Submittable: Follow the money in literary magazine publishing

Vintage postcard: Night view of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago from the sky ride’s observation platform.

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/).

Print vs. online: Less of a debate, more of a strategy

print vs online pic for blog 18_0611 banner2

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 The Kenyon 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 The Kenyon Review and KROnline) or solely Internet-based (such as Electric Literature).

For example, both the printed Kenyon Review (ranked No. 4) and Electric Lit (ranked No. 70 and climbing) show up in the “2017 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Ranking—Fiction.” This ranking for fiction is compiled annually by Clifford Garstang based on Pushcart Prize results.

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.

Research published in 2014 concluded that online literary magazines or “post-print magazines can be taken seriously…and will remain relevant,” writes Laura Dietz of Anglia Ruskin University in her article “Online versus Print: The Reputation of Literary Fiction Magazines,” which appeared in Short Fiction in Theory & Practice.

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.