There Must Be 50 Ways to Fleece a Writer By Linda Avey Bullock

Like many writers I was outraged back when Moxie editor Emily Hancock began demanding a $10 reading fee with all submissions. I fired off rants to editors, made a crude voodoo doll in what I imagined to be in Emily Hancock’s likeness, and stuck pins between its eyes, in the back of its head, and, yes, even in its butt. And then I got mad.

How dare she ask writers for a reading fee! Doesn’t she know that this could start a trend? My panties were in such a wad I couldn’t walk straight, much less sit at a desk and write. So I did what any professional would do in this situation: I got a bag of Oreos and surfed the Net.

It was during this time that I found an article in which several other editors responded to Moxie’s new policy, saying they would never stoop so low as to charge writers reading fees. Some of them even sounded like they were on our side, empathetic to our needs–Oh gosh! They like us! They really like us!

Feeling much better now, thank you very much. With renewed faith in a just universe, I decided that reading fee thing was only a fluke, one misguided editor of a floundering publication making a grievous error in judgment.

But then I found it–another publication that charges writers a fee to submit their work. I’ll call it Prosebum. (I’ve changed all names in the rest of this article so that I won’t have to bone up on libel laws.) Prosebum calls it a $1 “handling fee.” Warning: The first sentence of Prosebum’s submission policy is so sad you may need a hankie. It reads: “Prosebum, Inc., is a nonprofit organization staffed by volunteers.”

Now be honest: Isn’t that one of the saddest things you ever read?

That statement alone is sufficient incentive to make you want to take a dollar out of your pocket and put it into theirs, but Prosebum further states, “To handle the growing thousands of submissions we receive every year, we are launching the Prosebum Fast-track Initiative (PFI) to streamline submission processing. To achieve this we will be charging a handling fee of one dollar.” Oh, now I get it–if they have a dollar in their hand they can read faster.

Prosebum instructs writers to send their $1 handling fee, “cash or check”–maybe nobody told them it was illegal to send cash through the mail–to either Sam S. Slimey or Hue R. Gullible. As if this weren’t a sweet enough deal, Prosebum pays in issues only. The exact number of issues is determined by how many issues Sam and Hue have lying around and can’t sell, which they refer to as their “supply.”

So, are Moxie and Prosebum the only magazines charging submission fees? I went to my favorite search engine and typed the words “magazine” and “reading fee” and pulled up more than 1100 responses. Some of them were magazines charging reading fees, mostly only those calling themselves “literary magazines.” Among other responses were magazines charging “no reading fees,” though the fact that they need to mention it tells me that it’s a fairly common practice.

Many of the responses were contests. Now there’s a word that should put you on red alert, as should the word “anthology.” Though some contests and anthologies are legitimate and even prestigious, many are scams designed especially for writers.

For example, here’s a company–we’ll call them FictionNot–a self-described “non-profit online literary journal/contest/co-op”–whatever that means. They charge a reading fee of $2.36 for each submission and award $1000 for what they determine to be the best story in each “reading period.”

A reading period, it turns out, is “as soon as enough reading fees have accumulated to fund another prize.” They claim to publish about one out of every 500 submissions. So that’s 500 @ $2.36 = $1180, or $180 above the thousand-dollar prize, which according to my calculator is about 18 percent profit. (My credit cards charge me less than that and I don’t have to write anything but my signature.)

FictionNot swears that “every penny of it [after credit card fees] goes directly to pay writers for their stories.” And again we get the heartbreaking story that “all our other expenses are covered by volunteers and donations.” Yes, these people do this work day in and day out for the sole purpose of benefiting you, without a thought to themselves. And I’m a size 2.

Okay, back to the real world. Let’s say your story wins–that is, you beat out at least 499 other writers who sent in their stories and their money. That would put your writing in the .2 percentile. Wow! Good news–looks like you don’t even need these guys.

According to Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents (Prima Publishing) even high-profile New York Agencies accept about 2 percent (that’s without the decimal) of their manuscript submissions.

Those odds are bad enough, but it still adds up to roughly 2 out of every 100 manuscripts or 10 out of every 500, which is 10 times better than the one out of 500 odds FictionNot purports to give writers. And reputable agencies don’t charge reading fees. Not yet anyway.

Oh, but hang onto your garters, Gertie. If you’re in FictionNot’s .2 percentile, you get to have your story published online (Whoopee!) where FictionNot’s readers can download it for FREE! (I told you these guys were selfless.)

FictionNot, on the other hand, gets “first serial rights, unlimited but nonexclusive anthology rights, and unlimited but nonexclusive electronic redistribution rights.” Well, okay, maybe not totally selfless.

Think about it. If your work really is in the .2 percentile, do you really want to give away all those rights? And if it isn’t, wouldn’t your time and money be better spent honing your craft?

You can find hundreds of literary contests to enter, but if the contest you enter isn’t well-known and well-regarded by those you wish to impress, even if you win, it will give you about as much credibility as a degree from a diploma mill.

If you simply want to see yourself in print, there are better ways to do it. For one thing, you could self-publish. There are books right here at the Store for Authors that will tell you how to go about it. (I don’t get anything if you buy these books; I’m just sucking up.)

If you want to enter contests, fine. Winning the right one can help your career. Just be sure to check them out thoroughly before you send them your money. Among other things, you need to know who’s sponsoring the contest, how often they conduct contests, and who’s doing the judging.

Here are some URLs to check on the more well-known scams:

Literary Contest Caution

Writer’s Center Scam Kit

Google’s Fraud Site
If after all your research you’re still bamboozled, below are some scam tip-offs I’ve gathered from my own personal experience.

It’s probably a scam if–

1. The reading fee is more than Bill Gates’ salary.

2. The publisher has an offshore address.

3. The publisher tells you that Steven Spielberg wants the film rights but you have to fork over $5000 to cover photocopy expenses.

4. You’re pretty sure that Sliman and Sheister is a reputable publisher.

5. The fee for entering the contest is $250; the prize is $10.

6. The “winner” of the contest is determined by a chimpanzee pulling down the handle on a colorful machine with three tiny windows that spin pictures of fruit.

7. The publisher’s name has a number after it, and he always calls you collect.

8. The publisher’s address has the words “prison” or “correctional facility” in it.

9. Your “book doctor” calls you at 3 a.m. and wants to make a house call.

10. A man in a black sedan offers you candy to get into the car and show him your manuscript. (If asked, he’ll show you his first.)

Linda Avey Bullock is a freelance writer specializing in writing, humor, women’s issues and anything else that brings a check in the mail.