Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay

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Recently, the Spalding MFA Twitter account tweeted about my small online lit mag:

“@slushpilemag is accepting #fiction, #poetry, and #cnf submissions through @submittable & will provide feedback!” it cheerfully announced.

The post got a handful of likes and retweets. Then came this: “Do you pay your contributors?”

I grimaced as I typed my response: “Only in mugs and tote bags, I’m afraid.”

A few minutes later came the inevitable reply: “Yeah…that’s not payment.”

Exchanges like this happen from time to time — sometimes over email, sometimes over Twitter. Often they seem undergirded by an assumption that lit mag editors will reap some monetary reward for publishing an author’s work while denying them the compensation they deserve. So I thought an explanation was in order.

The following is an overview of the sad but true economic reality of literary magazines, and what writers should know as they stake out the terrain.

Literary Journals Don’t Make Money
“There is no such thing as a profitable literary journal. To the best of our knowledge, all surviving literary journals are supported by universities and/or by individuals who love short fiction and are willing to put their own time and money into them.” — Glimmer Train
In the age of the Internet, people are loath to pay for content — in print or online. The decline of the print publishing industry and the constant near-collapse of the news industry has seen publishers of all stripes frantic to monetize a readership that continues to dodge online advertising and refuses to pay for any form of subscription.

Meanwhile, print periodicals — including, and perhaps especially, literary journals — are extremely costly to produce and continue to lose subscribers as readers increasingly move online. Which is not to say that literary journals have ever been financially viable. Even the illustrious Harvard Review, my literary alma mater, would disappear were it not for generous donors. This is true of all but maybe two or three journals.

As publishing industry veteran Jane Friedman notes:
A literary journal’s costs are rarely, if ever, covered by subscriptions, but by a combination of grants, institutional funding, and donations. Even extremely well-regarded, award-winning journals have found themselves on the edge of the precipice — and continue in part due to dogged persistence and commitment from their founders and staff, who repeatedly raise the funds needed to continue […] It’s a misnomer to talk about a business model for print literary journals; they’re nonprofits and continue mostly due to charity and goodwill.
And in recent history, much of this funding has begun to disappear: “After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership,” said Ted Genoways in an article ominously titled “The Death of Fiction,” which he penned all the way back in 2010.

While the overhead for online literary journals is much smaller, they are also far from free and even further from being profitable since, unlike print publications, they aren’t in a position to offset any of their costs with subscriptions.

So the first thing to understand is that if a literary magazine is paying you for your work, they are likely doing so out of grant money, not pockets deeply lined by the publishing of literary fiction and poetry.

 People Who Work at Literary Journals Don’t Make Money
“No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction. It doesn’t matter that there are exceptions. The rule stands.” — Stephen Elliott, founder of The Rumpus
In a manner of speaking, submissions cost — not make — lit mags money.

Lit mags receive a lot of submissions — this can range from many hundreds to many thousands each year — which they read and then accept or decline. Those declined are read carefully, often reviewed by several (unpaid) readers each. Those that are accepted go through a minimum of two rounds of editing (often more). Then the work must be formatted and proofed, and, at last, when the issue is completed, it is promoted on social media and by whatever other means possible. This process represents hours and hours of time. And while some lit mags can afford to pay some members of their staff, many are entirely staffed by volunteers. If you consider that, in their non-literary lives, these same people are paid to do things, you could think of every hour they spend working at literary journals as negative money.

They do it because they love it, of course. Editors of small journals are often writers themselves. Almost without exception, people who work at lit mags are burning the midnight oil writing fiction and poetry, just like you. They’re writing the same cover letters, paying the same submission fees, receiving the same rejections. They, too, are having their work published in literary magazines that can’t afford to pay them for their work. This is not an “us” vs. “them” — just an us on both sides of the imaginary divide.

So, while on the surface it may be tempting to lump non-paying lit mags in with publications like the Huffington Post that are financially solvent but “pay” their contributors in “exposure,” it’s very different. Nobody in this equation is bringing home the bacon.

If Literary Journals Don’t Make Money or Pay Writers, What Good Are They?
“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.” — writer Nick Ripatrazone
Duotrope lists about 1,400 online and print publications that publish literary fiction. Of those, 38 pay at the “professional” level and another 73 pay at the “semi-professional” level. An additional 74 offer “token” payment — we won’t include these since you can’t pay your rent with contributor copies. This means that about eight percent of literary magazines are currently paying.

I suppose it is possible to build your entire writing career submitting only to the eight percent of literary journals that are in a position to pay you, but here are a few reasons why writers submit to the other 92 percent:

1. To build up their writing credentials

The majority of literary journals that pay are also the biggest, oldest, and most prestigious. Consequently, they are also the most competitive. While it is true that many journals do their best to read submissions “blind,” it is also true that others don’t, and the strength of your previous publications may or may not impact the quality of attention your manuscript is given.

What’s more, the response time for top-tier journals is often six months to a year, which means that while you may succeed in placing your piece in a journal that can pay you a few hundred dollars for it, the process could easily take several years.

2. To reach a maximum number of readers

Refusing to submit your work to 92 percent of literary journals limits your readership. If your goal as a writer is to get as many eyes on your work as possible — and arguably, it should be — limiting your submissions to eight percent of available publications does seem a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

3. To work with editorial staffs who have the time to care

Larger publications receive a staggering quantity of incoming submissions. This both limits the amount of attention the staff can give each submission and means the journal is unlikely to accept pieces that are less than perfect because they already have more “perfect” pieces than they can publish.

Smaller publications run at a less frantic pace. They often do have the time to offer feedback or spend time polishing up a diamond in the rough. This is, I believe, perhaps the greatest value that non-paying journals offer writers. As Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, said in a recent interview: “It’s crucial to have readers. Writing is a kind of contract with an audience, so whether that audience is your best friend or an editor or a fellow student, it’s crucial to have somebody else look at your work.”

Evelyn Somers, associate editor of The Missouri Review concurred:
At The Missouri Review, we do pay our writers and have for a long time. Author payments cost us a little over $20,000 a year if you don’t count our prize awards. With those, it’s around $40,000, and it’s money very hard won. But the most valuable thing writers receive when they are selected for publication is a generous quantity of the editors’ time and attention — for which the editors are not always paid since a fair amount of it may be off the clock. That includes time preparing work for publication and also time promoting the authors, nominating work for prizes, sometimes reading or reviewing their books on their own time.
Working with editors makes writers better. The more editors you can work with — especially of publications you admire — the more you will learn about your writing and how to make it stronger.

4. The editor who can’t pay you today may be able to pay you tomorrow

A few years ago I convinced a local weekly magazine to begin running a monthly fiction series, which I edited. This was a publication that did pay its writers and promised to pay mine. I went back to all of the writers I’d worked with at Slush Pile and published their fiction in this new paying market.

This particular story has an unhappy ending — sadly in keeping with the theme of this article — which is that the weekly magazine turned out to be financially insolvent and didn’t end up paying anyone. But I think the moral of the story holds. Which is that editors aren’t stationary. Hopefully we, like you, are constantly moving on up. And as we do, we want to take you on up with us.

5. Editors really, really want you to succeed

Aside from the fact that editors of literary journals truly care about literature and championing it, they are also deeply motivated to see you succeed. Their success is predicated on your success; their reputation is built on the strength of your reputation — it’s why they do what they do. They want your story to win the Pushcart Prize or end up in Best American Short Stories. They want you to be the next Junot Díaz or Zadie Smith or J.K. Rowling. Because the more writers they nudge and nurture into the limelight, the more likely it is that they will end up with the one paying gig in the world of literary publishing: Deborah Treisman’s job.

You’re Not Going to Pay Me, but I have to Pay You to Submit? WTF?

Reading fees are another hotly debated topic among writers.

An article ran in The Atlantic a few years ago in which Joy Lanzendorfer explained that she may stop submitting to literary journals all together because she feels that $3 reading fees are “bad for the writing community at every level” and threaten “the inclusivity of literature when it comes to new, diverse voices.”

“It’s fine to charge fees if you’re targeting mostly white, male writers who went to elite schools and who have a financial safety net,” she says. “It’s not so great if you want to hear from the single mom working two jobs who writes poetry at night.” This is the most compelling reason to interrogate the practices of publishing, at every level. Arguably, we cannot change the vast inequities in publishing, particularly regarding race and class, without addressing its economic structures — along with a host of other problems.

In truth, the entire enterprise of writing and publishing short fiction isn’t — and hasn’t ever been — welcoming to the financially burdened. This has, again, primarily to do with the terrible economics of small literary journals and is something that publications must work to mitigate. However, it has very little to do with the advent of submission fees.

Submitting to literary journals was never free. In the analog age, there was the cost of the paper, the envelopes, the postage, the infamous SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), not to mention the typewriter. The current system of electronic submissions is, in some respects, more inclusive, as most (if not all) journals will, to my knowledge, waive the submission fee in response to a simple email stating financial hardship.

Submission fees exist to cover the cost of submission managers (like Submittable). They are not bribes being offered to the editorial staffs of literary journals in exchange for reading submissions. And while it is true that submission fees have become an unexpected boon to some literary journals in this time of dwindling subscribers, the money they bring in is, if anything, making up for a portion of lost revenue, not creating a surplus.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that submission fees have helped keep many journals alive in an age of dwindling bookstore sales, reduced ad revenue, and perennially reluctant subscribers,” said Christina Thompson, editor of Harvard Review. “It’s a cost to the writer, to be sure, but it’s a small and broadly shared cost which goes a long way toward supporting the entire ecosystem.”

And speaking of said ecosystem: “The proliferation of outlets and editorial sensibilities since the 1970s has supported the rise of literary pluralism, but undercut the way journals previously leveraged cultural hegemony and scarcity to generate revenue,” said Daniel Pritchard, poet, critic, and editor of The Critical Flame. “It used to be that only these kinds of writing by these sets of writers was literary, and only certain journals published those writers. People paid for access to a relatively narrow concept of literary merit. So we’re not just talking about revenue models and payment here. We’re talking about which aesthetics and whose voices — literally — have value.”

It’s also worth noting that many publications waive submission fees for subscribers. This is, in my opinion, the most equitable system. Any publication good enough for your work ought to be good enough to financially support in some way — whether through subscription or submission fee. Does this reduce literary mags to an exercise in vanity publishing? Perhaps. On the other hand, writers are readers. As such, they have always been primary patrons of literary enterprises.

Where Does This Leave Us?
“Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood.” — Ted Genoways
Perhaps I’ve succeeded in convincing you of the value of submitting to non-paying literary journals. Or perhaps I’ve succeeded only in convincing you that the whole enterprise of writing literary fiction is a complete waste of your time.

The upshot, I suppose, is this: Your work does have value. You do deserve to be paid for it. But if you started writing short fiction thinking it was going to be your bread and butter, you should brace yourself for the reality that you’re going to need a side-job for many years; possibly for your entire life. As I recently told a despairing writer friend who was thinking of “giving up” writing: you didn’t get into this for the money; if you could be doing anything else, you would be.

And so would I. We’re all working two jobs and writing our poetry at night. Or, in my case, this very article. Which, I think it bears mentioning, I was not paid to write.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Magill.

CTRL-F, DELETE: Word-Trends, Sneaky Cliches, and Other Turns of Phrase You Should Immediately Delete From Your Manuscript

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“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain

We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing.

Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often:

1. Impossibly

Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually — you know — conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.”

When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise.

Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane:
“Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.”
“In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.”
“The sun was even higher, impossibly high”
“Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together”
“They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.”
“I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.”
But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall.” Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.”

None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible.

If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need.

2. Ridiculously

In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:”
“Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.”
“DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.”
However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat — it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous:
“It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.”
3. Skitter/Skittered/Skittering

skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb

move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. “the girls skittered up the stairs”
draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing.

It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing:
“The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.”
“Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.”
“Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.”
“Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.”
“She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.”
As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself?

4. Feelings Moving Like Weather Patterns Across Faces

“Leon watched her face out of the corner of her eyes. It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives clouds across.”
Sound familiar?

This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times — probably before, and definitely since — to count.

5. Shocks of Hair
“He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair.”
“His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.”
“The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him — the wild shock of black hair.”
“He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.”
“Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.”
“She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.”
“To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.”
And my personal favorite:
“He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.”
If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these.

6. “…All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs…”

Who was the first person to use “sharp angles” and “jutting limbs?” I don’t know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It’s over, everyone — done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters.

7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes

These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings:
““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.”
“Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.”
“The boy’s shoulders slumped and he began to groan.”
“I can see it in their shoulders — slumped and weighty.”
“She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.”
“He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.”
That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh.

Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”:
“On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita)
So evocative! So refreshing!

8. In Conclusion

All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing — and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere — keep one eye on what’s trending.

If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.