Saturday, August 31

The cost of writing

Something new crossed my path the other day. A lovely literary writer I know remarked on a list about a e-zine following in Pulitzer's footsteps and declining to award first place in a recent writing contest. I have yet to find an article or snippet online discussing Narrative Magazine's lack of a winner--but I found out an awful lot about Narrative itself. What I found kind of disgusted me.
 
Forgetting for a second the allegation that the editors (who are the sole judges of their literary contests) "fixed" the 2008 awards (which come with a hefty cash prize) so that a friend of theirs would win, let's just take a look at Narrative Magazine itself. The very top of the page invites people to donate (in red) and support Narrative Magazine. That's because Narrative is a non-profit. Awesome. I'm all about small literary presses. I love Wilde Oats and Orion's Child. Over the years I've read the Green Egg, Circle Sanctuary News, and all manner of small, niche 'zines. Being excessively long winded, I don't write short stories well, so I haven't had much experience submitting to magazines--but I know that the drill is fairly similar to submitting to publishers: You write a great story and then shop it around.
 
The thing is that if you write short fiction, you have to sell a lot of it in order to survive (it pays less--sometimes far less--and generally it's a one time pay check, not royalties)--that means you have to submit a lot. In the old days, that meant you became best buds with the folks at the post office! These days, a lot of submissions are handled electronically.

Also in the old days, the publishing model was that first a writer cuts his/her chops in short format (i.e. getting published in magazines) and then she/he can approach a publisher with a book and they might take him/her seriously. Maybe. If the stars align and the moon is right and the acquisitions editor is in a good mood. Needless to say, that kept me from getting seriously considered by publishers for a long time--but the publishing model is changing. It has been for some years and that is pretty much the only thing that allowed me to get my first book published. (And let me say that I do get it, a lot of crap comes across an acquisitions editor's desk. Filtering out unpublished authors filters out some of the crap--it also filters out some of the good stuff).
 
So getting back on track. If you're a short story writer, either by choice or necessity, you probably submit a couple of stories every month to magazines. Maybe more. Maybe less, but if you're going to get anywhere, you probably submit at least two a month, because the odds of actually getting published are pretty small. (I don't have statistical data available, but you figure most magazines get hundreds of submissions every month and only have room for maybe half a dozen pieces. And of course the bigger the magazine, the more submissions there are). So in order to get anything published, you have to submit, submit, submit.
 
Now let's get back to Narrative Magazine. Along with your submission (which comes with no guarantees) you're also expected to pony up a check for between $10 (for a couple of poems) to $20 (for longer pieces of fiction). Yes, they do pay writers for the stories they accept better than average--but a $20 reading fee? Imagine if other magazines followed the same model? (There is a short, two week period in which stories may be submitted for consideration without having pay the usual fees--but the catch is that if you submit during that time and take them up on the offer of the "free read" your work isn't eligible for their writing contest. Well, and the other catch is that you have to submit your work in the first two weeks of April.)
 
And please don't forget that at the very top of their page, they also ask for donations. So not only are they expecting hopeful aspiring writers to pay for the privilege of having their work read (and most likely rejected, because that's just the way publishing works), but they've got their hand out as well, asking for reader support. They also except paid ads (and holy spumoni Batman! They charge from $750-$3000 for ad space! Yowzers.)

It also appears that Narrative Magazine sells books--and not just any books but books "exclusively from the Narrative library." Readers can purchase copies of their magazines, too. (Although individual entries can be found online for free viewing).

The more I look at the operation, the more it starts to feel like a vanity press.

Y'all know I don't have a problem with self-publishing, but only when it's up front and honest. I suppose Narrative is up front, they make no secret of their fees, I'm just not sure I feel like they're the most honest operation in the world. Despite all of the money they're pulling in, they're still a non-profit (which doesn't, by the way, mean the editors/owners can't pay themselves a salary, by the way, it just means they don't have to pay taxes. Believe me, lots of people who work for non-profits make money; being a non-profit simply means the company doesn't make money. It also lends a certain "air of credibility" by making them seem like they're up there with public broadcasting.)
 
I'm not alone in feeling that Narrative might be a bit on the sleazy side, either. Here's a great blog entry from Notes from the New Sodom.

Now, obviously we all know I'm not a literary author; I don't understand most literary fiction. (Sorry, guys. I like stories that are just more tangible than that.) But I honestly cannot understand why anyone would pay this kind of money just for the boasting rights of saying "I was published here..." 

What about you? Any thoughts?

And while I'm soliciting thoughts, let's not forget that some (not all, but some) literary authors look down on genre fiction as somehow "less than" worthy. Worthy (or unworthy) of what, I'm not sure. I'm just happy I write what I do. I like getting paid for my efforts. (Although that said, I have absolutely no problem in the world with small 'zines who can't afford to pay contributors. If you look at their websites, there's a huge difference between Wilde Oats and Narrative Magazine.)
 
 

1 comment:

Amber said...

I have no clue about how literary publishers work but if a writer is paying a publisher to read or print their story I would call that a vanity press type idea. I can't help but think they are a little bit sleazy as well for being a non-profit and charge hopeful writers as well. Especially when in the end many of those writers aren't even going to see their stories printed, since the fee is just to read the story.