Listen, I’m about to tell you some personal stuff, so if that’s not your cup of tea, skip to the second paragraph. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, listen up: I’m poor. Thankfully, my poverty morphs. Sometimes it’s really bad, like when I had to steal toilet paper during my second year in Austin. Sometimes I don’t even notice it, like when I was freelancing, working as a teaching assistant, and working full-time as a journalist for the Austin Post. I made good money and didn’t have many expenses. Other times during a 6-year period, I just scraped by with the $934 a month I made as a TA at the University of Texas at Austin. Sometimes that was enough. Other times, that was far from enough. In the past four years, I’ve been unemployed twice, so you can imagine what stage of my poverty I’m currently at. In any case, I hustle like a mufucka. I write, edit, and freelance like there’s no tomorrow. Why? Because I know sometimes things are bad and sometimes things are good. I know I won’t be poor forever, so I keep at it and put in the work. Such is life.
What does me being poor have to do with writing? Well, because when I sell a story and that money comes in, it makes a huge difference. After I get a check from a publisher or some money hits my PayPal account, I buy more groceries, fill my tank, pay my internet bill. To me, $50 is a nice little bonus and making $300 from writing in a month makes a significant difference in my life. With that in mind, read the title of this thing again: submission fees are classist as fuck. Why? Because I can’t submit to a plethora of contests and venues simply because I can’t fucking afford it. Let me break it down for you. I’ll start by tackling the two most common half-assed defenses for it I’ve read everywhere:
1. “It’s really about gatekeeping”
If you don’t want to read bad fiction/nonfiction/poetry, don’t edit a book/magazine/blog/journal. Bad writing is to the writing game what dirty teeth are to dentistry; it will happen all the time, the only that varies is the level of awfulness. Submission guidelines, genre specifications, and word counts should help you do your precious gatekeeping. If you need to rely on charging writers $30 to enter your chapbook contest in order to keep what you think are bad writers away, know these two things: having money has absolutely nothing to do with having writing chops and your fees, not to mention your bland gatekeeping excuse, are nothing but classism in action. I’ve also heard that charging writers is just a way to “reduce the workload for overworked editors.” Get the fuck outta here with that. You’re sitting in front a computer because you want to, not working in the mines. Don’t want to edit? Don’t be an editor. There’s a ton of jobs out there that need to get done that don’t involve the arduous task of having to deal with a huge slush pile.
2. “Well, we have to get paid”
Allow me to make a few hundred enemies in a single sentence: you needing to make money is your problem, not ours. You think writers want to pay you to keep your publication going? If they want, they can donate, get a subscription, or, and pay attention to this one, send you their work, which, if accepted, they will plug like crazy. Writers aren’t in this game to make money, and you shouldn’t be in it for that reason either. Look into paid advertising or find folks like me who are willing to edit for free for the sake of publications we love and support.
Now that those two bullshit excuses have been addressed, let me move on to a few more reasons why charging submission fees is classist as fuck.
3. Most writers aren’t rich
I’ve already said I’m poor. I also know a few hundred writers who have day jobs and hustle as hard as I do to pay rent and put food on the table. They spend hours away from things they love because writing is something they love and need more than those other things. They sacrifice time and effort on creating stories and poems and essays. The least we can do for them is get them some money for they efforts. The most despicable shit you can do is charge them to read their work.
4. Pay to play is bullshit
I have a stack of books with my name on the table of contents and three books with my name on the cover and I have not paid to get published or read a single time. The concept of pay to play shouldn’t exist in publishing. Newbie authors: you get paid, you don’t pay. It’s as simple as that. If you think authors should pay to be part of publishing, please proceed to slather your ass in honey and then sit on a fire ant colony.
5. Rejection is the name of the game
Authors get rejected all the time. Sometimes bad stories get published and great stories get rejected twenty times. Why? Because of subjectivity. What one editor finds brilliant another editor can find idiotic. This means that you charging submission fees and the other publication charging submission fees and that other stupid journal with another fucking bird or cloud on the cover is also asking for $3 to read your work…well, it all adds up. Do you really think a regular writer should pay $60 to submit his work time and again to finally get it accepted somewhere and get paid $10 or a damn contributor copy? In the words of Brian Keene, please go die in a tire fire.
Princess Nokia ‘Brujas’
6. It makes your “we encourage diverse voices” statement utter bullshit
If you want diverse voices, don’t charge. You say you want diversity, which means POC, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, and folks without MFAs living paycheck to paycheck in tiny rooms…but you want money to read their work? You’re a hypocrite. The second you start charging $25 to submit to your contest, you’re taking a lot of people out of the equation, and that is the opposite of encouraging diverse voices to submit. I’m a diverse voice and I’m telling it to you straight: I don’t have any money to spare, and that means I can’t enter your “diverse” contest or submit to your “diverse” magazine.
I could go and on and on, but I won’t because the aforementioned points cover the basics. If you want your publication to be packed with the work of rich folks who can throw money at their writing instead of struggling to make a buck with words, which is harder each day, then go ahead and charge submission fees, but don’t expect any work or respect for anyone who can’t afford or who refuses to pay out of principle. Oh, and one more little thing: if you think submission fees aren’t even a tad racist (“No he didn’t!” Hell yeah I did), think about the fact that Junot Díaz was the only writer of color in his MFA program at Cornell University. On top of that, the Diversity Baseline Survey for 2015 showed that 82% of editors are white, and that hasn’t changed much. You can see where I’m going with this, but I’ll leave the racial connotations and the struggles of migrant writers for another essay. My points now are these: writers shouldn’t be charged to submit their work, charging messes up the possibility of diversity, and, simply put, submission charges are classist as fuck.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books),HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist. Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbcide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias