Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reading & Contest Fees: Necessary Evil, or Simply Evil?

I’m not saying that my survey about how much writers spend entering contests and paying reading fees is anything scientific, but I found the results fascinating.  Alas, I’m too cheap to pay for a “professional” plan in Survey Monkey, so no fancy pie charts.  But here’s what we learned (all figures are rounded):

How much money do you spend on entering literary contests and on reading fees and application fees during the course of a year?

~40 percent of the respondents spent less than $50 per year
~5 percent each in the categories of $51-$100 and $101-150
~21 percent at $151-$200
~8 percent at $201-$300
~21 percent had other:  there were a few at zero (which probably should be slipped into “less than $50”) and then several answers around $700 and around $400.  Comments mentioned first book contests and a year spent “giving it my all,”so for some people, this larger amount felt like part of a big-picture plan.

2. What percentage of these fees do you estimate are spent on contests for books/full manuscripts?

~0-20 percent was by far the largest group, at 50 percent.  This may be due to the fact that a larger proportion of respondents are fiction writers—see below—but for poets, often a contest is the only way to get a book published.
~80-100 percent was the second largest group, with 24 percent.  Poets, perhaps?

3. What is your primary genre?
~61percent identified as fiction writers, 34 percent as poets, leaving the rest for nonfiction and “other”

4. Do you think journals should charge a reading fee for submitting work?
Not much love for reading fees!
~58 percent said no
~11 percent said yes
~32 percent said “depends on the journal”
I left space for comments on this question, and here’s a representative sample:

This would discriminate against talented people who can't afford to pay the fees. And presumably it wouldn't result in more people being paid for their work by journals that otherwise do not pay on publication. I understand funding contests this way, but I don't think journals should routinely rely on this route for funding. Of course then the question is where should they get their funding?
As the editor of a journal that has never charged for submissions, my first instinct is to say "no." But with this last submission cycle, after reading the umpteenth completely-incorrect-for- our-mission-statement submission, I think we may be heading in the direction of charging a small $3-$5 fee.
[NOTE:  I find it an interesting thought that the fee may be used to cut down the inappropriate submissions. Might this make for less competition at reading fee journals

But, I understand the convenience of cutting out the middleman (USPS) with online submissions. If the fee is low enough, it's a wash, economically, for the writer.
If there's going to be a cash prize, it's sort of hard not to charge a submission fee, particularly for a smaller journal. Should The New Yorker charge submission fees? No. Should the upstart literary journal for the MFA program at South Podunk U charge submission fees? Yes.
I would rather see a quality journal charge a small submission fee ($1-$3) than go belly-up for financial reasons. I consider my submission fee a 'donation' to help keep journals in business, as just another way to support the literary world. What I prefer to see is when a journal charges for submissions only to non-subscribers. Even if I don't subscribe to a journal, it makes me feel better to see them appreciating money already spent (by subscribing) and so I'm that more comfortable to spend my two bucks, if need be. For contests, I understand the structure: publication of a book and related promotions are funded via the contest fees. Again, I feel like I am 'donating' to the press or lit mag and also earning guaranteed response within 6 months. However, reviewing what I have spent this year ($373 and counting), I will have to cut that down for the upcoming year. It's just too much and is starting to feel like I'm paying people to give my work a chance... when just as many other venues don't charge.
Contest okay. But not for regular journal submissions. I understand the co-op model from the editor's side, and I worry that limits lit journals to universities. Still, there's something too middle-man, too capitalist, too elitist about attaching money to the regular editorial process. I'm reminded of some of the issues raised in Marjorie Garber's Patronizing the Arts.
I am not an ATM for literary magazines and publishers.

As for me, last year I spent $159, mostly book contests (and didn’t win anything!).  On the other hand, I just spent about that much on residency fees about two weeks ago.  Those fees are different from contests, of course, but they add up.  I know the fees are necessary for a variety of reasons; I don’t expect that a colony is making money (or much money) on my $35—some of that goes to pay for the submission software, and I guess that much of the rest goes to support the salaries and overhead for the people who sort through all those applications.

With contests, again, the fee applies to the online submission software, and—we hope!—the prize money and production costs; payment for the “famous writer” judge.  Often entrants get a copy of the winning book or issue with the winning works, and there’s distribution for that.

The reading fee for a journal, from what I understand, is generally paying for the online submission software.  In theory, at least as a submitter of fiction, I would probably be paying that much on postage/paper, so the fee should feel like a wash, especially with a long story.  (Poets, you might be getting screwed on this!) 

So I generally trust that my fee money is being spent thoughtfully, for necessary expenses.  And yet…I don’t enter many contests, and when I do, I do so grudgingly.  There are only a couple of journals that charge fees that I submit to—and my God, the wrath when they take too long to respond or don’t respond at all—I mean, I paid THREE DOLLARS!!   (You know who you are, Unnamed Journal…)  I have subscribed to a journal in order to avoid paying fees for a year (that makes no economic sense, but somehow it made emotional sense, as at least I got to enjoy reading the journal).  As of this writing, I have not been published in a journal where I paid a reading fee.

Before entering a contest, I evaluate:
--prestige factor
--shared aesthetic with the final reader (which is why contests really must let writers know who’s judging, at ALL levels of the process—and I don’t mean names of the grad students who are screening, but let me know that it’s second year grad students in XX MFA program or whatever)
--cost/prize ratio (i.e. I will not pay $25 hoping to win $100, but I might pay $25 hoping to win $1500)
--what do I get?  Subscription?  Copy?
--theme:  if there’s some sort of theme to the contest or the reading, I must be very, very sure my story fits precisely before handing over any money.
--my own desperation level!  I can’t decide whether I enter more contests when I feel more confident or less, but I know that there’s a difference emotionally.  Not winning a contest feels easier to take sometimes than being rejected by Beloved Publication That’s Perfect for my Story.

Before paying a reading fee, I evaluate:
--payment for publication (I would not pay to submit to a journal that didn’t pay its writers)
--my own laziness with regard to printing/postage vs. finding my credit card
--past relationship with journal (i.e. do they respond promptly?)

In the end, the reading fees are here to stay—I can only think of a few contests that don’t require entry fees.  The best bet is to pick an amount you can afford—either per submission “season” or for a year—and plan your campaign accordingly, sticking to your budget.  I have won fiction contests and we all know people whose books got published through a contest.  The system can work—but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine (or curse) it from time to time.

Thank you to everyone who responded!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.