Chuck Holtz, a social studies teacher who also coached most of the boys’ sports teams at our school, taught the course.
“What’s the difference between film and television?” Holtz asked on the first day of class.
People squirmed in their seats. These were high school students who never really thought about the matter. To them, both were just forms of visually-driven narratives. Someone said that the soundtracks were better in movies. Someone else said that TV shows were generally shorter than movies.
As my friend told this story, I pictured a pained expression coming over Holtz. Much as the class tried, they couldn’t identify more than superficial differences. Our school had pitiful basketball and football teams, teams so bad they had trouble executing the simplest plays. Now he was finding out his kids couldn’t even do television right. If he had a whistle around his neck, he probably would have blown it on the spot and made everyone run five laps around the classroom.
Finally, Holtz answered his own question: Television shows were built to keep advertisers happy, while movies were built to generate ticket sales. Looking back, I doubt this was an original thought—but as a naïve high school junior, this staggered me. Commercial television, he said, was purposefully bland so as to not offend advertisers’ sensibilities. Films couldn’t afford to be bland, since from the moment of their conception (Hey! Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter!) they must generate hype to guarantee a paying audience.
Like I said, this was back in the early ‘80s, before the full impact of cable TV was felt. And before Hollywood movie producers learned to make money off product placement deals. So we can argue whether the point is still valid today.
But Holtz’s point was that film and television producers knowingly crafted their end products in different ways to suit their different revenue sources; where the money came from determined both the content and governing aesthetic of the art form.
Today, most literary journals are not reader-dependent for their funding. Instead, they perform as prestige projects—deriving their income either from academic institutions, or wealthy patrons; in many cases, the editors themselves foot the costs. Subscriptions and advertising may supplement the journals’ finances, but rare is the journal that is solely dependant on these traditional market-driven forces.
Unencumbered by audience or advertiser accountability, journals seem to exist to make their editors happy. The editors select stories that they personally find most satisfying—they want to be seen as promoting hip new work, or traditional realistic work, or whatever other social and/or aesthetic predilections they have. But the editors are largely putting out a product to satisfy their personal aesthetic missions.
Universities and regional arts’ councils alike are cutting back support for literary journals, leaving them scrambling to locate new sources of funding. Some journals, like The New England Review, have been told by their host institutions that they must become financially self-sustaining. Others, like Shenandoah and TriQuarterly, are slashing costs by abandoning print and becoming electronic journals. One Story has been most innovative, initiating a series of workshop and mentoring programs, as well as hosting a “Literary Debutante Ball” fundraiser.
Increasingly however, journals are opting to meet this funding crisis by charging submission fees—that is, demanding payment from writers who wish to have their work considered for publication. In most cases, the fees charged are comparable to the postage costs a writer might pay to snail-mail their work (two or three dollars), yet some magazines (like Narrative) charge substantially more.
Last week, I learned through Roxane Gay’s post on HTMLGIANT (via a Robert Smartwood blog post) that Prick of the Spindle will begin requiring a $10-15 submission fee.
David Lynn, editor of The Kenyon Review talked with me via email about submission fees. Like most people paying close attention to the state of literary journals, he’s deeply sympathetic to the editors and publishers who are fighting to put out quality literature, yet uneasy about submission fees.
“Publishers and editors have all the highest motives. They simply want to publish the best new work available to them while maintaining the financial viability of their enterprise,” Lynn says. “At the same time, I can’t help but feel that submission fees taint the process.”
Journals stand to increase revenues by several thousand dollars per year when they begin charging submission fees. The fees may end up underwriting the bulk of journals’ operating expenses—providing a handy justification for supporting institutions (whether they be universities or regional arts’ councils) to further diminish their support.
While many claim the fees offset the costs associated with online submissions (the software to operate the most popular online submission manager program can cost $600), others claim that it allows them to pay more money to contributors. There’s even a thought that submission fees are necessary to discourage inappropriate submissions.
Putting aside the question of whether it’s ethical to set up pay hurdles for writers, I worry about the eventual aesthetic consequences. When editors start looking at submissions as revenue-generators, it changes in a very fundamental way the function of the end-product journal.
The old saw about novel writing is that the purpose of the first chapter is to entice readers to read the second chapter, while the function of the last chapter is to entice the reader to buy the writer’s next book. The function of a new issue of a literary journal, I fear, may well be to entice writers to submit to the next issue.
As more journals become dependent on submission fees, they will compete against each other not only for the best stories, poems, and essays, but also for submission dollars. Websites like Duotrope.com provide writers with data about the chances of getting published in particular journals. Our nation’s most prestigious journals generally have a very low acceptance rate—this shouldn’t surprise, for they’ve built their reputations by publishing work of consistently high quality.
Should submission fees become the norm, with every journal raking in $2-20 per submission, writers with limited incomes (i.e., most of us) will have to balance costs versus probability of acceptance—and in this calculus, a journal’s selectivity could be held against it. If writers perceive that the cards are stacked against them at some places, they’ll direct their pay submissions elsewhere.
“A principal mission for most literary journals is to discover and support writers who are just emerging into the larger literary community, people who don't yet have academic or other forms of independent support,” Lynn writes. “Two or three dollars at a pop may not sound like much, but for those who are submitting their work as widely as possible, it can add up pretty quickly.”
Emerging writers will not be the only ones juggling where to put their money. Traditionally, writers employed by academic institutions have enjoyed many advantages, one of them being that their employers often pay the postage costs of their snail-mail submissions. Should reading fees replace postage as the main cost associated with submissions, it remains unknown if colleges and universities will defray these costs for their faculty.
What choices will an editorial board make when that journal’s existence is dependent on guaranteeing a large, steady stream of paying submissions? To give Duotrope-savvy submitters the illusion of having greater chances for acceptance, might journals become less selective? Or might the average length of each published short story dwindle, thus affording the journal to accept, say, 20 pieces of flash fiction instead of one 20-page short story? The aesthetic consequences of these decisions will be enormous. Think about it—who’s going to write long short stories (or novellas) anymore if their length makes them unpublishable?
Journals that serve niche communities or favor out-of-the–mainstream aesthetics could find that the pool of people willing to pay to have their work considered may not be large enough to cover the costs of the journal. If this happens, journals would have to re-model their core mission to attract more submitters.
For writers seeking to publish, the competition is tremendous. I keep tabs on my submissions through Duotrope, which tells me that my submission acceptance ratio over the last 12 months is 3.96%-- meaning I’ll have one acceptance for every 25 submissions. Which, yep, sounds pathetic—but also, according to Duotrope, “is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”
Should submission fees escalate, many of us are going to stop submitting. Really. Think of it. If journals charge Narrative-like $20 submission fees, it could cost me $500 ($20 x 25—thank god for electric calculators!) to eventually “contribute” a short story to one journal.
The end result of submission fees is not good.
Besides Lynn, another editor of another long-standing and highly respected journal. This editor dips quite frequently into his slush pile and laments that decreased submissions might lessen his access to the type of first-rate material he likes to publish, thus decreasing the end quality of his journal.
“To think that we’d miss out on a story or poem or other submission because the writer couldn’t afford the fee or took a moral stance against fees is unfathomable to me,” the editor said
Duotrope currently lists over 3,275 fiction and poetry publications. A mass movement towards submission fees will likely cause this number to contract. I just don’t see the present community of writers as being wealthy enough keep them all afloat
Editors and publishers need to begin thinking who their future writers will be. Will it be a pool of writers who have devoted their lives to studying and mastering their genres? Or just whichever folks can pony up the submission fees? And what will become of contemporary poetry and short fiction when it becomes the domain of the obscenely rich?