Recently, I finished up an essay and sent it out into the world — that is, launched it into the galaxy of literary magazines that might hopefully publish it one day. It had been a while since I’d submitted something, but not that long, and I was surprised by how expensive it’s now become to submit.
Here in wonderful 2015, most literary magazines use Submittable, an online submission manager. It’s basically a great big Google docs folder in the sky where you upload your story or poem or essay. There are a couple of different incarnations of these managers, but it seems like in the past couple of years Submittable (which was formerly called by the marble-garble name Submishmash) has cornered the market in this little pass through filter of the lit mag-o-sphere. All of which, from a technical aspect, is fine and dandy. I am old enough to remember collating all of the various ingredients in a hard copy submission, making sure that the SASE had an actual stamp on it, and had one’s return address, and perhaps some indication of which literary magazine was responding with their form rejection. Back then, submission day was an event. You needed an assembly line mentality to get everything ship shape and out the door. Now, as with with most modern web-based conveniences, you can basically do it anywhere you have a wi-fi connection, in any state of professional togetherness, or lack thereof. Which is, again, great. Submittable has a built-in tracker so you can see where you submitted and when they rejected you. It makes everything easier.
The bummer angle is that some magazines, at first just a few, were charging people to submit via Submittable, typically about $3. This was to “defray costs,” which I think means a) the cost of implementing the service itself and b) whatever printing of submissions the magazine conducts. When it was just a few mags, fine. They were easy to avoid. But in the not that many months since the last time I went through my little lit mag submission square dance, it seems like almost everyone is now charging. And this will just not do, for a variety of reasons.
First off, let me say that I am sympathetic to literary magazines: every day they push the boulder uphill and it never gets any easier. The people who run literary magazines — these people are basically saints. Because while the agents are taking lunches and thinking about whether or not zombies are still a thing, these people are out there finding actual literature and giving it a home, over and over and over again, for almost no reward and in the face of near constant societal indifference.
What’s more, I get that in general literary magazines are simply inundated with submissions, a prospect which is only made worse by the convenience of moving the process online. And I get that the economic prospects of all journals would be much better if just 25% of all submitters subscribed to the magazines that they sent their stuff to.
Defensive digression: I have and do subscribe to several lit mags. Never as many as I should, but there’s always next year. And I try to follow the general rule of submitting to places I actually read and enjoy, not just hitting on any warm body crossing the dance floor.
And I get that under some economic lights, charging for submissions makes sense. It helps raise much needed money, on the one hand, and it helps discourage submissions on the other. It acts as an impulse-checker, a seriousness threshold. And I should admit that some of the lit mags that charge for online submissions still allow old-fashioned print submissions for “free.”
I put “free” in scare-quotes because one of the arguments pro-fee is that in the olden days, when you mailed in your submission, you were still paying for it. It’s just that the fee went for postage and for the costs of printing out and putting the submission in an envelope. That is, the fee went toward intermediary logistical forces. However, I still think charging for submissions is skeezy, and wrong, and will be the end of “independent,” “literary” “magazines.” (Let’s thumb-wrestle over these terms another day, shall we?)
First, my most trivial objection: using these fees to print out submissions. The lit mags should not be printing out these online submissions. Yes, I realize reading on paper heightens concentration, but if you’re dealing with a large volume of manuscripts, the majority of which will not be read all the way through because they are not remotely appropriate for a given publication, and you’re receiving those manuscripts in a digital format, why on earth would you then print those manuscripts out? In this day and age of ereaders and tablets and Dropboxes? In this environment, it seems like you would print out only those stories that you, as editors, were emphatically serious about.
Second, to defray the costs of using the service. Just how much does it cost to subscribe to Submittable? Is it that much? (Update: see blow.) If it was that onerous, it seems like one could bootstrap a version with a little Gmail, some incoming message rules, shareable Google docs, and a well-maintained spreadsheet. I realize these places receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, but the technology component isn’t that difficult. What’s difficult is the unrelenting labor of staying on top of it.
In terms of throttling the amount of submissions, it seems like a better way would simply be to close submissions when the fridge gets too full or to have clearly delineated open/closed seasons for submissions. (But please not the tax-code level difficulty of Glimmer Train, which necessitates a writer building her own software just to track what door is open when.)
There’s a meaningful distinction to be made between a place like Glimmer Train, or The Missouri Review, or Subtropics, whose issues are composed mostly (I assume) of material submitted blindly by writers versus magazines like n+1 which are written by contributing editors or a cadre of pseudo staff-writers. There’s even a good distinction to make between “little magazines” more collectively and their reliance on content written almost entirely on spec versus the New Yorker or other glossier publications that subsist on queries. Much of this editorial/authorial headache comes down to writing on spec versus writing on query, which is to say writing that’s “art” (or aspires to be) versus writing that is journalism (or aspires to be). Of course these teams overlap, but it’s these conceptual premises that are important. You can pitch the New Yorker nonfiction, but you have to submit an entire piece of short fiction, and that’s because most journalism is conceptually driven or angle driven and can be course corrected (to an extent) along the way, while fiction (to an extent) is a cake that only exists after it’s fully baked. You can do the icing and trim the fondant together but it doesn’t make sense as a cake until it’s already in existence as a cake. And because all of this material has to be written on spec, it takes much longer to evaluate it.
Furthermore, I realize that literary magazines need money, but this little corner of American literature is already rank with contests and their “prizes” and their entry fees, which of course go toward a subscription to the magazine and toward the prize money itself. Once a year, more or less, mags solicit an esteemed author to be a judge and charge everyone $20 to enter. Meanwhile, at least in the past, you could submit “regularly” to the magazine for free. These contests always felt like a scam and an admittedly shameful method of generating money. You could quickly go broke submitting your dinky little story to magazine contests. (The book contests conducted by university presses are only a slightly less problematic, yet more interesting, sibling to this problem.)
But fine, one could avoid the contests and vow not to enter them. But now the fees have trickled down to regular submissions. I realize that $3 is not a lot of money to submit an essay to a literary magazine, but it’s the principle. It’s like paying the bar for the privilege of playing music there on Saturday night. I realize that the magazine needs more paying readers but that in part is what a magazine is about — what a magazine is for. As a magazine, you are the magnetic force that attracts readers to your collated, curated, bundled goodness. That’s why we, blind writers, come to you — not just for your editorial wisdom, your “acceptance,” but also because you’ve got the readers! You’re where the party’s at! But by charging the writers to submit, by saying, “You must support us economically,” magazines seem to be forfeiting that obligation. I am not speaking of one lit mag in particular. I am trying to generalize from my ether-stream feelings. If in the past, the writer and the lit mag worked collaboratively in the spirit of the gift to create not just literature but a context for literature, that gift exchange has been converted into a market exchange where the lit mag is now selling access, is selling its attention, selling the reader the statistically slim opportunity of publication.
How can this turn out well for either writers or lit mags? How, especially in this day of free online distribution of one’s digitized words to friends and family, can lit mags survive this exploitation of their oldest collaborator? And how can the world of lit mags not turn even further inward, turning basically into a closed respirator of work by graduate students, for graduate students, and for their nominally sponsoring institutions? It makes the whole endeavor feel like writing for the high school newspaper. It doesn’t purport to reach an audience or a public. It only seeks to perpetuate itself in a pseudo-imitation of literary scholarship, which is by design only intended to be read by a handful of professional specialists. In this world, literature ceases to be an oblique strategy of communication and becomes merely a credentialing gesture, a cheesy certificate of accomplishment. Publication becomes not also but only an avenue of professional distinction, not an instantiation of anything someone off-campus would actually read. No wonder Medium is so tempting.
Update: I heard from an editor friend, and she said that depending on the number of submissions a magazine receives per month and the number of accounts one needs for various editors, the cost is not inconsiderable. Perhaps I’ve been so thoroughly wooed by my free Gmail that I assume all shiny computer applications are free — obv not the case.
Update II: Regarding the “why even bother” question percolating underneath the surface of this note, I was reminded of another note I wrote earlier, “Mechanisms of Prestige.”