Too Many Poets, Too Few Readers

Or why some magazines have started charging submission or reading fees. Most poetry magazines have two main problems: an overload of submissions and a scarcity of subscribers. The latter means most editors are working for free because the magazine only brings in enough income to print the current or next issue. In some cases, the editor is also putting their own money in to fund the magazine as well. The former means that editors are keen to reduce the level of submissions coming in. Ideally everyone submitting to a magazine would at least buy a copy and preferably subscribe to help keep it afloat, but that doesn’t happen.

A submission fee is a quick fix: if writers have to pay to submit, maybe they’d ensure they only submit their best work to magazines that are the best fit for that work.

However, submission or reading fees are a problem

  • They exclude writers who can’t afford to pay. Even though reading fees might seem a small amount, writers don’t submit once to one editor, they submit several times to different editors so even small fees can add up.
  • Not all magazines charging fees pay for acceptances so the reading fee is not recovered by the writer.
  • Writers who can afford to pay may decide not to submit on principle.
  • It deters writers from becoming subscribers. Most writers who subscribe to magazines do so because they are planning to submit to that magazine at some point and given a choice between paying a submission fee or a subscription, most will choose the former over the latter because writers only have a finite disposable income and it makes more sense to use that to work towards publication than reading.
  • The magazine restricts its pool of contributors to those who can both afford to pay and are willing to pay submission fees.
  • Since magazines typically accept only 1-2% of submissions, the writers whose work isn’t selected are subsidising the writers whose work is accepted.

Funding for magazines has always been a problem.

  • It’s frustrating for editors to see submission after submission from poets who don’t subscribe, but poets can’t always afford subscriptions and some will subscribe after an acceptance. Some poets are subscribing to magazines but not necessarily every magazine they submit to.
  • Arts funding streams are usually focused on one-off projects or are not suited to repeat funding to subsidise an ongoing project, even during the start-up phase where a magazine is launched and seeking subscribers.
  • Crowd-funding too is fine for one-off projects e.g. setting up a new magazine but not designed to provide ongoing funds and it’s difficult to run a crowd-funder without a lengthy list of contacts who can be relied on to both contribute and spread the word. It also has the inbuilt complication that crowd-funders will expect rewards for their donation. A magazine that can only offer an issue or a subscription might attract lots of low-level donations with the risk of not hitting its target.
  • There’s also the age-old problem of wannabe writers who don’t read and don’t see why they need to support poetry magazines through buying copies, but are often first to complain when a magazine ceases publication.
  • Guilt-tripping submitters (whether successful or not) into subscribing (“the magazine won’t survive unless you subscribe”, etc) is rarely successful.

It’s easy to see why reading fees, which can be used towards publication costs, are seductive.

How can publications avoid charging for submissions or using reading fees?

  • Be ruthless in rejecting writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines.
  • Consider using reading windows so writers can only submit at certain times (and automatically reject writers who submit at the wrong time)
  • Place limitations on how often writers can submit e.g. only submit once during a reading window, do not submit for a year after publication, do not resubmit until the next reading window after a rejection.
  • Consider soliciting contributions as well as unsolicited submissions – this could help redress gender/racial balances too
  • Check that submission guidelines are clear about writers submitting work in the right format for the magazine so that less time is wasted typesetting and reformatting contributions.
  • Consider being more prescriptive in describing the type of work included in the magazine. Asking poets, who are not always the ideal judges of their own work, to “Send in your best work” is an invitation to being flooded with submissions.

How can Poets Help?

  • Do support publishers and magazines through subscribing and buying books, pamphlets and magazines when you can afford to.
  • Do share your publication successes on social media (with a link to the publication).
  • Consider reviewing and championing the work of others (you may get reciprocal shares and reviews in return).
  • Check submission guidelines and double-check your submission complies before submitting.
  • Resist the temptation to flood a publication with submissions. If an editor’s accepted a poem, they are unlikely to accept more until your poem’s been published and even then there may be a rule about not submitting for a year after publication. If an editor’s rejected your work, they might welcome further submissions, but not within five minutes of their rejection. Look at what’s been rejected and consider whether the poems you’d like to submit are the best fit for the magazine before pressing send.
  • Don’t submit outside submission windows.
  • Don’t think submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
  • Gain a beta-reader or join a workshop/online forum/spoken word evening where you can test your poems on readers and listeners before submitting to a magazine. Your latest poem may be the best thing you’ve ever written but a fresh pair of ears will notice the tongue-twister in line five and a fresh pair of eyes will notice the stray apostrophe in the first stanza.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with reading/submission fees because good writing comes from talent, knowledge of writing craft and practice, not ability to pay. Putting up entry barriers in a field that’s already got issues with accessibility – unpaid internships in publishing, the VIDA Count’s demonstration that women writers are less likely to be reviewed, that most writers need a second job to compensate for the low income directly from writing, the lack of visibility for BAME writers, etc – I don’t think is helpful.

However, writers also need to acknowledge that they can’t expect to be published if they don’t buy books and magazines when they can afford to, don’t head out to spoken word nights and poetry readings where possible, and don’t help support publishers and magazine editors through reviewing (even a one line review on a seller’s website/online forum is useful) and publicity.