Each day I receive an email from CRWROPPS, an invaluable service that delivers writing and job opportunities, and within that list are invariably another two or three announcements for contests that carry entry fees of $15 to $40. Every few days I learn that another literary journal has instituted submission fees. Duotrope, that online mecca for aspiring authors, recently added fee-based publications to its database, simply because there are just so many now they can’t be ignored.
I understand the need to make money to continue operating, and I know also that grant money for the arts has diminished. Journal staffs and other publishers believe they have no choice but to raise money from the only source available to them—since so few people read and subscribe to their products, that source is the writers. The unfortunate product of this equation, however, is that it may eventually make writing a pursuit accessible only to those with the means to pay their way to publication.
Typically, contests offer prizes of about $1,000 for a $20 entry fee. Submissions run two or three dollars. But in the last week I’ve seen startup online journals running contests that promise $400 for those twenty bucks, and $250 for a $15 fee, ridiculously low returns considering the odds of winning. And Narrative, the snootiest of online journals, charges $20 for a regular submission. (Disclosure: I am involved with organizations that charge submission fees and host contests.)
Consider the disposable income of the struggling writer versus that of an affluent new writer. An extra hundred dollars a month (and the difference is usually much greater) means the well-off writer can enter five more contests or submit to thirty-three more journals. Talent being equal, this means people with means have a much better chance to be published. Ultimately, if more stories by the affluent are published, it will skew the perspective of the literary conversation towards a wealthier viewpoint. Really, considering how money dominates advertising, popular culture and politics, haven’t we had enough of the bourgeois point of view? How many stories about anguished socialites will I be able to stand? If I want that kind of fantasy, I’ll go to the movies and watch some nonsense about a depressed teenage heiress who goes to Paris to find true love. (I won’t, btw.)
Will the perspectives of those with low incomes someday be represented by snug, comfortable writers, working out of their townhouses, imagining what it must be like to be poor? (Some would say this is already the case. Take a look at TV shows—HBO’s “Shameless,” for example, if you can stomach it.) Will the Charles Bukowskis and Breece Pancakes of the world be shut out of the literary conversation? Those valuable voices of the less-monied—once the nation’s conscience—may eventually be marginalized, forced underground, reduced to blog posts and emails because their submissions were overwhelmed.