A Lit­er­ary Lot­tery: Should online jour­nals charge read­ing fees?

What a loaded question! From a writer’s perspective, I imagine the answer would be a resounding “NO!” As a publisher, the answer would usually be “Yes… we have expenses.” What’s the correct answer? Is there a “one answer fits all” to this question?

Reading fees, entry fees … the concept is old as the hills. It’s an accepted practice. Theoretically — the reading fees support the magazine, pay a judge a small honorarium, and reward the highest caliber entries. When The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature began its 15+ year publication journey, the NC Arts Council funded the initial issue. This provided the publisher with the money to pay Eleanora Tate and … geesh, can’t remember the other judges … a small honorarium for their efforts as well as financing the physical publication of the “paper” issues. So, in 1995-1996, the Mule charged no reading fees simply because it was funded by a grant covering expenses. The staff received no compensation — the all-volunteer tradition never changed and the journal continues to be a “labor of love” to this day.

Here’s where it begins to get complicated. Paper press, 15+ years ago, represented a huge part of any journal’s budget. No Lulu, or .pdf possibility, no POD option. Publishing a literary journal truly became a giant leap of faith. Would there be enough copies to cover demand or would copies sit in boxes in the kitchen pantry — the result of optimistic anticipation?

The rules of literary finance changed long before 2010.

The Mule’s publication history provides a perfect avenue to discourse. As funds dwindled and HTML knowledge advanced, the Mule’s publishers decided to go online with the journal. The site piggy-backed on a local website’s account and no direct costs were incurred. All the Mule required for publication, at this time, were writers and coders. The coding aspect  — each page hand-crafted containing cells and tables requiring an insane amount of time in order to be internet-worthy — necessitated the volunteers dedication to the printed word to remain unflagging. Okay, all that fallderall aside, it was a pain in the ass to publish the Mule. BUT, the product was offered up without cost to the reader.

Enter GoDaddy, lower hosting fees and a website independent of its mothership. As an online journal, the Mule’s production cost is, literally, around $50 a year for hosting and about $15 a year for domain name registration. The Mule contains no Google ads or any other revenue stream.

The drawback here is, of course, with no revenue, writers receive no monetary compensation for their contributions. The staff remains volunteer, all work donated by those individuals who dedicate their spare time to the advancement of great literature (albeit southern in some strange fashion).

Reading Fees — To Charge or Not to Charge, that Is The Question.

A quick recap: the Mule costs less than $75 annually real money to publish. We pay for these f

ees out of our own pocket but most of the time, the CafePress sales furnish the greenbacks to cover the cost. The Mule has no advertising (*more on this later) so no true revenue stream exists. No revenue means no pay for staff or contributors. It also means no taxes to file and no bookkeeping is necessary — a major force in our deciding to not receive remuneration for our efforts.

Taxes. Therein lies the rub… and the first question. Are reading fees and writer’s “prizes” taxable? Here’s where I bow out of the discussion. Don’t know the answer, don’t want to think about it… staying clear of that one. Someone more educated in the land of finance must answer that one.

The second question. Do reading fees create a literary lottery effect? Another tough one to answer. The sub-question follow-up: are all submissions reading fee-based or is this for one particular aspect or section of the publication?

The third question: Do reading fees reflect the tradition of literary journals? (this assumes the term “literary journal” applies to the magazines discussed herein). Answer: Yes. It is not uncommon, historically, for a traditional print journal to host a “contest” and engage the services of a known writer to judge the entries and choose the most outstanding efforts to win cash prizes and recognition.

After much consideration, I believe the problem with writers and reading fees is a sign of the times. The enormous proliferation of online journals can necessitate tremendous cost to writers. The possibility smorgasbord overflows with tasty options. The cost becomes onerous simply because the choices are so prolific. The internet offers a million more chances of one’s writing being accepted. Traditional print publications of previous centuries exhibited an exclusivity not encountered in 2010. Throw in the expansive range of genres available to the reader/writer, the sheer enormity of possibilities…

This leads to the next topic: Accountability, how does the journal report its finances? Does it report anything at all … does it need to?

Grants require accountability (in a perfect world). This is not a tax discussion, it’s about accountability to those who pay reading fees — the writers who submit. Who is to say that a magazine doesn’t have a pre-selected winner? Is it a legitimate competition? Who judges the writing? The judges names and their selection criteria are important for the writer to know.

Is it wrong to charge fees and hold a contest to cover costs? No, costs are real and it’s not unrealistic to need financial help. If the intent is clearly stated in the contest particulars.

Underneath this whole discussion lie various streams of conversation. What is the intent of the publisher? To make money? To forward their own personal publishing agenda and to gain personal recognition? To showcase writers – the altruistic journal exists all over the place. Is the publication university-based? How often must a magazine publish to be considered current? Who judges, who reads the submissions? Excuse me a moment, my brain just exploded and I need my ShamWow to clean up the mess.

I am uniquely qualified to host a discussion on this topic. We began our online literary journal in 1996 after one year of paper traditional print. Few publications can boast an almost 15 year continuous online run — especially one with the original publishers and editors still in control. Journals come and go. The rip tide of creativity pulls writers and publishers under and rarely lets them go. Writers write because they must. This century’s publication possibilities seem endless: Kindle, iPad, blog, journal, in print or on the web — and it is in this all-consuming range of choices that we are forced to consider reading fees. Do we pay for human effort because the costs of publication are relatively low for most sites? Do we pay ourselves for our time as we publish you, the writer? Do we pay YOU for your time? How has the internet affected one’s ability to make a living by writing, can one make a living writing and publishing these days? *click to read article about Huffington Post

Reality? The lack of dependable revenue streams outside of reading fees for an online publication necessitates the occasional literary lottery.

Submishmash developers want to continue to offer their wonderful software for free and one way to recoup costs is by charging a nominal fee only when publications also *charge their writers (*reading fee). The same is true for those who sponsor publications online. It takes an awful lot of dedication and altruistic vision to continue the work involved in continuous updating of a publication.

Fair enough but writers will need deep pockets to support their habit. One can always blog for free, the only cost is your time…

Bottom line here: No wrong answer. Yes to reading fees. No to reading fees. The answer is highly subjective. It’s up to both the writer and the publisher to choose whether or not to involve monetary considerations in content decisions.

In fiscal terminology of the day: it comes down to whatever the market will bear.

for more information, visit:

The Journal of Electronic Publishing

Charging online readers NYT article

Lessons for the future of journals online debate

Vintage dmoz article illustrating “fees” charged

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**We should all be aware of our monetary obligation to support the distribution of “free” software, those small $5 donations help all of us, not just the code jockeys. Free code is free speech.

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    3 Responses to A Lit­er­ary Lot­tery: Should online jour­nals charge read­ing fees?

    1. Helen Losse says:

      No to all submission fees. Yes, it’s a lottery.

      For one thing, writers lose more often than they win. That means they are paying, most of the time, for the publication of the works of other people (that they probably don’t like as well as they do their own work.) Only the winners are happy. Others probably won’t enter again (or at least those who don’t like gambling won’t.) Rejection is bad enough without paying for it.

      Second, it sounds so cool for a litmag to offer a big contest prize, but if they don’t pay for it, (but get the money for contestants) why should they get to pick the judges? Why not let contestants vote? And I’m voting for me, because if I didn’t want to win I wouldn’t have entered.

      Three, it’s too much like self-publication only with a chance of losing. If you truly self-publish, you get your own works published.

      I will never pay to get in a litmag. Fees for anything less than book publication are just
      wrong. And I’m not too crazy about those contests either. How many times have I paid $15 or $20 to help publish someone else’s book. Often someone I don’t even know (so I don’t care if he/she has a book or not). It’s not like this is a democracy, and all I have to do is wait my turn.

      I like win-win situations. I’ll be glad to help pay actual costs to keep the Mule online. (Of course, someone has to pay.) It’s my feeling that the people who decide what appears in the litmag (and what doesn’t) ought to be the ones who pay for the publication.

      Now free contest are an entirely different matter. If you pay nothing to enter, a prize is really a prize.

      Just sayin’.

    2. Gus Grosch says:

      By far the most concise and up to date information I found on this topic.

    3. Fred Hawkins says:

      Yes! Charge, but Don’t Pay!

      Works for me.
      Also Dewey.

      Who’s Dewey?

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