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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, The Writer's Life

Art or Business, Part 3: My Conscience Bothers Me, And I Hope It Always Will

Why the sudden interest in whether your and my writing is art or business?

A few weeks ago, an established writer sent a long, and well-thought-out Facebook post[1] explaining why he would never submit to Tahoma Literary Review, because we charge submission fees for fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Although it was one of only a handful of negative comments we’ve received since our January opening, it has remained on my conscience, mostly because of the implication that we are placing the burden of TLR’s success on the backs of poor writers.

The dozens of positive comments we’re received, and the 600 submissions that came in during our first reading period would seem to indicate otherwise, but the idea still nags at me. Have we created a little gated community of writing, where only the affluent can afford to dwell?

My response is as complex as the society in which we live.

If you will permit me to stipulate that Kelly’s, Yi Shun’s and my knowledge and experience qualify us to produce a literary journal (and those qualities are no prerequisite, btw), I will explain.

Literary citizenship is a powerful motivator for each of us. It was a key tenet of the curriculum at our NILA MFA program, and something we believe in independently. Part of that philosophy, to us, includes the idea that published work is worth something—something more than a nice note from an editor and a contributor copy in the mail (unless it’s an online journal, and then the writer doesn’t even get that permanent record of her work).

I pay a guy to cut my grass. I pay people to haul my garbage. I pay a five-buck toll to drive over the bridge near my house. These things, in our society, have value. I write a story that contributes to the intellectual and emotional discussions taking place in our society, and do I get paid? Not if it’s published in ninety-plus percent of the lit journals out there.

Some people say that art should be pursued for its sake alone, not for its monetary rewards. I agree with that. But as I noted last week, it’s awfully hard to do that when the basis for everything else in our society is monetary. Some compromise is necessary.

There is so much I’d like to say here about what TLR is doing to provide value to ALL submitters, whether chosen for publication or not, but blogs need to be kept fairly brief. So let me say that when we decided to start TLR (and we worked on the idea for months before announcing it), we considered a few factors. First, published writers deserve fair compensation for their work. Second, our aim was to publish a professional-quality publication—which means establishing a professional organization, which means business licensing, organizational fees, government fees, marketing and advertising costs and more. It ain’t cheap. We’ve already spent thousands of our own money in this regard. Our critic correctly points out that these costs are usually borne by wealthy patrons or university budgets. But what if we aren’t one of those? Does that mean we can’t publish, or that we must become one of the hundreds of amateur publications that exist for an issue or two and then fold once the publishers realize the work involved and that they are spending too many hours with no compensation?

A key to our decision to charge fees was the fact that the literary journal world’s audience does not support it financially. Sure a few university alums buy a copy. A few friends buy copies of the indie journals. But unlike other genres, in which a subscriber base provides sufficient revenue, the lit world is mostly supported by the writers themselves. (Hence the fact that most lit journals now hold “contests” to raise operating cash, in which they charge $15 to $30+ to submit. And how this is more equitable to writers than our model is beyond me.)

So with all that in mind, we conceived of the concept of a professional, transparent, collaborative model of literary journal. One in which writers understand the realities of writing, and are willing to share the cost of supporting it, whether their work is published in it or not. As editors, we plan to take one-third of the funds raised to compensate ourselves for the work we put into it, although that won’t happen for a while. Ultimately, we will seek grant funding and sales of the journal to raise compensation and lower submission fees.

Without sounding too corporate, let me add we’re committed to using the success of the journal to fostering increased awareness of literary reading and writing, writing programs and literature in general. TLR is a starting point for that.

I’ll close with this:

Is art that mystical, solitary obsession that cares not for the praise and wealth its success might bring? Yes.

Is art an eternally unhappy marriage with the money-grubbing world of business? Yes, that too.

TLR is all about trying to make some sense of this awkward, illogical relationship, to connect creativity to reality. And yes, my conscience bothers me about whether we’re doing it right. I hope it continues to do so, since that’s the only way I’ll stay true to what I believe in.


[1] Since it wasn’t on a public web page I can’t provide a link, otherwise I would do so. For that reason I also won’t give the writer’s name. That’s somewhat moot anyway, since the point of this blog post is not so much to rebut the criticisms, but to discuss what it made me think about.


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.


14 thoughts on “Art or Business, Part 3: My Conscience Bothers Me, And I Hope It Always Will

  1. I have never minded submitting fees because I understand it costs money and time to run a lit mag. It’s simple economics. You and your partners at TLR have created a place for writers to send their work. That means more options for writers, and THAT is a good thing. Period.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 16, 2014, 3:44 PM
    • Thank you, Darrelyn. I think we have to try to make the best of the societal situation we find ourselves in. Some prefer to work outside the system to change it, others, from the inside.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 16, 2014, 6:11 PM
  2. Hi, Joe. I don’t want you to be too hard on yourself; after all “One cannot serve both God and Mammon” is an ideal, not a fact of life. The fact of life is accurate as you have described it. Kudos to you, and I think your conscience is in a good state.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 16, 2014, 4:38 PM
  3. Thanks very much for this post and for the thoughtful replies everyone has made. I am absolutely a “l’art pour l’art” person. However I think your point — that we are operating in a late capitalist society where basically everything and everybody is commodified [ok, you didn’t say that, I did] — means that tactically, folks who care about art, need to find a way to support it and to “mark” it as having value. Paying contributors is a fantastic way to support and “show” in a tangible way that the journal values and respects literary artists. And if someone comes along with a better more effective idea — great! But in the meantime, let’s show contributors that they matter, and for now, that means $. So the submission fees are necessary unless or until Tahoma receives an enormous endowment from some unnamed benefactor or government.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 17, 2014, 6:04 AM
    • I may not have said “late capitalist society,” but that sure is right on the mark. We are heading into uncharted waters in that regard. Culturally, we seem most to resemble the late Roman Empire, and we know what happened to them. It’ll be interesting to see where our society heads from here.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 17, 2014, 5:54 PM
  4. thanks. Interesting that you mention the Roman Empire. There’s a book I started and had to stop called EMPIRE by Michael Hardt, and I think he’s making a similar analogy. I’ll have to take another look at it.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 17, 2014, 6:01 PM
    • Among the ills that brought down Rome was the lack, after Augustus, of great leaders, men who defied the idea of oligarchy. We have few such leaders in our nation today.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 17, 2014, 7:44 PM
  5. I have no problem paying submission fees so long as the journal publishes only unsolicited pieces. As a not-poor-but-definetly-not-affluent writer, I don’t want to be funding a journal that only pays their friends and/or the big names that might give the mag more “cred”. In this same half-baked philosophy of mine, I don’t submit to contests unless it comes with a subscription to the journal – but, if that journal impresses me, I’ll subscribe again (often without entering the next year’s contest).
    As for TLR’s business model, I like that the submission fee provides more than just the right to send in a story (special access to website features, etc.). I’ve submitted to magazines whose fee comes with personal feedback on the story if rejected, and that’s worth it, too. But best of all, I like magazines that pay. Writers low on funding have less time / energy / motivation to write than those more affluent, and without valuing their work we risk encouraging only the voices of those rich enough to put aside the time to create (and to acquire the education that promotes their skill?). Most journals recognize the disparity between white writers and minority writers, and yet expect those most likely to be underprivileged in our society to work for free. Want a greater scope of writers, important, under-represented stories? Pay the writer, value the voice.

    Posted by Katie Bickell | August 18, 2014, 6:51 PM
    • Thank you, Katie. I do like the idea of feedback on every submission if there is a fee involved. Right now we comment on about a quarter of what comes in, since it’s only Kelly, Yi Shun and me reading. We plan to grow the staff slowly and do more interaction with submitters as we can. And we’re always looking for more ways to make those fees worth it to submitters, whether they are published or not.

      It should be noted that Katie Bickell’s fiction will appear in the first issue of TLR, to be released August 31. Her story was chosen, like all published pieces, from the slush pile. And in case you’re wondering, we did not solicit this or any other comments to the blog.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 18, 2014, 7:26 PM
  6. I’m glad you addressed the point about paying a reading fee to enter work in a contest. Really, what’s the difference between that and what you at TLR are doing? I often wonder if your model will catch on and encourage other start-ups (or existing mags) to charge submission fees. Time will tell, I suppose.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 19, 2014, 11:15 AM
    • Sometimes I feel like we’re the little indie bookstore, trying to make it next to Amazon and B&N. They have huge resources to put behind their business model. We have to be creative and connected. Fortunately, we’re talking about writing, not retail sales—that may help us.

      Thanks, Gwen.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 19, 2014, 1:23 PM
  7. We, Blank Fiction Magazine, recently started charging submission fees. (We charge the minimum amount Submittable allows, which at this point is $2.00.) We are independent and have no financial backing outside of our team whatsoever, which is a point you hit on in your post. I think this is very important for submitters to understand when they are faced with a submission fee. At this point we aren’t even trying to profit from our labors editing, developing our app, laying out our issues, etc, but simply trying to break even.

    The reason we’re facing this uphill battle is not just because of the costs I have already mentioned, but also because we pay our authors. I cannot stress how important I think it is for literary magazines to pay their authors, if not for any other reason than trying to sway the direction “amateur” and digital writing and publishing is going. If we truly care for and appreciate the craft and see completed works as valuable pieces art, then we need to show that with our actions. We also offer a free digital issue with each paid submission, which serves to both help writers feel like they’re getting something out of the fee even if their piece doesn’t get accepted, as well as help get our digital pages into more people’s hands.

    I suppose every editor can look forward to and strive for the day that the sales of their literary magazine alone grow to a point where submission fees are not necessary. Right now we aren’t there, but maybe one day.

    Thanks for the post,
    Benjamin Perry

    Posted by benjaminbfm | August 22, 2014, 7:18 PM
    • Benjamin, I’m glad to hear about other journals pursuing a similar path for their journals. I agree completely that changing the perception of creative writing away from “amateur” and towards “professional” can only help all writers, published or not.

      We are like you also in that our business plan calls for the publishers to make money, but we are committed to the success of the journal and serving the writing community first. So we are still putting all the proceeds back into the journal and haven’t taken anything out.

      I think our journals are on the right track. I wish you success with Blank Fiction.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 23, 2014, 4:31 AM

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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