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Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing

3 January 2018

From the Wordfence blog:

Things we need:
1. Money

Someone wrote the above text on a whiteboard in the Fort Des Moines Museum earlier this year. I’ve returned to it often, ever since a friend retweeted a photo of it, as a reminder of the inherent difficulty in critiquing small presses and literary magazines’ funding practices, especially in light of renewed interest in eliminating the government allocations for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (whose FY2018 allocations are still under congressional consideration).

Each time I revisit this tweet, I imagine being in the conference room for this theoretical planning meeting in Iowa, and I think of the similar scarcity-driven discussions I’ve participated in both as poet and editor, largely—in either role—as unpaid labor.

. . . .

Whatever the reason we each write or publish poetry, it’s safe to say none of us make this art for its promise of riches—and nor should we. Despite this essay’s abundant economic wonk (you’ve been warned), I refuse to make a capitalist argument for poetry on behalf of poet, press, or journal. None of us should turn to profit as the sole engine driving our artistic and professional decisions. I wish to distinguish, early on, this commodifying argument from the claims regarding fair compensation and best financial practices in poetry publishing that follow below. Somewhere in the vast space between profit and solvency, a fraught practice in poetry publishing comes to the fore: the submission fee. Charging a fee in order to have one’s work read by a journal has become increasingly commonplace in our industry, and charging for book-length poetry contests and open reading periods has long been the norm for small independent and university presses. Today, a standard literary journal submission fee hovers around $3 to submit (usually) 3-6 poems, and a book-length submission costs a writer roughly around $25.

. . . .

[I]ndividual magazines represented 30.5 percent of the overall number of sponsoring organizations for contests in 2014, with presses close behind at 28 percent and government agencies at 3.5 percent. These percentages represent a shift towards more press and magazine contests and fewer government contests: the press and magazine share of the contest sponsorship pie has increased from 2004 to 2014 by 56 percent for magazines and 29 percent by presses, while 39 percent fewer government agencies sponsored contests over the same time period. This left us, in 2014, with 94 presses, 103 magazines, and 11 government agencies sponsoring writing contests. If government participation has lessened while fee-dependent contests have increased in number over the past decade, presses and magazines likely rely more heavily than they did 15 years ago on submission and contest fees to stay solvent; if we lose government funding for the arts, these same organizations may depend on fees even more.

. . . .

How much are poets spending to get their full-length books published? How much do presses and journals depend on submission fees for funding, and what other sources of funding are primary for them? Is the submission-fee model equitable or sustainable for poets and for presses/journals—and if not, can we make it more equitable for either or both groups? What alternatives do we have to the submission fee, both as submitters and publishers?

I found that nearly all surveyed poets spent out-of-pocket money to publish their books, up to—in this survey—$3,000. Royalties and prize money recouped costs for some poets, but not all, and inconsistently. This means poets who financially depend on recovering their costs post-publication cannot dependably publish their books in this model.

. . . .

If a sizable majority of poets must spend money to secure publication for their books (and, ever increasingly, to submit to journals), and it’s uncertain whether or not those costs will be recouped upon publication, is the submission-fee model equitable for poets? By equitable, I mean accessible across, here, class: can a poorer or working-class poet submit her manuscript as often as a wealthy or institutionally supported poet? The data is unequivocal: no. So long as we maintain poetry publishing’s status-quo reliance on the submission fee, this system will favor publishing poets with money—poets for whom it’s more of an inconvenience than an impossibility to lose money or break even on a book, or to recover fee costs slowly or unpredictably. And when considering a published collection’s role in accessing other markers of success, including financial success, in the poetry community—the ability for poets to apply for certain academic jobs, be eligible for certain prizes, or secure well-paying reading gigs—this inequality magnifies even further.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG spent a great deal of his time as an undergraduate reading and analyzing poetry. (Homer, Sappho and Sophocles had recently ended their careers, but newer poets, not all of them Greek, were eagerly anticipated.)

Some are surprised that the rigorous analytical approach PG learned to apply to poetry has served him quite well in analyzing contracts and other legal documents.

One of the elements in a proper analysis of a poem is the prosody of that poem – the patterns of rhythm and sound of the words of the poem.

Since prosody is very much a learned taste, PG will provide only a short introduction.

The opening passage of Bleak House by Charles Dickens is not a poem, but demonstrates an appreciation of the interaction between the sounds of words and their meaning. Sounds are repeated throughout the passage to create an impression and atmosphere that reinforces the literal meaning of the words. Note particularly the repetition of words and sounds in paragraphs 2-4. Feel free to read them out loud so the sounds and repetitions of sounds become more obvious:

Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river . . . fog down the river . . . . Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping . . . fog lying . . . fog drooping . . . . Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners . . . . fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers . . . . a nether sky of fog . . . .

Gas looming through the fog . . . .

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction . . . . And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

PG suggests that the sounds of these lovely Dickensian words, as well as their dictionary definitions, combine to carry a dreary and dark message more powerful than would have existed without the repetitions and sensitivity of Dickens to creating a scene that sounds oppressive and overpowering.

“Water droplets in the atmosphere” would not have conveyed the same meaning.

Back to paid submissions by poets.

In PG’s oppressively humble opinion, much of modern poetry is built upon literal meanings of words (and abstract words they are) and not the character and sounds of words. Such poems would be more at home in a doctoral thesis than a Dickens novel.

Here’s a comment about contemporary poetry by Adrienne Rich:

I think there’s been a great denial of the kinds of poets and poetries that could speak to a lot more people. Poetry has been kind of hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities. The activity of writing about poems and poetry–the activity of making it available and accessible–became the property of scholars and academics and became dependent on a certain kind of academic training, education, class background.

Here’s an excerpt from “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” by Stephen Pinker, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American
professoriate may be the prose style called academese. An editorial cartoon by Tom Toles shows a bearded academic at his desk
offering the following explanation of why SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low: “Incomplete implementation of strategized
programmatics designated to maximize acquisition of awareness and utilization of communications skills pursuant to standardized review and assessment of languaginal development.” In a similar vein, Bill Watterson has the 6-year-old Calvin titling his homework assignment “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes,” and exclaiming to Hobbes, his tiger companion, “Academia, here I come!”

. . . .

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

Though no doubt the bamboozlement theory applies to some academics some of the time, in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.

The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter. Every human pastime — music, cooking, sports, art—develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to use a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in one another’s company. It would be tedious for a biologist to spell out the meaning of the term transcription factor every time she used it, and so we should not expect the téte-a-tete among professionals to be easily understood by amateurs.

But the insider-shorthand theory, too, doesn’t fit my experience. I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield. The methods section of an experimental paper explains, “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word. ” After some detective work, I determined that it meant, “Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false. ” The original academese was not as concise, accurate, or scientific as the plain English translation. So why did my colleague feel compelled to pile up the polysyllables?

A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority. People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.

. . . .

Thomas and Turner illustrate the contrast as follows:

“When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside — and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? … Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject.”

It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-consciousness.

PG suggests that one of the problems of the MFA-as-poet model is that way to advance in MFA World is to write in ways the professors who teach MFA students wrote in order to be hired as a professor. If you’re teaching MFA’s, you must write for a very narrow audience – other MFA professors. Writing for the common man or woman won’t get you anywhere.

In conclusion (PG realizes this should have come earlier), Dickens wrote to sell his books. Shakespeare wrote to goose the attendance at his plays.

In his preface to Lyrical Ballads (first published in 1798), English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge described their work (PG won’t shorten sentences or break up paragraphs in the original. Period spelling will remain.):

The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.

I had formed no very inaccurate estimate of the probable effect of those Poems: I flattered myself that they who should be pleased with them would read them with more than common pleasure: and, on the other hand, I was well aware, that by those who should dislike them, they would be read with more than common dislike. The result has differed from my expectation in this only, that a greater number have been pleased than I ventured to hope I should please.

Several of my Friends are anxious for the success of these Poems, from a belief, that, if the views with which they were composed were indeed realized, a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the quality, and in the multiplicity of its moral relations: and on this account they have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory upon which the Poems were written.

. . . .

The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.

. . . .

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

It has been said that each of these poems has a purpose. Another circumstance must be mentioned which distinguishes these Poems from the popular Poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.

Lyrical Ballads included some of the most famous and lasting poems the the English language. Most of the poems were written by Wordsworth, but one of the Coleridge poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, likely his most famous. Wordsworth poems include, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways, A slumber did my spirit seal.

Lyrical Ballads is considered a central work in the English romantic literary tradition and the archetype for romance literature. As indicated in the introduction above, the poems posited that “good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” a major and lasting change from previous poetry. The book was revolutionary in its time in that it was written in the vernacular language and focused on the feelings and emotions of uneducated country people.

PG doesn’t claim to be an expert on all 21st century poets and writers, but doubts any have written anything like the following excerpts:

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper, 1807

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 1798

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859


PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Self-Publishing

12 Comments to “Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing”

  1. My English and American Literature were mostly self-taught, as I read through the big fat collections at my grandmother’s house in Mexico City, the kinds that were compiled to give a high school or college student a whole year’s course of the best.

    I skipped all the analysis parts, skimmed an occasional biography note, and read what I liked, over many months. I’m glad I was never tempted to think of it as anything other than pleasure.

    I went merrily into physics and nuclear engineering with the accompaniment of the minor English poets.

    I’m glad I did. Your excerpt of Bleak House makes me plan to track it down, and your samples of academic prose make me want to throw up.

    I hate to think how badly I would have been corrupted as a reader if I’d gone to school in English.

  2. If you take a flat map
    And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
    The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
    The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
    And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
    But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
    And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
    Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
    They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
    And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
    It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
    But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
    To move, when they start they take too long on the way –
    The General loses his stars, and the block-men die
    In unstrategic defiance of martial law
    Because still used to just being men, not block parts.
    –Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

  3. Terrence P OBrien

    Poetry today is vibrant, healthy, alive, and needs no financial help. Rappers and singers are today’s poets.

  4. As someone who edits professors for a living, my take is that good writing is itself an art that takes training and practice–the rules of grammar taught in middle school are necessary, but not sufficient. And yet, in many disciplines, basic education in the parts of speech and grammatically correct assembly of sentences is the only training professors receive. While some professors understand this fact and have learned to craft extraordinary technical prose, most have focused instead on mastering their disciplines. Expecting to write well without training and practice simply because you can read and speak (or are expert in another discipline) is like expecting mastery on your first day in the kitchen because you can eat and drink.

    • @ Doug

      LOL. As a career technical editor and writer at Hughes, it was my job to polish — and most often create myself — technical documents of all kinds. Clean, clear, understandable text and graphics were the goal. Many of the engineers were good writers. Unfortunately, many, many more were not.

      The good writers were very easy to work with. They inherently understood that I was helping them look good.

      But the bad writers were the worst primadonnas. It was a royal PITA to deal with them. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe; their communication incompetence was a big reason I had a job. Still… 🙁

      • @ James,
        I’ve been fortunate–most everyone I’ve worked with has been appreciative of my efforts–though some are admittedly more difficult to help than others. My biggest epiphany was that even highly educated people differed dramatically, not only in writing ability, but also in reading ability–many have trouble recognizing the difference between clear prose and a garbled mess. I’m not yet sure whether that phenotype reflects a lack of focus and training, an innate trait akin to tone-deafness, or a mix of both.

        • I have been in debt to technical editors for many years. I found my journey strange. I started out in the humanities and I was lucky to work on my thesis under a professor who was also an excellent writer who wrote best sellers as well as scholarly treatises that all read like a drink of cool water. He whipped me into shape.

          Then I switched to computers and I don’t know what happened. My writing took a nose dive into “features that allow a statically enabled user to functionally…” and the usual crap that I am sure you deal with daily. Eventually, the storm subsided and I got better with the help of a few editors, whom I still rely on. Thanks! Keep it up.

    • I once banned the use of any punctuation other than a period in business writing. It did wonders for clarity. The strange thing is that nobody objected.

  5. “Still now as then we stoke the flame
    And list to Old Man Winter’s wail
    And turn a page where sages tame
    The wanderer with paper sail
    After we shake snow-droplets free
    From swarthy brow and warm our toes
    With fingers wrapped ‘round cups of tea
    While ‘cross the lea a bold brawl blows

    …and tweaks the squeaking, listless limb
    Where once upon June-day we lolled
    Beneath its winsome, green-tossed hymn
    And long-forgotten bitter cold
    That paints its frosted filigree
    Across lost windows to a world
    That teases us with fantasy
    Of warmer days and buds unfurled…”

    — Janet Martin.

    Read the rest of “January” on Janet’s poetry blog: https://anotherporch.blogspot.com/2018/01/januarypart-1.html

  6. There are hundreds of wonderful journals that publish poetry online. The internet is the proving ground of poetry for beginning poets, and there are plenty of marvelous discerning editors of online journals. Most of these journals do not require a submission fee. In my experience it is the older, stuffier journals that require payment. The younger, hungrier journals are where the action is. Check out Allegro, Ink Sweat & Tears, Literary Nest, MOON magazine, Nature Writing, Peacock Journal, Plum Tree Tavern, Poetry Breakfast, Rat’s Ass Review, Red Eft Review, Roanoke Review, Snapdragon, Third Wednesday, Verse Virtual, San Pedro River Review, Pure Slush, Freshwater, Stoneboat, Muddy River Poetry Review, Red River Review, Gyroscope, Uppagus, Halfway Down the Stairs, Forage, Potomac Review, Slipstream, Picaroon… All these journals require no submission fee; all have some excellent undiscovered poets (and a few clunkers, but then so does the New Yorker).

  7. Joyce Reynolds-Ward

    What I keep scratching my head about is the prevalence of submission fees in the literary world when the genre equivalent doesn’t charge fees. Perhaps that says something about the size of the readership, or–who knows?

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