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/).

A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

Chicago World's Fair sky ride 2 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.