The Business Model of Literary Journals (or Lack Thereof)

Literary journal business model
Rachel Ford James / Flickr

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 today. (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.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments