<- Back to main page

From the Whistler

The Publisher Is In


Remember the old Peanuts comic strips where Lucy sits in a booth with the sign “PSYCHIATRIC HELP 5¢”? Charlie Brown was usually her gullible patient, and her advice—after the money was handed over, of course—was brief and unhelpful. The tableau came to mind recently when I discovered that, seemingly overnight, many of the best known literary journals have begun charging reading fees for submissions. The North American Review, Ploughshares, and local Water~Stone are among those now in the business of making money from writers. Typically the reading fees are in the $3-$5 range and may be couched in vague terms, such as “administrative fees”, to make them seem less like vanity publishing.

Of course, being a publisher myself, I could immediately imagine the financial windfall of such a scheme. Whistling Shade’s slush pile is not overwhelming, with about 80 submissions per month—but even at that rate, a $3 fee could more than cover our printing costs, with money left over to actually pay contributors. You do the math.

There are two main causes driving the rise of reading fees: online submission services like Submittable, which make it easy for journals to charge a reading fee, and online submissions themselves, which at some better-known publications have generated a leviathan and well-nigh unmanageable slush pile. Journals levying reading fees, and some organizations such as Writer’s Relief and CLMP, defend them with variations of the following rationale:

* The journals have to spend extra money to pay for Submitta­ble or another service, and other website overhead. (How­ever, such a service costs only about $40 per month, and most website packages come with free email.)

* In olden days, writers would spend about $3 anyway on printing out submissions and mailing them. (Actually, a 3-page poetry submission would cost only 50¢ today, and maybe a nickel for paper and printing; a short story might cost $1.50 to mail.)

* A reading fee makes writers pause before sending their work in, resulting in more carefully targeted submissions. (But also poorer writers.)

* Writers are giving money to a good cause, a poor little lit’ry journal! (But isn’t providing brilliant, finely crafted writing enough?)

In the end, after some not-very-serious consideration, I decided not to go forward with reading fees at Whistling Shade, much against the strong advice of our bank book. First, there’s the issue of equity. Sure, we publish work by doctors, lawyers, and college professors. But I’m well aware that many writers get by on a limited budget and simply can’t afford doling $50 or more a month in reading fees to literary journals. I’ve been to their garrets, I’ve lived that life—I don’t want to take food out of the hands of starving artists, or close the doors of literature to lower income writers.

The other, perhaps more important reason not to impose reading fees is that, while they might reduce submissions volume, they could also rob us of that golden story, that immortal poem, which is the reason Whistling Shade came into being in the first place. I suspect that imposing reading fees would result in a lower quality of work and a dwindling reputation as a journal. This would result in lower subscription and advertising revenue, and fewer readers.

Many writers refuse to play the Charlie Brown role and cough up money for a snap judgement on their work. Good for them. They’re welcome to send their work to Whistling Shade, where the publisher is always in.

Speaking of roles—they are this issue’s main theme, which explores relationships and how they shape the individual. Quite by chance, the stories and memoirs presented here follow the main stages in life, from a girl living with her father, to college friends, couples, a marriage, a widower, and finally a solitary old man living with his memories. It may be, as Jaques asserts in As You Like It, that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; but it is important to remember also that no part is predestined—we write it as we go.

- Joel Van Valin