Literary Magazines are Part of a Gift Economy (And That’s Okay): On Contest Entry Fees


In discussing writing contests and writing contest entry fees, I feel as though I am entering some sort of literary “fray.” I typically do not enter frays. My therapist says I am fray-avoidant. I don’t even like the word “fray.” Still, despite my hesitancy, I do feel like it would be a good idea to explain Atticus Review’s philosophy regarding our writing contests and the entry fees we charge for them.

Over the past 9 months, Atticus Review has held two writing contests and we are in the final days of a third, our Creative Nonfiction Contest, judged by Sarah Gerard. Each of these contests have had a modest entry fee of around $10. They have been a boon for the winners and for the the judges, both in terms of positive publicity and in the form of monetary prizes/honorariums.

I want to be clear, though: I also consider these contests to be fundraisers for Atticus Review. And this feels like the part that seems controversial or fray-like.

First, I should point out that Atticus Review does not require submission fees for general submissions. Instead, we provide an option for people to leave voluntary contributions during the submission process. Also, we encourage everybody who visits to become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon. A good number of writers have left us voluntary one-time contributions. A smaller—though no less important—number have subscribed via Patreon. People are making gifts, and they’re doing it voluntarily and that’s really encouraging. It’s nice to have people believe in and support us. Still, these gifts are not enough (so far) to keep Atticus Review in the black and enable us to continue to grow in the ways we hope to.

Which brings us back to contests and entry fees. When a writer participates in one of our contests, they are also helping keep the magazine sustainable. We’d like that to be something the writer will feel good about, regardless of whether or not they win. Our contests have helped raise the bulk of the money to manage the hard costs of the magazine, including hosting fees, printing costs, and other services, not to mention the cost of the contest itself. We do not implement these fees in order to make a profit, or even to give any kind of salary. All the editors work on a volunteer basis, including myself. If a writer has a hardship and would like to enter a contest, we’re also more than willing to help that writer and have indicated so in our social media. Whether writer or editor (or both), we all have the same goal: to keep doing this thing.

Writers and Readers

Some folks might argue that writers lending financial support to a magazine is a conflict of interest, but I disagree. Writers don’t just contribute their work to literary magazines, they are the primary audience for them. We shouldn’t fool ourselves about this. If you doubt it, check out the traffic logs of most literary magazine websites and see how their “submit” page compares to the other content pages on the site. In the case of Atticus Review, our page views break down this way: 11% to the homepage, followed by the “How to Submit” page at 7%. If you count all the various submission pages and forms, the total percentage of traffic to all “submit” pages combined is actually more around 16%, more than any other single page on our site, including the homepage. After these two pages, traffic going to each of the individual content pages on the site is around 3% or lower.

Oh shit, I think I just put my foot into a deep pocket of fray. Let me back up a little.It seems like the main thing that makes people upset about the idea of writers contributing financially to literary magazines in the form of contest fees or submission fees (voluntary as we do it, or otherwise) is that it sets up some sort of “pay-to-play” system. But this assumes that the literary magazine world is a typical barter economy like the kind we’re used to in much of the world. It’s not, though. I would argue it’s actually something much closer to a gift economy. Why? Because there is essentially no inherent value to literary magazines or the content they contain.

Let me explain what I mean. It’s not that there is no value in the enterprise. Many people find personal value in the literary magazine (even if they’d be reluctant to pay $20 for one.) But you can tell by the number of magazines selling products and services other than the literary journal itself (workshops, conferences, t-shirts) that it’s not the literary magazine that’s in demand. Literary magazines have the greatest value for the two parties involved in them: literary magazine editors and writers. Literary magazines are highly valuable to writers and writers are indispensable to literary magazines. But this value proposition is entirely based on the relationship between the two parties. That symbiotic relationship is paramount to the whole thing.

Fee Fi Fo… Gift Economy

To me, there have been a few problems with the discussion over fees at literary magazines (both with contest entry fees and the broader topic of submission fees in general). For one thing, people tend to speak of “writers” and “editors of literary magazines” as though they are two separate groups, when in fact they are one in the same. I don’t know any editors of literary journals who aren’t themselves writers. That’s not to say they don’t exist (admittedly, I haven’t done any sort of poll) but they’re probably a minority. I think this is important to remember: we’re not at odds with one another. Or at least, we shouldn’t be. We’re on the same team and the thing we’re up against (as a team) is a shifting economy that has increasingly been disrupted by technology over the last 20 years.

Secondly, we’re misidentifying the “product” in the exchange between writers and editors in the literary magazine ecosystem. In doing so, we are also mischaracterizing the value provided by each party. In the relationship between the writer and the editors, the writers provide the writing and the editors provide the platform — the literary magazine. But the “product” is actually neither of these things. The product, if we need to name one, is the relationship itself. The community.

At Atticus Review, we aim to honor the value that talented writers bring to the journal by publicizing their work, and not just the work that appears in our pages. We want to continue to share writers’ future successes with the broader community through initiatives like our monthly “Author News” feature. We also nominate to contests and anthologies such as Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. If anything, we consider this support to be our “service,” or our “product.” And we offer that product to writers with no commitment on their part. On the other end, writers contribute their work, with no expectation of reward, and if they have the ability to do so and feel so moved, they also can contribute money.

That’s not pay-to-play. That’s a gift economy. It thumbs its nose at capitalism. It says fuck you to senseless, cents-per-click advertising, to selling other people’s shit to keep itself sustainable.

Am I sufficiently in this fray now?

Unlike a barter or market economy, where goods and services are exchanged for some kind of compensation and the transfer constitutes an equitable agreement between both parties, there is no such agreement between parties regarding received goods and “rewards” in a gift economy. A good example of how this works (and has worked for many years) is the funding of public radio stations. I’m an avid public radio listener. My local station, WNYC, likes to use the term “listener supported,” which I love. I’ve been wanting to steal that term for Atticus Review and call it reader/writer supported.

This system of support can work for literary magazines, too. I send my work or give money to magazines when I like what they do. And you may think, “but when you say ‘what they do’ don’t you mean ‘creating a literary journal.'” No. There are hundreds of really nice-looking, well done journals out there that have good writing inside. That’s not unique. What sets some apart for me is how they engage with and support the community. When I say “what they do” I mean: their professionalism, their support of writers, their involvement in the literary gift economy.When I give to WNYC, I do so because they’re already giving me something I like: news and content that interests me. More than that, though, they’re making me feel like part of a community. Also, I find them to be ethical and professional and I identify with the tone of their programming. If they just delivered the news but they didn’t provide something I identify with, I probably wouldn’t be as inclined to contribute to them. But regardless of whether I do or don’t contribute, they’re not obligated to give me anything, either way. Likewise, I’m not obligated to continue giving to them. Nevertheless, both things continue to happen. It’s about the gifting, not the exchange of goods.

The Question of Compensation

Just because our industry has many characteristics of a gift economy, it does not mean we shouldn’t, when possible, combine elements of a traditional barter economy. For instance, as Atticus Review gains more financial support through monetary contributions, our plan is to begin to compensate some of our writers with actual green money as part of the overall support we offer. Being a daily journal makes the payment of all writers difficult, so we will begin by paying the writers we include in our Print Annual. That is something we aim to do beginning in 2019.

As writers, you have a lot of choice when you submit to literary journals. If you are against submission fees (either voluntary or required) and writing contest entry fees, you can show your support instead to magazines who do not have those things. There are plenty of them. But you should consider, especially with online journals, that if a magazine (and the work inside it) is to last, it has to be sustainable outside the spirit of philanthropy or benevolence of the people who are running it, especially if it is to ever outlive those people and exist when they are gone. Maybe you feel that advertising is a better way to go. That’s fine. But it’s got to be something.

I understand that every writer cannot demonstrate financial support to all literary magazines. But I do think that if you find a journal you really like and want to support, it’s basically up to you to help those journals survive in whatever way you can, including financially. It doesn’t have to be Atticus Review. You probably already have a favorite. Or maybe a few. But find one and help out however you can.

Thanks for reading. Gotta go wipe this fray off my shoe now.

Image credit to used under CC