To fee or not to fee?

To fee or not to fee?

That is the question. Well, in truth, because I am not as polite as Mr Shakespeare (Happy 400th Birthday, Will) my question actually is: Why do emerging writers carp and whinge so much about entry fees?

I know people, kind, rational, well-intentioned people—good writers—who will not submit to literary journals which charge 2-3 euros/dollars as a reading fee for online submissions, even though printing the story, and posting it to said journal would cost far more. Last year, when I knew even less about the arcane art of getting published than I do today, I posted a short story to The Alaska Quarterly Review. I know, what was I thinking? The shame, the shame….a bit like auditioning for Covent Garden because I’ve just passed Grade Six in my RIAM singing exams! Postage for said story cost me €9; a small price to pay to learn a lesson in hubris, but money that would have bought me a good collection of short stories from Doire Press, or a decent bottle of wine. I’d have been delighted to pay $2 as a reading fee instead.

In general, writers tend to be readers and, in general, until very, very recently, readers expected to pay for what they read. Or walk to the library. Now there is such a plethora of really good reading-material available online, free, gratis and for-nothing, that some writers seem to have forgotten that the people who create, edit, curate and produce journals in print or online, are human beings; sentient creatures who need to pay their mortgages, eat, and buy shampoo in preparation for the rare occasions they step out into daylight.

Even if the journal is hosted and sponsored by a major University, the first line workers are usually unpaid students. Surely they deserve a biscuit along with their tea in the long, cold evenings while they sift through the slush pile? If your work makes it out of the pile and is chosen for inclusion, you may get an opportunity to revise it with a highly respected, professional editor. Last year I worked on a piece for The Chattahoochee Review with the wonderful Anna Schachner, which taught me more in six short, emailed sessions than I could have gleaned in a half-year of unguided effort.

Here is a slightly edited example of one of thousands of similar comments I could have picked off any writing site on the web. I chose this one because it’s a debate I personally participated in.
“Spend €10 with a chance to spend another €50 if selected!!! Nice little earner, praying on the vulnerable ie wannabe writers again!…[]…… I just feel that there are a lot of easy pickings in the “emerging writers” field….[]….. Struggling writers need a chance for constructive feedback without having to pay for it!!!”.

Last month, after two years of very part-time work, during which I racked up fewer than 500 hours of writing, I did not get offered a publishing deal. That’s hardly surprising. But I did get a full-day publishing workshop, with Vanessa Fox of Inkwell Writers, totally for free, in Naas library. On Saint Patrick’s Day, I did not win the Fish Short Story Prize, but the award went to the multi-talented David Butler, with whom I did get a fascinating and beneficial six- month course on creative writing, totally for free, in Newbridge library last year. There’s a huge amount of free help and advice available to struggling writers, but you have to go out and look for it.

In Northern Ireland, Gideon and Amos Grieg have taken upon themselves the production of an excellent journal, A New Ulster, available online and in print. Inevitably, the financial realities of producing good work for nothing started to bite, and I suggested, via their Facebook page, a nominal reading fee. Below is one of the responses:

“Funding is a problem but if you charge for submissions you run the risk of losing a lot of talent. I think there are a good many people like me who will not submit to anything that charges me for the pleasure.”

I believe that the comment above is accurate, and true, but I don’t believe that it takes in the reality of how difficult running a literary venture can be. And I don’t believe it is sensible to put time and effort into a work and then retain it because of a reading fee. Good, well-run journals will take your work into eyes and brains and hearts that you would never reach on your own, they can be the stepping-stones to paid, solicited work, they can fill you with pride and renewed determination as your early works are selected and shared with the public.

Last week alone, I did not win the Doolin Short Story Competition, I did not win the Fish Short Memoir and I did not win the Vesalius Prize. That’s about twenty-five euro I will never see again. Money down the drain? I don’t think so. Hektoen International are going to publish my Vesalius entry (free) in their respected e-journal of the Medical Humanities. Wasafiri are going to publish my short-listed entry in their New Writing competition (£6 entry fee) on their hugely influential website. If you don’t wish your entries to be used in this way, just decline permission. I can’t wait to add Wasafiri and Hektoen to my (short) list of publishing credits.

Every time I submit to a contest or a journal I take out my finished, perfected, polished story and I find a typo, or a blunder, or an adverb that makes me wince. The work gets better and better. One day it will find a home.

To fee or not to fee? Well, it’s really none of my business how anyone else spends their money, but my fifteen dollar entry fee to the Normal Prize ( which, guess what, I did not win) bought me a year’s subscription to the wonderful and odd The Normal School journal. It flopped through my letterbox last week. I was horrified to see that postage cost $10.12 I don’t think my entry fee is going to line any deep pockets at that rate of going.

You might find these websites useful.
http://www.winningwriters.com lists 150 competitions that are free to enter, as well as paid ones

http://www.duotrope.com for a $5 dollar monthly fee it collates info on thousands of journals and using this database should protect fledgling authors from the futility of sending their work to the Alaska Quarterly Review, ahem, and the New Yorker

http://www.paulmcveigh.blogspot.co.uk is an amazing treasure trove of constantly updated contests and submission opportunities

http://www.writing.ie

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