On Literary Journal Submission Fees and Why Submittable is Bad for Writers

I'm a fierce defender of small businesses. My family has owned a music store and studio in New Jersey for over fifteen years and I hope to one day open my own small bookstore, so when I hear independent operations are closing due to low sales or high rents, it scares me. I already see the toll increased rents have taken on New York City, where small mom-and-pop delis and pizza places have been conquered by the invading armies of Pret a Mangers and Starbucks.

The city seems to be actively trying to push these stores out with the help of predatory landlords and holding companies. It's not the businesses' fault. They didn't ask for higher rents and many have closed because they didn't pass those expenses on to their customers.

The same cannot be said for the publishing industry, specifically literary journals. Journals often operate at a loss and the very successful ones manage to break even. No one starts a journal or magazine for the money. They do it to publish their friends and colleagues, or they want to give a platform to marginalized voices, or they want to dip their toes into the industry as a way of building up their own resumes, for example.

Many journals are run by volunteers who love the work and love working with authors enough that they don't mind giving up their free time to put out something great. Others are run by a skeleton crew barely making enough to pay their internet bill. This is America and sadly still a capitalist society, so those bills must be paid. It's not too much for someone running a business to say, "Hey, I'd like to be paid for my work." I agree. The question then becomes, "Who's going to pay?"

If you're The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, or Ploughshares, three of the most popular and widely read literary journals in America, the answer is simple: the writers.

To submit a work of short fiction to the Iowa Review, the writer is expected to pay a fee of $4. For the Missouri Review, it's $3.50, and Ploughshares charges $3. Mind you, these are all for digital submissions. Writers who want to print their stories, stuff them in an envelope, and submit them for potential publication can do so for the cost of shipping without incurring an extra fee from the magazine. You might be wondering why mailing physical documents that take up space doesn't cost extra, but uploading a digital file suddenly requires you to pull out your credit card.

Blame submission managers. These online filing systems are used by literary journals and even some literary agencies to collect and organize the deluge of submissions they get each day. Fill out a form, upload a document, and you're suddenly a new, easily searchable record in their database. The most popular of these software services is Submittable, which boasts The New Yorker, NPR, and Glimmer Train as users of their platform.

I've used it as a writer and I do enjoy the experience. I can see all my current submissions and get notified about acceptances and rejections all on one page. No more digging through emails or maintaining a spreadsheet. Very convenient. But that convenience comes with a cost. According to Jane Friedman back in 2015, Submittable had several tiers to choose from depending on an operation's size:

Professional Plan
300 entries/month and 8 staffers/readers
$160 per year
Premier Plan
800 entries/month and 20 staffers/readers
$325 per year
Enterprise Plan
2000 entries/month and unlimited staffers/readers
$1100 per year

That was 2015. If prices haven't stayed the same, they most certainly have gone up.

However, as I said before, Submittable is very convenient. So convenient, in fact, it has had negative consequences for smaller journals. Jane Friedman again:

This efficiency and frictionless submissions process has come with a cost: submissions can be made with very little effort by the writer—which increases the volume of submissions that journals receive—and publications have to pay to use Submittable.

So a journal that was originally getting by on the Professional Plan can suddenly see its inbox growing into an Enterprise-level plan in a month to accommodate the influx. $1100 per year (plus tax) comes out to about $100 per month to license Submittable. A steep fee for a journal struggling to pay its authors and artists as subscriptions dry up. And with many magazines turning to the internet for first publication, those stories are often read by audiences for free. The only ways to make up the costs are to run ads or put everything behind a paywall, which doesn't work.

But journals have found a third option in their bread and butter. The writers are the ones who cover Submittable's onerous fees by tossing a few bucks into the journal's open guitar case upon submission. Three dollars here, four dollars there. A latte. A premium phone app. Nothing, right?

Is it still "nothing" if the average income for a writer is $6,080? That was the case in 2017 according to a recent Author's Guild survey. That's "down from $10,500 in the guild's 2009 survey." With authors living WELL below the poverty line to "do what they love," why are journals forcing the most vulnerable demographic to forego their hard-earned money to gamble on submissions with no guarantee of success? What about LGBTQA+ and writers of color, many of whom see even less in their pockets from their work and are already at a disadvantage, both financially and in what outlets will accept their work?

(And I know some magazines will work with authors in financial straits to waive those fees, but it shouldn't be on the author to negotiate that. It's a shitty thing to force someone to announce their financial status just to submit a piece.)

A story that sees a handful of rejections before finally being published might cost that author a week's worth of food, or make them short on rent, and there's no guarantee they'll get paid upon publication. But at least they'll get the exposure.

I don't know about you, but my bank doesn't accept exposure in lieu of a mortgage payment. Hell, people die of exposure.

So, who's to blame for all these fees? I don't think it's fair to lay it all at the feet of the journals who are just trying to get by while also making things easier on themselves. Labors of love are still laborious. Digging through a mountain of email to find a single diamond is no easy feat. However, dragging a hulking system meant for The New Yorker into your operation and then making writers pay for it is also unacceptable.

There are donations. There are grants. There are Patreon and Kickstarter. There's the possibility of taking a print publication online and eliminating the costly overhead of printing and distributing a physical magazine. So many options, none of which involve forcing the writer to pay to play.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that money should always flow to the writer, never from them. A $3 submission fee is not insignificant when one is trying to build up their writing credits while destroying their financial credit. Maybe journals would get fewer garbage submissions if they went back to the old ways. There are also free alternatives in the form of Wordpress plugins and Trello (Trello won't manage or collect submissions automatically, but makes triaging them easier from an editorial perspective).

What's most important is understanding that if something is making your life easier while negatively affecting the lives of the people you depend on to make your living, it's not worth the convenience.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned Glimmer Train was a Submittable client? Despite their numerous contests and steep fees, even they couldn't survive. Their last issue comes out in October.

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