Over the past several months (late 2017 and early 2018), I’ve sent out several short stories to literary magazines around the country. Some submissions were simply in consideration for publication, while others were to enter contests. I’ve even scanned the submission requirements of other magazines to which I did not submit. (For any one of various reasons, the most common that their submission period is not open right now.) While it’s always good for a short story writer to submit and get published, and while winning a contest looks great on one’s literary resume, I’ve become concerned about the fees that some journals charge for regular submission, or to enter a contest. Most frequently, the fee takes the form of a small charge of three or four dollars which goes to pay the company that runs the submission machine. In most cases, this is Submittable. I haven’t been too concerned about that fee since it’s small enough that most anyone, even a starving literary artist can afford.
But now comes along a different fee animal. A couple of contests I entered recently charged $20 to enter, and I’m thinking about entering another one that charges even more. Keep in mind, these are contests, not general submissions. This puts the fee, while not out of my reach—at least not yet—on the road to the stratosphere, and I have become very concerned about it. Such a fee may or may not be unreachable by others, I don’t know, but it brings about a larger problem.
I’m sure the journals are using the fee to pay costs associated with running a contest, especially to pay the person who judges the entries that made the final cut and picks the winner and perhaps a runner-up and possibly a few honorable mentions. But from the point of view of those of us who are entering such a contest, a different facet of the question arises. If I pay $20 or $30 or more to enter, and I don’t win anything, what have I gotten out of it? The satisfaction of having entered and not won? Not so much. I get no publication, and nothing to put on my resume. (Some magazines give every entrant a year’s subscription to the journal, which is usually two copies. That’s at least a little better.) Many of the contests get hundreds, if not thousands of entries. My chance of winning is small, and that means that my chance of getting something for my money is also small. I’m not sure it’s worth the fee. Two or three dollars, okay. Twenty or thirty, not so much.
Basically what it comes down to is that the journal is using fees to run its magazine. Let’s say they get 500 entries and charge $20 to enter. They’ve made $10,000. If they have several contests through the year, the fees add up. Financially, it may work for them. But from the POV of a writer trying to get published, it doesn’t.
In my literary naivete, I always thought money flowed to the author. That’s been the standard for a long time. Paying to enter a contest with a meager chance to win is a reverse of the standard model. I’m not sure what can be done about it, but it needs attention by persons more knowledgeable about the publishing process than I.