Some writers, especially new ones, assume any submission fee must be a scam. It's important to be wary. There are a lot of unscrupulous types out there preying on desperate writers looking for that first publication, but writers who assume all submission fees are scams may unduly limit themselves, especially in a world where, increasingly, both online and print publications are looking for innovative ways to stay afloat.
While it may sound counter-intuitive, the most prestigious writing competitions are usually the ones that charge the most. Submission fees can range anywhere from $10-$25. The winnings from these contests are big and the judges well-known. That and administrative fees cost money. While you may find a few no-fee contests that carry a certain cachet, the majority pay little or nothing and provide empty credits. If winning includes publication, limiting yourself to free competitions can be a drawback as coming in first in the Myrtle County Writing Contest adds no beef to your bio, but the story is, nonetheless, "previously published" for the purposes of submitting elsewhere.
Having said this, not all fee charging competitions are legit. A light should go off if the fee seems out of proportion to the prize. My rule of thumb is never to pay for a prize under $100, and then the fee shouldn't be more than $10, if that much. Also, check carefully to make sure these competitions really do award prizes and don't just take your money.
Standard submission fees
In an effort to keep their heads above water and/or add more prestige to the world of zines by attracting name writers and paying well, some better journals have begun charging fees for online submissions. Several months ago I wrote about Narrative's submission fees of between $10 and $15. The pay for accepted work ranges from $150 for a "Story of the Week" to $1,000 for a 10,000 word piece. Narrative is obviously a legitimate publication, and they do publish new and emerging writers. Some take exception to the fact that Narrative charges only for "unsolicited" manuscripts. They see this as the big hitters being subsidized by the wannabes. That's a fair criticism, and it's the writer's choice.
Recently, in the move to online, other prestigious publications have begun charging much more modest fees of $2.00 or so for online submissions. Online publications have great difficulty making money, and if you think about it, submitting via snail mail, by the time you add in the SASE––not even counting paper and printing costs––well exceeds that amount, with the only beneficiaries being the postal service and your local office supply store. Add in the savings of no longer having to purchase "one or two sample copies" to understand what the journal is looking for, and you can see how these fees could benefit both sides of this symbiotic relationship.
No matter where you come down on this issue, it would be a mistake to assume all submission fees qualify as scams.
Real and almost real scams
While there are good reasons for competitions and magazines to charge submission fees, scams are out there, and you need to be able to spot them. For example, charging submission fees comparable to Narrative's when a publication pays writers little or nothing may not legally qualify as a scam, but the practice is certainly questionable. Warning lights should also go off when submission fees are required by a zine that hasn't yet published a first issue. They could just take off with the money.
Scams are hardly limited to online publishing either. A common scam is print anthologies that require advance purchases of the edition in which your work will appear. Another is agents preying on desperate novices by charging reading fees. No agent should ever charge to take a look at your book.
Finally, that old adage still applies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Recently I was contacted by an "agency" asking me to write for them. They claimed I could expound on any topic I chose in 500 words or less and that their "clients" regularly paid a minimum of $150 per article. In addition, I could choose how many projects I wanted to take on in any given month. I had no doubt this was a scam, but I couldn't write here about it unless I knew for sure how it worked. So I checked out the website and started the application process figuring I'd stop when the scam revealed itself. Sure enough, submitting the application required a $20 "deposit." That's all I needed to know, but had I gone further, they might have asked for other dangerous information like credit card or SS numbers.
I'd like to think a scam like that is too obvious to make money, but I also know there are a lot of wannabe writers who might jump at the chance. Good writers need to be wary. However, assuming every submission fee equals a scam may severely limit your chances of adding good credits to your bio.