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What does the future look like for literary magazines?

Subscriptions are down. Submissions are up. What do modern journals need to do to survive?

What does the future look like for literary magazines?
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5. The great submission fee debate

The debate erupts every few weeks on Twitter, at literary conferences, during drinks with writerly friends. Should literary magazines charge submission fees?

There’s no easy answer. Editors will argue against the concept in the same breath they justify their own need to charge them.

Jennifer Baker can see both sides of the debate. A contributing editor to Electric Literature and active submitter to other literary magazines, she has worked in publishing for 16 years.

“I don’t necessarily agree with submission fees for literary magazines and, at the same time, I understand why they exist,” she says. “I pay submission fees regularly when I submit applications for residencies, and I can afford to when I budget for what I feel is suitable for my work. But a literary magazine is different in that many may think donations and subscriptions pay for everything, or they should. But that’s not the reality.”

Submission fees often cover payments for staff and guest editors, administrative tasks and overhead, promotion, and more, Baker notes.

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Paying expenses is a sound argument for charging fees. But…   

The downside to submission fees has become a greater concern as literary magazines work to expand their contributor lists.

“Submission fees with lit mags are prohibitive, full stop, and adds a barrier for those who (a) cannot afford fees (especially if it means they may not get compensated if they are published) and (b) if the literary magazine isn’t very representative,” Baker says. “Why should I as a Black woman provide money for you to, potentially, be less inclusive or continue not being inclusive? Submission fees, to me, are an accessibility issue, which is a long-standing one in the publishing arena.”

For many of those reasons, Apogee Journal has never charged submission fees. “We’re hoping to make it more accessible to publish,” explains Executive Editor Alexandra Watson.

Shashi Bhat, editor of EVENT, says the magazine briefly instituted a submission fee to address the twin costs of rising submissions and the adoption of Submittable, the cloud-based submissions manager. However: “We removed [the fee] out of concern that it would be too much of a barrier and would skew the population of writers published towards those who could afford it,” she says.

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Some magazines waive reading fees for subscribers (and, bonus, you get a better feel for what the editors want when you read what they publish).

Occasionally, workarounds can be found. Tahoma Literary Review recently partnered with an instructor in New Mexico who runs a creative lab for inmates. Many of them lack internet access and, further, can’t afford submission fees. TLR waived the fees and will review hard copies of their work.

“We’re really excited about this chance to hear these voices. This is a group we haven’t heard from,” says Jim Gearhart, the magazine’s managing editor. At press time, the TLR staff eagerly awaited the first batch arriving in the mail. If the New Mexico partnership works out, editors hope to implement similar programs with prisons in Michigan and California.

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