Is It Time for Literary Magazines to Rethink the Slush?

Last month, I got entangled in a long twitter conversation about submission fees. The author Nick Mamatas took issue with The Offing magazine — an exciting new offshoot of the LA Review of Books focusing on promoting marginalized writers — deciding to charge a $3 fee for submissions. You can read Mamatas’s storify plus this follow-up blog post to see his side of things. Here’s a defense of fees from Nathaniel Tower for the other side. In general, the literary world is far too shy about talking about money, and publishing can be quite closed to marginalized voices who can’t afford unpaid internships, reading fees, and other entry barriers. This is a conversation we need to have.

Overall, I agree with Mamatas that there’s an ethical issue in charging submission fees. We never instituted them at Electric Literature for Recommended Reading, Gigantic, or any other magazine I’ve worked on. Plenty of journals barely take any work from the slush, but even a magazine that only publishes slush is likely only taking 1–2% of submissions. So the majority of unpublished writers are funding the minority of published, which isn’t a great foundation. Imagine if every worker had to pay to get a job interview? (Or, since most magazines don’t pay, maybe the analogy is paying to get an unpaid internship.) The defense of submission fees is that the fee is pretty small, perhaps only as costly as snail mail postage. But $3 adds up quickly. I’ve often heard the average story gets rejected twenty times before an acceptance. 21 x 3 = $63. The Offing pays $20–50, meaning you’d expect to lose between 13 and 43 bucks per story. Literary writers can’t expect to make much money from quiet short stories about cancer and obscure poems about birds, but surely we don’t need to actively lose money to get published!

I’d like to note here that The Offing is hardly the only magazine to charge a fee. Missouri Review, Sonora Review, Crazyhorse and so many others charge that when I asked about this on Twitter, I was told it would be easier to make a list of those who don’t. And the fact that The Offing pays $20–50 already puts them ahead of the vast majority of lit mags who pay nothing at all.

As an editor, I do understand why magazines want to charge fees. Lit mag editors are typically volunteering their labor, and even with fees nobody is getting paid. The Offing said the fees would go to contributors and I have no reason to doubt them. So it’s hard to feel like you are exploiting anyone when you don’t get any money from the exploitation. (My counter would be that small fees, magazines that don’t pay, and the like all have ripple effects that combine to help devalue writing and make it easier and easier for even big corporations to not pay artists for their labor.) Sticking to lit mags though, much of the problem stems from the fact that lit mags all have two major problems: 1) no money and 2) far too much slush.

Here’s why The Offing initially closed submissions and reopened with a fee:

1,000 submissions in a week! If you’ve ever grumbled about lit mags taking too long to respond to your submission, here’s why.

Let’s be honest about the situation at lit mags: most are funded out of the editors’ pockets or else given a small budget from a university, most have unpaid editors (often MFA students getting a year’s experience), and most receive far more submissions than the editors could ever read. And if we are being really, really honest, most magazines don’t even have much of a readership, so no real way to raise money by charging readers. I’m not talking about the top magazines like The Paris Review or Tin House, but the above holds true for your average [City/Animal] Review or [Random_Phrase] journal.

When talking about these issues, I think we have to separate them into two categories:

a) the question of funding a magazine (and the related question of finding readers)

b) the question of the slush pile (and the related question of overworked editors)

a) is a topic for another day, but this discussion has made me wonder if it’s time for literary magazines to rethink how we do slush.

Most magazines work like this: submissions are always open, the magazines gets carpet-bombed with work, the pieces are read — likely skimmed — by inexperienced undergrads/MFA students/volunteer readers, and writers get their rejection six months later. The problems here snowball quickly. Writers understandably can’t wait six months to hear back, so they submit to as many places as possible simultaneously. This leads to more slush at every magazine, which leads to longer wait times, and so on. (It doesn’t help that writers submit to magazines without even the briefest skimming of the magazine’s website, leading to science fiction poems in the queue of the Personal Essay Review and romance novellas in Crime Poems Weekly.)

So if an always-open, always-growing slush pile is bad for both writers and editors, what can be changed? Here are a few thoughts:

Reduce Slush Without Charging

First off, there are ways to limit submissions that aren’t monetarily exploitative. You can shorten the submission window drastically (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading does one month, but I’ve seen even shorter windows at some magazines). This helps narrow your slush to writers who actually read — or at least pay some attention to — your magazine. Some magazines also limit the number of submissions a writer can submit, even to one or two a year. That helps force writers to target their subs, sending only the work most appropriate to the journal in question if they want to get in. When I was a young writer, I always grumbled about the magazines with short windows or other restrictions, but it did force me to send my best work to those magazines when the windows opened.

Solicit Emerging Writers

I also think there is a problem in relying so much on random submissions. Most magazines spend their soliciting efforts on big name writers, which makes sense, but very few bother to solicit emerging writers. Why not? It would likely be more fruitful to read a dozen small magazines and find new writers who excite you than to read 1,000 slush submissions. Or email other editors, reading series curators, and professors whose tastes you trust and ask for the best emerging writers they’ve seen. If editors had less slush (see above), they’d have more time to search for new voices elsewhere. Worried the above would make you miss out on completely unpublished writers? Have a sub period for unpublished writers only. The great One Story magazine ensures a diverse range of writers by never publishing a writer twice.

I would also add that soliciting young writers might go a long way towards fixing the gender imbalance in lit mags. Every time VIDA counts come up, there is talk about the gender imbalance in submissions. Part of that is men submitting way too much — every magazine has had their man-subbers who send a new piece within minutes of rejection — and part of that is that women writers perhaps not submitting as much as they should. Editors tend to fix the imbalance by soliciting big name women writers, but that doesn’t help emerging women writers. (Editors would similarly have less excuses for painfully white contributor lists.)

Define Your Tastes

Lastly, if we want writers to be more thoughtful in where they submit a piece, editors have to be up front about what they want. Most lit mags just say “send your best work!” and “we’re open to everything as long as it’s great!” Those guidelines may even be true since many lit journals have not defined their aesthetic vision, even for themselves. Too many lit mags are totally interchangeable in content. As a reader, I vastly prefer magazines that try to publish a unique collection of work instead of the same stories and poems that could fit anywhere. And as a writer, I actually know what work to send where.

Admittedly, some of the above suggestions run the risk of favoring already published writers or writers with MFA/lit world connections… but, then again, that is already the case. And if none of those suggestions work, well:

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