I appreciated reading Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister’s recent blog post on the ethics of certain practices of literary journals, particularly on charging submission fees. I felt called to respond because it seemed like a good opportunity to share with our readers and with the larger literary world, as Tom says, “what we are even doing.” I’m always curious to see how different journals and small presses juggle these questions as well, and hope to be in dialogue with other editors about this.

Tom takes issue with journals that do the following:

a) charge sub fees
b) don’t pay
c) are online only
d) “can’t promise to respond”

I 100% agree with his assessment of journals that “can’t promise to respond.” Not responding to a submission is ludicrous. Given how easy it is to create a form rejection on Submittable or other software, clicking “reject” to send a form email response is a no-brainer. I don’t know why any lit journal wouldn’t do that. We also have “higher tier” rejections, in which we encourage the author to submit again. That’s standard practice, and also very easy to do.

Storyscape falls in the category of a journal that is online only and does not pay its contributors. We have a tip jar and free reading periods, so for the following periods submissions are free (and you can choose to tip if you’d like; some people do): May 1 – August 1; October 1 – December 1; January 1 – March 1. For any periods that fall outside those dates, the tip jar becomes required, so yes, it is a fee. But I think we set out enough months of free submissions that this system is accessible to most folks. It’s similar to just having open reading periods during certain times of the year, and not reading submissions during other times of the year, which many journals do. We read submissions all year long, and part of that time includes the free submission periods.

In his blog post, Tom also brings up the question of why charge fees for an online journal that doesn’t pay its writers? Specifically he says,

…if a journal is charging fees and not paying writers, then they are either explicitly or implicitly saying they need that money to cover costs. But if the only thing you do is pay for web hosting, a Submittable account, and maybe a Squarespace account, then your annual fees are no higher than $550-600. That cost is covered by the first 200 submissions (which will come in about 3 weeks), and then what? What, exactly, am I paying for?  The time of the editor, who, of his own volition, decided to start a website and call it Sick Hermit Crab Quarterly or whatever?

Indeed, this mostly describes us (minus the Sick Hermit Crab and minus paying editors). The tip jar covers our basic costs: web hosting and our Submittable account. Our journal is free to read. We have published two print anthologies, but other than that, we do not print books. We mostly don’t sell anything (except for those anthologies and some t-shirts!). If there is ever extra money from the tip jar, which occasionally there is, but not a whole lot, we keep it in our account and use it for things like mailing out copies of anthologies or t-shirts.

We are as low key on the business end as we can get. This was a conscious choice. All our editors (and our awesome web designer) are volunteers and have other jobs to make a living. The journal mostly exists outside the realm of capitalism; we keep costs super low. No one will ever be forced to pay a submission fee, and no one has to pay to read the journal. We treat our contributors with respect, we give substantive feedback on pieces that we want to see developed further, we copy edit everything meticulously, and we choose gorgeous cover art for every issue. We now celebrate our contributors’ achievements with quarterly blog posts sharing their good news. We do wish we could pay authors, but the tip jar definitely will not cover those costs. And while I admire journals that have found ways to make enough money to pay authors, we’re a very small operation, and we’re still proud of the incredible work we publish.

We hope that by sharing our practices here other journals will do the same. I think the optional tip jar and free reading periods are a sensible compromise for small journals like us. And you will always, always get a response.