Why I Won’t Pay to Submit (and Why I Will)

Magazines and competitions charging a submission fee can be legitimate, but also can be a nefarious way of profiting from writers.

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Having spent several years now sending out short stories and poems to various magazines, along with entering the occasional competition, I’ve noticed a trend for some to charge for submission. Although the reasons for this may at times be entirely genuine, I am often sceptical.

Most magazines—whether online only or in print—accept submissions for free, though some offer a premium service of a faster response in exchange for a few quid. This makes sense, as the staff are often underpaid (or even unpaid), and so effectively bribing them with a coffee to look at your work first is something a few writers may do, particularly if they are in a hurry. Most, however, will wait the allocated six months, for example, in order to get a response.

Other magazines charge to submit, yet they pay for accepted submissions. This then becomes a question of balance: if they charge £3 per submission, pay £30 for anything they accept, and only buy rights to one in ten submissions, then they are paying out using the fees of the unsuccessful writers, and potentially making a profit if their acceptance ratio is less than 1:10. If, however, they pay £300 per accepted submission, the £3 appears more to cover the cost of reading and either approving or rejecting whatever you send them.

Then there are the markets that pay for accepted submissions (like Thanet Writers) but don’t charge a submission fee. That, to me, says they are willing to pay the very people who give them content—and rightly so—and then generate income elsewhere.

Whilst magazines and publishers charging for submissions can be seen as acceptable (though it is not something I would ever agree to do), in competitions it appears to be much more commonplace.

I have seen countless competitions that charge, for example, a £5 entry fee. The winner, as well as being published on their website, will receive £250. Second place nets £50 and third place just online publication. Call me a cynic, but that seems a little suspicious to me. If sixty people enter—each paying £5—the competition has an income of £300. The total prize-money being given away is £300. If more than sixty people enter, the competition brings in more money, yet the prize fund remains the same. Now, if there were three judges, each being paid £50, and the cost of the website and a few social media adverts added up to another £50, the total expenditure becomes £500. That still only needs a hundred entries to break even. I saw one such competition—with numbers practically identical to these—which boasted of over a thousand entries each year. That’s a profit of at least £4500 for the organisers.

I’m not saying all competitions are scams, nor that the kudos received for winning one isn’t worth a small fee; I’m just pointing out a little maths. If you win a competition that has thousands of entries then you deserve some credit. If, however, you are just lining someone’s pocket as the organisers are not stating what they will do with the money, then surely that is not worthwhile?

To offer a comparison, I recently learned of a competition that charges £10 to enter. The prize is £250. So far, so not good. However, this competition has two categories: adults and teenagers. The adults pay to enter and can only win £250, but the teenagers can enter for free and their first prize is £1000. The organiser is a non-profit organisation that invests in the community, and the majority of the adult entry fees will go to the winning teenager, encouraging young people to engage with literature and writing. That is not only justifiable, but to be encouraged. It is one of the few occasions I feel it not only acceptable, but correct to pay for entry.

When evaluating whether to part with your own money to possibly get published, win a competition, or get paid in return, look at the risk versus the reward. Consider where the money will go and what it will do. Spend it wisely.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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