Dispatches | June 02, 2014

By Michael Nye

Three weeks ago, I opened up The Review Review weekly newsletter (if you don’t subscribe to it, you really should) and the top story was “We’re Taking a Stand Against Literary Journals that Charge Submission Fees” by Emily Harstone of Authors Publish Magazine. You can and should read the entire essay here but the title alone probably tells you everything you need to know about why I’m writing a response.

Literary magazines charge a submission fee for one of two reasons: to generate a small revenue stream to avoid going out of business, or to slow down the number of submissions. The Missouri Review is housed at the University of Missouri, and because of this connection, we receive a large chunk of our annual income from the university. The rest is generated through a range of revenue streams: subscriptions, single copy sales, an endowment, royalties, grants, and so forth. In the litmag world, TMR is a very large fish. From all of those income streams, the revenue from online submission fees is approximately five percent of our total annual income.

That’s it. Just five percent. But that five percent? That’s the difference between us being in the red or being in the black every year. And in this current environment, with universities treating their departments like businesses and their faculty like worker bees and their students like whimsical customers, making sure we have a balanced balance sheet is an absolute necessity.

I have discussed the rhymes and reasons behind our submission process and its financial logic many many times before on this blog. I waited a few days to respond to Harstone’s piece because my initial feeling was aggravation, and since this is the first week of summer semester, our new interns will (“might”?) read this blog post, which is as good a spot as any to begin their look into the literary magazine world.

My frustration comes from a sense that because TMR has explained this before; hence, because there is an Internet, this no longer needed any further discussion. This is, of course, wrong: one explanation doesn’t reach everyone and one explanation may not be sufficient or correct. If one good explanation ended all inquiry, we’d have sexism, racism, climate change, and clean water all taken care of by now. People enter and leave the litmag world every single day, and for many, they are starting at square one.

Harstone says she has been submitting to literary magazines for four years. Back then, she writes, not that many journals were charging for submissions. This is incorrect. I would say the majority of the best known (or “most popular” or “top 100” or whatnot) literary magazines charge for online submissions and have done so for nearly a decade. She also states that she “supports” literary magazines, a claim, usually without substance, that many writers make when they rail against online submission fees.

I could pick this essay apart in several other ways—about startup magazines and Kickstarter, about trusting the editorial board of a magazine, of “support” meaning more than just a monetary transaction, about Crazyhorse being an excellent literary magazine, about how poets seem to get hosed by disreputable literary magazines more often than prose writers, why TMR doesn’t solicit—but this is all pretty familiar ground, and I’m finding it difficult to continue on this path without being persnickety. There are several hyperlinks up above, written by me or my staff, from a moment in time when I’m in a significantly better mood.

Instead, I’ll just focus on this: Harstone’s piece showcases why literary magazines need to continue to explain their process, why transparency is critical for both publishers and editors. We don’t want our writers to believe (falsely) that the game is rigged and they shouldn’t be playing in the first place. The lifeblood of all literary magazines is discovery of new writers. We need your work. We cannot exist without it.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye