September 18, 2011

Oh, Whiny Writers.

Or, on the use of the word "Repugnant" in response to a $2.00 submission fee.

I don't get worked up about a lot of things in life. And with the exception of ensuring we have a kick-ass cover artist and that the pages of Versal are full of engaging, involved and thought-provoking artwork, I really don't get worked up about a lot of the goings-on in Versal's wide-reaching and ever-increasing journal-sphere. I stay in the background because so much of the conversation surrounding Versal is still specific to the literary world, and while I love you writerly types, my business is all up in the artsy fartsy world.

But this whole friggin' to-do over our new $2.00 submission fee has my proverbial panties in a bunch. Let me just put my thoughts at this point out there plain and simple: seriously? Seriously guys? You guys are gonna get all up and angry and bent out of shape and spend half your lives bitching and blogging and writing nasty emails back and forth about a measly $2? You're going to call it "repugnant" and be sure to let us know you're deleting us from your database and are "disappointed" in our decision to charge?

Ok, hold on. I'll back up and stroke you all a little bit by saying I do, on one level, get it. I "get" several "issues" y'all may be having with the submission fee problem. I get, for instance, that:

a.) As a writer you likely submit your work to a gabillion journals every year (maybe every month?) and if we were all asking for $2.00 every time you submit...well, multiply that $2.00 by a gabillion and you get a decent little bucket of cash going out the door every month. Ok, fair enough. I have responses to that, and the following b.)s, c.)s, and d.)s below, but I'm really not interested in jumping that full-on to this bandwagon. Besides, it's all been explained and justified and defended here on this blog and on other blogs already by not only my wife, Versal's chief Editor Megan M. Garr, but several other brilliant editors and writerly types on other blogs and places where writerly-types keep tabs on these things. I digress. On with the b.)s, c.)s and d.)s...

b.) It's not just the "measly" $2.00 we're talking about, but the principle behind it. Journals don't (usually) pay writers so why should you writers pay us? What gall! This journal is charging you to submit your work, which if accepted we'll only then use to our own advantage to get the journal out there in the world! We should be paying you, and a hell of a lot more than a measly $2.00!

c.) We journals should feel blessed and lucky to receive your work and discover your brilliance spread and bourne across the page (all cheekiness aside, this is often true -- feeling lucky as a reviewer to discover some kick-ass work come up through the submission system). How dare we ask you to pay for sharing your brilliance?

d.) You as writers dunno what we're gonna do with your $2.00, and plenty of journals you've entrusted your $2.00 to in the past have sunk it back into a luscious little pint of Guinness or the like instead of putting it towards actual printing costs.

Ok, so there are a few of the a.)s, b.)s, c.)s and d.)s that I confess I do understand, on some level, might justify some (ahem, some) of the heated arguments and strong language being used around this topic on the interwebs and in my wife's inbox.

But now I go back to the wtf, seriously? part of this conversation. And the part where I want to scream at all you whining writers, "It's two f**ing dollars!". Maybe it's because I'm coming from the perspective of an artist, where I have almost always had to pay submission fees for getting my work out there in the world, under the noses of fellow art-appreciators to let it be sniffed out and scrutinized for its level of worthiness. Maybe it's because when I first started sending work out 12 years ago, I not only had to send (real live paper) checks for submission fees that were at least $2.00, if not more like $5.00, on top of paying postage for mailing an 8.5 x 11" envelope (what was that back then? $0.80 or so?), but I also had to dump loads of my oh-so-limited cash supply into the film, development and printing of multiple slides of my work, and pay postage for a SASE to include with my mailing in the event that (gasp!) I'd be rejected and the reviewers were willing to return the slides I'd just dumped my loads of hard-earned cash into. That was then. Now it's easier of course with digital cameras and files of digital artwork and so on, and with most submission process being handled online, eliminating the postage fees. But I still (almost) always get the fees -- $2.00 to $5.00 or so.

Suffice to say there's always been a cost to send my work out there as an artist. So when the question of whether or not we were going to charge this, in my mind, measly little $2.00 submission fee as a way to, first and foremost, help keep Versal afloat, I thought "Duh! Why haven't we done that before???" And then when my brilliant editor-wife showed me all the whoo-haa going on in the literary blogosphere about this subject, I just frankly got really friggin' annoyed with all these whiny writers and their whiny writer Egos and their whiny writer principles and their kind of really outdated writer thoughts and views on the way this whole literary journal system thing "should" work and their kind of really outdated ideas that journals charging submission fees are either vanity journals or a straight-up scam. And I'm thinking, "Seriously? All this fuss about $2.00? Don't they get it? Don't they get all the work it takes to put these little books together? Don't they get the printing costs?" Oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that y'all used to have to pay for postage to send your work out, and $2.00 is not so different, really, from the $0.50 stamps you used to have to buy 5 or so years ago before online submissions dominated the "send your brilliance out there into the world for other people to review and fondle and decide to print up and spread all over the globe" space of the universe.

Ok. To your credit, writers, I'll say again: I get the why. I do. Especially in light of the whole BlazeVox whoo haa. Trust was broken. You felt used and you felt like someone pulled the wool over your eyes. Fair enough. Sound the alarms. Fight it out. Make yourselves and your opinions known and heard.

But, c'mon. Don't jump to the assumption that every literary journal is functioning the same way as the aforementioned (and might I add so overly referenced now to the point of being bullied in this conversation) BlazeVox or other less-than-transparent publications have behaved in the past.

We're trying our best over here in little A'dam and through the connective wires of the interwebs to be as transparent and honest with y'all as we possibly can about this new decision, this big change in Versal's life. We're about to be 10. This is a big year for us all.

I've known Megan for four years, and in those years I've watched her carry Versal around with her every minute of every day in her poet-activist-fighter's heart. I've watched her fight for Versal, love Versal, get angry about Versal, want to burn Versal down, want to build Versal up, want to keep Versal alive and thriving...but probably most importantly, I've watched her commit to the community and relationships that are Versal.

And that's I guess where I want to end. After all my venting to and about you whining writers, can I ask you to think seriously about your relationship with a literary journal? Think of it like a friend. Like someone you support, and who supports you back. Like someone who, when he or she invites you over for dinner, you'd bring a $7.00 bottle of wine for and/or a bouquet of flowers, because that fosters a system of mutual appreciation and support for the contributions you're both making in that relationship. While that subtle little monetary expectation is usually never spoken, it is in a way an agreement that could be similar to the literary journal's submission fee -- I as your friend who would like your company for dinner will pay $30.00 or so for dinner for both of us, for creating a space we can both enjoy and a space where we can both appreciate one another's talents, and you as a guest may also pay a small amount by bringing a bottle of wine or flowers to add to the atmosphere, and to contribute to our exchange as friends.

Versal can't keep going the way we were -- just barely funding our printing costs through journal sales, local workshops, and by dipping into the (not-so-deep) pockets of our (all strictly volunteer) editors to make sure the next one goes make sure this thing we love and we know a lot of you out there in the world love too, can keep going. And we also can't keep going, and I'm speaking generally now about the journal to writer/creative relationship, with this expectation that the journal is there to serve you, the creative, and that we (the ones making you and a bunch of other creatives the $30.00 dinner, creating the nice atmosphere, and sending that atmosphere out there in the world for other people to enjoy) are just to continue functioning off of non-existing magic money trees.

You see, this thing between you -- you writer or you artist or you creative person functioning in some beautiful in-between space -- and Versal is a partnership. It's a relationship. We aren't here to screw you over. We aren't here to throw your hard-earned $2.00 to the Amsterdam (ahem) blow. We're here to take your creative contribution to our table seriously, to consider its placement in our little book, and to include you if it makes sense in this "dinner conversation" called Versal. We're asking for mutual respect. We're asking you to step beyond the reactionary space where you find a measly $2.00 submission fee "repugnant" and consider why your friend, Versal, who we hope you mutually respect, might be asking for you to bring along that bottle of wine. If the mutual respect is not there, well...I suppose you can go on then with your whining. I don't know that whining makes much sense at this dinner party.

So, that's my soap box. Partially through the lens of an artist who has always had to reach into her pockets to get her work out there. Partially as a person who just thinks it's stupid to be whining about $2.00 (even though now I'm also a person at least bitching about $2.00). Partially as the partner of the editor whose inbox is starting to fill up with whiny writer complaints. But mostly just as me, Shayna Schapp, Versal's art editor, who got worked up enough about some of y'alls response to a request for $2.00 to speak up.


  1. Write on! I'd pay two bucks any day even to get rejected by Versal (you lot were kind enough to do it for free last time I submitted). Seriously now, whiny writers who believe their magnificent words deserve publication need to wake up to real-world economics and realize that (to 'captcha' from the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote) in this day and age Versal simply must apply "a creative economy" to ensure it continues as "the fuel of magnifience".
    My tuppenceworth.

  2. Do you really think that referring to your readers as "whiny writers" is going to encourage them to pay $2 for a submission? It certainly does not communicate that "mutual respect." Just sayin'...

  3. Dear Geoff,

    Interesting point. And no, I don't think referring to writers (not necessarily our readers) as "whiny" will encourage them to pay a $2 sub fee. But, the intention of my post wasn't really to try and encourage anyone to pay the fee. The intention was, first and foremost, to express my personal irritation with all the fuss around the subject, and what I and Versal as a whole view as a need for a new perspective on the relationship between a journal and their contributors.

    I'm not calling all our readers out as whiny. Just the ones whining. And as the art editor who stands a bit on the outskirts of all this talk, who stands often as a fresh observer of the writing community instead of one whose been groomed and cultivated in all its funny ins and outs and dos and don'ts, I feel a certain amount of permission to say such things -- to call y'all out a bit.

    I hope, also, that you can sense my tone of sarcasm in this whole post, including when I refer to the writers who are moaning about submission fees as "whiny writers". And I hope you can also pick up on the fact that I've implicated myself in this whining and in a failure to show each other mutual respect several times in my post (particularly at the end, when I fess up to being another person in the conversation bitching about the $2 submission fee).

    But I also stand by my observation that I do think the writing world is being a tid bit whiny about this whole thing, and I do think it's gone to the point of kind of ridiculous. As I've pointed out several times here, I understand why writers are moaning, but I think it's time for everyone to step up to the table as adults. Sometimes stepping up as an adult includes calling the whiners out on their whining.

    Thank you for taking time to read what we have to say, and to share your thoughts. Dinner conversations are always more interesting when people speak up...

  4. I think writers (and artists) can be very whiney. Remember though, we are talking about a class of people where I read this morning at that someone wanted to track which MFA programs had students who landed at least a "four figure contract" within 10 years of graduating as part of their rating of programs! Isn't that hateful? A four figure contract is considered success?! And then on top of that, journals are failing (along with the economy) and the writers are asked to cough up $2 to submit. I personally don't care. I like your journal, I will probably continue to buy it any way. I seriously can't imagine paying someone to read my poetry or fiction (I have been paid to read at events), but that is just me. I have already been rejected by your journal for free - I can't imagine paying to be rejected. It is not an ego thing - I don't think I am the next Ferlinghetti or something. Imagine being asked to a dinner party and you are asked to bring a bottle of wine - you are invited to dinner, but MUST bring a bottle of wine to get in the door. Then there are only 12 seats at the table. Only the selected few are allowed to sit down to eat... Thanks for the whine :-)

  5. I'm starting to feel that people fall on one of two sides of this issue, and it will probably be a year or two before things become more "gray". In any case, I think it's about looking at the big picture, and not seeing the $2 as payment to be rejected or accepted, but a small contribution to the literary economy in which you want to participate. Just as we as writers "do it for free", so do most of the editors and small presses out there. The least we can do is start to find ways to support each other sustainably.

    And by sustainably I mean, we cannot run a Kickstarter campaign every time we want to publish an issue. The model of external, grant or university support that has held up much of the literary journal world is breaking down dramatically.

    It's just smart numbers to pinpoint ways to make money (and at Versal we need €5000 a year, which equals printing and postage) from the activities that you're actually doing. So: selling issues. So: reading for those issues.

    The alternative I guess would be to harangue our readers and fans and followers every day, like I see many literary organizations do, for donations. It's in constant red alert out there. As a reader of these things, I am in constant need-fatigue.

    The big picture: "I don't do submission fees" is going the way of the dinosaurs. The relationship between writers and publishers is changing. And as part of that, independent journals have a choice. To keep pushing funding models that don't go much further than the next issue, or to find ways to become self-sufficient. And that's possible, economically, with a few smart - though clearly controversial - practices.