Monday, 7 September 2020

Paying for literary success

This article looks at the different ways an author might get single poems or stories published, comparing the situation with the publication of medical articles. There's a trend towards the author paying, rather than the readers.

In the olden days, it was simple for writers. They

  • paid to enter competitions, either getting fame and money, or nothing.
  • submitted to magazines for free. If they pleased the gatekeepers, their work was published and they might have received a few pounds. It was read only by people who bought the magazine.

In the academic world there were periodicals, whose business model was like that of literary magazines, except that they were more expensive, especially for libraries who subscribed to them. Authors didn't get any money, but publication was important for career prospects.

In truth the situation was never that clear cut. When the web appeared, with the potential for free publishing and access, options became even more confusing.

In the olden days, literary journal editors might have been able to accept a good few percent of submissions (sent by post with an SSAE, so submission wasn't actually free). A typical small literary paper magazine might have had a few hundred subscribers. Contrast this with the situation nowadays where a free submission to a web mag might lead to a piece attracting a readership of thousands, many of them "liking" and commenting on the piece. Free access means that thousands of people might read a published poem. Free submission means that the number of submissions has rocketed up, so editors have much more work to do though income streams have shrunk.

Competitions have changed too. Nowadays organisers are much more likely to publish long/short-lists and maybe an associated anthology (e-book), so there's no longer a win/lose binary outcome - short-list appearances are good for acknowledgements pages. And some magazines are charging submitters. Various business models are available

  • A flat "reading fee". This might offset printing or web-space charges, labour costs, and Submittable charges (Submittable isn't free for magazines once submissions are too numerous).
  • A variable fee, depending on how much feedback you want, or how soon you want a reply. Some magazines that usually charge offer free submission during certain months, or until the Submittable limit's reached. Donations are invited.
  • Some magazines that charge for submission offer money for the successful authors - a mini-competition.

Examples include -

  • Into the void - free until submittable limit reached, tip-jar submission for $4.95 and a "Short Story Developmental Edit" for $49.95.
  • Storgy - £5 to submit fiction
  • The Poetry Review - £2 to submit poetry
  • Vestal review - $2 to submit, $25 on publication

Submission might be free for the unwaged. Paper magazines don't always give a free issue to successful submitters.

The Web's drastically affected the academic world too. The "reader-pays" model is hard to sustain as costs of publication rise - as reader numbers shrink, so does impact. Both pay-per-view and high institutional subscription rates reduces readership. Medical publications have the extra complications of Big Pharma influence, and the potentially life-saving significance of wide access to important results. Michaela Panter summarizes the options. Both subscription-based and open access journals may charge a reading fee (typically $50-125). Others charge successful authors "Article Publishing Charges" (APCs). For example, "PLoS Medicine" (Impact factor 10.5) charges $3,000 - it's an open access journal. Some journals only charge if the article needs to be open access ("The Lancet" for example charges $5,000 for this). Some funding bodies (e.g. CR-UK) insist that researchers who they support publish in an open access way. Consequently being a successful, responsible author can lead to heavy expenses.

Both in the literary and academic world, the situation's fluid. Authors are feeling their way through a maze of options. They want to be published quickly and for free in high impact journals that everyone can read, but they nearly always have to compromise. They also need to avoid scams - "predatory journals" publish most/all of what they receive and charge authors.

In the end someone has to pay for choosing/editing submissions, admin, publishing, etc. Small printed literary magazines run by a volunteer or two might survive for a while, but it's not sustainable. Charging for submissions might be the least bad option.

Of course one can bypass the gatekeepers. Any writer can put their work online, and academics can put their work on pre-print sites. But in the literary case, will readers find the work? And how will writers be assessed? Writers need a proven track record of publication. In the academic world the "impact factor" of journals is an indication of the importance of appearing in the journal. Poets and story-writers have a fair idea of which journals matter most.

I'm slowly changing with the times. I never used to pay reading fees. Nowadays I sometimes do - after all, I used to pay for stamps and SSAEs (note that some respectable publications still insist on postal submissions). And I'm much more likely to enter competitions if they publish long-lists and anthologies. There's no longer such a difference between submitting to magazines and entering competitions - both may charge, and both may lead to publication. The "impact factor" of journals is more fluid than hitherto - paper journals no longer have more credibility by default. Nor do free-submission magazines (indeed, charging for submission tends to lead to better submissions, on average, and editors have time to read the entries more carefully). Old paper magazines (like the poetry magazine "Envoi", over 50 years old) are disappearing without being replaced by online versions. I suspect the future will see more "reading fee" web magazines, but who knows.

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