What are you even doing? On literary journals and respect

Update 9/12, 9:44: I've made a variety of minor edits since originally posting, mostly to fix some typos, add a few links, and clarify some word choices. 

Earlier today, I tweeted this short string about literary journal submissions:

I want to take a few minutes to expand on these, because I think there are some important considerations for literary journals here, and also because I think writers, especially novice writers, need to make some important choices in deciding who to work with. 

The submission fee debate has more or less been resolved; despite the resistance of some writers and journals, submission fees are becoming the norm. The justifications for submission fees typically fall into five categories: 

  1. It costs money to send submissions through snail mail anyway, so $3 is no different 
  2. The journal needs some way to cover its costs, and nobody donates or buys literary journals anymore
  3. The nominal fee deters "carpet-bomb" submissions 
  4. The journal pays writers, so fees subsidize the published writers
  5. It's a volunteer staff and editing can be grueling and thankless

Setting aside my objections to most of these points (well, except point #2, which I would suggest is indicative of a much larger problem, i.e., if you're completely unable to keep the press afloat without submission fees, then perhaps that means your press has no particular reason to exist), let's just acknowledge here that lots of smart people have debated the topic endlessly, usually respectfully, and writers have to individually determine where they draw their own line in paying fees.

Some, like friend and fellow Barrelhouse editor Dave Housley, refuse to pay fees under any circumstances.

Anecdotally, it seems Dave is in the minority. As more journals move toward paid submissions, writers are left with an increasingly limited pool of venues to submit their work, so more people are begrudgingly agreeing to pay fees.

I'm mostly in this camp. I decided a few years ago that I would never submit to a journal that charged fees but didn't pay writers. I still don't love it, and I especially don't love the idea that the relatively small roster of widely-published writers has their work subsidized by the paid fees of rejected writers, but at least the money is flowing outward toward writers. Any arrangement in which the money goes to a vague "administrative fee" or is used as the primary revenue stream for a magazine seems, at best, like a poorly considered system, and, at worst, like a scam.

But, okay, I wasn't going to get into that debate again. The point is: every writer makes his or her own choices. Some people aren't bothered at all, everyone has had their say, and here we are. I'm not a fan of submission fees, but I understand they're here to stay. I like when journals open brief fee-free periods for people who just cannot afford to spend six hundred dollars a year on submissions. I like anything a journal does that prioritizes showing basic decency and respect to writers. 

What made me particularly angry this morning, as I searched through about a hundred calls for submissions, was seeing how many journals fit all four criteria I mentioned in my first tweet: 

  1. Submission fee (usually $3, but sometimes $5, and in a few instances, $10 or more)
  2. No pay for writers
  3. Online only
  4. No promise of even a response

On their own, each of the first three traits is justifiable, depending on context. It's hard for literary journals to pay. After eight years of being almost entirely self-funded (aside from a few generous donations), Barrelhouse was finally able to pay $50 per author, but that's still criminally low, and we keep trying new approaches to generate more revenue that we can pay out to authors. Every poet, essayist, and fiction writer hates that part of the system, but also understands that if the money isn't there, the money just isn't there. "Exposure" can only keep you satisfied for so long, but again, every writer is free to make that choice. 

Online only is, in fact, not a problem at all. A lot of writers I know, including me, have begun prioritizing online publication because more people read it, the turnaround is faster, and many online venues are really well-designed and run by great editors. It's only a problem in this context, because if a journal is charging fees and not paying writers, then they are either explicitly or implicitly saying they need that money to cover costs. But if the only thing you do is pay for web hosting, a Submittable account, and maybe a Squarespace account, then your annual fees are no higher than $550-600. That cost is covered by the first 200 submissions (which will come in about 3 weeks), and then what? What, exactly, am I paying for?  The time of the editor, who, of his own volition, decided to start a website and call it Sick Hermit Crab Quarterly or whatever?

If you run an online journal and you don't pay writers, and you still cannot figure out a way to pay the very low cost of entry, then you need to reconsider whether your journal should exist. 

Despite the self-evident badness of point #4 above, it's become increasingly common. Often, it's phrased like this: "We cannot guarantee you a response. If you haven't heard back in four months, assume we've moved on." Every editor I've ever met has been a writer first. How could you be an editor and have so little respect for the time, and work, of a writer that you can't deign to make the time to send out a form email? I could reject 100 Barrelhouse submissions right now in less than the time it took me to write this paragraph. Form emails aren't great, but they're the least you could do if you're trying to operate a journal in some way that approximates respect for writers. I assume one reason journals adopt this policy is because they're overwhelmed and often forget to reply-- it happens to Barrelhouse with embarrassing frequency-- but that doesn't mean you should never respond to anyone. When you mess up, you send an apologetic email, explaining yourself. Maybe another justification is conflict-avoidance. When you reject people, they get sad, and sometimes they get mad, and sometimes they threaten you. 

And it sucks. It sucks to let writers down, to think about the daunting numbers game of submissions in the first place. It sucks to have to tell somebody No. But if you're not even willing to do that, what are you doing?

Accepting submissions is a pretty passive system already. You open a link and say, "Give me some stories" and hundreds of people flood your submission queue without you having to do anything. Then you can pick a handful of things and post them on your website and call it a journal. These things can turn out to be quite good. But often, the editor has had very little to do with the process beyond unlocking the door and telling people to show up. So when a journal shirks the basic responsibility of even responding to people, then what are they doing besides running a blog with exclusive access and a cover charge? 

The other Barrelhouse editors and I have been pretty adamant on all of these points (and have even been accused of "hostile hubris" for being so vocal about them), but I can't think of a more fundamentally important thing in the literary world than respecting the writers who are producing the work. The combination of practices that set me off amounts  to overt disrespect of the writers, and even open hostility toward them. 

I'm fortunate that I have the privilege of not needing to submit constantly. I have a good job. I have some good publications. I'm working on a few projects. I'm someone who can be selective and who can also afford the occasional submission fee with no problem at all. But if I were twenty-three and trying to figure out publishing, and I was met with nothing but journals that wanted to charge me money so they could pay their web fees, and also they couldn't even be bothered to respond to me, I don't know what I would do. I would submit anyway, I guess, and feel like shit about it.