Writer's Life: Submission Fees
Updated: Jan 5
There has been a worrying trend these past few years, whereas more and more publications have been engaging in charging poets to submit their work. 'Submission fees', 'reading fees', whatever! The practice has slowly crept in, to the point of now being accepted as normal in the poetical landscape. Yet, are they fair? Let's debunk the most common reasons given to justify them, and find out why, as a poet, you should not pay them and stay clear of such publications.
1- The principle is not alien to publishing. It's like vanity publishing.
No. It's not. There always have been houses charging money for authors to publish within their ranks. This is what we call 'vanity publishing', which many see as an euphemism for 'scam' (you do not pay to publish; you get paid to be published). Whatever your view on vanity publishing, the charging publisher will in fact publish your book, and, so, you, the author, will get the service you paid for. Not so with submission fees. Submission fees are relatively new, but the submission process itself hasn't changed at all. Rejection rates are still remarkably high (a reality writers must contend with) and so your work will most probably be rejected, regardless of the fee you paid. In other words: you are highly likely to pay money to be rejected. Poets, please, the submission process is enough of a gamble as it is; do not turn it into a financial loss as well!
2- Submission fees are a way to financially support the literary community.
No. They are not. As a poet you already support these publications by submitting your content. Without such content, these publications would have nothing to publish. Charging a content creator to offer it to a consumer is unfair and nonsensical. The consumer should pay. Not you, the creator. Besides, as writers you are the flesh and blood of the writing community. If anything, writers are the ones who need financial support, something they are sorely lacking as it is. Taking money off us while we are already short of it is not supporting the literary community. It's putting a financial burden on its already struggling core members. Poets, please, if you want to financially support the literary community spend your money on buying poetry collections, publications that do not charge you to mostly reject your work, and/ or on social medias marketing campaigns to promote your books. Don't spend it on rejection emails.
3- Submission fees are a way to reduce the slush pile.
Here goes the logic: publications receive too many submissions to deal with, and, so, fees are a way to prevent people to submit at random. If poets must pay for submissions, they will either not submit at all or be more cautious as to what and whom they submit. After all, editors do not want to be overwhelmed by a slush pile! Well, the reasoning is wrong for three reasons.
First, it implies that we, poets, are rude and stupid - we submit 'en masse' and at random to publications without considerations for their editorials and guidelines. Some of us most certainly do, but most of us don't. Dedicated poets value their time as much as editors value theirs, and so the genuine among us take their writing seriously enough to target specific publications. Time wasters? It belongs to editors to have the reading and processing skills to swiftly spot them and discard them; certainly not to the committed among us to be financially penalised for them to do so. This brings me to my second point: reading time cannot be an argument. I am an avid reader, it takes me a few seconds to skim over and quickly assess a poem as good, bad, or deserving more thoughtful considerations - let alone not bothering at all if it doesn't fit clear guidelines! If editors can't do so, then they have no business being poetry editors in the first place. Here's a basic, required, expected skill. Poets, please, it's not your responsibility to finance an editorial's shortcoming in that matter. Thirdly, the argument of fees as gatekeeping...
Sadly, it works. Sadly too, the people these fees keep at bay are not the time wasters (which, again, should take mere seconds for editors to assess, and without anybody to have to pay for it) but, those who don't have the means to pay them in the first place. Submission fees might only be $3 to $5 on average, but most poets do not live off their craft. For most of us, poetry is a passion besides another job, and we would be lucky if such passion is lucrative at all! $3 to $5 on average times 'insert-how-many-publications-you-are-interested-in-featuring' quickly adds up to a lot of money indeed. And money, when no return is guaranteed (again, the high likelihood of being rejected) is nothing but a cost. Who can afford such cost? In the end, these publications can gloat ad nauseam that they want to hear about so-called 'marginal voices', their practice of charging money to submit is precisely a factor which exclude many such 'marginal voices'. Poets, please, do not support such inegalitarian sham!
4- Submission fees are to cover the cost of Submittable Inc.
Submittable Inc. is an app via which most publications take submissions these days. It also has a cost. Well, here, it's about basic business accountancy if not common sense. If publications cannot afford using an app unless by charging content creators (including the majority who will not even make it into their pages!) then why are they using it in the first place? They can take submissions by email - emails are free. Will email submissions lead to an overwhelming slush pile? Read Point 3 again.
5- Submission fees are for editors. They put in long hours, so they deserve money for it.
Believe it or not, I have heard this argument! Quite frankly with this one: they can get lost. In between writing, advertising, promoting, networking, blogging, and learning about our craft, don't we, poets, put in long hours into our writing ambitions too? All the while also juggling full-time jobs, families, and other commitments too? Yet, have we ever expected to get a 'writing fee' for it all, besides our royalties? Why, then, would it be ethical for an editor to expect a 'reading fee' for their part? Poets, please, don't serve such self-entitled and egotistic behaviour.
6- Submissions fees help to keep costly publications afloat.
No. They don't. Freelance writers don't pay 'reading fees' when submitting articles to their target publications, and guess what? These publications pay them for each accepted articles. How come? Because these publications are serious business ventures who know how to make money without tapping into the pockets of their content creators (again, including the vast majority who will never even make it into their pages). They get creative. They apply for grants. They use crowdfunding. They organise paid competitions. They advertise. They, above all else, rely on their subscribers, their community of faithful readers. A publication charging to submit is either a scam, a bad business venture, or does not have enough subscribers to keep it afloat. Whatever the reason here, poets, please, don't be scammed, stay clear of bad business models, and don't risk loosing money just to feature in a publication with a poor reaching audience. Value your work.
7- Submissions fees are used to pay featured poets.
Who asked them to? Most publications don't pay, never have, and it has never prevented poets to submit to them. Getting paid is nice, but not getting paid has never been an incentive for not submitting. The practice is also absurdly flawed. Let's get this straight: you pay a submission fee which will be used to pay someone else's work, while yours will probably be rejected. In other words: you are being charged a fee for a job interview, don't get the job, but have to see your fee used as a wage for the successful candidates instead of being reimbursed for the trouble. Unfair nonsense? You bet! Poets, please, if editors decide to pay their featured authors that's their choice and responsibility, not yours to fork their bills, especially when there is no sure return for you. Philanthropy shouldn't be compulsory.
8- Submission fees are not new. We used to pay SAE back in the days before the internet.
SAE were not submission fees. They were a necessary cost to get replies 'back in the days before the internet'. We no longer live in the snail mail era. We live in a free email one (emphasis on 'free'). Poets, please, don't be taken for a ride with that one.
9- What's wrong with paying? After all, you pay to enter competitions.
Yes, we pay for entering competitions. But part of these fees goes into financing the winning prizes, which always are a substantial amount of money. I don't mind occasionally paying up to $10 on average to enter competitions, if the winning prize is everything from hundred to several thousands of dollars. I get a substantial return if I win, and, if I don't, another deserving poet will get it. Paying an average of $3 to $5 times 'insert-how-many-publications-you-are-interested-to-feature-in' just to have a tiny few accepting my work and, out of this tiny few, even fewer paying their featured poets an average of $15 should I get a return... No, thank you. Our poetry is our hobby, not a channel for financial loss.
10- We are nice people, see it as tipping our jar :-)
Ah! The 'tipping jar' argument. To be fair, I have hesitated including that one here, because publications resorting to it always make it optional. Should you offer a 'tip' when submitting? It's entirely up to you, especially since tipping or not (supposedly) will not affect the decision regarding your submission. There are several issues with 'tips', though. A 'tip' is always paid for a service that has been rendered. Ideally, the better the service the better the tip. When most of these publications already ask for no simultaneous submissions, take several months to offer a response (if they offer a response at all!), will most likely reject your work anyway because rejection rates are very high regardless, and cannot even provide any constructive feedback upon rejection (they just send a standard email and call it a day) you might be excused to wonder: what great service exactly do these publications think they provide which is so deserving of 'tips'? Poets, please, courtesy goes a long way; and I think, considering all the demands put through us already when submitting, that we are being courteous enough as it is. Why don't WE get tipped, for the service of submitting? Asking for 'tips' to be sustainable also falls under the 'bad business model' umbrella. When you tip a waiter or a barber, you tip a waiter or a barber - not a restaurant nor a barbershop. Imagine such businesses having to survive on tips too... Would that sound like a place you would like to invest in? Well... Read Point 6 again. If anything, what these publications are asking for are not 'tips', but donations. Pay them or not, but branding them otherwise is misleading.
So, there we are! The writing community is a wonderful community which cannot survive without its members to strongly support each other. Yet, there cannot be support without respect. When editors charge submission fees, they reflect bad and unsustainable business models from which poets cannot benefit. As submitting authors, you are the content creators. Ideally, you should be the ones getting paid, not the other way around. After all, why would poets be treated differently than freelance authors? The irony is, money shouldn't be part of the deal, because most poets don't even ask for money to publish. More, art should be accessible to anyone, simply because anyone engage in arts; not only the demographics having the financial means to afford a load of 'thank you for submitting to us, but no thank you'. 'Submission fees', 'reading fees', whatever! A mean to exclude, the practice is unnecessary, unfair, unethical, and even indecent.
Poets, please, don't engage in supporting it.