Silvia Moreno-Garcia | Centipede Addendum
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Centipede Addendum

An addendum to something I published yesterday.

The pay to submit model of literary journals seems to rely on the assumption that the content creator should also be a monetary supporter of the publication (articulated by The Offing when the say):

“Our thought was that those who like the mag enough to seek publication wld be willing to make a contribution to keep it going”

This is problematic for a number of issues, beginning with the fact that if the majority of your supporters are your content creators, you probably have a very small circle of supporters. Also, if you imagine writers being by de facto monetary supporters of the magazines they submit to, you can can also imagine what the situation is for the writer. If a writer submits to a dozen publications in a year, does that mean she has to subscribe to each one of them?

I imagine very few writers subscribe or buy issues of all the magazines they submit to. That does not mean a writer has to have a constant monetary  relationship with a magazine they wish to submit to. Ideally, they have an idea of the general tone of the magazine and they value it in some way, so they probably read it at some point. But they might have read one issue in the past two years. That issue could have been obtained at the library, could have been borrowed, could have been purchased, could have been free because the content is provided online without a fee.

The relationship of a writer to a magazine is not only variable, the meaning of support is also changeable. Support for some readers could mean buying the issues of the magazine, but others could be content with reviewing the magazine, talking about it, tweeting about it, only buying it if there is a certain famous writer in it, only buying if they like the cover, buying it as a gift for someone else, etc. The Offing and other literary magazines however assume that the writer has one constant relationship with the magazine and it is monetary. That is, the writer “likes the magazine” and demonstrates that like by making a monetary “contribution to keep it going” in the shape of a fee.

Of course, this does not demonstrate a “like” from the writer. Just that the writer has $3 and is willing to use them to audition a story for that price. It establishes no strong bond or relationship to the magazine with the supporter (supporter/writer, as we are assuming the person is both).

On Twitter, The Offing mentioned that despite getting 1,000 submissions they had not received donations, which I think demonstrates that you cannot assume one thing (submitting a story, and even paying $3 in order to have your story read) means you will have much “like” for a magazine. Also, you can’t assume anyone will donate to you unless you have a campaign going on, as I have discovered, but that is another topic.

The crucial issue here is that literary magazines should stop thinking their content creators ARE their readers and supporters. These should be separate categories which might overlap, but don’t have to.

On Facebook, I participated in a discussion where someone said books are “not sustainable.” This person also said he was publishing to “call attention to writers who in many cases are invisible” and “because I want to change the conversation, not because I think I can sell copies of books.”

But if you can’t sell books how are people going to find those “invisible” writers? If no one is reading them, are you publishing them for yourself? Same with magazines. If we are told our precious voices which need to be heard (something a Twitter user was saying) are of no interest to anyone, should I be writing graffiti in the ladies room?

If the answer is that the only (or the majority of) supporters of a magazine are their content creators and that is why they must pay a fee, this is deeply problematic (and believe me several people have argued this is the case, that the only readers are the writers). Who is a magazine speaking to, then? Is it a literary jerk circle? Isn’t it better in this case to simply pass my Xeroxed short story around at a party?

Submission fees are functioning as a strange crutch for magazines. They display the fact that you are not dealing with a healthy entity. The thing is you *can* have a much healthier entity. Most of the literary magazines I know rely on submission fees, arts grants and selling issues, but they do not utilize many of the other tools available to content creators nowadays: Patreon, online fundraising campaigns, collected e-book issues, releasing content in a staggered fashion so that you pay if you want to see a story first or wait until it is available for general viewing (I did that last month!), etc.

I suspect The Offing would be very successful if it launched a Patreon. Whether it will, I have no idea. Clarkesworld (which I support via Patreon, I give them $2 each month) and On Spec are both generating income this way: Clarkesworld makes almost $800 each month, and On Spec makes $450. When sources of income such as these are combined with things like subscription drives, e-book versions of issues, and other revenue generating tools, I suspect you can indeed support several literary magazines without relying on fees (there is a separate questions of how many zines and magazines we should and realistically can have since we seem to be saturated with them).

The Offing is probably a prime candidate to attempt new revenue generating strategies (they say they are “risk-taking” on Twitter) and if they were on Patreon I would probably throw them $2 each month, like I do for other content creators.

Which brings me to the last point of this. It has been suggested that folks speaking about this issue should not be agitating on social media against The Offing and instead quietly, politely and behind closed doors e-mailing them about it. Or that they should not be discussing it at all since there are many literary markets doing the same thing. First of all, this is something that deserves to be discussed openly. Second, that this new magazine is doing the same as many others does not mean that the tactic is good or it should be encouraged, though it probably looks even worse when you consider that The Offing wants to cater to marginalized writers. It would be very nice if in general magazines stopped asking for submission fees, but it would be very pleasing to see The Offing in particular make that choice, proving that a new market with a new vision can  discard old, fumbling funding models.

PS: Some people have said the small fee weeds out the undesirables, people who are untalented and have no business being in the slush pile. Of course, this doesn’t really do anything of the sort: many undesirables with $3 will still get into the slush pile. There is no automatic elimination of bad stories, just of people who don’t want to or can’t pay $3 at the time. People who don’t want to or can’t pay $3 may be perfectly capable writers. In fact, I just turned down an offer to be the featured writer in an upcoming issue of a Canadian literary magazine that charges submission fees because I’m not considering any fee charging markets.