It seems that a possible new trend within the world of literary magazine is the charging of on-line submissions. Two magazines, New England Review and Ploughshares, have begun this practice, and with their huge reputations could impact other magazines to do the same. It should be said that if you are subscriber, you don’t have to pay. If you send by snail mail, you don’t need to pay. For Ploughshares, it costs three dollars. I can't find out how much it costs over at the New England Review.
Ploughshares claims they are charging the fee to be able to continue to give money to the authors of accepted poems. In other words: the people who don't get the pub need to pay for those who do. As they say on their website: "This fee will help us to continue to pay our contributors." This is shocking from a magazine that I respect and claims to be interested in social change.
Of course, the most significant argument in defending this practice is that the magazine could face definite extinction if it doesn’t find ways to increase revenue. It is an important fact. It would be a sad fate.
However, then the magazines have an ethical responsibility; they must ensure that at least 40 % (or more) of their contents include work by unpublished or emerging writers. I am defining emerging as a writer who has publications, but no book. If a magazine can’t at least meet that percentage, then they are engaging in unethical practices. Their chances of getting published should be reflected in what the charge for submissions is.
I am suspect of any magazine that does not include 40 % unpublished or emerging writers. If they are uninterested in supporting unpublished and/or emerging writers, they should not ask for submissions fees. Take Five Points. They only publish established writers. And usually their worst pieces! Which does provide for great entertainment. I hope they keep it up.
A popular train of thought is that magazines can do whatever they want. It’s their magazine after all. For me, this is such a cop-out. Magazine editors have a responsibility to hold themselves responsible for the way they treat potential writers, especially when claim they’re interested in submissions.
Some people say that it’s a “tiny” fee. I don’t know how much the New England Review's is. Ploughshares is three bucks. It may be a tiny fee if you have a tenure-track job. But when you are a graduate student or working-class, chances are it isn’t—three bucks add up really fast. You send to six different magazines with submission fees, and there’s eighteen dollars.
Let’s face it: graduate students make up most of the submissions. And most of them are struggling financially as it is. To take money out of their pocket, when they’re struggling means that you don’t have a conscience. The editors of these magazines themselves should be decrying the situation. They should encourage their publishers to go on-line, perhaps. It’s not the end of the world. But taking money from hard working students is. With the current depression, it is inexcusable.
Needless to say, these same graduate students are not in a position to argue—their future livelihood may depend on these reputable magazines. Who isn’t going to want to have a poem in the pages of the New England Review or Ploughshares? I’ve been sending to these places on-and-of for a decade or more. In the past month, I bought a gift subscription of Ploughshares for a friend. When I first came to Brockport for my tenure-track job, I immediately purchased subscriptions to Kenyon Review and the New England Review.
The literary community is small. Trust me. I’ve paid the price for opening my mouth on a blog I’m always surprised anyone would even glance at. People don’t like people who have opinions. And some editors would say in advance that, hey, they do so much work for nothing, keep them out of this. No one should be excused from the discussion. And also, it’s so prestigious to be an editor of a lit magazine. I would love if someone included me. I like finding new poets, new poems. But I don’t expect them to pay for our newly formed friendship.
Addendum: Since I posted this, I thought perhaps a submissions manager could be created in such a way that working class people and graduate students could identify themselves privately and be exempt from paying the fee. All others could pay perhaps even a slightly higher fee if this is a system that will come into play. I know I'd be willing to do that. I'm indebted to the literary magazines for my salary and health insurance and do my best, not all the times successfully, to purchase as many small press books and magazines as possible.