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The Case for Paying Writers

There is a thoughtful piece floating around this week at The Millions that aims to contextualize the dearth of paying markets among literary journals these days, and this is not really a response to that. Much of what was said in the article was true or reasonable with respect to the financial realities of modern literary magazines’ bottom lines (or lack thereof, as is often the case).

This is, rather, a concerted, alternative effort to make the case that in the face of such real and seemingly insurmountable financial barriers, literary magazines—and I mean all of them, at least those who have been around for more than a year—can and should pay their contributing writers for their work, or at the very least actively aim to do so in the real and not-too-distant future.

I say this as a writer who has both been paid and not paid for literary fiction; who popped a bottle of champagne with her spouse when that first $50 check arrived in the mail, negating half of said check in the process; who continues to submit to journals who do not pay for literary fiction. I also say it as a blogger who volunteers for this magazine for non-monetary benefits: being a part of a literary community, tangential exposure I may receive. But I am especially proud to blog specifically for a journal that endeavors to pay writers for their art. (As a blogger, I am part of the volunteer staff, and anyway, blogging is not art.)

But how to do it? How can a literary magazine that does not turn a profit still pay writers for their work? First, we must recognize it is work—both of labor and time.

One way, specifically: Start charging fees to submit online, and do so in a thoughtful and considered way to limit the impacts of fees on low-income and working-class writers. It can be a real barrier for some people to submit, although there are several ways to mitigate these effects (which I delineate below). But before we designate the $3 fee many lit mags charge for the service of online submissions—which costs them money—as classist, we should acknowledge that such a token barrier more than covers the cost of paper, ink, postage, time, and gas + parking meter at my local post office. When all of those costs are included, I actually save money by paying to submit online, although I do appreciate when journals offer free submission weeks throughout the year as a nod to the financial difficulties many emerging writers face. This is a system that Carve is actively working to implement in the near future.

There was most certainly a time in my very recent past when I stared down those $3 fees and considered them in terms of exactly how many cans of beans they could buy for my young family. It is true that systems of art production are inherently classist, because making art requires spare time, and time is a commodity. As such, any journal that aims to subvert those systems by having designated free submission periods or alternative submission options (paper, email, etc.) for writers who are actively struggling to pay the bills is a blessing to the community.

And while that $3 often only covers the costs of the submission system for the journal (and not other costs like printing or web design), there are proven ways to increase those funds that don’t rest the burden on the shoulders of struggling and/or working-class writers. Journals can have a window of time during which they only accept “tip jar” submissions, which may or may not be slightly more than the average fee. They can offer free submissions for subscribers, which is a larger source of revenue. They can hold regular paying contests and reserve some of the higher submission fees to offer payment to non-contest contributors throughout the year. They can charge extra for quicker response times, or extra feedback from editors, or offer online classes on the side—again, reserving some of the funds to pay writers. They can solicit donations either privately or publicly. There are even grants from arts organizations that nonprofit publishers can apply for, which is hard work—yes!—I’m not saying it’s easy. It is not easy to pay writers, but it can always be done. And if it can be done, I can’t think of a good reason why any magazine that’s been around for more than a year wouldn’t at the very least try.

For reference, under its current publisher, Carve Magazine began paying writers within one year of changing hands. At first, it was a token amount—$100 split evenly among the writers in each issue. But soon after that, and with the help of submission fees—20-40% of which goes to paying writers in any given year—Carve is now proud to be able to pay $25 for poetry and nonfiction and $100 for fiction. As the executive editor, Matthew Limpede puts it, “I have always believed if a magazine charges a submission fee they should be paying the writers SOMETHING.”

And then comes the why. What other art can you think of where people are expected to give their work away for free, even at the novice level? Even beginning photographers can earn some token amount of money for vacation pictures of a field of poppies in spring—$10 at your local café or on Etsy. Even beginning musicians get to pass around the hat at Open Mic Night.

But the reality of literary writing, especially literary fiction and poetry, is that there are way more of us—writers—than there are of them—readers—and it’s obvious from reading submissions that plenty of writers don’t regularly read any sort of literary magazine at all, which is unfortunate, but also reality. And here, I’m afraid, we’ve bumped into the limits of capitalism. It happens. It’s lame, to be sure. I write for free because I have to write for free to get where I want to be.

But that doesn’t mean that a magazine shouldn’t pay me. Just because they don’t have to pay me to get my work doesn’t mean they shouldn’t pay anyway. It is a choice to not pay writers. It’s hard. It’s not especially glamorous—finding money to pay writers. But neither is writing. It’s just sitting here, alone in a room, tapping out words that maybe no one will read. But I’m doing it anyway—the hard work. They can too.