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The Surviving Small Press: Reading Fees
by Tom Person
There are good poetry competitions that have been around for years and provide a valuable service to the small press community by bringing attention to the quality writing of the sort produced by small publishers. Books produced by the competition will support future competitions, or the publishers continue sponsoring them on the basis of publicity value to their catalog. There is no need to subsidize the competitions with reading fees. I'm not going to write about those competitions in this issue.
Most literary junk mail I receive anymore consists of announcements for poetry competitions, either for individual poems or chapbooks, requiring reading fees of $3.00 to $15.00. Much of this nonsense comes from the usual leeches who've always fed on novices and the naive. But a growing number of flyers and magazine ads are coming from otherwise (or formerly) respectable presses. Come on! This is nothing but vanity publishing by lottery. At least with a vanity publisher you get a copy of the book. In a poetry competition with a fee, you're paying for a chance to get published by a press that expects the losers to pay for the winning book. They even seem to base the size of the fee on the imagined prestige of the press. Is there any literary competition with any real prestige that relies on a reading fee?
What we have here is obviously just a way to make money. Disclaimers can be made that fees go to pay for prizes, advertising and printing. How does this differ from the normal expense of doing business? The prize is nothing more than a set fee for a piece of work. Are they inferring that the best book they can come up with from the best writers won't sell? No, of course not. They usually enclose an offer to buy last year's model, touting it as the best thing since Howl. What they're inferring is that writers will be too dumb to realize the press is going to market the bejesus out of the sucker until the next competition.
Here are a few examples from the March/April 1990 issue of Poets & Writers: Triquarterly, $15 reading fee (includes subscription, [which goes for] $5 for current subscribers). Granted they have a $3,000 prize, but the optimum word here is "granted". Triquarterly is affiliated with Northwestern University and should be financially not too bad off. University of Arkansas Press, $10 fee for chapbook manuscript. Gibbs Smith Publisher, $10 for poetry manuscript. New Letters (University of Missouri-Kansas City), $10 for 3 to 6 poems or essay. Nimrod Contemporary Literature Journal, $10for poems. University of Pittsburgh Press, $10 for poetry manuscript. Heaven Bone Press, $7 for chapbook, $1 for single poem. Amelia has no less than six competitions at once -- $5 for short story or longpoem, $3 each for haiku, $4 for erotic or narrative poem, and $10 for one-act play.
So what's wrong with making money? Nothing. But ethically, reading fees stink. Is it the next step to charge reading fees for regular submissions? The Plowman Press in Whitby, Ontario, Canada is charging a $10 reading fee for all chapbook submissions with no hint as to what they are looking for.
There are so many competitions now that they are meaningless. It's an easy way to produce a book that's going to go into the black. In doing so, without some goal or purpose, other than bringing in funds for the press, these competitions are just diluting the validity of more well-meaning contests. Why not just submit work to a press that puts out good publications consistently without resorting to competitions? It's a shame that the prime target of the competitions is would-be writers who've got a book manuscript or a pile of poems and either don't know how or don't want to go through the dues process of sending their stuff around to publishers. These are the people who could be the future of small press if encouraged by publishers, rather than victimized by them.
If a writer really wants to enter a poetry competition, they should shop around. There are many that don't charge a fee and carry much more weight than those that do. And they should be sure to research the preferences of the sponsoring press or institution. Many poetry competitions give little or no indication of the preferences or selection criteria. A brilliant manuscript will be knocked out in the first round if the sponsors are looking for rhymed lyric ballads and the writer is submitting minimalist haiku consisting of non-standard phonetic symbols and beer label quotes.
But above all, don't give these guys money. It just encourages them.