Dispatches | November 02, 2011

Why does The Missouri Review charge $3.00 to receive online submissions? This practice is becoming more common among print journals that accept online submissions, including  Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, American Short Fiction, Southwest Review, just to name a few. TMR has had an online submission fee in place for many years, but the latest Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec) has just been released, and there are several articles on literary magazines, small presses, and what we’re doing to build community. Included in this issue is Laura Maylene Walter’s essay “Price of Submission” about why literary magazines charge for online submissions. It’s a good article – go read it! But there are a couple additional thoughts we’d like to add, some specific to TMR and some broader about our literary community.

One of the things worth recognizing is that the cost of submitting to a magazine is a fixed prospective cost: a cost that will be incurred and cannot be recovered. Submissions have never really been free. It’s simply that the cost (paper, envelopes, postage, etc.) has been paid to the post office, not the magazine. And I’m not saying that it necessarily should have. Freed up from (some) of the costs of submitting to literary magazines, has there been an increase in subscriptions? Has there been an increase in financial support of literary journals from writers?

No. Not at all.

Because of this, supporters of online submission fees, like me, tend to take a more realistic and business-centric approach: there is a revenue stream that we need to capture. It is, however, a pretty small revenue stream; we earn significantly more through subscriptions. There isn’t a print literary magazine that can be sustainable—even in the most basic sense of covering its printing and mailing costs (let alone paying its staff)—solely through online submission fees. Opponents of submission fees feel that it’s a tremendous burden on writers, who are overwhelming described as poor, noble, honorable (and so forth)(and, yes, I’m a writer, too), and that the practice is unethical and unlike any other business model. Further, opponents believe that it is an easy system to rig – solicit work from writers that the editors know, then charge writers we don’t know to submit – and that because of a greater need for transparency in our community, we shouldn’t do this.

Fair enough. I’m a big believer in transparency. So. Here’s what editors ask fellow editors when discussing charging online submission fees: Will this mean I get fewer submissions? Editors don’t even look at as a revenue stream. Editors look at it as a way of slowing down submissions.

In fact, submissions increase significantly. This varies from magazine to magazine, but the increase in submissions is somewhere between twenty to thirty-five percent.

Maybe editors are looking at this all wrong. Maybe writers have done the mental math that I’ve done above and said You know what, I support literary journals when I submit online and pay a submission fee so I don’t need to subscribe to journals if I spend $60 a year on submissions. Now, that would be really rational, so the thought appeals to me (I’m Mr. Roboto like that) but it would make sense.

Why, then, don’t we avoid the dreaded “slush pile” and just solicit work from writers we know? Good question. And it really gets to the heart of why literary magazines exist and why writers want to publish in them. It is all about discovering a new voice from a new writer. It’s about finding that one really amazing story or poem from a writer we have never heard of before, and then delivering that writer’s work to a larger audience. We can’t do that if we solicit work because, of course, we don’t know who that new voice is. That’s what we – and I mean all literary journals, not just TMR – are most proud of. Literary magazines are all about discovery. The response to online submission fees is that we receive more work to read and consider, but also more possibilities of finding a new, unpublished writer.

So, then: are writers doing the calculations of going to the post office and deciding online submissions are fine? Is it just way too easy to click a button? Do writers view paying online submission fees as “supporting” the journal, adding to our revenue stream, and therefore, they don’t need to subscribe to us? I don’t know. What I do know is that as a magazine editor, the initial idea of online submission fees was not to increase revenue but to decrease submissions. That hasn’t happened, and since submissions have increased, it is reasonable to conclude that writers clearly have no problem with submitting work to us this way.

It is also important to recognize that TMR continues to accept paper submissions. If a writer does not believe online submissions are ethical or fair, then he/she can mail work to us. We continue to, and will continue to, receive paper submissions. I think it’s crucial that we leave that option open.

So, yes, TMR charges for online submission fees. No writer has to pay this fee if he or she chooses not to. What’s important about is two-fold: 1. To be fully transparent with our audience and 2. Remain open to new ideas as to how to strengthen our magazine, which includes our relationship with our audience and the biz-side of publishing TMR. Through a slightly different lens – communicating with an unseen readership, and being open to trying new things – writers are working on the same problems. It’s the same struggle for all of us—how do I create something true and authentic while also bringing it to the widest audience possible?

When you’re ready, send us your work, online or hard copy. Either one works for us. We want to read it. We want lots of submissions. It’s what all of us are here to do: read, discover, then, finally, publish.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye