The Business Model of Literary Journals (or Lack Thereof)

Literary journal business model

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When I began my publishing career, it was easily the one ethical guideline that reputable journals, magazines, publishers, and agents all agreed on: no reading fee, ever. Writers should never be charged for the opportunity to submit their work.

I worked at Writer’s Digest for a decade, so this was a rule of thumb I repeated often at conferences and workshops. It helped writers avoid scams and target their efforts at the most reputable outlets. (Writer’s Digest is the publisher of the Writer’s Market series, including Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poet’s Market.)

About the same time I left Writer’s Digest, a new startup entered the scene: Submittable. Submittable has two standout benefits: (1) it allows publications to streamline and automate the submissions review process internally, and (2) it gives writers a single portal from which to submit their work to many publications at once, remember what’s out on submission, and see the status of those submissions at a glance.

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. Here is the current cost if you’re a literary journal.

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

When I worked at the Virginia Quarterly Review, I oversaw the implementation of Submittable. The journal was opening to submissions after a long period of being closed, and it didn’t take even a month before we required the most expensive Submittable plan. I had already loosened my position on reading fees prior to arriving at VQR (the publishing world is not the same as when I started in the mid-1990s), but after witnessing what happened when the gate was opened—and what type of material arrived—I was ready to argue for the ethicality of reading fees.

(Note that I am using the term “reading fee” to mean any fee a writer must pay for their work to be considered; journals prefer to call them “service fees” when the fee is clearly tied to submission through an online portal.)

How Much Does It Really Cost to Submit Your Work?

I’m writing on this topic because of conversations I’ve recently had with writers who feel mistreated and ill-used by reading fees. This article in The Atlantic will give you an idea of how the argument plays out.

First, I think it’s important to look at what the reading fees would really add up to if you were submitting to 20 of the most popular literary journals:

  • Ploughshares: $3 if you’re not a subscriber, but you can submit by mail for free
  • Tin House: no fee
  • Paris Review: no fee, mailed submissions only
  • New England Review: $2 or $3 if you’re not a subscriber
  • The Georgia Review: $3 if you’re not a subscriber, but you can submit by mail for free
  • Kenyon Review: no fee
  • The Antioch Review: no fee, mailed submissions only
  • The Southern Review: $3, but you can submit by mail for free
  • Gettysburg Review: no fee
  • The Cincinnati Review: no fee
  • The Hudson Review: no fee
  • Virginia Quarterly Review: no fee
  • The Iowa Review: $4 if you’re not a subscriber, but you can submit by mail for free
  • Alaska Quarterly Review: no fee, mailed submissions only
  • Creative Nonfiction: it’s complicated, but usually $20; you can submit by mail for free if not submitting based on a theme
  • Glimmer Train: $18, and they offer annual opportunities to submit with a $2 fee
  • The Sun: no fee, mailed submissions only
  • Agni: no fee
  • The Missouri Review: $3, but you can submit by mail for free
  • Ninth Letter: no fee

By reviewing this list, a few things become clear:

  • Not even half of these journals charge a fee.
  • Those that do charge a fee still allow for free submissions through the mail.
  • It is still easy to submit your work widely without paying reading fees.

It’s also clear that the journals are making an effort not to charge writers who are active subscribers.

The journals charging $2, $3 or $4 are doing the logical thing to remain sustainable: They are covering their cost to use Submittable, and possibly pay staff or readers to go through the increased number of submissions they’re receiving. (Keep in mind Submittable is taking a percentage: 99 cents plus 5 percent for each writer who pays to submit work.)

I admit the situation gets more ethically complex when journals run a series of themed contests that require more substantial fees, such as Glimmer Train or Creative Nonfiction. Still, there are workarounds for writers, and the journals are quite self-aware about what they are asking writers to do. The Glimmer Train editors state on their site:

There is no such thing as a profitable literary journal. To the best of our knowledge, all surviving literary journals are supported by universities and/or by individuals who love short fiction and are willing to put their own time and money into them. Besides making it possible to pay higher prizes to writers, reading fees (and your subscriptions) help keep Glimmer Train Stories a first-class publication credit.

And so we come to the crux of the issue.

Literary Journal Economics

A literary journal’s costs are rarely, if ever, covered by subscriptions, but by a combination of grants, institutional funding, and donations. Even extremely well-regarded, award-winning journals (such as McSweeney’s) have found themselves on the edge of the precipice—and continue in part due to dogged persistence and commitment from their founders and staff, who repeatedly raise the funds needed to continue.

Some literary journals are able to continue partly because the staff work without pay, or little pay. Interns work for free in exchange for experience and connections. Some may donate their time in order to have the prestige or credit for their CVs or resumes.

It’s a misnomer to talk about a business model for print literary journals; they’re nonprofits and continue mostly due to charity and goodwill. Earlier this year, I wrote at length about some of the existential problems now facing them: Are Literary Journals in Trouble?

Sometimes it seems that journals are running out of goodwill among writers. I’m seeing a lot more finger-pointing and public expressions of frustration (see post above). Writers feel exploited and taken advantage of, especially those struggling to find full-time jobs under a load of student debt. We have it so hard already—how dare you charge a reading fee?

I have two thoughts about this:

  • Writers don’t seem to realize their struggles and literary journals’ struggles are two sides of the same coin. The journals don’t have sufficient funding or support, but they still have to put together a viable P&L. Writers’ lack of funding or support affects their ability to prop up literary journals’ fragile business model. Someone has to pay—so who should it be?
  • Writers have expectations that simply don’t apply in the publishing world of 2015. (Same goes for literary journals, too, of course.)

Thinking Beyond the Literary Journal

In book publishing conversations, I often talk about “thinking beyond the book,” to help writers see beyond the very traditional methods of telling a story or reaching readers.

Except for a few elite publications, literary journals reach a couple thousand people at best. Gaining entry into their pages still means something, of course—it’s a necessary rite of passage for emerging writers who want to be taken seriously by a particular literary community. You need certain credits for teaching jobs, for promotion, for consideration by other official entities (grants, fellowships, residencies, and so on).

But: It’s only one way to crack the nut. It’s entirely feasible to build up a reputation and publication record (and a writing career) that’s respectable without ever placing one piece in a traditional print literary journal. (I’m thinking right now of Ashley Ford, who I first met while she was a Ball State creative writing student. Her first pieces appeared in well-known online publications—PANK, Rumpus—and she became a staff writer at Buzzfeed. She’s now a full-time freelancer and writes for Elle, has a book deal, etc.)

Writers who complain about how hard it is, how unfair it is, how much they struggle, or how much they’re exploited: I have some sympathy—because there are unethical practices out there—but only up to a point. Unless you’ve achieved financial independence (through the benefit of family or otherwise), wanting to be a full-time writer means treating your writing like a business, approaching it with some level of entrepreneurship, and educating yourself about the industry. If you don’t like the costs or the time and effort involved, then you’re complaining about the rules of a game I assume you willingly entered.

And I have almost zero tolerance for pointing the finger at publications that are struggling just as hard as writers to stay afloat. I agree there’s a difference between publications that have the ability to pay (and/or absorb costs), and those that don’t, but writers continuously have trouble understanding the difference between the two, understanding the business model of the average journal or magazine, or recognizing the dramatic change underway in all types of publishing business models.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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24 Comments on "The Business Model of Literary Journals (or Lack Thereof)"

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[…] Are literary journals justified in charging reading fees?  […]

Laura Droege
Thank you for explaining this so well, Jane. Ruminate, the literary journal where I volunteer as a fiction reader is undergoing major financial struggles, and we’re trying to raise enough funds to hire three full-time employees. If we can’t, we won’t be in business anymore. This would be a huge loss, as would the loss of any literary journal. But it’s difficult to convince the general public that, yes, you should care about the arts, and, no, we shouldn’t be offering our art/photography/fiction/writing for free just because you’re cheap and/or think we’re doing it as a hobby. Personally, even as… Read more »
Jesse Magnan

With the exception of two on the list these reading fees are not enormous. I imagine quite a few of those writers who complain probably spent more on the coffee they drank that morning.

Sometimes it really is a matter of perspective on where you want to put your money. Three bucks to help a literary journal out while they go over my manuscript? No problem.

susanna solomon

very useful information. Oftentimes writers don’t put on a “business” hat. Nothing comes free, and a $ 3.00 submission fee is really quite small. Keep up the good work, thank you

juliembrown8

This is timely for me, as I’m beginning to submit to literary journals. Frankly, I’m surprised there are ANY journals out there that do not charge at least a small fee. Also, it makes sense that entry fees do cut down the number of low quality, poorly written submissions.

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[…] fees. Should we, as writers, accept them? Should we eschew them? I read an article on Jane Friedman’s blog yesterday about the challenges literary journals face, and she does her best to balance those challenges […]

Calee

This discussion reminds me of the college application process– parents shell out a significant number of dollars per application ($40-$70) which is basically a “reading fee.” The common application has both increased the number of schools the average student applies to, and increased the number of applications a school receives. When you think about the role of the literary journal, as you pointed out, it exists to both serve its readers and provide credentials for a subset of writers–a function not unlike a university degree.

Becky Tuch
Hi Jane. Really great piece here. I just want to contest one of your arguments: “If you don’t like the costs or the time and effort involved, then you’re complaining about the rules of a game I assume you willingly entered.” I think it’s dangerous to talk about “willingly entering” a field of work implying that you can’t criticize its practices. When teachers go on strike, for instance, should we just tell them not to complain because they *chose* to become teachers? A similar problem is afoot with adjuncts right now. Should we tell all these folks not to criticize… Read more »
Jenn Scheck-Kahn

Thanks, Jane. I appreciate your counterpoint to the Atlantic article you cited. I ran Tell It Slant, a submissions manager that recently went under, and I wrote about the benefits of submission fees to writers here: https://grubstreet.org/grub-daily/5-hidden-benefits-of-submission-fees/

Emily Wenstrom
This is a very interesting conundrum, and an eye-opening look at what top literary journals are dealing with right now. I run a short story website myself. Since we publish fun genre fiction rather than literary, and we don’t offer a print version of our releases, it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison, but I’ve started a push to start monetizing in 2016, and so I’m starting to consider these issues for myself. (For the first three years of its existence, my site wordhaus.com has been totally free, but we also have not been able to pay writers, which I really… Read more »
ATB

It’s Subittable that’s raking the $ in. That’s where critiques should begin. To the person above whose alternative submission manager went under: I’m so sorry. I would love to see literary journals come together to create & maintain a non-profit alternative to Submittable. That philosophical approach to a submissions manager I would feel fine paying a small amount for.

Erendira
Thanks, Jane, for this insight. It is helping me develop my alternate action plan. My main question in this conversation is what an emerging writer is nowadays. I have five publications on my record, but have been out of the literary scene for over 15 years since I got the MFA. It’s been so noisy to enter back into it after all that time has passed. I wonder if it is even worth pursuing publication in a literary journal anymore. Maybe it is time to focus on the story collection and complete that to send to an indie pub. Also,… Read more »
Erendira

Thanks Jane for your timely response. I am in the wind-down and for the new year, the goals need to change. Thanks for giving me the nudge I needed to see this clearly. All the best in 2016!

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