provide a stepping stone to larger publication and academic and other careers.

  7. Many magazines and presses have found that it is more profitable to sell chances at publication than it is to get people to subscribe to the magazine or buy the finished book. Magazines like P&W and others could not exist without ad revenue generated by contest announcements, almost all of which ask for submission fees. To me, this environment–pay for a chance to play–is a mark of shame on the entire creative writing profession. Publishers–if your press or journal is dependent on submission fees for survival, please get out of the business. It’s about integrity. Think of the other industries that use fees: banks, credit card companies, etc. Do you really want to be in that league?

  8. The Great (at Least Good) Literary Journal Swindle

    The current economy has caused an erosion of financial support to the arts as a whole. This is always the case; painters, writers, musicians are but a few who suddenly see funds drying up. There are ways around this situation and every artist must be totally dedicated to the cause. My focus is on the writer and to a lesser degree, but the methodology can easily be applied to the other branches of the arts. To all who use their imaginative force to create a lasting work this is a rallying call. It is necessary to take a “me” tact.To put it politely for the tea set, it’s called survival.

    Writers trying to place work with a review, it is absolutely imperative not to settle for measly contributor’s copies. Remember, editors have the burden of paying as much as possible for the hard work. No other writer in the world can replicate your work. It’s a given that those that can’t, edit and those that can, write. Therefore, it is the editorial staff’s obligation to provide the writer with a substantial pay check and to put the work needed into achieving this. That’s where I come in.

    I will use the city of Chicago and use a fictitious publication, “The Loop to Loop Review.” I visit their office and greet the staff with a broadcast smile that is faker than a six (six, six) dollar bill. Interestingly enough, they don’t catch on that I’m a dead ringer for Mephistopheles. The first order of business is for the staff to be informed of alternative revenue resources.

    Chicago has a thriving drug trade. Selling crack or H can be honorable, just do it with class. A hound’s-tooth pipe and corduroy jacket can go a long way in earning that class.

    We recruit the marginalized street denizens of downtown Chi-Town do home invasions. Their expendable, if you lose a few along the way to an irate, gun toting homeowner – no matter. The profit ratio will still work out in your favor. We take these homeless folks, now morphed into hobos, down to the rail yards and deposit them in box cars. “Go west (dirty) young man.” Once this is done, these bums can’t be tied back to the LL Review.

    White slavery. A thing of the past? No, thank God! Round-up the most troublesome people populating your life. Even better, those working with you at LL Review – cut ’em right out of the profit flow! You drop a Mickey into each one of their drinks. Sell ’em to the slavers and then you got you a satchel full of green, green C-Notes. .

    The nonfiction editor gets on my nerves. He’s fat, forever going on about Capote and his breath stinks. I send him to the Loop, where the central business district is. I have him dress in tattered clothes (more-than-less, what he usually wears) an eye patch and a cane. He has the tin cup working, the sympathy cash coming in. I told him to empty it when he was half full, warning him about roving gangs of kids. He didn’t listen. While smoking a cigarette and his cup overflowing, a pack of crazed ten-year olds pounced and took all his money. One them lingered long enough to pick up his cane and announce, “You filthy ho-blow, I’m gonna blind you in the other eye so it matches!” And that’s what he did. So, off to the hospital the editor went.

    So, off to the hospital I go. I bring with me papers of ownership to the review. By this point, a year after starting, the circulation went from a depressing one-thousand to one-hundred-thousand. Big name authors are battling to get in the review. It was time for me to get paid. So, I presented the papers to the half blind editor and he asked what they were. I told him the review was taking a more involved approach in sending out “decline to publish” letters by personally signing them. “Great idea” is his response and he signs the papers. As I leave I say, “Thanks chump” and he replies, “What’s that?” I ignore him, leaving with seventy-percent ownership of the Review in my hands.

    Target – managing editor. She holds twenty-percent of the review. I call a couple of corrupt cops I know. They owe me one. I get the phone call, pass it on to her and the police ask her to join them in the parking lot. She’s all upset, I do the, “Here, here” bit and offer to accompany her. We go downstairs, the cops show her the pound of marijuana they found in her car and I step in, ever the gentleman. I ask if I can speak with her privately. She’s adamant it’s not hers and I tell her it doesn’t matter, they got her six, six, six ways to Sunday. I advise her to let me pay off the cops, but it’s going to cost because this is some serious jail time we’re talking about. I tell her she needs to sign her ownership over to me and she readily agrees and does. Bye, bye, little Miss Managing Editor.

    I needed to tie everything together. The fiction and poetry editors each have five percent. Both had a stipulation that should anything happen to either one of them, their shares would got back to the Review. Say goodbye to literary romance. After a long talk with the fiction editor about his commitment to review and the importance of constantly infusing our enterprise with cash, I get him to attempt to rob a major drug dealer. Attempt, of course, being the operating word. He gets two-feet into the house before he is riddled with bullets – thirty-six of them. One down, one to go.

    The poetry editor was easy. All poets are easy. I have a hypnotist put her under and strongly urge her to do the Anne Sexton stretch. For those unfamiliar, poet Sexton killed herself by running her car in her garage and breathing in toxic fumes and not breathing out ever again. The hypnotist gave me the keyword or rather words for my victim. So, I had my poet park in a sealed garage, intoned the magic words and she did the car thing, taking in a carbon monoxide cocktail. I now owned the entire journal. I sold it to a Japanese conglomerate for an obscene amount of money. I’m taking down a rock band now – goodbye intelligentsia, hello groupies.

    Chris “Whirlwind” Roberts

  9. Thanks to Nick and all the commenters for their thoughts here. It’s a really terrific questions – how do we make this work? – that has yet to receive a good and clear answer. Continuing to ask the right questions and struggle for good answers is something that I think we all need to keep doing.

    Just a note about TMR’s revenue streams: it’s a tremendous amount of work. Speer Morgan, our editor-in-chief, has spent thousands of hours over decades seeking new ideas and new revenue streams, and made a lot of phone calls and emails to people throughout the university system to really stress the important of what we do, not just to the University of Missouri, but for literature on the whole. Without his hard work, we wouldn’t still be here fighting the good fight.

  10. “Publishers–if your press or journal is dependent on submission fees for survival, please get out of the business. It’s about integrity. Think of the other industries that use fees: banks, credit card companies, etc. Do you really want to be in that league?”

    Weird comment. The publishing industry as a whole is not dependent on submission fees, and most art fields have some parts of them that use contests or submission fees (battle of the bands, indie film contests, etc.)

    What “industry” are small lit mags supposed to emulate? The tech industry with its horrible Chinese sweatshop worker conditions? The snack industry with its gigantic marketing campaigns to trick people into eating food that’s bad for them? The auto industry dependent on government bailouts?

    For real, what industry are you looking for magazines to emulate?

    Let’s be honest, there are only a few ways to run a lit mag (I’m not counting things like Harper’s or the New Yorker which only publish a small amount of fiction and poetry):

    1) Have wealthy backer(s) who don’t care about losing money

    2) Have a university willing to fund it and lose money in exchange for some prestige

    3) Lose a ton of money yourself as an editor

    4) Fund through contest submissions and/or submission fees

    5) Fund through something like Kickstarter (this probably only works in the beginning)

    In all of those scenarios, it is highly unlikely that the editors and other works will receive anything close to proper compensation for their work. Even in the case of the handful of journals that do pay their editors well, they rely on lots of unpaid intern work.

    This is just the reality. It is a labor of love.

  11. The idea of writers being paid commensurate with the amount they paid in submission fees strikes me as being somewhat similar to students (and their parents) at my university who say things like “My tuition is paying your salary, so I should get an A.” Really? Well, if you’re going to look at it that way, why not have writers get paid commensurate with how many new subscribers they can get? Ten new subscribers, ten bucks and a haiku in the next issue. Twenty new subscribers, fifty bucks and an epic poem. Thirty subscribers, a hundred bucks and a chapter of your novel-in-progress. That way everyone wins!

    I got paid cash for the first story I ever published; ever since then it has been contributor’s copies only—and I am just fine with that. The truth is I really AM being “paid” by the journals that publish me. The time they put into reading and proofreading my work, and then creating the website and/or print publication in which my work appears, and then publicizing their journal so that readers can see my work—all of that is payment. If I had to do these things myself—well, the thing would look like crap because I have no design skills and I’d be broke as well. Of course, as others have said, I’d love to make a living off my writing. But then I’d love to make a living taking naps, too. I think I may be even better at that than at writing.

  12. There was a time when I was paid $2500+ by The New Yorker for my fictions, but, as an editor there at the time, Dan Menaker, said to me, “You can’t expect to make a living from short stories.” This, I think, is increasingly true, both for writers and for publishers. Lately, I’ve been giving my — and others’ — stories away at http://www.anderbo.com without any charge. At the same time I strongly disapprove of making writers pay fees to submit their writings, unless it’s for a contest where the money would go toward paying the winners cash prizes.

  13. Such a great article. One of my favorite things about The Millions is that the pieces are not only brilliant–the comments are often excellent as well

  14. Sidenote on the actual article:

    This shows there ARE ways for lit mags to be successful today, but it requires some real innovation and risk, instead of sticking with the tried-and-not-actually-true formula that causes so many to go under.

  15. I’d like to make a point about Narrative magazine that I don’t see mentioned in this article: they, like most magazines, solicit submissions. Writers who are solicited do not pay the $20 reading fee. And I’d guess that the success rate (i.e. they are eventually published, and their authors generously paid) of solicited submissions is far higher than that of the slush pile.

    So while it’s fine to say that writers who pay the $20 for a shot at being published in Narrative are adults and can make their own decisions, I wonder how much those little guys are subsidizing payments for the Big Names upon which Narrative has built its reputation (and which draws the little guys with big dreams to shell out the cash).

    I wonder if there are any numbers on this, or if Narrative’s editors would be willing to share their rate of slush vs. solicited material. (And I’m not referring to contests here at all, just regular submissions.)

  16. In the field of science fiction and fantasy, short fiction pays anywhere between five and twenty-five cents per word, and most writers would not be caught dead giving their work away for free. Largely, since is simply because the writers themselves held the line. There’s little chance of a university position and thus no reason to give away a story to a journal that cannot pay for it in exchange for a line on a CV. This means that there are a couple dozen magazines with real readers that pay real three to four-digit checks for stories, and very few no-pay journals or zines that would otherwise saturate the market.

    Of course, it is also so that editors are generally part-timers or are running the magazine as a small and awkward business with an eye toward moving into the editing of novels or anthologies for a larger publisher. But, given that the editor of VQR was making three times what a New York book editor makes to produce a magazine with perhaps a few thousand subscribers and one dead body attached to it, if something has to give I’d recommend giving up editorial wages.

    The other reason SF still pays is simple: people other than would-be submitters and tenure committee members read the magazines, at least sometimes.

    The comments about editorial imagination are spot on. People can huff all they like that editors do try—but clearly the overwhelming majority of them don’t. That’s why there are endless identical-looking print journals out there, often named _____ Review. The few exceptions: McSweeney’s, Black Clock, etc. look different, feel different, and have a different quality of reading experience. And they likely are more financially stable.

    One cannot argue with one’s side of one’s mouth that editors of lit journals really do try and hustle and come up with great ideas to sell their journals and from the other side complain that the problem is that there are hundred or thousands of journals— that nobody can tell apart, which is why we don’t see all these supposedly imaginative editors out there. The argument is self-undermining.

    I’m also entirely against submission fees. How strange it is that at least one commenter thinks that the alternative to submission fees is for journals to behave like the snack industry, or the tech industry instead of, say…the publishing industry.

  17. Thanks to those who have read, shared, and commented on this article. So much to consider within these thoughtful responses.

    Nick, I particularly liked your comments, as they open this conversation beyond the literary magazines I covered in the article. That writers of science fiction and fantasy have been more deliberate in seeking monetary payment does nothing to devalue the artistic merit of their work. I’d love to hear more about this, or from other writers who find these distinctions arising between genres.

    Also, from the comments I’m hearing different perceptions regarding the (potential) roles of editors. I wonder if that is a genre-specific distinction also.

    Thanks again, everybody.

  18. Wow, I’m thinking we all need a review of the principles of supply and demand here. There is a huge supply of people who want to be writers. There is, sad to say, not a whole lot of demand for writing. That’s part of the reason why Borders went under. That’s why the indy bookstore in your neighborhood went under, and why the few that are left are struggling. There is a huge demand for professional sporting events. That’s why pro athletes get paid insane salaries. I wish it were otherwise, but Writer, you are not a hot commodity, and nobody is going to pay you just because you think you deserve it. I say this as a writer myself. It is a hard lesson to learn.

    Moreover, the biggest source of revenue for many periodicals is ad sales. Subscriptions are a drop in the bucket. Once you start selling ad space, the nature of your business changes. The writing in commercial magazines is often far “safer” and more mainstream than the writing found in the cutting-edge online zines because the commercial pubs want to reach a maximum number of readers — because their advertisers want a maximum number of potential buyers.

    Finally, it’s a stretch, I’ll admit, but take a lesson from the Susan Komen foundation. They were brilliant at making money selling pink stuff. But people tend to demand that they get what they want when they give you money, so first one side then the other pressured Komen. Now its name might as well be mud. You want your literary journal to find better ways of making money? OK, but you might not like the results.

  19. Thought I’d use this opportunity to mention that Wordrunner e-Chapbook.com does not charge a fee for contributors and we pay $65/story. Jo-Anne Rosen, the editor, does it at a loss because she believes that writers deserve that level of respect.
    We’re still open for submissions for our next issue via submishmash.

  20. I’ve been paid about as well as it’s possible to be paid for short stories these days, and I’m grateful, but I still submit work to–and am often rejected by–journals that pay only in contributors’ copies. At submission fees, though, I draw the line (I live in Europe, and if a North American review offers me a choice between submitting electronically for two dollars and submitting by snail mail, I will always opt for the snail-mail submission, even if it costs me four times as much, as it often does).

    I also think a lot of otherwise decent journals heap discredit on themselves by running bogus contests (I guess I probably think all contests are bogus).

  21. Two great small presses that publish great books without reading fees or contests:

    Two Dollar Radio

    Folded Word Press

    It can be done. Check them out.

  22. Nick:

    I’ve always found it kind of funny that SF writers get so prideful about how they would never sell their work for free, that they always get paid. But as you point out, there are only a handful of SF magazines that pay well. Fewer than there are lit mags that pay well (and the top lit mags DO pay well.)

    On the flipside, there are a bunch of SF magazines that pay a nominal amount just to say they pay. I have no problem with that, but I don’t really feel that getting paid 10 bucks versus zero bucks is a huge deal or denotes any kind of higher standard or professionalism.

    Your snark about only would-be submitters reading lit mags unlike SF mags is similarly silly for the above reasons. There are lit mags with large circulations—Granta, Paris Review, McSweeney’s—and their readership probably has a smaller percentage of would-be submitters than the big SF mags.

    So the real difference is, as you mention, that IN ADDITION TO the big magazines, the literary world has a ton of other magazines of varying levels of readership and compensation. This, to me, is a good thing. It is worth pointing out here that the SF world is getting more like this year year, as more online magazines and zines pop up in the internet age.

  23. I should probably point out, in regards to my second paragraph, that there are also a lot of lit mags that pay a nominal amount just to say they pay their writers. Again, I have no problem with that and as a writer who has published in both lit and SF mags I enjoy the extra bucks. But it has never made me judge a magazine as more professional or of better quality just to pay a nominal amount.

  24. I started a fiction magazine when I was in undergrad getting a creative writing degree. Now that same magazine supports me financially and I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard of it. It’s called eFiction and it is strictly a non-literary magazine.

    When the reading masses hear literary, they think school. And for them, school was boring. Which is, for the most part, true. The realism of literature cannot compare to the majesty of Harry Potter or the excitement a slick spy novel–it just can’t.

    The problem with moving literary magazines to digital is that their readership is not in the digital space. The people who read literary magazines are older and less tech savvy. It makes no sense to produce beautiful digital literature for such a tiny audience.

    As much as it hurts to say, we live in a time of Twilight and The Hunger Games right now. That’s what people want.

    I run a business, first and foremost. To that end, I do market research. I see what is selling and what people are reading and I give them more of that. I don’t have a literary agenda. I don’t care about the literary merit of my stories. I care about my subscriber numbers increasing month to month. The artistry and intellectualism comes second.

    Go ahead and call my magazine genre or ill-refined. At the end of the day, I’m a 22 year old kid and I’m outselling 90% of other magazines by myself. Other magazines that have been around for decades (I started mine two years ago) have been trying to sell the same style stories to the same people. They don’t want it. And they wonder why lit mags are struggling…

    Soon, I will be offering my writers a royalty payment, rather than a flat fee that everyone else is doing. And it is so obvious that this is the correct route to go, yet no one else does it. I will split royalties evenly between contributors for sales of the back issues for the first year that it is available (any longer and I might have a aneurysm from doing accounting work). It is fair for the magazine, and it is fair for the writers. Everybody wins and everybody gets paid.

    Give the people what they want.

  25. I write reviews and long form non-fiction for various UK publications. Most recently my work was published in the The Observer newspaper magazine (one of the UK’s main newspapers.) I don’t write for free. I can’t afford nor is it good for the business of writing.

    Last year I was invited to write for a “prestigious” European Journal. Sorry, can’t name it as I still occasionally hob nob with its Editors. Its US institutional subscription rate is $327 (print and online) per annum or three issues; $49 for individuals. The Editors are employed at institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum. The publisher is a well-known German entity. Why all this information? Because despite being comfortably resourced, the Journal does not pay writers. Worse, they told me I would relinquish copyright thus removing my ability to sell the piece elsewhere. My answer? Thanks but no thanks.

    The way forward for literary journals is to adopt aspects of the Electric Journal and eFiction business models plus others who are investigating transmedia. And publish better writers. Those who make the cut for non-fiction in many of the digital outlets I read (or skim read) are poor writers. One of the offenders is a big name literary journal mentioned in this article. I don’t understand how poor writers get published, unless the overall the overall quality of submissions is poor. Perhaps it is.

  26. Roxane – Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Nobody gets into this for the money and payment is very low on my list of reasons to submit to a particular magazine. But as an earlier post pointed out, even a little bit helps manage costs associated with submitting. Submission fees may discourage low quality submissions but they also discourage low income writers.

    In most cases editors are apologetic, but sometimes they are defensive. My least favorite line, here represented by the editor of the Collagist, is that the magazine is engaged in “the making of art and community, rather than an exchange of goods or the manufacture of a product” so payment is unimportant, even in poor taste. I think it’s fair to say that many white collar jobs involve neither of these two activities, yet they do pay. If you can’t reward the writer’s time and effort with even a small check, don’t make it worse by flogging your artistic purity.

  27. I am actively considering payment for the authors upstreet publishes, and discussions such as this one are helpful. I have always felt that asking writers to pay for a chance to be published in a litmag is wrong; reading fees have always reduced the reputation of a magazine, although opinions seem to be changing in that regard. I do think that payment for work, even if it’s only nominal, tells the writer that his/her efforts have value. Based on what I’ve read online, payment for stories, essays, and poems varies all over the lot. Some journals don’t publicize what they pay. It would be nice if there were some central database (such as CLMP or NewPages, maybe) that provided this information for both writers and other journals.

  28. I have translated many persian stories and folklore into English and wish to sell them. Perhaps you can guide me. Hope to hear from you soon.
    sasan tarzi

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