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Timothy Green
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An amateur tennis player is getting a day of exercise, a court, a ref, a competitor to play against, etc. If that were the analogy, it would be like tennis players submitting videos of themselves playing, and then three months later finding out who the judges say "won" the tournament, based on their assessment of who had the best backhand. Maybe some people would choose to participate in that kind of competition, and that's great, just like contests are great, but if that were the only way a tennis club operated, you'd have to wonder who the club is really benefiting.
In those other hobbies, and in any hobby, you pay for something real—scuba gear rental, stabling, etc. I play in a baseball league, and we pay a registration fee for field use and umps. I think paying and supporting magazines is great and important as long as you're getting something back like that, something real and not imaginary. In no hobby are you ever paying for something as fictive as a hypothetical slim chance at "recognition." Support should be subscribing, or buying feedback on your poems, etc.
Yes there is -- if you're participating in a group, you're getting social interaction and feedback from people who also love poetry, being a part of something while becoming a better writer. With a submission fee, you're getting nothing but the empty promise that your poems were actually seriously considered by an editor at some point.
There might be an answer, but I don't even know what the question is. I've yet to see solid evidence to convince me that submission fees are ever necessary for survival. I've been waiting for someone to demonstrate that since making this post.
Thanks, Joseph, glad other editors agree!
A few people have mentioned that -- particularly about the UK. Maybe there's better funding for the arts in Europe? Or maybe MFA programs aren't as prolific, so there aren't as many people trying to start magazines? Here are some that I've noticed that charge: Black Warrior Review Boulevard Colorado Review Crazyhouse Georgia Review Indiana Review Iowa Review Missouri Review I could go on and on. Note, too, that most of those (all of those?) are housed in universities, so have financial support to some degree, and often large staffs of unpaid interns earning credit. Supporting the submission process should not be a problem for them.
Hi Claudia-- I don't know if you saw our spring issue and the conversation with Richard Gilbert, but something he talked about really struck me as resonant with my own ideas, but taken to another level -- apparently in Japan all the poetry journals are built around haiku groups that meet regularly -- they meet weekly and have dues and workshop their haiku with a haiku master, and the best ones get printed in the journal, and that's how it all works. I think that's a much richer and more productive model for poetry, having it be participatory and non-elitist in that way, and I can see that as a way to fund journals at the same time as it demystifies poetry and keeps people engaged, like you say. The emphasis on the fun of is it what was most striking; I think that's the way to go. Tim
So who has internal funding, other than The Sun, which is more cultural magazine than literary ... and Glimmertrain, which exists on contests. I'm sure many online magazines exist that way, because there's so little overhead. Can you name any other print magazines, though? Anyway, I've been too forgiving in the comments, because I do sympathize with editor's who've chosen this path—but the truth is the truth: I don't care why the money is needed or how it's used. If your goal as a literary magazine is to support and foster the literary community, then you can't charge reading fees. They take advantage of people who don't understand the literary game in the same way that Poetry.com does, and they're insulting to the majority of those who do understand. There's a reason why there are so many posts about this issue—people are upset, and worse, disheartened by it. If I had to start charging reading fees or quit, I'd quit, and it would be 5,036 "markets" instead of 5,037.
I'm not sure what you mean by internally vs. externally funded. To be clear: Rattle's founder and board president created Rattle and a small endowment with his own money to cover the annual loss in our operational budget. Our only other source of funding for 20 years has been sales and subscriptions. Would you count that as internal or external? As for the subject of class in your original comment -- I don't think submission fees are ever a "capitalist action" -- no one has plenty of money and simply wants more ... if money was anyone's motivating factor, they'd be in a different business. It's always a "communist" function, in that the goal of raising more money is to use it to further literary purposes. My argument is only that it does more long-term harm than good for the community and for the magazines themselves. I don't think the issue is a red herring, because there's no solution to the broader "economic" problem. It's not even an economic problem, it's a cultural and technological problem -- it's not that we exist in a failed economy, we exist in a non-existent economy. Unless we can find a way to make subscribers out of people who don't call themselves poets, it's all just shuffling chairs.
Hi Dini-- I never said that editors who do this are unethical, only that the practice is unethical, and I wish they'd reconsider. And there are, of course, ways to greatly reduce the ethical load, which you seem to be conscientious about. If you're not publishing solicited writers who didn't have to pay the fee, and have windows where it's free to anyone to submit, then the two biggest problems in my opinion are eliminated. (There is still the problem of exploiting those who aren't at all knowledgeable about literary publishing, but it's better.) Even so, even if it was always perfectly ethically sound, we're left with the fact that it doesn't work; it's a bad business model that stifles a magazine's growth and devalues the literary community as a whole. It's hard enough building an audience of enthusiastic readers when you're rejecting them all the time—reading fees add a mountain of cynicism, and don't generate enough revenue to justify it. It's hard enough to feel proud about being a poet when it's a process so full of rejection, and when so few people are reading the poems that you are fortunate enough to publish—being asked to pay for your own rejections is insult to injury. That's not how you build the community of support necessary to make a magazine thrive. That's in general -- more specifically geared toward you, I think reading fees where they money all goes to the poets you publish is an even worse idea, because that means it's entirely unnecessary. Receiving a token payment for your poem is nice, but it's not the motivating factor that drives people to produce art and share it with the world. I think you'd be better served, if you had to charge reading fees, by investing in yourself and your staff, so you don't get burned out. I've worked on every kind of literary magazine -- I did the college thing in college, I started an online journal out of my own pocket, and now I manage this large journal with a small endowment. I've been in on this for a long time, and speaking one editor to another, the most important thing is to keep those involved in running it enthusiastic. New magazines don't disappear for a lack of funds to writers, they disappear for a lack of editorial enthusiasm, because as you said is a lot of work. And the literary community that we all want to serve is best served if you're able to stay with it. Finally, as much as I'd rather ignore that subtle ad hominem of the "angel investor," I should probably reiterate that there is no such thing. We don't have an angel, we have a founder and board president who volunteered a great deal of his own personal time and money to make this sustainable magazine possible—which is the same thing every other volunteer who starts a magazine is doing. Print journals are expensive, and none of them could exist on the modestly large scale that we call large, without some kind of benefactor (whether it be a university, grants, many donors, or the editors themselves donating the money, as is the case with Rattle). Tim
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In my first post, I admitted that I’m not a poet—poetry has always felt, and still feels, like a hobby to me, even though I work professionally as a poetry editor. I’m probably not alone in that coming to this place, working in support of the arts, involved an existential dilemma. I genuinely love sitting in front of the blinking cursor in an empty word document at 3 a.m. and surprising myself with the leaps of imagination that flow out of my hands, as if the cells of my fingers magically know more about the world than I do. How do I justify that life, though? How is that anything other than self-absorption? I’ve never really talked about this, but school always came so easy to me, and I’ve felt guilty about it for as long as I can remember. At 10 years old, I’d stay up past midnight reading Stephen King, and then sleep through classes that bored the hell out of me. I practiced postures that made it seem like I was awake, but hid my eyes, and I’d be day-dreaming or deep asleep. And still I never not got an A. We had “effort” grades in my school 1 – 5, and my goal throughout was always the A1: an A, but with an insulting lack of effort. I told my friends I knew answers through osmosis; I could tell what to choose on a multiple choice exam just by the wording of the options—and I still can. I told them I was psychic, that my family was a clandestine sect of precognitive magicians. My little brother had, what, 99.7% the same genome as me, and he had trouble reading Goosebumps. This was so unfair; I’ve never had to work at anything in my life, and I think that’s why I work so hard, just to make up for how I don’t have to. The first thing I wanted to be was an architect, designing buildings and bridges to handle the largest load with the least materials. I loved drafting class, detailing the mind’s eye in a way that someone else could make real. But who cares about buildings and bridges? The Romans built bridges; bridges will be without me. Somehow I got it in my head that molecular biology was the future—and it is the future … once we harness the power of cellular machines and molecular computers, we’re going to be living forever, rendering so many philosophical and practical questions moot. Guilt told me this was what I had to do, so I did it right: scholarship to a research university, work-study job in an mRNA lab setting up experiments. I was only an undergrad, I didn’t contribute anything, but I sat through all the meetings, and I remember clearly one day when the results came in and it worked: The lab had successfully predicted the three-dimensional structure of a protein strand. The post-doc presented the results, and it was high-fives all around, and I... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I think the currency of poetry in the 21st century is really audience—how many readers can I speak to by publishing through a given venue or modality? That's why fostering participation and interaction are so important.
Thanks for the input. It's been so long since I did the university mag thing (15 years) that it's hard for me to remember budgetary details. Even if that's the case (and I'm not saying it isn't), I'd still argue that blanket submission fees are a detriment to growth and other revenue streams in the long run. It's hard enough to sell magazines when 99% of your readers are jealous -- let alone jealous and cynical. That's what it really comes down to.
Hi Sarah-- See the other comments below for more detail, because I'm starting to repeat myself, but all of the larger literary magazines have benefactors -- that's just how it has to work. For some it's universities giving teaching deferments and office space and equipment. For others it's wealthy patrons making regular donations or contributing to endowments in their wills. Small magazines don't cost much, but are all volunteer and difficult to sustain. No matter what the case, I think submission fees are self-defeating choices in the long run, which is the main reason I thought it was worthwhile to speak out against them. As for what's a writer to do -- just keep writing and publishing in the best ways you can find! There are plenty of journals that don't charge submission fees, and hopefully it will stay that way. I'm strongly in favor of self-publishing books. Print-on-Demand is often a much better deal for authors than a typical small press book contract. The goal of making money publishing poetry is a fantasy, so the real game is having your voice reach as large an audience as possible -- readers are the true currency -- and there are plenty of ways to reach them.
Hi Megan-- It is murky territory, because a hesitancy to talk about money is culturally ingrained for some reason. I have spreadsheets of data on this for dozens of the larger journals, but I, too, feel uncomfortable detailing too much of other peoples' business, even if they are public record. The ranges that I provided are accurate, though -- any print journal with a circulation over, say, 1,000 to 6,000, costs at least $150,000 per year to produce (up to $500,000 or so), and earns somewhere between $10,000 and $85,000. The losses range from 60% to 85% across the board, and almost all of it is covered by wealthy benefactors in some form, whether it's other charitable foundations, a university's board of trustees, the CEO of Pepsi, or the founders themselves. It's just the reality of our capitalist system. There are some government grants that go to literary magazines, but they're a very small percentage of the funding. As for Rattle, we're a 501(c)3, so we have to make our tax returns publicly available. For 2014, Rattle cost $185,000 to produce, and earned $80,000 from sales and subscriptions. Frankly, that's the low end on expenses, and the high end on income for a journal our size. Printing alone is $40,000 per year. We pay poets about $20,000 per year. I work very hard specifically at building a community that wants to subscribe to the magazine, and also at saving on production costs. I work from home so we don't have to rent office space, and do all graphic design, web design, and grunt-work myself. It's not easy keeping the expenses as low as they are for us -- which is why I say the revenue generated from these fees is insignificant. Small magazines and online magazines are in an entirely different situation. I actually started a different web journal myself, so I know how that works, too. That's cheap and you pay out of pocket because you love it, and donate your time reading submissions and adding them to the website. I think people who do that should be able to find a way to be compensated for their time, too, and as I said in this post, in those situations I think it's mostly just a self-defeating system, charging fees.
I forgot to add that, if there was any evidence that submission fees were the answer to solvency, I would have no problem with them under a few conditions: 1) That solicited submissions don't have a free back door. 2) That either something of real value was provided for the fee, or there was a way to submit at certain times or certain ways without a fee. Mainly, though, I just think it's a self-defeating practice in the long-run.
Hi Diane-- Thanks for continuing the discussion, I think it's an important one, so important to continue. It might have been obscured by other statements in this post, but one of my main arguments against submission fees is that it is not an effective business strategy. I want literary magazines to thrive, not go under, and the money that these fees generate is not enough to justify the long-term structural costs -- let alone enough to fully fund a magazine. The money generated isn't enough enough to cover the paper a journal is printed on. Submission fees disincentivize subscriptions, and damage the kind of community spirit that's necessary for a journal to prosper in the 21st century. The fact that Rattle has a single benefactor is irrelevant -- every journal our size has benefactors, whether that's one, or many, or most often an institution's support. We're all subject to the same budgetary constraints, and economic conditions, and Rattle actually has the smallest operational budget of any journal our size by a good margin, and the smallest budget deficit that I'm aware of, because of the business practices that I use, which are all geared toward the support of a vibrant community. I did not say that editors were unsavory characters, nor did I say that anyone was getting rich from this system. Those are straw man arguments. Good people make poor ethical choices all the time, and we all have the capacity to learn from our mistakes. And, as I made quite clear in the post, all literary magazines are some form of non-profit, operating not to get rich, but for the public good.
And when you pay just to submit, there's no way to even know that your poems were READ at all. Literary magazines are different from other publications, because it's a highly interactive niche art -- almost all readers are writers; it will never be self-sustaining unless we find an audience outside of poets, but that's hard, because reading poetry makes you want to write it. If it were a regular business, it just wouldn't exist, couldn't exist. That's why these are social benefit organizations, and as such, we have to hold to a higher ethical standard, I think.
I have an interview with her that will go up at some point, saying much of the same things, from the opposite end. I think it's great to pay poets (of course), but still more important not to charge submitters.
Thanks for having the courage to speak up with disagreement. What part of the calculations do you think are wrong? I can only project from information that's publicly available, so if I'm wrong about something I'd like to know. You can give details about the numbers you're thinking without revealing the journal, right? There's no doubt submissions would drop, though -- that 50% reduction has been repeated again and again, and makes intuitive sense. As for the other point, of course I fully support supporting journals, I just think there are other ways to support that are positive for the community. For magazines that need more money, the first question to ask, I think, is why sales and subscriptions are so low.
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My first three posts have all gone over the 1,000-word target, so I’m going try to keep this one short, and introduce a potentially useful literary concept that I might have just made up. If you aren't familiar with these terms, there are two ways of looking at grammar, often at odds with one another. Descriptivists are interested in the way a language is actually used by native speakers—what are the forms of speech, what purposes do they serve, how are they evolving, and why. Prescriptivists, instead, are concerned with the way a language should be used—what is the "correct" way to say something? For an example, consider the "singular they": The English language doesn't have a gender-neutral singular pronoun, no word that means "he or she," and that makes certain sentence constructions feel awkward. To compensate, we often use the word "they" as a substitute. So if I were to say, "Every editor must pick their side in this debate," you would know exactly what I meant. A descriptive grammarian would find that interesting, and explain how it came to be, and which dialects and registers most often use it. A prescriptive grammarian would argue that the proper sentence would be, "Every editor must pick his or her side in this debate." "Ain't," "y'all," "yous," double negatives, and split infinitives are some other points of disagreement. Neither side is right or wrong. Linguists are descriptivists, studying and describing they way a language changes over time. English teachers and copyeditors are prescriptivists, prescribing rules to try to keep a language from changing, though change is ultimately inevitable. Many of the rules prescriptivists try to enforce are arbitrary and elitist, and the fight is ultimately futile, so I tend to prefer descriptivism myself—but presciptivism slows our drift away from the language of Shakespeare, and how can you argue with that? I'd like to propose these two grammars as an analog for literary editing. This would put us into two camps: prescriptive editors, who become proponents of a certain aesthetic or school of writing, and descriptive editors, who try to explore and reflect the literary landscape as it happens to be. As is the case with grammar, neither side is right or wrong, but I think it's useful to be aware of this distinction. In yesterday's post, I mentioned that one of the purposes of a literary magazine is to provide a chronicle of literary development and cultural ideas—that role is important to me, and so I prefer a descriptive editorialism. When choosing poems for Rattle, I don't want to favor my own personal poetic tastes, I want to publish the strongest representative sample of the submissions that we receive—both in style and content. This is almost a journalist's view of editing: I'm trying to blend into the background, describing the scene as it happens to be, and calling attention to details that seem worthy of highlight. If you read Rattle, you might think that we—it's myself, Alan Fox, and Megan O'Reilly... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Well, anachronism has great value to some—I was saying that with respect to modern culture at large. Our epic stories will never again be told by reciting lines of poetry around a fire—they're told by Peter Jackson at the IMAX. That doesn't mean the former isn't still enjoyable, if you can find a group of people to enjoy it.
I made my first couple submissions about a month ago so nothing to report, still "in-progress"!
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After publishing my first book of poems, I stopped writing. I couldn’t stomach self-promotion, but felt a duty to my publisher to self-promote. It was like eating my own vomit every day, and for a few years, whenever I sat down to write, I could see the future of the potential poem before me blooming and wilting in a time-lapsed montage of death: If I actually liked whatever I was about to write, I’d have to submit it to a magazine, then put it in a book, then give readings and beg for blurbs and reviews and post about it on my stupid blog and my stupid Facebook page and my stupid Twitter feed to 1,000 other poets trapped in the same nauseating self-promotional pie-eating contest. The only way I could get back to the part that I loved—getting lost in an image and shuffling words around a page—was to promise myself that I wouldn’t publish anything. And then actually not publish anything. I didn’t publish or submit any of my own poetry for about five years, even when solicited for projects that sounded exciting. Only recently I’ve gotten over this childishness—it really is childish—and have started dipping my toes back into the ice-cold— Wait ... submission fees are acceptable now?! I can't believe this has normalized. I know I’m going to upset a lot of publishers when I say this, but so be it: Reading fees are unethical, and the practice should be shamed out of existence. If an agent charged audition fees only to turn down 99% of those potential clients, we would call him a con-artist. In other fields, just the process of submitting completed materials for consideration, or "working on spec," is considered unethical—even without submission fees! We're already skating on thin ice by paying so little (if anything at all) for the work that we publish, for tying up that work for 3 months to a year and then having the gall to say NO SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSIONS, and for making it seem like the "exposure" of appearing in a magazine reward enough. But now we also want submitters to pay for the privilege of being rejected? What is the purpose of a literary magazine? Don’t forget that we’re all non-profits in one way or another. Don’t forget that the average circulation of a print journal is 500 copies, that the average Alexa ranking of an online journal is about 5 million, and that most of the people reading them are also submitting to them. So what is the purpose of a literary magazine? Who do we serve and why should we exist? If you think literary magazines exist to bolster the prestige of the editors and the institutions that produce them, then submission fees make a lot of sense: They raise some money, and they cut down on that nasty “slush pile” we all have to wade through to get to our desks in the morning. Submission fees generate a few thousand dollars, while cutting... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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I’d planned on following yesterday’s post with the good news, but that line about not actually liking poetry feels like a rusty nail—so let’s hammer it down before we move on to “We Are All Poets” later in the week. First, a caveat: I read and think about poetry all day, but I’m not an academic. I don’t read poetry scholarship, other than to see if anyone else argues for the same opinions as mine, but then usually I get bored and give up looking. I don’t even know what to call “poetry scholarship”; there’s probably some word for it, poesiametalalalology, or something like that, but I don’t know it. I received not one but three review copies of Edward Hirsh’s A Poet’s Glossary—I gave two away at our open mic night, and the hardcover is sitting unopened on my bookshelf, looking stately. All this to say: I don’t know if what I’m about to write is obvious, or redundant, or ignorant. If so, just let me have it in the comments. The problem of poetry’s place in contemporary American culture is unavoidable, no matter how little you pay attention to the gossip. There’s been a “new” article published on the subject at least once a month for the last two decades, I’m sure. I could link to a few but why bother? Just google “why no one reads poetry” or “only poets read poetry” or “is poetry dead?” and take your pick. There are just as many articles about how these articles about the death of poetry need to die, because look at all these poet laureates, or submissions, or MFA programs, or slams, etc. Poetry really does have a problem—it isn’t dying, though, just adapting to the destructive forces of modern life, like everything else on the planet. Poetry is the urban coyote of the art world, or maybe an apocalyptic cockroach: It lives a different life now, but it lives and will live on. For thousands, probably tens of thousands of years, poetry served a very clear and important role as the only way to fix language. Poetry pinned the wings of narrative, and helped oral stories and rituals leap from one generation to the next mostly unaltered. Musical rhythms and repetitions embedded in speech were a matter of life and death—rituals brought the herds and the rains and appeased the gods; stories shared warnings and told of our place in the cosmos. For that reason, I think poetry is, maybe not in our DNA, but a part of our epigenetic heritage, let’s say. And it worked—see the striking similarities in the global flood myths as evidence. Or the universal power of a passionate speech. Poetry matters, and has mattered, for a very long time. But this use of poetry has also been under assault for a long time—every piece of technology, from the earliest cuneiform texts to the iPhone video camera, has chipped away at poetry’s original source of value, to the point none of that... Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2015 at The Best American Poetry