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.

Cash vs. Stuff

February 11, 2020 § 13 Comments

Black and white cartoon. Person one: I can't decide what to be, a millionaire or an artist. Person Two: can't you just compromise? Be a millionaire artist or something.

by Hugh Macleod / Gaping Void

Thank you for your submission. We’d like to publish your essay.

The words every writer wants to hear. And yet…

I’d submitted the essay to a contest. I’d gotten free entry to the contest by participating in a thing, because I don’t normally pay to submit my work. I had not won the contest. In fact, I hadn’t heard who’d won until I looked up the results. But now, the nonfiction editor really liked my piece and would like to publish it.

The contest first prize: $500

What the magazine paid for non-contest publication: $0

I agonized about this in a writers’ group. I felt good about the piece, proud of it. Was it better to take the offer of publication, or to give myself the obligation of submitting to other, paying markets?

Money isn’t the only reason I write, although for me, and at least some other writers, whether or not a venue pays is a primary consideration when determining where to send my work. I also don’t believe that money is a determiner of “good writing.” Many things can identify good writing: whether or not a writer publishes, whether they have the good opinion of other writers or the approval of their teachers, whether they feel good themselves about work that shows growth, that they’re proud of. But simply getting paid is not an indicator of quality writing. Nor is reaching a wide readership.

(Fifty Shades of Grey: roughly 125 million copies sold. The Empathy Exams: 80,000 copies sold.)

Even publication itself is no guarantee of quality. Some writers are published due to gumption, drive, persistence, connections, genre, subject matter, and sheer luck. It is not external validation that determines the quality of our work or anyone else’s. So why do I care whether or not I get paid?

Cash vs. Stuff.

Every job an artist takes, every piece of creative work we make, leads to cash or stuff.

Early-career writers need stuff. Resume credits. Journal titles to list as “work forthcoming in…” in cover letters and queries. Social media clicks and comments, the ego-strokes of seeing our name in print and knowing we wrote something a stranger liked—loved! Showing our mom a magazine and thinking, I did not either waste my time in college.

But mid-career artists need cash. Cash lets us spend less time working our day job, because a $200 check can cover 4-20 hours, depending on what we do. Cash lets us buy Scrivener to organize our manuscript, or upgrade to that pretty Macbook Air so we can write at little Susie’s soccer game. Cash lets us sit in Starbucks all afternoon on a $4 latte while we type-type-type away. Cash buys conferences to connect with agents, and workshops to learn from writers who are a bigger deal than ourselves.

As our work progresses, we need a balance of cash and better stuff. Publication isn’t enough—we want to move from mid-level literary journals to big names, or make the jump to mass media. We want to spend our time drafting a whole book instead of revising an essay for $50. Or if we’re revising the essay, we want it to appear where readers and social clicks are counted in the hundreds of thousands, where we might be noticed by an agent, or somewhere we could be chosen/nominated for an award.

If we’re lucky and privileged, perhaps living somewhere with a low cost of living or with a fully-employed corporate spouse, or on sabbatical, we can focus our search on better stuff, fueled by the safety of having enough cash.

As I debated whether to accept the offer of publication in the journal that didn’t pay, one of the wisest writers I know, Joanne Lozar Glenn, offered another take: Were this journal’s readers my best audience? Was this a chance to share work that would make a difference to an audience that needed to read it?

Joanne’s words helped me decide. The journal, as beautiful as it was, as much as I respected and admired their work and their aesthetic, as much as my essay harmonized with their goals, did not have the size of readership I sought for a piece I cared this strongly about. (Note: I am not that important, but I am that vain.) Giving up a sure thing, a welcome home, was worth the risk of the essay going unpublished, or the hassle of sending it out to more journals. I’d rather take a chance for more cash, or better stuff.

The value of cash vs stuff can only be calculated by the recipient. Your small potatoes may be the largest check another writer has ever received. Your prestigious journal may be someone else’s safety submission. Think about what you need, what makes you feel good, what advances your career. What will make you feel you’ve profited.

Cash, or stuff?


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats, and would love to see you and your book in Tuscany in October (4 spots left).

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