Am I being cheap to resent paying $3 to submit to a market that only accepts 1% of the submissions received? What do you think of markets that charge to submit?
This question was recently posted in a Facebook group for fiction writers and editors. The responses were both swift and strongly worded: “Don’t do it! It’s a scam!” “If a market is charging you to submit, their primary goal is to generate income!” “Publishers that charge don’t care about your work!”
Despite the conviction behind them, these responses were inaccurate.
Literary journals are legitimate publishing venues for literary writers who are at the start of their careers, and many journals charge reading fees. $3 is a pretty common amount, and 1% is a common acceptance rate for the top magazines in this market.
As the discussion progressed and a few brave souls stood up to the majority “it’s a scam!” crowd, the poster revealed that the journal in question was Glimmer Train. The lit mag defenders were quick to point out that Glimmer Train is one of the top American journals. It has been around for almost thirty years—a long history considering that so many journals disappear when the funding dries up after just a few issues. Not only that, but stories from Glimmer Train have appeared in many prestigious publications: Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Best American Short Stories, just to name a few. In short, this was no scam, and this was not a publisher that disregards the quality of writing in order to make a buck.
It’s easy to understand why a pay-to-submit model feels scammy to people who aren’t familiar with this market.* It does come across as a get-rich-quick scheme that preys upon naive writers who are desperate to see their work in print. It’s also easy to see how paying to submit can be a costly endeavor in legitimate markets when acceptance rates are so low. A writer could easily spend more than $100 trying to publish a single story in an outlet that pays very little (if it pays at all; many literary journals don’t).
So what’s the value? Why are some writers willing to spend this kind of money? And why do I, as an editor, recommend that my clients go through this potentially costly process to publish their work?
It’s simple. Writers can’t get nominated for Pushcart Prizes or O. Henry Awards without publishing in literary publications. It’s also a lot easier to attract a literary agent’s attention if your work has been published. Being able to say “Publications X, Y, and Z saw merit in my work” goes a long way—it shows that a body of gatekeepers believed in the writing. It shows that there’s an audience. It shows that this work might sell.
If you write genre fiction, paying a literary journal’s $3 reading fee is a waste of your money; the vast majority of lit mags won’t publish genre work no matter how good it is. But if you’re a literary writer, you’ll almost certainly launch your career in the lit mags and your investment in reading fees will be well worth it when you receive your first acceptance letter.
To maximize your reading fees and reduce the odds of rejection, make sure your work is in tip-top shape before you submit. (Or, as my friend and teacher Jo-Ann Mapson says, “Make sure your story is wearing its church clothes.”) You can do this by soliciting critiques from a writers’ group or by sharing your work with trusted readers who give honest feedback about plot, characterization, structure, and other craft elements.
You can also hire an editor to develop, copyedit, and/or proofread your piece depending on the type of help you need. (My services are listed here; contact me to get a quote.) That might seem counterintuitive—what’s the point of spending money on an editor when the goal is to avoid spending money on submissions? But think about it this way. If your piece is wearing its church clothes when the journal’s editor reads it, your odds of acceptance will increase and the amount you spend on submission fees will decrease, especially in the long term. Working with an editor is an investment in your writing. It will help you to identify your habitual mechanical errors, help you to develop a more effective revision process, and help you to become a stronger writer. And as a stronger writer, you’ll spend less on submission fees because your work will stand out for all the right reasons.
If you’re a literary writer, paying submission fees is worth it. Hiring an editor is also worth it. Your work deserves it.
*If you’re one of the people who isn’t familiar with the literary journal market, the Review Review explains why these fees exist and presents multiple perspectives on whether it’s fair when journals charge.