Should You Ever (ever) Pay to Have Your Work Read?

I’ve heard a lot of chatter on the web saying things like if a contests charges to enter, it’s not worth it. I’ve heard the same thing from message boards and facebook about magazines that charge a submission fee. The views that were expressed to me were a little disturbing, to be honest. From what I understand there is a school of thought out there that says you should never pay anything to have your work looked at, or to enter a contest. I understand this point of view. The idea behind it is that your work is valuable! This is of course true, but the person who expressed this to me also expressed the idea that anyone who charges for work (contest or submission fees) is just a thief. This is not the case at all!

I think there are two things running together here that should be looked at. First, it is very true that you should never ever ever ever (3 evers! must be important) pay some one to read your novel or book! Do not do this, ever. The point is your novel could be worth a great deal of month (or poetry collection, or short story, non-fiction). In a long work where you put in 100s of hours, do not pay someone to look at it. There is a great deal of money in the publishing industry, someone, somewhere should be willing to pay YOU. You should not pay them. Don’t pay an agent, don’t pay an editor! Ever Ever (2 more).

BUT in the small market literary world of short stories and poetry, of literary magazines and tiny publishers (of great big work, but small print runs) there is NO or very little money! Literary magazine publishers (both in print and online) make very little running their magazines. Usually it is done as a second JOB, and from a fury of passion. So when you see a literary magazine asking for a few dollars for your work, they are doing it because they don’t have any money otherwise. They are broke, busted, poor. They are asking for the reading fee many times to cover their costs. The Mississippi Review for instance used to charge or still charges $3 for a reading fee on work submitted through their online system. This cost most-likely represents the cost of running the system. It’s not a huge fee, so if you have it, think of it as a donation.

I once had the pleasure of being taught by the excellet Wendel Mayo. An outstanding teacher and even better author. He simply said that he looked at contests like buying a lottery ticket. This was coming from a writer who had won his share of literary contests. The point he was making: you’re putting your entry and cash out there for a chance. You might win, you might not, but it’s worth a shot. If you didn’t pay a fee for entering a contest the literary magazine or organization wouldn’t have any winnings to pay the writers. So in this way, it’s very valid that they charge.

A good way to judge this is to think of the value of the work you are submitting. If you wrote a short story it’s not worth millions of dollars. Poetry too. If you write a poem the monetary value of that poem isn’t millions. Few poems or short stories, if any, are worth a great deal of money, but longer works like novels, biographies, non-fiction pieces that have 100s of hours of labor in them, can be worth a great deal. So if the work is a very short piece like a poem or short story, and the place you are submitting it to is a literary magazine, it’s fine to pay to have it read (very small amounts 3, 10, 20). If they are asking for 100s of dollars WALK AWAY. Always, period.

The long and short: If you submit a short work to a contest look at it like a chance to win the lottery. You are risking very little to win big. A publication in a good magazine (hopefully) and money (which is always good)! Small (a few dollar) reading fees from literary magazines view it as a donation. Hundreds or even 1000s of dollars to publish or edit a book or 100s to be your agent, FORGET IT, WALK AWAY. Find someone who finds your 100s of hours of labor as valuable as you do. Stay away from book publishers and agents who charge. Be nice and donate or risk a few dollars for literary magazine contest and reading fees.