The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees

by John Walters

I am a hybrid author, which means that I self-publish books and also publish short stories in traditional venues. Last night I was engaged in what I call marketing. Several of my stories had come back unsold from magazines and anthologies, and rather than having them sit around, I wanted to send them back out to other possible markets. Most, although not all, of what I write is science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, surrealism, and other types of otherworldly or genre fiction, and so I mainly market to genre publications. However, more and more literature of the fantastic also finds its way into literary and mainstream magazines, so I send stories to those publications as well. Last night I thought: There are a lot of literary magazines out there. Why not do a search and find more literary markets for my work? So I did. And as a result I encountered dismay and frustration. Why? The horrendous and creativity-killing practice of reading fees.

The best magazines do not charge reading fees; they don’t have to. People pay to buy individual copies or subscribe to the magazines because they have quality content. These include the genre magazines, such as science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. But middle-level literary magazines, faced with declining readership and financial difficulties, hit on the solution of obtaining their financing from writers instead of readers. When a writer sends a story to an editor or publisher, it’s like an audition. The editor evaluates the piece of writing to determine if it’s a good fit for the magazine. There are many reasons for rejection. Often it’s a lack of writing competence, but it can also be that the story doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine or anthology or the editor just bought a story with a similar idea from someone else. The writer shrugs and sends the story elsewhere. It’s a professional exchange. Making writers pay to submit their stories, though, is nothing less than a scam. It reminds me of Steve Martin in the movie Bowfinger gleefully taking checks from aspiring actresses who want to audition for his film, all the while knowing he has no intention of hiring them.

The sad state of affairs in the field of literary magazines is that a high percentage now charge reading fees. The amounts range from two dollars to five dollars or more, but the average is three dollars. They justify it in all sorts of ways. Some, to avoid the stigma of charging reading fees, call it a handling fee or a software fee. Evidently they haven’t heard that many email services are free. Some, even as they ask it of writers, say outright: This is not a reading fee. Yeah, right. As if calling it by another name makes it all better. Several sites explain that if you were to send the manuscripts by mail you would have to spend at least that much in postage, so send that postage money to them instead. Most modern magazines and anthologies are getting away from postal submissions anyway, both as a money saver and to protect the environment, so that argument doesn’t make any sense.

Unfortunately, some of the magazines I most respected and used to submit to have succumbed to this practice, and as a result, I have had to take them off my list of honest, viable markets. It’s become a trend, and a very unfortunate one. I wonder if they have ever considered alternatives to their gouging of writers. I would prefer that they slightly drop their payments for accepted stories if they can’t afford them. Or have they ever heard of crowdfunding, which is being used successfully by more and more editors of genre anthologies?

Charging reading fees also has a much more sinister effect on magazines and anthologies, but one that editors and publishers would never notice firsthand. It cuts off writers that can’t afford the fees. That would include poverty-stricken artists from the inner city, the disenfranchised, and single parents like myself who spend a large portion of their income on rent and bills. Between novels I write a lot of short stories, and sometimes I have as many as thirty to forty out to market at the same time. There’s no way I could afford to pay reading fees for all those submissions. I hearken back to when I was a young writer who set off on the road to encounter new experiences. I was homeless for years back then and often had no money in my pocket. Why should I not have had the opportunity to submit my work for publication? Do these editors and publishers who finance their magazines through reading fees really want to hear only the voices of the elite? Perhaps that’s why science fiction, fantasy, and other genre works are the most vital, diverse, lively, and attractive forms of fiction out there nowadays, because they welcome submissions from all types of people without charging elitist reading fees to cull out the disadvantaged.

I am reminded of one of my favorite rags-to-riches literary stories: that of Jack London, who returned from the Klondike brimming with ideas and fought to have his stories published despite countless rejections. Can you imagine if he would have had to pay for all those submissions? He never would have had a chance. The publishers who charge reading fees might point out that in those days he had to pay for postage. Sure he did, and it almost killed his literary ambitions because much of the time he couldn’t afford it and had to sacrifice decent clothes and food to be able to send out his work. Why close and lock your gates to struggling writers and demand money payments as the price of admission to the literary world? Some of the world’s greatest writers have produced masterpieces while grappling with extreme financial distress, but why make it harder on writers to achieve their dreams rather than easier? Editors and publishers should be in writers’ corners, encouraging them and helping them make it, not setting up fiscal barriers to oppose them. No wonder these magazines are failing. They attempt to stifle some of the voices who might have the most to say by charging admission to speak in their forums. Thank God for the genre magazines and anthologies as well as the best of the mainstream and literary publications, not to mention self-publishing venues, that have maintained their integrity by making submissions free to all writers.

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John Walters is a graduate of the Clarion West class of 1973 who recently returned to the United States after living abroad for 35 years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, Greece, and other exotic locales. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, with two of his five sons, making a precarious living as a full-time freelance writer. He writes science fiction and fantasy, thrillers, mainstream fiction, and memoirs of his wanderings around the world. He’s published over 20 books; the latest is a collection of stories: Heroes and Other Illusions. You can find his website/blog at johnwalterswriter.com.

5 Responses

  1. Dave Creek

    I absolutely agree with this. I don’t submit to markets that charge such fees. I think a lot of the editors and publishers of such magazines genuinely believe that they’re not doing anything wrong, but I always wonder why it’s the writers who have to put out money for their work to be considered. I’d imagine the publication has to foot the bill for other expenses, so why not for the expense that’s the actual reason for its existence?

    It certainly is a red flag indicating that the publication has such a small audience that “exposure” there won’t help you either. Not that you should ever agree to be paid in exposure anyway.

    1. Al Simmons

      Writing is work. People work for a living, therefore…No one pays his boss to work. Well, they did before labor unions. Still, the temptation is hard to resist 600 people a month sending you their $3 and a poem they hope you’ll read. Makes me want to start a mag.

  2. Cathy Kern

    Are reading fees really about magazines ‘needing’ the fees because of declining paid subscriptions? Sadly, I presumed it was simple opportunism a.k.a. greed. With the explosion in numbers of good writers ‘out there’ all seeking the big publication deal, which is often predicated on their history of prior publication, it feels sadly nostalgic to be angry over practices like these. Yes, these fees set up another barrier, yes they definitely promote inequality, but it seems that’s the way of America now. I’m not excusing it. I’m giving it context. How are reading fees different from preschools and universities that only allow those that can afford their exorbitant fees to benefit from their education? Those are profit driven business who want to attract the best and brightest so their reputations remain high and they in turn can attract and pay the best staff. Isn’t it wishing for a return to an age of altruism (if it ever existed) to bemoan those who profit from the hot competition among those wanting a publication credit, a good education, even a reservation for a good table at dinner (remember the talk of restaurants charging those wanting to reserve a table? ReservationHop and Rezzy?). Look at how the pricing of online books has been geared to make them less of an obvious bargain, to help push up the sales of hardcovers/print copies. Look at how that impacts those who hoped they’d have an edge via self-publishing by charging less and keeping a higher percentage. Look at Lyft and Uber, undermining the traditional taxi industry; Air BnB and Home exchanges undermining the hotel industry. A 2014 article in Priceonomics posed the incredulous question: why would highly-rated restaurants with lines around the block, ‘leave money on the table’ by not charging for reservations? Economists feel its a sensible idea. but restaurateurs are ‘chefs first’ and they feel otherwise: “One reason is that price changes and extra charges are anathema in the hospitality industry, as it can ruin the experience by reminding people that the restaurant is a business.” Maybe our industry is only catching up, showing signs that it’s a business, and idealists that we are, we believe it shouldn’t be happening here. Absolutely we can shun those who charge reading fees and with luck, articles like these can fan an outrage similar to the one that kept reservation for $ start ups from taking off; we can offer our work elsewhere. When the lines figuratively snake around the block, vying for that coveted spot, let’s hope it leads to more places where we can sell our work. More writers=more to publish=more books and mags to publish it. IF there is a corresponding surge in people willing to buy it.

  3. Lois

    Beyond the literary domain, these NOT reading fees are even larger.
    Looking to submit an article for publication in a “Peer Reviewed” scientific journal? It is now much easier if you have the $$funds! I couldn’t believe it, hundreds or thousands of dollars in “processing fees” may well get you published.