I occasionally, as the muse moves me, write non-genre fiction. This means I have to find places to send it.
The largest market is literary journals operated by university English departments. I can't swear to how they work, but I tend to assume (are there any students who can confirm or deny?) that their slush is read by students for credit. These magazines usually pay and some can pay quite well.
However, there is a disturbing and growing trend: Reading fees.
It's actually becoming standard for university-run magazines to charge a $3 reading fee (it's almost always $3) for electronic submissions. In some cases, they don't charge for postal subs. In some cases, they only take electronic subs. The claim is always that this is somehow what it "costs" them to read a story. I've also read "it doesn't cost any more than a postal sub" (not true if you have a higher volume printer, which all writers should consider investing in - I like my Brother HL-2140 a lot and it doesn't take up much more space than a desktop inkjet). This includes, more and more, journals that don't even pay the writers.
But pretty soon they will be able to claim it's "standard industry practice."
Reading fees have never been "standard industry practice." In many areas, reading fees are a red flag that an organization is a scam.
Here's an explanation from one of them, which boils down to: Because you cheapskate writers refuse to subscribe to our magazines, we have to charge you fees, because we have to get money out of you somehow. Oh, and he claims it results in more submissions. Which bothers me more than anything else I've heard. "Writers have no problem paying money to submit."
Why, other than thinking we have no choice? (Which in the literary journal world is likely to become the case - very, very soon - at which point I will cease to submit non-genre fiction and quite probably cease to write it). Most of the time, a writer is paying $3 or even more (some magazines charge as much as $20) for a rejection letter that will probably be a form.
And while $3 doesn't sound like much, it can easily mount up into the hundreds a year (one writer calculated that at his normal submission rate he'd pay about $1,000 just in submissions at that rate). It's very common to submit a story 20 or 30 times before it's accepted.
Ah, but, we should support the journals we submit to?
Of course we should, when we can afford it. But we should not be required to do so as a "cost of doing business." I contrast Apex, which has given me back issues just for entering their contests. Or Dark Discoveries, which gave me a free one year subscription as an apology for a submission that got lost.
And if you pay a reading fee to be published for free, there's a rather nasty word for that: Vanity publishing.
Unfortunately, this will remain a problem as long as writers are willing to pay the fees: And apparently quite a few of us are.
As a note: I have no problem with magazines that have an optional submission fee, ask for donations on their website, etc. That's fine. I don't mind being asked for money. Or even begged for money. I mind being treated as a buyer instead of a seller.
In no other industry are people charged fees just to apply for a job. And in this case, the job might pay $100, $50 or...nothing at all.
So, I'm challenging the writers out there: If you pay these fees, consider why. And consider the fact that by supporting this business model you're part of why it's becoming more common.
And to editors: Consider alternatives such as crowdfunding, asking for donations - I realize universities are letting their literary journals down right now - offering discount subscriptions to writers, charging fees that include a free electronic back issue so the writer is guaranteed something for it (and it also makes them read your magazine). This isn't about us not having money, although most writers would rather spend $1,000 a year on something with a guaranteed return. Nor is it about "writers aren't business people." Some writer's aren't, but many are.
And that's why I for one want to be treated as a vendor, not a buyer.