Tag Archives: literary magazines

$3 cover charge

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.”

Notes on ‘We Looked Like Giants’

Well I’ve started to blog for Full Stop, and my first post is about Craig Mod’s idea of “subcompact publishing” and how it might relate to the future of literary magazines. I realize that it’s a bit strange that I’ve started blogging elsewhere, since I seem to be constitutionally incapable of updating this blog with any semblance of regularity. But we’ll see how it goes.

Here are some notes and tangents that didn’t make it into the little piece but that for some reason seem worth preserving, despite their fragmented nature. Or perhaps this is just the age-old desire to have every thought appear in some type of print. (Also, it could reveal the true reason these scraps weren’t included in the first place.)
In the wake of The Magazine beginning, and Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily folding, and Mod’s essay appearing, and The Awl’s own Weekend Companion app appearing, there’s been a great deal of chatter in the system about all of this. Felix Salmon thinks that tablet-only publications won’t work ultimately, though admittedly he’s focusing more stringently on daily journalism.
Related question: what exactly is journalism now? If we define journalism simply by its frequency of delivery–that is, a periodical publication, a publication that continually publishes installments–rather than its actual content, then aren’t we all journalists now? In that light the crisis of newspapers is simply the crisis of certain information delivered in this particular way, but periodical publication itself is quite healthy (at least in terms of as an endeavor of human attention).

For a better, more cogent version of this paragraph, read this piece from the Awl published yesterday.
What is the point of subscribing to a publication? I mean for the individual reader, not the advertising-hungry eyes of the publisher. Is it simply the relief of not having to pursue each issue. (Why is it again that I can’t subscribe to groceries?)
I do realize that I did not talk about Byliner, The Atavist, Longform, etc., and that I generalized (am generalizing) kind of recklessly about literary magazines as a generic whole, which is probably not smart given that the variety is so great that even the term “literary magazine” isn’t completely useful.
Related: what exactly is a literary magazine? What does that phrase mean? A magazine of literature? But then, what exactly is literature? Or is it a magazine of items that aspires to be literature?
Is there an aesthetic or structural reason that the long-form in-between size e-publications have focused almost exclusively on nonfiction? (Is there some wealth of e-pub novellas that I’m missing?) Or is just because no one reads fiction, at least in a large enough way to motivate this kind of experimental publishing work?
I didn’t mention The Periodical Co in my post and I should have. This application/service (what do I call all this stuff?) was created while I was writing the piece and it provides a way for civilians to create their own subscribable newsstand app.
Hold on. I have to go back to Craig Mod’s website for a few minutes.
A corollary to this is the online versions of the New Yorker. For personal organizational reasons I won’t go into here (i.e., hoarding), I subscribe to the New Yorker via the Kindle. Doing this, I lose so much of the magazine: the wonderful feel of the glossy paper, the spot illustrations, all those perfume ads, that typeface, that general concrete weekly manifestation of the New Yorker as some asteroid of civilization careening into my life. But all that aside, it still shows up without me having to lift a fat finger, and after getting over what I’ve lost, it’s awfully convenient to read it on the Kindle, which because of its sea green e-ink get up (I’ve got the slate grey Kindle that has the keyboard at the bottom; I could look up which specific model it is but what is this? some kind of tech blog?) renders the New Yorker fairly “subcompact” in this version. And I’ve resisted the temptation to download the iPad app version because of the horror stories I’ve heard of download time and complications.
My one goal in life is to minimize the time I spend do anything that could be remotely construed as “syncing.”
I’ve always wanted to write in pretentious epigrams!
All this is to say that I’m predisposed to think whatever Mod says is right and true but he does have a point. He made me overcome my tendency to procrastinate and finally download The Magazine. And it’s usability is great: sharp and crisp and quickly there on my phone and just easy to use. I was thumbing away happily in no time. The writing itself is somewhere in the middle. It’s not yet quite good enough. My favorite article thus far is “The Sound of Silence,” Glenn Fleishman’s longer piece on the Library of Congress’s sound archive in the wilds of Virginia. It’s full of information and neat detail. The rest of the articles are a little too bloggy so far. (I realize the irony of this criticism.) What I mean is that the essaylets are essentially personally informe-but-fleeting-feeling opinions about observable trends in the tech-net-blogo-plex. Not that these are unworthwhile, but I felt an interior grain of conventional desire for something with a little more fiber, since it was a, you know, magazine. But anyway, I’m enjoying it.
Man, that is just one lovely smooth interplanetary excellence gold medal of a website.
Sometimes, in my more vein-popping moments, I think that fiction and the like should simply stay off line as a matter of principle, a concrete illustration of how they are different. That is, you buy print copies of stuff you actually intend to read and you skim what’s freely available online.

But then I think that idea is just wilfully dumb.
The history of tech has shown that people will forgo fidelity/excellence/fanatical attention to detail for cheap and fast, that is, for efficiency. And then, after everything is efficiently available, the fanatically excellent becomes a recidivist status symbol.

Am I using “recidivist” correctly?