A discussion rose up on a listserv about a piece by Peter Selgin, co-editor of the literary journal, Alimentum: The Literature of Food, in which he recounts his ruthless, subjective and occasionally random process of reviewing work submitted to his journal.
Selgin's clearly trying to be helpful (as well as entertaining); trying I think, to paint for writers an authentic portrait of what the submission system really looks like, and how it functions, at editor eye level. He rants that much of what comes in is boring, badly crafted, and off-target, which is nothing new really – editors and agents of all kinds have said so for decades. He adds, perhaps a little too gleefully, that sometimes rejecting is fun, though he backs it up with examples of writing so clearly in need of rejection, it's hard to quibble.
An offshoot discussion on the listserv veered into another conversation about journals that do not pay their writers. Sandra McDonald, a published novelist (and fellow Stonecoast MFA graduate), notes:
"The article was very funny! But I did notice that this appears to be another non-paying market. It's funny how often printers get paid, the postman gets paid, but the content providers do not. I have heard, and understand, the argument that literary journals are all about carrying on a conversation, and about being part of a community that values words, and how literary journals can't afford to pay their writers and often not even their staff. This is all lofty and lovely, and a lot of time, crap. A publisher who can pay postage, pay for the paper and printing, and give interviews on how hard his or her job is (while bemoaning the slush) can surely find a token payment of five or ten dollars for an author's work."
Yes, Sandra. And apparently, no.
Journals that do not pay will always exist and quality writers will continue to submit. That's because there are so very many writers (or as Sandra observes, 'content providers') willing to swap work for exposure, publishing credits, CV lines. And I say this as someone who occasionally does so, for reasons that always seem sensible to me at the time. If every even halfway good writer (or every writer, period) stopped submitting to non-paying journals, would that force payments into existence? Or just thin the journal ranks?
I used to get upset about this, but I don't anymore. Editors would do something about the financial structure if they could, if only because many of them submit to, and have their work published in, other (often non-paying) journals too.
In his article, Selgin notes that:
"…despite being a brand new journal, already Alimentum is averaging over three hundred submissions a month. That’s seventy-five a week, or ten a day: two hours’ work, potentially. That’s on top of all the other unpaid responsibilities that come with running a literary magazine: filling out orders, doing mailings, planning events and promotions—let alone the time needed to design, assemble, and proofread an issue, and handle the thousand-and-one other details that rear their prickly heads in the middle of our insomnia. And that’s on top of whatever else we do to make a living. All of which is to say that, like our brethren at the big publishing houses, we editors at little magazines are a harried lot…"
I know a few lit journal editors, and I think I understand Selgin's perspective as much as anyone on the outside can. Personally, I have work pending publication at a few non-paying literary journals, and I'm happy about each one, and while one essay earned some contest dollars, of course paychecks from all of them would be better. But I knew the score when I submitted, and frankly, I have gotten so tired of the entire pay/no-pay conversation, that I ignore it until something like this listserv discussion comes along.
Then I get a little upset. In the case of lit journals, or so we are meant to believe, editorial payments are dictated by tiny budgets, nonexistent budgets, severely strained budgets. These journals are, for reasons varying in validity, positioned as "labors of literary love," published not by media executives but by lovers of craft. As Sandra correctly points out however, somehow these entities manage to pay other providers and vendors, because there's no chance on earth that any printer, or utility company, or delivery service, or paper supplier, or furniture retailer, or internet service provider, is going to work or supply service in exchange for "copies."
So I make some new resolution – again – to limit my literary journal submissions to paying markets. Until I read some journal, fall in love with it, and decide it would make the perfect home for something I'm working on. Or I spy the prestigious and non-paying journal I've longed to be published by, still on my bookshelf, beckoning, teasing. Or I hear about a new journal that sounds particularly good. Or a writing contact with a new gig as a lit journal editor asks me to submit. And I do. And I always hope, because I also write for magazines and newspapers and websites and popular anthologies, that at the end of the year, the paying pieces outnumber the rest.
You know, so I can pay myself.