Narrative Magazine has taken an interesting and novel approach to publishing. The magazine is free to readers. They pay a healthy sum to published writers, but they charge a reading fee for each submission––$20 for a short story and $10 for five poems.
Not so long ago when I first began submitting, experienced writers were scandalized at the proliferation of publications––online and small print start-ups–-that didn't pay. Now paying markets are more the exception than the rule, and online publications are more likely to pay than print, though payment is usually a "token" of $25 or less. Add to this that many novelists published by the standard houses often put more money into marketing their work than they get out of it. You may say that paying to have your work read was the obvious next step.
Narrative is hardly a small start-up publication. No less a writer than Rick Bass chose to serialize his novel in the online magazine. For writers like Bass and Oates and Lahiri, for whom publication is pretty much guaranteed, $20 amounts to a very small charitable donation to keep literary magazines alive. But for the rest of us, it's like playing the slots. So, is it fair? And more important, is it the model for the future?
I'm on my third submission to Narrative, but one was a contest and just about every contest charges a reading fee. Plus the fee included a three-month subscription to Backstage––a $50 value. So for these purposes, let's say I've spent $40 on submitting and stand to receive $150 if my "Story of the Week" is accepted. That would put me $110 in the black for that particular publication, though for my entire writing year I would still be far in the red.
As the costs of being a writer go, the return value for submitting to Narrative is at least calculable. Even better than slots or the lottery, when I pays my money I know exactly how much I stand to gain if I "win." Based on that I can make a quantifiable decision that works for me, and I've decided on two submissions per year. When I compare that with my other expenses––conferences, workshops, writing magazines––with no quantifiable return, it begins to look a lot better.
More apropos to the topic is the "several sample issues" you are encouraged to read before submitting to any literary publication. You can read everything in Narrative for free, so in a sense, the reading fee covers what those other magazines make on samples. Of course, more and more print journals, even if they don't maintain an online counterpart, make sample work available online. As a writer I see this as only fair, since many of these journals don't pay and sample issues can add up to hundreds of dollars per year. However, what will happen to these journals if writers don't have to buy them? I'd venture to say prospective submitters make up the lion's share of most literary journals' readers.
In a world where literary publications just can't make money and more people are reading online and expecting it to remain free, something is going to have to give in order for these publications––online or print––to survive. For my part, I think I'd rather make an upfront payment on the chance of making several times that if my work is published than being nickeled and dimed with no chance of payment and, eventually, fewer and fewer places to submit my work.
What do you think? Cast your vote in the poll.