Should Writers Pay Submission Fees?

Many years ago I had my fortune told. The psychic told me she saw me sitting at a table with another woman surrounded by stacks of books. It sounded like a wonderful future for an aspiring author. But before she commenced with her reading, she asked for a silver coin placed across her palm  and a twenty-dollar bill. 

The “fortune teller” was a friend of a friend.  I hadn’t expected  to be charged for a “reading.” I wasn’t even certain of her psychic abilities, but I reluctantly opened my purse.

“To receive something of importance,” she said responding to my unvoiced thoughts that money dirtied our transaction, “You must give something precious. Money in and of itself has no value, but the things it can provide—food, shelter, entertainment—does. ”

Photo by Min An on

What she said made logical sense. Her words repeated themselves in my mind when I started searching for literary magazines that might publish my stories and essays. The request for three dollars or five dollars as a required expense was unexpected, but it didn’t seem too outrageous. It costs money to run a business and the various platforms that help keep submissions organized for tracking are an added expense, particularly for nonprofit organizations. 

I’d invested time in writing the work I was submitting, but I also knew how much money it takes to run a publication. Hundreds of manuscripts might be read before the editors found work they wanted to publish, and reading all those submissions takes time. As long as the fees were under five dollars, I reasoned, I could fit it into my budget.

But this was before I realized the number of rejections every writer receives before they get that treasured acceptance.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been published fifteen times by small publications, but many of those publishing credits were the result of my persistently sending out a manuscript five, ten, fifteen times. Most small literary magazines have no budget to pay their writers. Many of their staff members are volunteers. Doing the math, meant that in some cases I was losing fifty or seventy five dollars for the privilege of a publishing credit.

And then there is the time I spend, creating my art. Occasionally some of the publications who have accepted my work have paid me $25 or $50 for a piece and I am grateful, but I’m not writing for the money. However, looking at the balance sheet, I’d prefer not losing money. Thus, after the first couple of months of submissions, I started specifically looking for ways to reduce my expenses.

On one end of the spectrum are the publications who make a point of not charging submission fees to anyone. Many of these newer publications keep their costs low by not using online submission software. You email them directly and you track their responses. At the opposite end are publications, such as Narrative Magazine, who request as much as $23 to submit a piece for publication consideration. In between are publications that waive fees for those who identify as belonging to a specific demographic or who waive fees for a finite number of submitters at the start of each month as well as publications who suggest fees and label them as a donation, rather than a requirement.

The positive attribute of investing money in a submission, as the psychic inferred, is that you are demonstrating confidence in your work. You think the story, essay or poem is your very best and deserves to be published.

So before you spend the money, ask yourself.. Has it been carefully proofread, properly formatted?  Has it been read by other readers and writers whose opinion you respect? Have you followed the submissions instructions the publication has posted. Many fine pieces of writing are immediately disqualified, according to editors, because the writer made a small mistake.

I don’t have any hard and fast rules for when and whether submission fees should be paid, but it is a good idea to do your research first. Definitely take advantage of free admission periods and opportunities. Set up a budget of what you are willing to invest in yourself. Occasionally you’ll want to enter something in a contest that might charge as much as $45 to enter. Investing in a contest can push you to work harder at refining your work. Do not be deterred by rejections. Many editors reject pieces they admire, because they just don’t fit in thematically with the other pieces they’ve selected for the upcoming issue. Particularly if you’ve gotten positive feedback, keep on submitting.

IF you are serious about getting published in literary magazines, or anywhere really, it is a good idea to read posted editor’s interviews.  If you invest in a membership with Duotrope ($5 a month), you can find  interviews on their website or just Google for literary magazine editor interviews and dozens pop up. Take note of what type of writing they are looking for and some of the common mistakes that irk them.

A new FREE source for locating magazine open to submissions, recently came on the scene. Called Chill subs it is easy to use and it is asking for suggestions for additional listings. What I like about it is that is has a filter where you can choose from six vibes that can range from “Very fancy, very impressive, very not fast” to “We’re Just Chilling here.” Also check out groups and announcements on Twitter and Facebook.

Follow me on Twitter at SN Maril and thank you for reading.

Published by Nadja Maril

Nadja Maril is a communications professional who has over 10 years experience as a magazine editor. A writer and journalist, Maril is the author of several books including: "American Lighting 1840-1940", "Antique Lamp Buyer's Guide", "Me, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat", and "Runaway, Molly Midnight; the Artist's Cat". Her short stories and essays have been published in several small online journals including Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Scarlet Leaf Review and Defunkt Magazine. She has an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Former Editor-in-Chief of What's Up ? Publishing, former Editor of Chesapeake Taste Magazine a regional lifestyle magazine based in Annapolis, and former Lighting Editor of Victorian Homes Magazine, Maril has written hundreds of newspaper and magazines articles on a variety of subjects..

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