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Why Don’t Literary Journals Pay?

And How Does it Affect Your Publication Strategy?

I wasn’t sure what to write about his month, but the subject of litmags and journals paying writers (or not) came up in various circles these last couple of weeks. It never ceases to surprise me how the same questions trolly around over two decades and still are not put to rest, which suggests the industry still isn’t transparent enough.

Magazines and journals come in varying forms and business models, though most would scream Bloody Mary to be hitched to the idea of being a business and not an art outlet. However, there’s no escaping the fact that these small presses have overheads to cover and, in some instances, payouts to honour and account for. They definitely have contractual obligations. That’s why I think it’s important to frame this article from the angle of business models.

So, let’s first look at the main models.

Corporate Media

These outlets are your big beasts, such as The New Yorker, Woman’s Weekly, etc. They can pay 100s or 1000s for short fiction. In some instance only agented subs. These are often publications whose focus is not solely on fiction, but hosts a regular ‘slot’ for fiction. They sell a lot of advertising space and/or have been going so long they have a sizeable readership and charge for their issues or subscriptions, which is why they can afford to pay plenty.

University Reviews

These publications are supported by their associated university. Sometimes, submissions are only open to students of the faculty. Often, kudos points to have been published by the establishment are more important than payment.


These types of publications rely on grants/arts councils. Again, these are often kudos points publications, rather than hard currency payments, depending on their grants, overheads, etc. They have to meet certain criteria in order to receive the grants, and they are usually more ‘arty’, will publish a mixture of different types of art alongside literature. They might also feature exhibition dates, book releases and other news about writers and artists, etc. Whether they take advertising revenue or not is something I cannot answer, but I suspect not – or very little – if they wish to remain ‘non-profit’ and continue to qualify for grants.

Non-|Corporate, Private/’for Profit’

This is somewhat misleading, for I challenge anyone to find a litmag/journal that can boldly claim they are profiting from publishing fiction and/or poetry. These publications have usually started through private individuals collaborating with others to publish the fiction they feel needs more exposure/doesn’t have an outlet. They are usually financed through crowd funding and/or patronage along with any sales they make per issue or through subscriptions. Recently, a long-running magazine, whose name eludes me now, closed their doors when their most major patron died. These publications may or may not pay their writers, depending on all of the above, and rates will vary. They may or may not get advertising revenue, but I often find many mas and journals resistant to doing that, or overdoing that, so revenue is limited in that potential stream. There are also a lot of places that insist on putting their content out for free so that their authors get maximum exposure. Keeping funding going is an ongoing struggle on a tight budget with a small to medium staff.

Hobby Mags

Most often no payment and little by way of kudos points with these guys. Often a lone wolf, or maybe with one or two partners, wearing all the hats with few resources. They are likely full of good intention to get good fiction out there and grow their audience, but, with such demands on their time and finances, they often fold within the first few years or issues. They may or may not pay their writers, depending on what their full-time job is.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list, I’m sure, but it gives you a rough idea of what’s out there and that not all venues can be considered in the same light when it comes to paying writers.

Now let’s consider in real terms the absolute minimum costs to run a small press and pay their published authors.

Let’s just pretend for a moment we have started up our own litmag. We’ll call it Kick-Ass Lit for now. We want to publish ten stories per month at a rate of 0.03p/w. And, to keep it simple, let’s say – miraculously – every sub we decide to publish hits exactly 3,500 words. That’s 1,050 in payments per month and 12,600 per year in payouts to authors.

But Kick-Ass Lit also needs a website and some kind of system to process submissions. Possibly, we might even need to use a crowd funding or donations platform that will charge a fee to use it. Let’s call all of that ‘rent’.

Obviously, prices range depending on requirements, but let’s say that we are paying out 20 per month for a self-run website with something like Wix or Wordpress. If we want to use a submissions portal such as Submittable, that’s another 40 per month:

20x12 = 240

40x12 = 480

= 720 p/a.

So, just the basic running costs alone equals 13,320 p/a on our rough calculation. Just the basics. This is not taking into account the cost of artwork or any other costs, such as Paypal or Patreon fees. Or – get this – the cost of someone to run the technicalities of the website.

Depending on the litmag ‘business’ model, depends if all those costs are covered. It’s safe to say that most publications specialising in fiction alone and without ad revenue are skimming by their teeth to stay afloat, or their publisher has a little spare cash to make up the shortfall where needed. Either way, it’s unlikely they are making any profit and are continuing through sheer love, grit and a refusal to give up.

Most litmags rely on volunteer staff to keep going. Do not mistake the word ‘volunteer’ for ‘unqualified’. Just because someone volunteers doesn’t mean they do not have qualifications or experience in editing and writing. However – yes – some venues may well have inexperienced staff running the show. There’s no law that says Mr Peasbody of No Significant Writing Experience can’t start his own litmag and choose which stories he wishes to invest either his time or money in and publish. This is where your judgement has to come in on whether publishing with him is worth it.

Which brings us onto the next part of this article: How does it affect your publishing strategy? But, you will have to wait for next time for part two, I'mm afraid, as that's a lengthy post, too!

It also needs bearing in mind that, as many litmags as there are, there is fierce competition in persuading people to part with cash to help support them. Not only against others in their field, and many novel readers don't bother with short fiction, but in the leisure industry as a whole. There was once a time when the only options available as entertainment were terrestrial television, with a set agenda to bring something for everyone, VHS/DVDs (but, nce upon a time, most househlds only had one TV for the whole family), the cinema and books. Books were on tap perhaps more, or at least as much as, DVDs/home videos through bookshops and libraries and you didn't need to book a slot like you would with the TV. You could go pick any kind of book you fancied. Then times changed and we are now on pleasure overload and all those extra pastimes are vying for people's attentions. Video games have taken over from books. Home streaming, too. And let's not forget phones and social media which are deliberately designed to keep you addicted. Litmags have a huge task to keep going on the day-to-day. And, be honest, what support have you offered them? Bought some issues? Patronage? Offered them your time as a reader?

Overall, just remember that running a litmag/journal is hard work and nobody is doing it for profit. Try to bear in mind when you get cranky about not being paid for your work that litmags are trying to provide windows for authors to showcase their best stories. They are the small art galleries down back allies that only a few people step into and they rarely make a sale. They are the art cafe who said 'yes' to putting your paintings up on their walls, or the craft shop who gave you the space on a small shelf. They are the riverside market offering you a stall in the hope passers-by will notice your work. Yes, it’s frustrating, but in the next part you’ll find out why free or low-paid at this stage maybe isn’t the subjugation you first thought.

Until then, mes amis!

Do you want to improve your writing and overcome some common reasons for rejection from the slush pile? BRAND NEW class for beginners or anyone looking for some new approaches to their fiction now available in my Etsy shop.

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