Storyville: Top Ten Things Literary Journals Need to Do. NOW.

Let me get a couple of things out of the way first. When I say literary journals, I mean any publication (print or online) that publishes fiction—so please include genre fiction, in all of its glorious flavors. Literary can mean a genre of fiction, but it also refers to literature, in general. Also, I write this column from my heart, because I care about you, editors, as well as the authors that keep you going. I want you all to succeed. And, I do realize that I’ve made many of these very mistakes in my own capacity as an editor at various places over the years. But it’s time for us, as a community, to move onward and upward—to do better. There are ways to accomplish this. Here are my Top Ten problems with publishing today—the ways that magazines, journals, websites, and podcasts are handling their business and treating their authors. I know we can change, I know we can evolve.

1. NO MANDATORY FEES FOR SUBMITTING

This has to be the biggest insult that I’ve run across. I’ve seen a huge shift in the number of publications that are forcing their contributors to pay in order to submit. I find this highly offensive. Yes, I understand that we used to have to mail in submissions (I’ll get to that in a second). Yes, I understand that you are struggling to stay in business (I’ll get to that too). But why in the hell would you charge your struggling authors money, and make it mandatory, in order for them to submit? I can understand if you want to make it an option—for some people, it’s not a big deal, they have the money, they can spend $3 a pop, 30 times a month, 360 times a year. I can’t afford to spend $1,000 a year on submissions, especially when the acceptance rate is often less than 1%. Doing a quick search on Duotrope.com, I found 1,730 literary markets that don’t charge fees. But I also found over 200 that do. And of those, 42 were mandatory. As my friend Lemongrab says on Adventure Time, “UNACCEPTABLE!” It’s not unknown markets either, but places like Crazyhorse, Five Points, Hunger Mountain, New Orleans Review, Witness, Grist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Keyhole, to name a few. And that’s a real shame, because I’m a fan of all of these magazines. But I won’t submit to them anymore. Find a different way to make your money, guys.

2. ALLOW SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS

It’s time for us, as a community, to move onward and upward—to do better.

This is another standard that needs to change. You have to realize that authors are already up against insane odds. The majority of credible publications out there have acceptance rates of less than 5%—with most at, or under, 1%. If you just take those odds straight, and don’t compound them, if you set the response time at a relatively short 60 days, it could take 16.4 years for each story to get accepted. I do understand that you are understaffed, underpaid, and can’t handle the volume of submissions. Find a way to change that. I understand that it’s very difficult to get through the slush piles, find that gem, and then run it up the ladder, show it to boards of advisors, and do it all in a short time. I get that, I do. When you go back to an author and then ask for this story, the one that you love, the one you are finally going to accept, that everyone is excited about, only to find it’s no longer available? I understand the ramifications of that—how depressing it is. So alter the way you do your business. Because I can tell you, most authors are going to ignore it anyway. And the really big name authors, you probably solicited, or accepted pretty quick, anyway—right? There are ways to make it possible, to stop killing the spirit of your authors, and I’ll get to that in a second.

3. LOWER YOUR RESPONSE TIMES

In addition to revoking the NSS rule, also find a way to lower your response times. This is all connected, everything we’re talking about. If you can get to a submission in 30 days or less, you’ll probably get the story. It you take over a year, really, what do you expect to happen? Any author with an iota of talent will have sold that story already. And to ask them to hold on to it for a year, and not submit elsewhere, that’s just ridiculous. If you really want an author, solicit them. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me that Black Clock averages 290 days, Canteen 252 days, McSweeney’s 230 days, and Fence 213 days.

Here are some ways to lower your response times: Hire interns (who are typically college students) and give them valuable experience (instead of pay) and they will help eliminate the stories that are way off base; close your submission windows, so that you aren’t inundated with stories 365 days a year; empower editors (and associate editors) to reject or accept stories in a streamlined fashion. Some of the most exclusive magazines out there find a way to respond quickly. From “The Challenging” list at Duotrope (the 25 markets with the lowest acceptance rates) there are some that actually respond in days or weeks, not months or a year: Clarkesworld  (0.22%) averages three days; Ploughshares (0.27%) 42 days; Shimmer (0.30%) averages two weeks; Colorado Review (0.48%) 48 days. You can be selective, and still respond quickly.

4. MAILING IN SUBMISSIONS

This is really becoming an antiquated means of submissions. You have to write the story, spend weeks or months on it, and then print it, staple it, write a query letter, pay for the paper, ink, envelope, and postage, and then mail it in, with a SASE. Really? Still? In this day and age, shouldn’t we be beyond that? I do understand that some older editors and publications may not ever change their ways. I get that. And I do understand universities don’t have budgets to print out digital submissions (read them on the computer!) and pass them around. It’s partly about the money, as it will still cost an author $2-3 to submit this way, but you’re also wasting valuable resources and slowing down the whole process. Yes, I do still mail in my stories to a few places (such as Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine) because I like them enough to do this, and I still want to publish with them. But I tend to avoid most publications that make this their only option. There are almost 500 markets on Duotrope that still accept submissions by mail, and that’s just too many.

5. PAY YOUR AUTHORS

I know that not every publication can afford to pay their authors. Of those almost 2,000 literary markets I mentioned earlier, only 244 pay anything at all. Of those, 44 pay professional rates (.05/word and up), 105 pay semi-pro rates (.01-.05/word) and 95 pay token rates (less than .01/word). That leaves a whopping 1,500 that don’t pay anything—most likely a contributor copy or two, and exposure. And that’s not good enough.

And yes, I understand that I’ve been part of the problem as well. I send my stories to places that don’t pay—I’ve edited creative ventures that don’t pay. I know. But I’m trying to change that philosophy, that idea. In what other industries do people work and not expect to get paid? Would you ask for free yard work, or plumbing, or medical care? I don’t know why, as a community, we feel that this is acceptable.

And I’m not talking about reprints. I do feel differently about that, as a story has already been accepted elsewhere, and hopefully been paid for. Sure, ideally, paying for reprints would be great, but to get a second (or third, or forth) publication of a story, that’s additional exposure, and I don’t feel payment is mandatory.

6. LOWER YOUR FEES

The editors I know, the publishers and designers and authors—they are a generous, intelligent, and loving group of people. Let’s find ways to build each other up, not tear each other down.

I know that a lot of magazines and journals run contests, especially in the poetry field. I very rarely pay money to submit to these, as I feel the odds of getting any sort of return on my investment is minimal. I won’t spend $15, or $25 to enter a contest, when all I get is a chance at the prize. Of course, if you have the money, and are willing to do it, more power to you. I have entered contests, or paid to submit stories, if I’ve gotten something in return—a subscription, for example, or a copy of the final anthology. I think that’s okay. But if you are going to run a contest, try to do a few things: lower your fees so that you get more entries, don’t prey on your pool of talent; offer something in return, such as that subscription I mentioned (eBooks, if you can’t afford the print versions); offer other intangibles such as critiques, or Q&A sessions with editors and teachers, other writers—people who can actually help your authors to improve.

7. HIRE INTERNS

Yes, I know I’ve been screaming about paying everyone—the authors, the editors, the designers—money, money, money! But keep in mind that you have a talented and energetic base of men and women who are eager to learn the business. If you are attached to a university, your students are right there on campus! If not, much of the work can be done online. But the important thing to remember is that they will only be as good as the training you give them. Tell them what you are looking for, show them examples, and help them to see your vision as a magazine or website. Empower them to reject stories that are totally inappropriate—poetry, when you don’t publish it, graphic horror stories when you are a conservative literary magazine, poorly written material that is riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes, and formatting errors—whatever you feel is important. Yes, there will be turnover, yes they will disappear, and yes, they will take time to understand what you want. But this is a valuable resource, so use it. Obviously, if you can pay them, in copies, in private lessons (easy, tiger), discounts on tuition, or even a small stipend or hourly rate, then please do so. They are the future of literature and publishing.

8. KICKSTARTER

I’ve presented a lot of problems, but not as many solutions. If you are struggling, consider a few of these ideas. If you are monthly, cut back to quarterly. If you are a quarterly journal, change to a bi-annual (or annual). Consider moving online. Switch to POD, if you haven’t already. Supplement with eBooks. And, keep Kickstarter (and Indiegogo) in mind as well. I know that running a successful Kickstarter campaign is not easy, they are complicated, multi-layered, and are reliant on compelling visuals, rewards and limited packages that are tricky to put together, and they tend to wear down your audience and support system. It’s just another option. I’ve seen friends and associates get $5,000 or $10,000 even $25,000 for comics, and novels, and anthologies. It can be done. It’s something to consider.

9. SELL ADVERTISING

I know, it’s more time on the phone and sending out emails, and rarely any fun. Go pick up a copy of Tin House. They’re considered a successful publication. What do you see on the first and last five pages? Advertisements. It’s the same with The Paris Review and The Missouri Review. And if you’re squeamish about making people pay actual money (stop it, already) consider co-op advertising, where you basically barter and trade ads with other journals and magazines. Obviously, some have bigger circulations, but it’s something to think about, a supplement.

10. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

It’s more than selling the actual anthology, journal or magazine. Think of your endeavor as a business, not just the words and art. As we see more and more bookstores failing, the ones that do succeed are finding ways to reinvent themselves.  Sure, sell the journal, but is it a loss leader? Most paying subscriptions don’t make money—they actually lose money. When a grocery store sells milk (a staple) and puts it way in the back, and prices it so low that they actually lose money (called a loss leader) how does that help them? They count on customers also buying cookies to go with that milk, and cereal, and coffee. They count on selling them wine and beer, coffee and cheese, other items that are placed between the front door and the checkout register. They make up the profit in other places. Sell merchandise, if you want—I’ve seen creative publications like Hobart selling shot glasses and flasks. What about t-shirts (I just got one from Electric Velocipede as part of their, wait for it…Kickstarter!), coffee mugs (“Write like a motherfucker!” says Sugar over at The Rumpus) baseball caps, and other products, that hopefully have better profit margins. What about readings, where you charge a small entrance fee and in return there’s a keg of beer? Alcohol has one of the highest mark-ups in the world—around 1,000% in a bar or restaurant. I imagine that bottled water and coffee do, too. Throw a party, host an art gallery showing—just think outside the box. Bookstores that are surviving also sell coffee, food, merchandise, classes and lessons, and have live music, readings, and other events.

I was the Fiction and Poetry Curator at a festival here in Chicago, in Wicker Park, called Around the Coyote. I had a two-day event, with over 30 authors reading, two bands, a DJ, and a $5 OPTIONAL door charge. We made $2,000 in two nights. It’s possible. It takes work and time, but it can definitely happen.

Related to what I just said, you have to think outside the universities, outside of the authors as your primary audience. You have to find people that are willing to give you money even if they don’t read. What did he just say? Don’t limit the scope of your work to the literary minded. Find a way to connect to local athletes, charities, art galleries, schools—you name it. Do something that has very little to do with writing, but is still creative, or inspirational, and you’ll broaden your audience. Those people may not buy your journal, but they’ll come to that event and drink the beer and eat the chicken wings—and pay the fee to get in.

IN CONCLUSION

There’s a lot of anger and ranting going on in this column, I know that. I hope that I’ve not only pointed out some ways that we as a community are failing, but ways that we can evolve and succeed. I want to be a part of the solution, not just part of the problem. I am weak at times, like anyone else. I give in, I give up, and I question my decisions. But overall, the editors I know, the publishers and designers and authors—they are a generous, intelligent, and loving group of people. Let’s find ways to build each other up, not tear each other down. When an author sits alone at a desk and considers quitting, even though they are talented, sometimes it’s the process of connecting that wares them down—the methods of submitting and publishing, the hoops we have to jump through, the insults we endure by being demeaned, and pushed away, and rejected—on a daily and weekly basis. We can do better. I can do better.

Are you in?

Image of Ploughshares
Manufacturer: Ploughshares
Part Number:
Price: $29.85
Image of Hobart: Another Literary Journal #12 (Volume 12)
Manufacturer: Hobart
Part Number:
Price:
Image of Tin House: Science Fair Vol. 13, No. 3)
Author:
Price: $7.75
Publisher: Tin House Magazine (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break March 1, 2013 - 8:01am

I agree with nearly every point here, Richard...especially the one about lowering response times. Electric Literature had one of my pieces for nearly a year before they hit me back with a "close, but no cigar" email. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 1, 2013 - 8:24am

thanks, brandon. you say nearly. what do you disagree with? this is an open discussion, so i'd love to hear your thoughts.

Johann Thorsson's picture
Johann Thorsson from Reykjavik, Iceland is reading Echo Lake March 1, 2013 - 8:38am

Good post. One little nitpick: the first point... from just the headline it seems like you WANT journals to have mandatory fees.

 

Otherwise, I agree with you completely.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 1, 2013 - 8:59am

ah, good point, johann. i'll see if i can make that more clear.

Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt March 1, 2013 - 9:00am

Great article, Richard. Agreed!

Jonathan Riley's picture
Jonathan Riley from Memphis, Tennessee is reading Flashover by Gordon Highland March 1, 2013 - 9:43am

Great column Richard.

 

 

Roger Sarao's picture
Roger Sarao from Howell, NJ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 1, 2013 - 10:12am

You make some good points, Richard. Solid article. 

Roger Sarao's picture
Roger Sarao from Howell, NJ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones March 1, 2013 - 10:13am

You make some good points, Richard. Solid article. 

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore March 1, 2013 - 10:20am

The "no simultaneous subs" is the biggest detractor for me. I don't even bother considering those markets, which cuts my potential publications way down, unfortunately. If those places had a two-week response time, I could deal with that. And some of those places are quicker like that, yes. I wish there was some way to maybe figure out something with Submittable where once a submission goes from "Received" to "In Progress" it locks out other submissions. Er, I dunno; leave that to those smarter than me.

As for Kickstarters, lots of plusses and minuses there. Depends on what it's for. If the money is needed for actual material costs they can't otherwise generate, fine. But when it's paying for time and energy, no, that should be invested by their own project staffers. A simple preorder works for me: here's something I was planning on buying anyway, and if you need the cash in advance to get it produced, cool. I don't know that I want to overpay for more than that, unless it's for bonus perks that are interesting or one-of-a-kind or whatever.

Good article, RT.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 1, 2013 - 3:44pm

thanks, guys!

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez March 1, 2013 - 6:23pm

Thanks Richard.  

One of my goals for 2013 is to submit more of my work. I have no problem with multiple submissons, the odds are against me and If I get burnt it's only because I placed a story anyway.

Stuart

 

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks March 2, 2013 - 8:23am

Now all we have to do is get editors to read the article! Good stuff Richard. I too have mixed feelings about simo-subs and usually avoid it if it's a 4-5 month wait. But if it's like 2 months and I think the submission has a chance, I'll give the editors an exclusive shot at taking the story.

And bravo to paying writers. Even a token payment is appreciated. Niteblade paid me five bucks. I told them to just keep it, put it towards their zine. Same with Pulp Modern. It's just the principle of it. If they offer something small and I love the magazine, I'd rather see them keep going than get the money. And for those writers living in poverty (which I've got half my foot in), even the smallest amount of money is really helpful to keep ones spirits up. The issue of One Buck Horror I'm in is coming out soon and they pay pro rates. Might seem silly to some, but the small amount of money they're giving me is actually going to pay half my rent. And I REALLY need that money.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie March 3, 2013 - 3:48pm

re: reading fees... I think a small fee is okay, but only if its a paying publication. Saying "you have to pay us for our time (often probably just a few minutes) but we refuse to pay you for yours, i.e. the dozens of hours you spent writing your piece" is a slap in the face. I've done it, and it seems to have paid off in one instance (can't elaborate at this time), but yeah, going forward, I probably won't be willing.

re: response times... one place you mentioned has had me dangling on the line for 200 days precisely. Status shows "holding", and it has already gone through two readers. This is another instance where I'm willing to take my lumps, but I'm not exactly alright with the practice.

Question for RT and anyone else who's cracked the big markets: does there ever come a point where you seem to get "front of the line" treatment? i.e. hey I know this name, I'll read his/her submission and get back to them ASAP.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore March 3, 2013 - 4:47pm

I'm not one of those people, but if I ran a lit mag as a business venture, I'd give familiar names preferential treatment, sure.

What I assume often happens is that editors wait until they've gotten all the submissions in for their next issue before choosing the best of the entire pool, relatively, instead of receiving a really good story and going ahead and accepting it, meanwhile some us of have withdrawn our submission because some other editor was more proactive.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 4, 2013 - 11:36am

@nick - i've had a few editors approach me directly, solicit me for stories. i know a lot of journals do that, in addition to being open to submissions. i've had a few times where i've sent in a story and somebody said, "Oh, I loved Transubstantiate, can't wait to read your story," which was very cool, as I did not know that guy. i'm sure that the bigger the name, the quicker the response. i have to imagine that if a unsolicited story came in from George Saunders, Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, whoever you deem "big" that they'd snatch it up.

i read slush for New Madrid when i was getting my MFA. there is no way to determine who is who until you open a story. you MIGHT see a name, but usually it's just a number until you open the query letter. i definitely remember reading some bios and/or seeing a name i knew, and i was like "Professor, we need to grag this story!" unfortunately, not all board members, managing editors, or MFA program directors feel the same way. i suggested that MSU bring Stephen Graham Jones down to speak while i was there. they blew me off. years later, they brought him in, after i was gone. idiots.

as far as fees, i'm fine as long as they are OPTIONAL. let people decide. should i spend $2 to mail it or $3 to electronically send it, knowing they'll get that money? i might pay it. i don't agree with the MANDATORY fees. MAYBE if it was $1. but it really does add up. and yes, they should be a paying market if they are going to make it mandatory to submit.

BTW/FWIW i got a really nice email from someone over at Barrelhouse. i was a little worried that i might get some flack for this article, but he really liked it, and said i was on the money, and they were doing similar things. which was so very cool, because i love those guys. they are PAYING now. they obviously get it.

and as for gordon's comment, i can see if there is submission period, say three months, that a publication may wait unti it's closed to decide who is in. but when i've edited, and had the power to decide, i knew RIGHT AWAY if a story was a home run for me and i IMMEDIATELY snatched it up. i think you have to do that. unfortunately, a lot of academic journal especially have advisory boards, so it's slush, associate editors, editors and THEN a board, where a distinguised professor may shoot EVERYTHING down. it's rough, i 've seen both sides of it. so, i get it, but then don't make it no simultaneous, right? you snooze, you lose, i say.

OwenGwyn's picture
OwenGwyn March 11, 2014 - 3:32am

Broadly, I agree with your points, in full. Issues about mandatory fees, response times, simultaneous submissions (etc) are important and - to me - absolutely necessary. But, saying that, I think your suggestion that magazines hire interns - without pay -, in order to aleviate the burden on magazines and struggling writers is dishonest. You're railing against one form of unfair treatment (focing writers to pay for submissions), while condoning another form. Experience is good, of course, but many young creative people are being driven off from working in the arts precisely because of this reason - unpaid internships. If a commercial magazine can't afford to pay its staff (including interns), then it shouldn't have them. Internships are a form of exploitation - taking skills, energy and creativity in exchange for the vague, wavering promise of "experience". Bear in mind, a lot of these interns are probably themselves writers, and economically not so well off. You worry that fees and other practices will put off writers - not paying your staff is not only going to put them off, too, but will also create a paywall in literary publishing - only the interns who have external support of some sort (family, a loan, whatever) will be able to access these positions (and thus move on, supposedly, to full time paid positions). 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 20, 2014 - 9:23pm

well owen, i'd say that internships have been around for a long time. they are supposed to be a temporary assignment, where you get experience in return for your work. so, i don't think it's hypocritical to suggest them, especially on a campus where most students are there anyway. but yeah, i do see what you're saying. most literary journals on campus are small, funded by grants and other donations. but yes, a top notch magazine SHOULD pay. BUT, i can tell you i gladly would have spent a year at Playboy or The New Yorker or The Paris Review while in school, for no pay, just to get that experience and knowledge. some people pay good money to learn those lessons. those internships can also, quite often, lead to real jobs that pay. it is a tricky situation, though.

Kaylin Tristano's picture
Kaylin Tristano January 7, 2015 - 12:41pm

Sure, all of these things would be wonderful, but even if they don't turn a profit, literary magazines have to at least cover their overhead costs. How is reducing every single potential point of income and supplementing with a Zazzle shop full of mugs going to sustain the journal?

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 8, 2015 - 8:48pm

@kaylin - sell advertising, get grants, have events and readings where you charge at the door, you know—what the other magazines in the world do. look in the paris review. TONS of ads. same with the new yorker. mabye provide online content for an annual fee, lots of ways to think outside the box.

it doesn't cost ANY money to allow simultaneous submissions.

i know it's not easy, but if you're creative, it can work. i'm can't believe that 100% of the lit journals out there don't make money.