If you read the acknowledgment pages of many novels, nonfiction books, short story collections, and poetry books, you’ll often see where earlier excerpts were published. This can tell you several things, including that the publications listed:
May be something you would like to read
May be markets for your own work
Often, first publications or excerpts appear in literary magazines. If you’re working on your own book or collection, literary magazines may be an important step in your reading, researching, and publishing journey.
For example, in World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s 2020 book, the acknowledgments include literary magazines such as Brevity, Diagram, Ecotone, and Georgia Review.
Bully Love, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s 2019 poetry collection, lists acknowledgments for Hawaii Review, Heliotrope, Indiana Review, and many other publications.
Finding literary magazines
Finding information about the literary magazines listed on an acknowledgments page is an online search away. However, reading the stories, poems, and essays they publish can get tricky. The spectrum of literary magazines ranges from fully online to print-only magazines that publish zero content online.
Reading online literary magazines can be as easy as signing up on their websites, but reading print-based magazines may involve ordering print or electronic copies of individual issues. Some magazines offer pdf versions of recent back issues that may be available for reduced prices and quick access.
Don’t skimp on reading. An important part of the submission process is familiarizing yourself with individual literary magazines. Research what they’ve published. A friend of mine from grad school didn’t do this, and he ended up with a publication that he finds embarrassing to this day.
Submission windows for literary magazines may vary from one week to year-round. A few don’t accept any unsolicited work. Tactics to find these submission windows and writers’ guidelines start with a magazine’s website. If the magazine offers a newsletter, sign up to receive alerts about content, contests, submissions, blog posts, and (yes) fundraising.
Another tactic to find submission windows and guidelines is to “follow” publications in Submittable, an online submission management platform. Once you follow a publication, you’ll build a dashboard-like “Following” screen within Submittable that you can skim for “opportunities.” Some of these opportunities are solicitations to buy copies of magazines, but the majority are submission portals for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comics, plays, contests, and more.
Setting your intentions
Many writers set quotas for themselves when drafting or sending out work. However, fewer writers seem to set reading quotas, such as to explore one new literary magazine each week. Or push your weekly reading to include at least one short story, essay, or set of poems from a literary magazine.
This intentional exploring and reading of literary magazines can yield inspiration, which contributes to your writing, revising, and submissions process. You’ll also gather valuable information about the literary marketplace, including where to find copacetic writers and editors.
For help, check out “Resolve to read a literary magazine,” a recent effort by the Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers. Click through the CLMP membership directory for reading and submission options as well as discount subscription bundles.
I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by TheSoutheast Review.
The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.
I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.
What is flash nonfiction? “I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv) —Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction
The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:
“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)
Emotional vs. sentimental
The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.
As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.
Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.
Hey, you! (second-person narration)
We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).
But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.
In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).
This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.
Research (library databases)
The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.
The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.
Pondering “Giving Tuesday” donation requests and everyday submission fees at lit mags
Writers don’t earn much for publishing their work in literary magazines. In fact, after you add up the online submission fees and the costs of old-school printing and postage, many writers actually pay to have their work published.
However, publishing can build a writer’s social capital. It’s a different type of earning. Publishing is a status symbol, of sorts, that can verify your topic or your writing is good or interesting or digressive or [insert another adjective]. For writing teachers, especially those on the tenure track, publications listed on a vita show a teacher’s relevance and contributions to their field, which helps them get hired or promoted or keeps them employed.
More literary magazines are offering an honorarium beyond “paying” in contributor’s copies and bragging rights. Often honoraria run $25. A few magazines, such as those with commercial or foundation backing, pay professional rates. These mythical outlets may pay $250 to $1,000 or more, but their fiction is liberally sprinkled with agented submissions.
Science fiction, fantasy and other genres
Genre publications, including science fiction and fantasy, seem to take writer’s payments more seriously. Publications can’t be considered professional or “qualifying markets” by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America unless they pay at least 8 cents per word, among other criteria.
This professionalism goes both ways. Many science fiction, horror, and other genre publications pay their writers, but they may require exclusivity. Their writer’s guidelines may prohibit simultaneous submissions, but in return, they often make their decisions (to publish or not to publish) in days or weeks, rather than months.
SFWA members frown on reading or submission fees. “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees” is the title of a 2018 SFWA blog by John Walters, a hybrid author who has published more than 20 books. Walters critiques the literary marketplace’s submission fees and their impact on disenfranchisement and diversity.
Poetry has value
As for poetry earnings, think back to the blog “Poetry Has Value” where poets shared monthly tallies of their submission fees and income. For example, Erika Dreifus, author of Birthright: Poems, earned $517.65 from her poetry publications in 2016. However, she did this by pursuing free markets for her poems.
“Thanks to my Poetry Has Value posts, I can tell you that I sent out 134 [packets of] poetry submissions in 2016… Had I spent $3 each time, I’d have shelled out $402 on submission fees. Which would have left me with $117.65,” Dreifus wrote in “Making Poetry Pay: Five Ways to Increase Your Poetry Income,” which was published in The Writer’s Notebook in July 2017.
NOTE: The free monthly Practicing Writer e-newsletter from Erika Dreifus includes “fee-free (and paying) calls and competitions—plus other resources—for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.” More information is at: ErikaDreifus.com
Where is the money in literary publishing?
So, what happens when you follow the money in literary magazine publishing? Like a big shining billboard, there is Submittable.
Submittable, a “submission management software” company based in Missoula, Montana, gives writers an online platform to submit their creative work to publications. Costs for printing, postage, and SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) have morphed into online submission fees. Magazine staff members use the Submittable platform to accept or reject work online. Stacks of mail and full recycling bins have turned into burgeoning electronic queues.
“Since starting, Submittable has partnered with over 11,000 organizations to promote calls, accept, review and take action on over 50 million submissions and applications from over 4.5 million users,” wrote CEO Michael A. FitzGerald in November.
Fifty million submissions…
Some of those submissions were free. Other submissions cost $25-plus. Most of them were about $3. Some of that money went to the publications and some to Submittable. If you read Tahoma Literary Review’s “What We Pay (and how we do it),” you’ll see that in spring 2020 Submittable’s cut of each submission was 5 percent plus 99 cents. This is on top of a yearly fee, which can be $999 for Submittable’s “basic” level.
For Submittable, what does this look like in rough numbers? • 50 million submissions @ $3 apiece = $150 million * 5 percent = $7.5 million • 50 million submissions * 99 cents = $49.5 million • Total: $57 million (This estimate doesn’t include Submittable’s base fees.)
Not bad for a company, originally called Submishmash, that FitzGerald started in his basement with Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell in 2010.
FitzGerald stepped down as Submittable’s CEO in November 2020 to continue his treatment for colorectal cancer. Thor Culverhouse has since taken over as CEO, but the transition and the recent global recession brought to light hints about the financial side of Submittable. As reported in the Missoulian newspaper:
In July 2019, the company raised $10 million in venture capital.
In April 2020, Submittable laid off 30 of its 130 Missoula-based workers.
I’ll add that, during the pandemic, literary magazine submissions may be up, if the quick closing of metered or free submission windows is any sign.
Why “Giving Tuesday” made me think about this
Even before “Giving Tuesday” I started receiving donation requests from literary magazines that I submitted work to over the years. I don’t mean to put a negative spin on this, but some of these magazines last communicated with me via a boilerplate message like, “Thanks for your submission [and submission fee], but we’re not going to publish your work. We’re so busy that we have nothing more to say right now. Good luck.”
About those $3 submission fees, my math shows: • $1.86 stays with the magazine • $1.14 goes to Submittable Note that it’s not unusual for a higher-tier magazine to receive 10,000 submissions a year.
Nonetheless, I saw a stark contrast. The donation solicitations were annoying, especially those from magazines that hadn’t communicated regularly through newsletters or other avenues. But these literary magazines needed donations, grants, subscriptions, and submission fees to keep publishing. We’re talking about budgets of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, a company that “partnered” with these sometimes-struggling publications talks about fees and venture capital on the order of millions of dollars.
And writers? Maybe they made $500 through their writing last year, if they worked hard and avoided submission fees.
An update from Submittable
Keriann Strickland, director of product & content marketing for Submittable, contacted me to provide additional information about their business and fees. Here’s what she wrote:
First, you caught an error for us; thank you. Michael’s [former CEO Michael FitzGerald’s] blog post should have said nearly 20 million submissions [instead of 50 million].
As the blog you quote mentions, we’ve expanded from our literary roots into many other industries and use cases. That total submission number represents all of those industries/use cases (not just literary journals)—most of them without submission fees.
In the minority case where an organization charges fees, you’re correct that we charge $0.99 + 5% of the total sum collected—4% of that goes to our payment processor (we use a 3rd party for security and compliance standards). More on that break down here: https://www.submittable.com/features/fees-and-payments/
In partnership with CLMP [Community of Literary Magazines and Presses], we also offer special discounted plans for literary journals at $39/month or $290/year (well below our basic pricing https://www.submittable.com/clmp/).
In the print versus online dilemma for publishing creative works, reputation and reach have been among the issues to consider. But the lines keep blurring and (spoiler alert) online magazines are offering more than ever.
As for reputation, the online sites of print literary magazines have been viewed by some as the “lite” version, writes David H. Lynn in “Editor’s Notes: Print vs. Internet: An Ongoing Conversation,” which included poet G. C. Waldrep, in TheKenyon Review in 2009. Based on this perception, it would follow that publishing online might be seen as lower status, especially for creative writers seeking a publication record for retention, promotion, and tenure in higher education.
Since Lynn’s 2009 article, the roster and perceived quality of online literary magazines has continued to develop, whether they were linked to print journals (such as TheKenyon Review and KROnline) or solely Internet-based (such as Electric Literature).
Attitudes, as well as some university guidelines for promotion and tenure, have been evolving along with the literary magazine rankings. Online searches for professional development guidelines for creative writers within colleges and universities make points such as the following from the University of Wisconsin Colleges:
“Online publication has become increasingly more respectable and that trend will likely continue. There are many high-quality online markets for creative writing, run by professional editors and designers who are highly selective in the works they chose.”
These same guidelines, however, encouraged junior faculty members to “defend the validity” of publications not specifically listed among high-quality markets. In other words, the status of some journals, and especially online magazines, may be works in progress.
Based on her survey of 139 “authors, editors, students, reviewers, book enthusiasts and anyone else interested in the question,” Dietz predicted that influential online journals will fall into two categories:
“[E]stablished magazines exploiting new technology without abandoning the trappings of pre-Internet success”
“[N]on-charging magazines moving online specifically to take advantage of receptivity to free literature when offered digitally”
The advantages of free literary works on the Internet is an important point in the print vs. online conversation.
DC-area novelist and writer Leslie Pietrzyk blogged about this issue in 2017 when her short story “We Always Start with the Seduction” was accepted for publication by Southhampton Review Online.
“When they accepted the story for the online journal I was at first confused and then slightly irritated,” Pietrzyk writes. “But I consulted with the wise minds on Facebook which sparked a long and interesting thread about online vs. print publications. Maybe I have some residual bias toward print…but also, if this story were in print only, I would be begging you to fork out ten bucks to have a journal sent to you a week from now.”
The broader reach and access of digital content is something Lynn at The Kenyon Review also noted. “As it happens, we’ve already seen the evidence with KROnline that the potential audience on the Internet is far greater than those who read the printed journal,” he writes. Instead of reprinting content from print editions, KROnline offers content targeted toward online readers. “Evidence suggests that they are looking for shorter pieces, more timely work too, and even a little more experimental,” writes Lynn.
In addition, online publications offer features not available in print. For example, Superstition Review, an online literary magazine at Arizona State University, just completed its fourth issue with embedded audio files of authors reading their work. This is a feature Tahoma Literary Review and other publications provide as well.
Also, the Superstition Review staff is active in promoting issues and contributors (past and present) across social media platforms. Other online magazines, such as The Kenyon Review, produce podcasts, in addition to more typical blogs, contributor Q&As, and newsletters.
In the end, what has been called the “print vs. online debate” should probably transition into a “print & online strategy” for creative writers and magazines alike.