I’m frustrated with the state of publishing, especially when it comes to creative writing. I recently read this article, Should Literary Journals Charge Writers to Read Their Work? and came away disheartened. The article tackles a controversial topic among creative writers: literary magazines that charge submission fees. More and more journals are asking for small submission fees now. I used to have a policy to never submit to journals that charged to submit. But lately I’ve banished that rule because it’s getting harder and harder to find journals without fees. So now when I send a round of submissions out, I include 3-4 journals who have submission fees. I try to limit it to $10-12 at a time, and I only send out stuff maybe once every 3-4 months. So far, I haven’t received an acceptance from any journal I’ve paid a submission fee for.
While I understand that journals need money to stay in business, the article suggested that many journals charge submission fees because they get too many mediocre submissions. “The journals, with small staffs and minuscule budgets, are overwhelmed with submissions and take a long time—sometimes six months to a year—to reply. Most writers can’t wait that long for a single response, so they send their work to more journals. The whole thing snowballs and soon these tiny publications are receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions a month . . . Charging a fee, then, began as an attempt to slow electronic submissions down. The thinking was that if people had to pay to submit, maybe they’d consider what the journal was looking for and only send their best work.”
While I see a point, this doesn’t exactly sit well with me. I still have the issue of not being able to afford constant submission fees. But do I have to pay in order to get out of the slush pile? What about writers who have less money and opportunity than I do? How do they get their stuff published? In fact, is the entire creative writing industry only for educated middle-classers?
I’ve also had conversations with other poets who have said that sometimes journals charge submission fees because they don’t have enough subscribers to keep them afloat. In other words, I’m paying for 1) the likelihood of getting rejected (I received a rejection in my email as I was writing this post, fyi.) or 2) an acceptance that no one reads. This leads to another question that plagues creative writers: Are literary journals only for writers? Does anyone other than writers read them? Does anyone other than submitters read them?
I honestly feel like this is a damned if I do, damned if I don’t situation. I’m a traditionalist. I follow the rules. I got my MFA, I stick to traditional publishing outlets, my poems very occasionally get snagged from a slush pile and printed, but more often than not, I’m held up against the thousands of other poets out there and deemed not good enough.
In addition, I have enough poems for another chapbook, and I’ve been researching chapbook publishers. Most of them have submission fees, too, and they’re more like $20-25. And most chapbooks get published via contests, which also have fees. And you have to wait forever to hear back. I’m defeated before I’ve even begun. What’s the point?
I read another article today about Instagram poets. Did you know there are Instagram poets? Yeah, they post their poems on Instagram and have tons of followers. And when they publish books, hundreds of thousands of people buy them. Poetry books. Hundreds of thousands. It’s unheard of. “Mr. Gregson’s first poetry book, “Chasers of the Light,” became a national best seller and has more than 120,000 copies in print. (To put that figure in perspective, Louise Glück’s collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” which won the National Book Award for poetry last year, has sold about 20,000 copies.)” Wow! More people read poetry on Instagram than in literary journals.
I don’t know that I have the savvy to be an Instagram poet, but you know what? I’m ready to try something different. Push the boundaries of traditional publishing. Find unique places to send my work, places that have readers. Even self-publish if I have to. Maybe I should just post my poetry for free on my blog here and forget about lit mags. I think there’s a part of me that’s always been afraid of trying something non-traditional. But the traditional way doesn’t seem to work anymore.
I can’t say what the answer is, but this is not working. I’m paying journals to reject me. I have never ever been paid for any piece of writing I’ve ever published. And even when my chapbook comes out, I only get paid in copies. I can sell my copies, but I will get no royalties from the publisher. My energy is drained and my morale is low. The creative writing industry needs to be rescued. Or maybe I need to be rescued from it. I don’t know which, and I don’t know how.