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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Is Writing Only For The Rich?

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.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

29 thoughts on “Is Writing Only For The Rich?

  1. Consider this: If entry/submission fees had been the norm for the last century, wouldn’t the publishing industry be in much better shape now? Maybe the much lamented loss of the popular short story magazines and journals could have been avoided if they’d had a better business model all along. With a predictable income flow these publications might actually have more than a few inches of shelf space in the three hundred feet of magazines at Barnes & Noble.

    If one writes for the sake of writing, or for that matter does any art for the sake of art, then publication or presentation is a bonus. If one does this for the sake of business and income, then they must recognize that for every business there is a cost of doing business. The cost of winning the lottery is the price of a ticket. You can’t win if you don’t play.

    The cost of publication isn’t cheap. There’s time to invest, and a lot of effort as well. There is a computer to purchase and programs to buy. There are classes to take and journals to subscribe to. And if a person has done all of this, should they begrudge a two or three dollar fee to pay a possibly equally broke editor to read their work? Your example of one hundred dollars a month is extreme. How many writers have a body of work, or markets for that work that would explain over three hundred and fifty separate submissions in a year?

    Yes, reading/entry fees are new and a change in past practice. And maybe long overdue.

    Posted by jonzech | January 28, 2012, 4:21 PM
    • Hi Jon,

      I’m not so sure the publishing industry would be better off today if it had adopted a fee structure, considering the rise of movies, TV, internet and the general dumbing of America. That mass culture, to me, is the real culprit. If people still liked to read, books and stories would get sold and writers would be paid fair compensation. But watching is easy and addictive. Reading takes some concentration. And over the last 50-plus years corporate America has convinced the average idiot that his/her life is best spent sitting open-mouthed in front of a screen somewhere.

      Posted by jpon | January 28, 2012, 7:51 PM
    • “If one writes for the sake of writing, or for that matter does any art for the sake of art, then publication or presentation is a bonus.”

      I have to disagree. The point of writing is to communicate–a story, an idea, the history of a place. There can be no other reason for it. Presentation is not a bonus, it’s an intrinsic part of writing. To write for oneself is fine for a diary, but a storyteller needs an audience. Otherwise it’s the sound of one hand clapping, or the proverbial tree falling in a lonely wood.

      I have a full time job, three kids, no money, education or prospects. I can afford the occasional $25, but another and another and another, as a writer must do to see her work published? No. That’s the bread from my table. I’ll find another way.

      Posted by Averil Dean | January 28, 2012, 8:48 PM
      • I basically agree, but I’m saying that failing to reach an audience is not in itself failure.

        Posted by jonzech | January 28, 2012, 9:01 PM
      • Publication is a form of validation, perhaps the only way the literary community has of saying a writer’s ideas and viewpoint matter. And storytelling, as Averil said, is a form of entertainment, a bit of performance art, except that all the work is done beforehand. The audience is as much a part of that process as they are in a movie house.

        Thanks for the comments.

        Posted by jpon | January 29, 2012, 1:13 PM
  2. In a larger sense, I do believe that it is a luxury to write. If you are exhausted from working hard, perhaps physically, all day long, have no place to write, don’t have a computer or proper tools or a place to store things, have people to take care of, well really, will you have anything left over to sit quietly and make it happen?

    So yes, writing requires a certain amount of money and leisure. Just think of the voices and topics and views we will never, ever hear as a result. Also, think of the uniformity of experience shared by the people we do read.

    Posted by girl in the hat | January 28, 2012, 4:43 PM
    • Thanks for the comment, Anna. (BTW did you redesign your blog? Looks great.)

      It’s funny you should mention the difficulty of writing while holding down a job. I’ve gone back to work part time, and even though I get home around 3, it takes a couple of hours to wind down from work and gear up for writing, by which time my wife comes home from her job and well, you get the idea. Still, I’m committed to the writing, even if it’s only 500 words in a day.

      You’re right that writing takes time, and money creates that time. But I can’t help thinking of the talented people who will never add to the literary conversation because they have neither.

      Posted by jpon | January 28, 2012, 8:00 PM
      • I just went to your site, GITRH. Beautiful work.

        Posted by jonzech | January 28, 2012, 8:54 PM
      • Once, because an agent told me he might take my book if it were reworked, I paid the editor he suggested and it didn’t help. It was a major investment that didn’t pan out.
        So I promised myself I would never, ever pay to be published again.
        As you can imagine, this is probably very limiting, professionally.
        On the other hand, perhaps I’m just saving money. Who knows?
        Recently, a very good journal solicited a submission from me and it worked out for both of us. That was a mutually satisfying interaction. I’m thinking that as the publishing world is shaking up, it will soon filter down to this outdated, skewed submission process.
        I want the publishing industry to flourish, but relying on writers to fund things is not a good business model. Only hopeless optimists and idiots play the lottery.

        Posted by girl in the hat | January 31, 2012, 3:55 AM
      • Joe and I have a mutual friend, Mike. His book, Loki, is number one at Amazon for free downloads in his genre, with over 5000 so far. Also around 1000 paid copies in paper. Since it is POD, his costs have, I understand, been very reasonable.
        So it does seem possible, through self promotion, ingenuity and good writing to have success.
        And don’t knock the free download numbers. Imagine going to a “real” publisher with those numbers for your last book.
        I understand that minimum wage workers might not even be able to afford what he has done, but still, he’s sure no millionaire.

        Posted by jonzech | January 31, 2012, 5:13 PM
      • Jon, that opens another aspect of this issue. Mike has been successful selling books because he has devoted himself to an enormous sales and marketing effort. I respect what he’s done, but some of us are not great salespeople. We would rather specialize on the writing, and devote ourselves to perfecting our art, and let those who enjoy the sales part do their thing. Perhaps, in today’s “sales and self-promotion are everything” world, that means we are destined to be marginalized.

        The artistic question is also part of the issue. With all due respect to Mike, his book is his personal product. No editor or publisher or anyone (aside from him) ever said “I believe in this book and I want to publish it.” It is just Mike, selling books that may or may not have literary merit.

        But to get back to your post, a sales ledger of 5000 books will definitely impress some publishers. Whether his first novel has artistic merit or not, there are publishers out there who will take his next one based only on his sales history. Fortunately for some of us other writers, there are some publishers who will not.

        Posted by jpon | January 31, 2012, 5:33 PM
      • Your post was about publishing being out of reach financially for many. That was all I was addressing.
        And, “literary merit?” Please. I am the most elitist person you know, and even I find that condescending. What the book in question does have is, “reader merit.”
        Maybe literary merit goes to some guy nobody ever heard of, writing glittering prose in Urdu and getting a Nobel Prize (after selling 2500 copies.)

        Posted by jonzech | January 31, 2012, 11:39 PM
  3. Those voices are folk voices, much like folk art and folk music. But they do find expression, although often not in their own times. It takes later dilettantes and seekers to find them and appreciate what they are, and often what they are is far greater than any success we might find.

    My grandfather was a wood carver; he carved wooden panels for early twentieth century, horse drawn hearses. But then he found better paying, steady work in the growing auto parts industry where he worked until he retired. Then he returned to his wood and his vast array of chisels. Among dozens of pieces, he created two master pieces. They were a pair of four by ten foot murals of forests and streams and creatures. He did them for the love of doing them and each of his daughters got one. Genuine American Primitive, worth little more at the time than the pine he carved them from. But now, sixty years later, one was appraised for several thousand dollars. It’s mounted in my home. And I still have his tools.

    Maybe in 2062 someone will find a manuscript of mine in some forgotten cabinet, and enjoy it and maybe bind it and put one their bookshelf. I’d like that better than any two hundred dollar prize I’d win today.

    Please pardon my tangent, but it made me happy to write and remember.

    Posted by jonzech | January 28, 2012, 5:44 PM
  4. Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking alot about this question lately. I’ve worked with alot of talented young writers at UCR and it seems to me that the white and/or more moneyed kids often hafe the means and/or the support system to carry on with creative endeavors when folks of color and/or poorer folks cannot. Where is the next Octavia Butler going to come from? I wonder. It makes me think that those of us who ARE more privileged need to give more time, support, and $ if we got ’em as well as pressure public institutions and non-profits dedicated to writing to support the less advantaged members of the writing community.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | January 28, 2012, 6:01 PM
  5. Thanks Stephanie,

    Do I dare say that it’s not just money that separates classes and racial groups when it comes to the desire to write, but also cultural values? I think you may have opened the door on another important topic. Anyway, if I ever become well off from writing (or from any other thing), a lot of it is going towards creating opportunities for others to write.

    Posted by jpon | January 28, 2012, 8:05 PM
  6. All great points – but I also wonder, when looking at the money aspect (don’t think this necessarily connects, though, to the class or racial groups points), if there is a connection to age. Folks who have already worked for years in other fields and now decide they want to write. They have a smidge more disposable income – possibly – than a young writer who just starting. Seems as if conferences I attend, or writers’ groups I join are most often peopled by folks 40-years plus. I regret that (though I fall in that group). I fear a young voice/perspective is not being equally represented in upcoming literature. Thanks for this blog, Joe. Made me think.

    Posted by Kobbie Alamo | January 30, 2012, 4:19 PM
  7. But wait, there’s more. Averil Dean blogs today (2/1) about a popular writers’ blog that is auctioning guest blogging space off to raise money. Obviously the pitch is that a “writer” can get some exposure by paying a couple hundred dollars. Has the writing community given up on getting readers to pay for content? Sure seems like we’re heading in that direction. Trust me, I’ll have more to say about this soon. Take a look:

    http://averildean.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/cold

    Posted by jpon | February 1, 2012, 4:23 PM
  8. I appreciated what you have to say here. There are not many places in which class enters into the discussion of artists making it. As I write this, I am surrounded by other budding writers at a Starbucks, and all these budding writers are budding on Apples–how is this so? The answer probably gets at why class doesn’t come into the discussion. If you’re really on the bottom rung of society, you probably aren’t going to have the time, let alone the funds, to do what it takes to write. There are exceptions. Bukowski comes to mind, but your point is well-taken.

    Thanks for the post.

    -g. martinez cabrera
    http://www.thehistoryofthings.com

    Posted by the circular runner | February 4, 2012, 11:18 PM
    • Thanks for this. I think the issue of who gets access to the writing table is a very real one. One of many challenges is to find places at the table for artists who want to, but don’t have the time or resources, to write.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 5, 2012, 3:46 AM
  9. Reblogged this on running in circles and commented:
    i rea this a few days back, but it’s stuck with me, so i thought i’d share.

    Posted by the circular runner | February 8, 2012, 6:16 AM
  10. Oddly enough, most of the pro writers I’ve met make less than the median income for the USA. They may have advanced degrees in fun stuff like Medieval Studies, which would put them in a high socioeconomic status, but their actual incomes aren’t much.

    Maybe it’s like the joke about how to make a small fortune in the Napa valley: Start with a large fortune, and open a winery.

    Posted by arichaley | March 6, 2012, 5:41 PM
    • Or as I like to say, writing is the only profession where “do what you love and the money will follow” just isn’t true.

      Posted by jpon | March 6, 2012, 9:10 PM

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