Literary Journal Business Models

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It might seem strange to go from a post warning of economic language to one examining economic models for literary journals, but I’m not anti-finance — I just don’t want it to dominate all my creative work.

Here’s the situation: Literary journals seem to be moving away from institutionalized support. (See New England Review, TriQuarterly). This is mainly due to universities becoming dominated by a myopic business model plan that ignores the humanities in favor of “money-creating” departments. (a false assumption — Chronicle of Higher Education argues that humanities are actually paid for by student tuitions, as opposed to science departments).

What’s more, many of the new literary journals supported by universities are emerging online. Thus, these journals are also moving away from sales models that charge for content.

So if lit journals as a whole are moving away from institutionalized support and away from content charging, what are they moving toward? The general drift is toward supporting the journal on the backs of submitters.

Duotrope can refuse to consider journals that charge $3 for submissions, and writers can boycott these journals and magazines out of principle, but from a business model standpoint, it makes perfect sense.

If you have 500 people who want to buy your product (subscriptions) and 4,000 people who want to supply your products (submissions), then the obvious business model would be to give subscriptions online canadian drugstore away (at minimal prices or free online) but charge to submit. 

It’s important to see that the recent flush of charging submitters (usually $3, but sometimes $2), is flowing along the same groove as contests. Contests create revenue.

200 submissions at $15 a pop =  $3,000 – $1000 prize money  = $2000 profits


400 submissions at $20 a pop =   $8,000  – $2,000 prize money  = $6,000 profits

And many others have pointed out that charging $3 clearly is a revenue creator for journals. Licensing the program from CLMP now costs between $330 and $550 yearly, which a couple hundred submissions would pay for. Plus, there are free/cheaper versions now, like Submishmash, Manuscript Hub and Tell It Slant. Even if every submission was printed out (which would kind of defeat the purpose of online submissions, right?), that fee would still cover the printer and paper costs.

I don’t regret that journals are earning money — they need funds to survive and support themselves, and editors and writers need to be paid. But I think people in the literary journal world should realize that the shift’s occurring, and why. It’s pragmatic.

Let me be clear: I’m not condoning the move toward contest fees and charging submitters. I would prefer submissions remain free. But I acknowledge that in our present situation with publishing and academia, the move seems to be inevitable.

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  1. The stat for acceptances, a range, is something like 3-7 percent. It adds up. Hmmmmmm. Now even poetry is for the monied only? I agree–journals do need patronage and poets and fiction writers would seem to be a good pick for this privilege, but the suggested model is a bit punishing if applied to submissions (contests being a different matter and a more logical money maker).

  2. Although I am also resistant to the idea of charging for submissions, I do think this model makes some sense. Especially if fees are kept small, in the $2-$3 range (maybe more for special contests/issues?). Considering that writers are all submitting online for free, it seems like an equivalent hardship for writers as postage. But instead of the money going to the postal service, it goes to the lit mag. Seems ok to me.

  3. Editors who feel they need to be paid to read submissions should get out of publishing. Editors and publishers should be hustling grants, foundations, and advertisers, not the writers. A good editor and publisher is resourceful – these contests and fees are begging. If they are good editors, people will want to support their publications. Yes, there is less money out there but this is worse than “pay to play” – this is “pay for a chance to play.” There are too many “contests” now. The only thing the contests tell us is how desperate the journals are for money. In the age of print-on-demand, blogging, and social networking, to ask your writers to support your journal is unconscionable.

  4. What this implies (to me at least), and perhaps sadly, is that there are more writers than readers of literary fiction.

  5. If you want more information, go to Poets & Writers and check out their speakeasy forum, the Writing and Publishing –> Literary Magazines forum. Lots of people weighing in with intelligent comments.
    Glinda Bamboo brings up some excellent problems with this model:
    “Charging submission fees brings up other issues, too. It might eventually cause the journal to encourage even more submissions (through longer submission periods, still accepting submissions even though they are pretty sure the issue is full, etc.). They can accept more submissions without caring how bad those submissions may be, because each one brings in $3.”

  6. Brent: I think that’s exactly right.
    Geoff, the editors I know do hustle for grants and advertisers. But it is a difficult market out there, and we are living during a transitional period. I would probably agree that there are too many contests, especially in regards to the journals that stage multiple contests a year. But the writers are the ones supporting the journal anyway — if not by submission fees, then hopefully by subscriptions.
    Margosita: the exchange (rather than going to postal service, it goes to journal) makes sense to me too. But I worry about fees that creep upward once a culture of charging has become legitimized.
    Sarah: I think that 3-7 % is a rather generous window for acceptances. Many of the better journals accept less than 1 %, and if you’re talking about one of the big boys, then acceptance of unsolicited work often ends up looking more like 1/10 or 1/20th of 1%.

  7. I have a conflicted reaction to this. As a writer, the idea of having to pay every time I submit somewhere, tax write-off or not, irks me. It feels backwards. People should pay me for my art, not the other way around.
    As a business person, I look at the literary journals, and sometimes it feels like they only exist so that writers can develop what I call “street cred”, i.e., credits, so in a way, the fees are writers supporting other writers.
    Just like newspapers are going through an unwilling metamorphosis from pay for print to free online, I think the literary journals might take a look at how websites make money. You develop a big enough or a niche audience and you sell online advertising. is an excellent example of how to make money as a literary journal. Yes they charge ($20!) to submit (and trust me, if you are paying $20 to submit, you make damn sure it’s your best work to date), but they are also non-profit, and they do solicit donations, but they let anyone read the stories/poetry online as long as they create an account (i.e., email list = money), they publish quality work, then they publish the best of the best in an occasional print anthology. They also PAY the writers for their work, which makes me (as a writer) feel better. The non-profit part makes me feel better as well and more willing to pay to submit, because I feel like I am contributing to the literary arts in a greater way rather than submitting to some random contest that someone decided to slap up on a website.

  8. Nicole, I have a conflicted reaction too. Personally, I don’t like fees, but logistically, I understand them.
    I will add that if journals are simply trying to limit unsolicited submissions (rather than profit from them), they’d do better to limit submissions to twice a year, or shorten their reading periods.
    I’m sure Narrative is a good example of how to make money, but charging that much makes me feel uncomfortable (even though I’m sure they would defend it as a contest fee, since new writers compete for big money). However, all the things you listed are definitely plus points for their mag.