I posted a reference in the Poets & Writers Speakeasy Forum to my recent blog Narrative: Paying To Be Read. It got quite a discussion going. (That's not hard over there, and I did wish more people would come over and cast a vote.) You can check it out yourself, but a majority of the posters were like my writer friend Kat, who kindly left a comment on my post, saying she strongly opposed submission fees. Though most of the P&W posts were more vehement in style.
At first I simply posed the question of what members thought about the Narrative model of charging for submissions. I must admit, I became increasingly frustrated as more and more posters inveighed against this model, but, no matter how many different ways I posed the question, didn't even attempt to propose another model that would provide enough income for better publications to continue online. Worse, as seems to be commonplace in our current culture, posters took strong stands on how things "should" and "shouldn't" be without bothering to find out why they are the way they are.
My point in continuing this line of posting is not to be combative. We are at an important crossroads when it comes to writing and publishing with more and more of it moving to the Internet. So it would seem to me that we need to come up with some model that turns a profit or at least makes enough to pay contributors, unless we want creative writing to become solely the purview of the wealthy and "news reporting" the purview of opinionated bloggers.
I've been working with online publications in one capacity or another for nearly ten years. That is, nearly since their inception, and here are some things I've learned that need to be taken into consideration when examining this problem.
The Information Super Highway
What has drawn more and more people to the Internet is the possibility of getting information and exchanging ideas for free. This is such a part of the Internet culture that for a long time users felt entitled to download copyrighted materials like music and videos at no cost. While the government clamped down on that, the culture of getting things for free hasn't gone away. In fact, many of those who provide information online are dedicated to keeping it free, like Duotrope's Digest. Others, like newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, that might find it useful to charge reasonable subscription fees soon realize that the model simply doesn't work on the net. If your site isn't free, readers will find another one that is. Even venerable print journals like The Kenyon Review do not charge for their online version, nor do they restrict access to print subscribers.
Online Publications Can't Pay or Pay Very Little
The consequence is that online publications were among the first to publish work without payment. In the early days, as I noted in my first post on this issue, online publications received a lot of flack for this and, consequently, appealed to only "new and emerging writers"––read, writers who hadn't been published anywhere else. Ironically, several online publications now pay token fees––$25 or less––while more and more print journals pay nothing at all.
Little or no payment, whether by an online or print publication, has led to a two-tiered system where the big names gravitate to the big pay, filling the slots and making it tougher for new writers to break in. Some, like the New Yorker, don't even accept unsolicited or un-agented fiction. So unknown writers often remain unknown with little chance of breaking into the big-time, publishing only in online or small independent journals that may or may not even count as a rung on the ladder and from which they will never, ever make a career, sometimes despite thousands of dollars spent on workshops and MFAs.
Online Advertising Doesn't Work
Or maybe it works too well. The old media sold advertising based on the number of viewers/listeners/readers, but beyond primitive surveys it was difficult to pinpoint just how many customers at Macy's pre-Christmas sale read about it in the Main Street Observer. Internet advertising is based on click-throughs. I don't have media-wide statistics, but I can tell you that, whether Amazon Associates or AdSense, no online publication I worked with ever made more than pennies per month from these ads. Anecdotally, most people I know see these ads as spam machines and have learned to block them from their peripheral vision.
Let me point out that I am not talking here about anyone walking off with big profits, as one commenter on P&W sees it. Most of these journals are nonprofits and usually the majority of staff, if not the entire staff, work for free. Many Managing Edtiors even fund journals themselves, paying out hundreds of dollars for each issue in order to provide at least some small payment to writers.
So let me pose the question a little differently this time. Now that you know what doesn't work and why, any ideas on what could work? After many years of pondering this issue, I continue to come up dry. So let me know what you think.