Show Me The Money (Or Not)

February 27, 2020 § 6 Comments

Clearly not writers.

Finding out a literary journal’s taste is easy. Their website says right up front whether they want edgy flash fiction, genre-crossing lyric essays or formal poems. If they accept work via Submittable, their own website, or paper mail with a SASE. It’s easy to buy copies or subscribe to see if our work is “a good fit.” Easy to donate to support their mission.

What’s often harder to find: Do they pay?

Sometimes it’s a long slog through the journal’s website, Duotrope or Who Pays Writers?. Sometimes I email the editors. Mostly, if I have to ask, they don’t.

Why so coy, journals? If you’re a contributor/reader-supported market, own it. If you offer a $10 honorarium, own it. But when literary publications avoid giving this information up front, they are—however unintentionally—contributing to the idea that writers’ work is valueless. That we should be glad just to be in print. That questioning the availability of cash compensation is somehow indelicate.

Some magazines do confront payment head on:

Literary Mama is not currently a paying market. We are all volunteers: editors, writers, visual artists, and editorial assistants. With the publication of each issue, we make a concerted effort to promote the work of our contributors via Facebook, Twitter, and our newsletter.

Others dodge even direct questions:

Thanks so much for your inquiry. The details of author compensation will be communicated directly with the [Redacted] anthology’s accepted authors.

Really? Because when I apply for a position, I’d like to know if I’m volunteering. Don’t get me wrong—volunteering is great. Finding a cause you care about enough to donate time and energy feels terrific. But charities let us choose.

It’s not wrong not to pay. As I wrote here two weeks ago, writers need “stuff”—prestige, resume credit, the experience of working with an editor. Some magazines pay on principle; some find an honorarium increases submissions. Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore writes:

Well, it is only recently—about [five] years back—that we were able to land in a financial position where we could pay writers, so in some ways it still feels like we are bragging. But it does feel good to be offering payment, as small as it is ($45 per flash essay).

We are an online-only journal, so having payments to authors has helped to lend us legitimacy…I think online journals are generally more respected now, but it wasn’t always so.

I wouldn’t say there was a radical shift in quality once we began to pay, but I have noticed a small but measurable uptick… Some authors who did not previously submit are starting to show up in our inbox.

Another literary journal editor had a different experience:

We aim to showcase emerging artists’ work while making sure they are compensated fairly, and that is what we’re striving for as we work hard to build a business model that allows us to do that.

…what we’re offering at this time is the opportunity of publication and ongoing promotion of their work to our community. We’re also not engaging in any kind of commercial exploitation of the artists’ work. The magazine is freely available and we do not have any advertising revenue, and all of our editors are volunteering their time and expertise…we haven’t seen anyone ask outright if we are going to pay them. In our experience most people just submit hoping to be published.

We’ve been fortunate to receive a good amount of submissions of great quality, despite not mentioning any compensation policy.

One might argue that “making sure they are compensated fairly” is at odds with “not mentioning any compensation policy.” Since that interview, the journal has gone dark; lacking a budget to pay authors can be a sign of other challenges.

Every journal has the right to choose their payment policy. Maybe they want to pay in the future; maybe it will always be for publication credit or literary community. But when a magazine elides compensation policy or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern. It becomes another subtle signpost: You shouldn’t be in this for the money. Not actively sharing the information suggests we shouldn’t care. As if wanting to know about pay is money-grubbing or besmirching the purity of literature.

It’s not.

It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a ‘literary’ writer—to want to be paid. Before “amateur” meant “unskilled,” it meant “one pursuing an occupation for the love of doing it.” Artists often move between amateur and professional work, choosing some projects for cash, others for prestige or creative challenges

I love writing. I love it a lot. And I would write whether I got paid or not. But I can’t light my home with the warm glow of achievement, and making writing my job lets me spend more time improving my work. For many writers, whether or not a journal pays is a primary consideration. Even in the small dollar amounts associated with literary publication, payment feels good.

Resume credits are valuable. Publication is valuable. Some non-paying magazines are prestigious journals that authors are proud to be a part of. Some are entry-level markets where publication alone is still genuinely a reward for emerging writers. But all of them need to be open about whether they are asking us to work for free.

We regret we are unable to offer an honorarium.

Contributors receive two copies of the issue in which they appear.

Money+Literary Magazine=HAHAHAHA

Sometimes we’re writing for money. Sometimes we aren’t. Journal editors, please give us the dignity of trusting our choice—and the honesty of making your policy clear.


*A version of this piece originally appeared on The Review Review, which appears to be changing ownership and updating their website.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner‘s blog, and on radio programs The Moth and Snap Judgement. Some of them paid her.

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§ 6 Responses to Show Me The Money (Or Not)

  • Stacy E Holden says:

    Absolutely on point. This is a conversation that needs to happen. Thanks Allison for starting it with such passion and clarity.

  • This should be obvious, both in the need to know and the unjust implication that it is “indelicate” to ask about payment. It is a fair question. I understand wanting so much to be published that writers do not care about payment (been there/done that), but having recently read for a tiny, deliberately obscure and non-paying literary magazine, I cannot help noting the difference in quality of submissions. The proliferation of non-paying literary journals with few (or any?) actual readers may sustain a dubious illusion of accomplishment and artistic merit. Payment does not guarantee the quality of either writers or readers, but concealing the subject of payment seems at best evasive and at worst insulting to writing as a legitimate profession.

  • Katie Venit says:

    I’m always pleased when I see a journal I love move to a paying model because it’s a sign of journal health.

    As you say, there’s value in aggressively promoting the writers who appear in the journal, even if you can’t pay them. Literary Mama does it right, in my experience. As noted, they are upfront about what they can offer the writer in exchange for words, and they fulfill that promise.

    I think that’s basically what we want, right? A promise from the journal about what they’re going to offer us–whatever it is–which would allow us to make the decision as to whether that’s a good move for our career. And of course, the key part is keeping that promise.

  • G. J. Jolly says:

    I haven’t been published in over twenty years, all my own doing. Now that I’m trying to get back in the game, this information is invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing, Allison.

  • […] “Sometimes we’re writing for money. Sometimes we aren’t. Journal editors, please give us the dignity of trusting our choice—and the honesty of making your policy clear.” Amen, and thank you, Allison K. Williams. […]

  • […] via Show Me The Money (Or Not) — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

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