January 17, 2012

Mythbusting the submission fee, part 1

So we implemented some big/radical/scary changes ahead of our reading period for Versal 10, one of them being a submission fee. GASP.

You may remember us talking about this quite a bit back in the fall (and you can jump over here to read some of that).

Now that our reading period has closed, we can look at the numbers to assess how those changes affected our submission numbers as well as to what extent they helped our financial goal to become more self-sustainable. I promised that I'd be open about the results and post some numbers, so here they are in all their glory.

Overall, submissions were down 39%. Though in the opening days of the reading period we received three emails condemning our new fee, those three emails were the only three we received. And though it's impossible to pin down the exact cause of the lower submissions, we strongly suspect the lower numbers were due to Duotrope's no-fee policy: that it will not list journals that charge fees. The numbers support this hunch: we received a major boost during our Free Week in October, when Duotrope listed us as open, and another large deluge starting Friday, January 13 when Duotrope changed its listing policy (what brought about its change of heart?) and Versal was again listed as an open market.

Last fall I was having dinner with a few visiting writers, and our submission fee came up. One of the visiting writers, a poet from California, strongly opposed the practice and suggested that Versal print only fiction because (and I'm paraphrasing), "fiction writers are more likely to pay. Poets won't pay, they're out at Occupy Wall Street protesting this kind of crap." I was polite in my responses, but seething. I mean, really? I'm a poet, I support Occupy, and I also pay sub fees. Her black&white world made/makes me sad.

Now that we're through the four months of our reading period, I can say with confidence that the numbers prove her wrong. (We can talk another time about her conclusions on the inherent nature of poets vs. prose writers...Eeek.) We had almost two times the number of poetry submissions as prose, which is not abnormal for us, but what is notable is that the poets were more likely to pay the extra $1 for a matched contributor payment from Versal, preorder a copy of Versal 10, or buy a subscription. And not just by a small margin either. Poets were two times more likely to add the matching $1, almost four times more likely to preorder, and no single prose submission came with a subscription.

I'm not making judgments about the moral character of poets vs. prose writers, because that's stupid. But I want the numbers to speak back to that day last October in a way I could not then. I want them to say, look, poets are generous, they are not as precious as you paint them to be -- assuming of course that any sense of character can be gleaned from this at all, which is disputable and probably entirely wrong. But that's exactly the point. The whoo-ha around the lit world -- and among editors -- about the submission fee is really a bunch of whoo-ha, and we should stop making so many assumptions about our communities, stop casting lines in the sand between "types" of writers and editors and journals, stop assuming every writer is a vulnerable sheep facing (against) the editor-wolf, unable to make their own decisions, come to their own conclusions, "doing everything it takes" just for a publication credit
. The power dynamic, if anything, is exactly the opposite. Times have changed, and yay.

But anyway, I can talk about that some other time. What I want to talk about today is that the news for us is very good. What's more, the news for our contributors to Versal 10 is pretty damn cool. 220 writers and artists chose to add an additional $1 to their submission fee, which will be matched by Versal and the total funds divided equally among all contributors to the new issue. As we've stated elsewhere, this is our small but important step towards paying the people who make Versal great. Total donations from writers and artists: $220; total matched funds from Versal: $220; total funds to be equally divided among our contributors: $440.

We still have a lot of financials to look at, and I'm especially curious how we fare now compared to this time last year, but minus the $1 contributor donations, we made $1863.14 through our new system. On the surface this seems to strongly support our original case for changing our funding source from labor-intensive, pricey and long-running local workshops to sales related directly to the journal itself (in 2010, we made about €1300 from a full year's program of workshops in Amsterdam).

I'm also excited that we've already sold 36 copies of Versal 10!

There's obviously a lot of refinement to do on these calculations, and some solid assessments and projections to be made (I gave up math in 6th grade to join the drama club), but I am happy to report that, on the whole, the changes have been positive for us. And I would say for our community both here in Amsterdam and abroad.

Once we finish reading, I'll share what our team thought of the quality of the submissions compared to previous years. There's two theories running about the lit world, in terms of quality of submissions and fees. One is that quality goes up because those who send work are really familiar with the journal; the other is that quality goes down because those who send work are "desperate". I hope we'll debunk both of these simplifications…but stay tuned.


  1. Totally interesting post. Thanks, Megan, for breaking it down so clearly.

  2. Very interesting. I absolutely think writers and artists should be compensated for their work, but I still have reservations about drawing that funding from other artists. Obviously some writers are willing to pay for the privilege of having their work read, but its hard for me to wrap my head completely around the idea of a not-for-profit publishing enterprise raising revenue from the very people they're intending to serve. Still, great to see the results of this change. Definitely something to think about.