Should literary magazines pay?
I keep getting emails, about one per week, from different writers, and the email reads something like: “Why don’t these stupid literary magazines you keep sending me pay! Don’t they know I’m trying to make a living. My writing is worth a lot and I should get paid for it! They are so selfish, keeping all that money and driving BMWs. Why don’t think of me, the little guy!” I agree that writing is worth a lot, but the world doesn’t see it that way.
Let’s get this out of the way: Should literary magazines pay? They can’t. They don’t make any money. I don’t mean that literary magazines are run on a shoestring budget and each editor only makes enough to drive his Dodge Dart, and that’s it. I mean that they don’t make money. For 100 years literary magazines have tried to make money, and many have folded in the process. I’ll give you an example that I know first hand. This would be considered one of the best literary magazines in the country and one of the richest. The literary magazine that was published through the University where I did my writing program got enough money from the university to do a a 500 issue print run (about $1000). It got another $1000 grant which it paid to a writer as an award. That was it. The editor was paid a $1000 per year stipend from the university and all of the other editors (poetry, fiction, and layout) were NOT paid. The editor did drive a Dodge Dart, but that is another issue. Keep in mind that this was a very good and rare magazine that’s why they had any money at all.
Literary magazine editors on the web do even better than making money, they pay money. They don’t get paid AND they pay for the magazine to be on the web. Most literary magazines on the web do not even cover their publishing cost. The editor of Glimmer Train magazine (a national magazine) said point blank, we don’t make very much money by doing this at all. We hardly cover our costs.
In the old days there were large publishing companies like Advance Star and Knight Ridder that made money by publishing in the margins. They could hire 1 person to run a magazine, and then pay their authors a little bit. Knight Ridder went out of business and Advance Star is only publishing a handful of magazines. Their literary magazine does pay, it is the New Yorker. People see a magazine in print or on the web, and they think, well they have to be making money. “Greedy lit mag editors.” This is just NOT the case.
Most self-published books do better than literary magazines. I haven’t ever asked, but before you wonder why these magazines don’t pay, ask yourself, as a writer who is trying to publish in one of these magazines, how many subscriptions do you have to literary magazines? Are you willing to put up money so they can pay you and other writers? Most writers are not.
The thing that is the most frustrating about these emails is that the person who asks, “Why don’t these stupid magazines pay,” wouldn’t even read an issue of the magazine before they send in their work. They would just see it as a way to make a couple of bucks and blindly send off their science fiction story to the literary magazine dedicated to North cost writers.
So, literary magazines can’t pay because they don’t get paid. Why would you ever want to publish your work for free? I’ve talked about this before. Put simply publishing credits help you publish MORE works. Publishing credits help you sell books, and publishing credits help you get exposure to sell a book or to bring people to your website. That’s the best, most magazines can do. It works out to be worth a lot if you can establish yourself as a good writer and then have a book for sale. Some people have ended up on the bestsellers (with self-published books) by doing this, so I would say it is worth it. If you are looking for $10000 per story, get an agent, publish a book, once you don’t need the money anymore because you’ve sold so many books, magazines will pay you a lot of money to publish your stories, ironic eh? If you were looking for 1 cent per word, many literary magazines stopped doing this because they couldn’t afford it!