A recent essay in Lit Mag News entitled “Submission Fees Are Wrong” by Anonymous hit the nail on the head. I loved how it confirmed the choices I have already begun to make for myself. I am no longer an emerging writer, an emerging literary translator, or an emerging anything. And even if I were, I shouldn’t have to pay abusive fees to offer up the fruit of my pen. Submission fees are wrong but they are also a symptom of something toxic in our literary culture.
Technology and the anxiety to publish have combined to create a toxic ecosystem in which the financial abuse of writers, translators, editors, and illustrators is not only possible but also multiplying. But we are prey to these lit-hucksters because, as my friend Mexican novelist Jaime Mesa recently quipped on Twitter, everyone wants to be a writer and no one wants to write. The anxiety to publish is largely driven by the ever-hungry maw of social media. One must appear active! On fire! The best writers I know have a plan for this: they are either 1) not on social media at all; 2) they are rich enough to hire someone to run their social media for them (see the 1% Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, etc.); or 3) they line up weeks of posts in advance lifting up others’ work and ideas that are appealing, inspiring (this is my current strategy).
Social media seems to be a necessary evil. I’ve had publishers and agents tell me so. If you don’t have an online community, they say, you’re dead in the water. This is a topic that should be analyzed more closely. The anxiety to publish makes a five-and-dime, pay-to-play model not only possible but inevitable. Technology creates an overabundance of cheap publications as chemical fertilizers create algal blooms and tomatoes that taste like nothing. They charge (often a lot) and don’t pay thus poisoning the literary ecosystem. In such an overgrown environment, writers don’t know where to submit. To pay…or not to pay? That is the question.
It is not just our personal economies that are disrupted by such behavior, it is also our sense of ourselves as artists: if in the toxic literary ecosystem our essays, stories, poems, and book reviews have no value, then why write?
In this bizarro world, it is more profitable to write “content” (oh, that skin-crawly word!) than it is to write literature, although AI will soon cut off that income stream, too. Publishers charge as much as they think they can get. The so-called contests that ask sky-high fees are particularly barbaric. Take for example a literary translation “contest” held by a well-known indie publisher in England last year. It offered an attractive prize: a chunk of money, a great mentor, and the publication of the winner’s translation of a book-length work by a famous author. The publisher solicited participation via Submittable, charged $60 per submission, left every single American submission out of the finalist list (I am 99.9% sure the British publisher had no intention of publishing American English in the first place), and then automatically charged all of us for a hideously expensive *auto-renewed* subscription to their books. This demonstration of bad faith was so extreme that it inspired a pop-up support group of broken-hearted American literary translators that met for months. We were radicalized by this betrayal. May the same happen to you, dear writers and translators.
Magazines that have support from Universities should not charge for submissions and should pay. Many do and they are the ones I submit to most. Magazines that fail to develop a reasonable business model should fold, and stop depending on the community of creators for their existence. Publishers should pay literary translators standard fees and stop funding books by picking the pockets of the translation and writing community with rigged contests and bad contracts.
The ferocity of the publishing industry made the Lit Mag essay’s author feel that she had to publish as Anonymous and that’s too bad because what we need is leaders. We writers and translators (who are writers, too) must make our positions public, and write essays with our names on them, come what may. We need to join and support our “guilds”: PEN America, ALTA, The Author’s Guild, and so on. We need to make our lists and check them twice and boycott abusive publications. We need a way to report particularly egregious submission structures.
If we don’t organize, my friends, there will be no change.