Hope Clark in her Editor's Thoughts for the FFW newsletter April 4, lams into nonpaying literary journals. It's a good piece, and reading it I found myself nodding. Only on second thought, I didn't totally agree. As a writer and editor who has written for and worked for both paying and nonpaying markets, I have a foot in both camps here.
As a writer, next to getting published, I like getting paid. It does annoy me that in the years since I started submitting seriously, writing for free has become the rule rather than the exception. However, as an editor I've worked for three online journals in the past 10 years. One paid $25 when online publications were rare, let alone paying ones. That zine went in and out of publication and through various incarnations for years, the last in the form of a winter issue that has been sitting on the site since January 2009. The other publication paid a whopping $40 and published four issues before the editor disappeared with nary a word. Sandwiched between those two was The Rose & Thorn (currently Rose & Thorn Journal) that doesn't pay and has been publishing four issues a year of ever increasing quality consistently since 1997. So, of those three, where would you rather have your work showcased?
I would also take issue with Hope's assumption that "editors, proofreaders, and administrative staff get
paid." While some of the better journals do employ a skeleton crew, just about every journal has some, and often all, unpaid staff doing much of the work. I am not familiar with all the journals Hope mentions as paying markets. I do know Glimmer Train was one of the first to support itself with submission fees. It calls them contest fees, but they are always running some kind of contest, and it becomes clear pretty early on that a new writer's best (though still long shot) bet for getting in is one of their New Writer's competitions. Narrative was covered extensively in a couple older posts.
At the beginning of this post I said I liked getting paid almost as much as getting published. That's a significant point. As a writer and editor I don't see anything wrong with nonpaying journals, so long as they are the ones open to new writers, which isn't always the case, and there I would strongly agree with Hope. I also feel nonpaying markets are fine if they serve as a stepping stone to better, paying publications––kind of like starting out in the mailroom of a major company and working your way up to vice-president. However, just as an employee of a company isn't likely, these days, to leave the mailroom without a Master's degree from a prestigious university, so a writer isn't likely to move up to the top journals without the same.
That is where I see the real problem. Nonpaying journals are fine as long as they represent the bottom of a tiered system in which writers can advance based purely on the quality of their work. Unfortunately, with that system having been knocked on its head by journals playing it "safe" in accepting only the highest credentials, many excellent writers don't even expect to get paid anymore. Those low expectations lead to more nonpaying markets, and the spiral continues downward.
I'm sure there is a solution out there somewhere, but it isn't writers submitting only to paying markets, because they end up hurting no one but themselves.