In the Poets & Writers; Writers Speakeasy Forum where I enjoy discussing writerly matters with other writers of more or less success (usually more), the topic of submission fees re-emerged. I started the first thread around the time I wrote an earlier post regarding submission fees at Narrative. Since that posting it has become more common for journals that accept online submissions to charge, though it is mostly a minor sum of around $2 rather than the heftier $20 fee Narrative charges.
Submitters who don't mind paying the fee, and often the publications themselves, point out that $2 is about what you could expect to spend on a postal submission, with which I would agree. I don't do postal much anymore, but last time I did, before the most recent rate increase, I spent $1.80 to mail a twenty-page story. Add in the required SASE and it goes over $2.00 not counting paper and envelopes. Fair enough.
Those publications that use online submission systems also point out that the charge helps defray the cost of the system. According to the CLMP website, their submissions manager–-which I believe is the one most publications probably use unless they have an IT whiz on staff––costs a minimum of $330. At $2 a pop it would take only 165 submissions to cover the cost––probably less than half of what most literary publications receive in a month, let alone the top ones. Still, journals have other costs. Top editors at the "best" journals get paid, and since most of the top tier are either exclusively or mainly in print, there are printing and shipping costs. Obviously, subscriptions and individual sales don't meet these costs or they wouldn't be constantly soliciting donations.
Exclusively online journals are much less expensive to run, but there are still costs involved, and there is pretty much no way to make any income off subscriptions or individual sales because, as much as they enjoy the convenience and variety online, most people don't want to pay for something they can't hold in their hands. That's why the majority of exclusively online journals don't pay a penny to staff, though many are trying to pay at least a token amount to writers sometimes through ad fees.
All of which is what has brought us to the point where publications, both print and online, have begun experimenting with submission fees. In some ways it seems odd to charge the producer of the product rather than the consumer but then again, writers have very little overhead. Most business people have to invest some money in getting their product on the market and then, as with writers, must wait to see if anyone buys it. So why not ask writers who, up until now, have had only to invest in paper and pencils and a good laptop (and who doesn't need a laptop these days, writer or no) to invest a mere $2 toward getting their work published?
Putting all that together and knowing from my work with online publications that journals are going to need to be pretty creative when it comes to paying staff and writers, I have no problem with the submission fee system except one. It seems unconscionable to implement such a system while continuing the current selection process that favors known writers and their proteges. Most of whom, I'm guessing, don't pay a penny to submit. Under the current system swarms of individuals with as much chance of getting published as Frosty the Snowman in July, pay their money so writers almost assured of being accepted get paid well. Not only does that not seem fair, it borders on being a scam.
I'm not saying journals should ever accept bad writing, only that journals requiring submissions fees should charge everyone the same and make sure everyone has the same chance of being accepted. This could easily be accomplished through a system of anonymous review with no comments or cover letters.
Up until now the rationale for the current system has been that big names sell. Every editor would love to pluck a new star from the West Virginia coal mines, but alas, their hands are tied by the need for money (shrug, sigh). But if money came from submissions and not subscriptions that rationale goes down the toilet. Certainly more people would submit, and thus profits would increase, if they knew they had an equal chance of acceptance. Maybe the big names and the Iowa graduates would still rise to the top, but at least we'd know they started in the same place as everyone else.