Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Duotrope "Scandal"

You’ve probably heard by now that Duotrope, an online, searchable database of literary journals open to submissions, will start charging people to use its formerly free services. (Links are at the end of this post if you want to read more background on this issue.)

 I’ve been a big advocate of Duotrope for ages:  you can easily and quickly get a good list of which journals are currently reading submissions, sorted by length of manuscript and pay scale (using that term loosely!).  Whenever I search, I learn about new journals, and I’m pleasantly reminded of journals that weren’t at the forefront of my mind.

Duotrope apparently also offers a way to keep track of your submissions—which I’ve never used, and wouldn’t; I like my own system (using that term loosely, too, since my system involves index cards!)—and site users report various acceptances and rejection dates, which creates some additional data—again, something I’ve not used beyond a casual glance, since I have no idea how accurate and/or large the sample size is, and I generally expect response times to basically just be Too Long and when it's been Way-Way Too Long, I send elsewhere.

It’s obvious from this quick description that this was a valuable service….that had been totally free.  Free!  In fact, whenever I told anyone about Duotrope, I believe I always said, “And I can’t believe it’s free!”

Starting in January, it won’t be.  There weren’t enough donations to cover costs, so the administrators of the site will be charging $5 a month or $50 a year in the future.  Of course I’m sad about that—I’m as cheap as the next person!  (Let me note that I made a donation earlier this year.)  But I’ve been surprised by the reaction on the street, that somehow this site owes it to us—the Writers of the World—to continue this service so we can keep sending out our work.

Newsflash:  we can still send out our work.  If you don’t want to pay $5 to send out a big batch of submissions three times a year (that’s, um, only $15, which is equal to three eggnog lattes at Starbucks or one craft cocktail at a very nice bar), there are a zillion ways to find lists of journals/contests/markets—CLMP, the AWP bookfair, Poets & Writers, The Writer’s Chronicle, Writer’s Market, the fine (free!) listserve CRWROPPS, the back pages of the Best American Short Stories—and it’s not overly burdensome to check a journal’s website to see if it’s currently reading.  In fact, even when I got that Duotrope list of possible markets, I scoured the journal website for additional information…and now I shudder to think that people might not even have done that.

Which leads to a problem:  scattershot submissions that have no relevance to the journal.  There was a cry from some on Facebook that now people might submit less often, or to fewer journals, and wouldn’t that be horrible?  Not to the journals inundated with material, I bet.  There’s nothing wrong with doing some legwork the old-fashioned way, by knowing the journals you’re submitting to, by looking them up yourself, by reading the work they publish to see if it’s a match for your work.  Even my own Redux, which has a very specifically defined goal-- “previously published literary work not available elsewhere on the internet or in a book”--gets totally inappropriate submissions!

There’s nothing wrong with wanting some compensation for one’s efforts.  I like when I get a check for my writing…who doesn’t?  Starbucks isn’t giving me eggnog lattes for free, so I’m not sure why Duotrope is expected to give us the fruits of all that labor for free.  (They claim to be updating the site many times a day, and my experience with them with regard to Redux was impressive:  they found us; the form to get listed was easy; I got quality submissions as a result.)   

I mean, it was all nice while it lasted, but this shift is hardly a surprise.  And, really, don’t we just know the same fate is somewhere down the road for sites like Wikipedia and Facebook and gmail?

I’m reminded of a poem I love by Dylan Thomas.  The world doesn’t owe us anything, just because we’re writers:

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art  
Exercised in the still night  
When only the moon rages  
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light  
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms  
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages  
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart  
From the raging moon I write  
On these spindrift pages  
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms  
But for the lovers, their arms  
Round the griefs of the ages,  
Who pay no praise or wages  
Nor heed my craft or art.

If you want to read more:
Missouri Review blog
Petition asking Duotrope to charge journals, not writers


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