An Accounting; or, Writing Submissions by the Numbers

The end of the year is closing in, as is my birthday, and I often do a year in review for myself. This year I also did a submissions review. What have I been up to? Well, apparently “up to” a lot of reading fee payments.

In 2018, I spent $350 on contest entry/publisher reading fees from which I received bupkus.

Clearly I did not spend enough money — more entries should equal more acceptances. No. Clearly I spent too much money — I got zero return on my investment, so it was a bad investment. No. Clearly I have no idea what is reasonable and how to think about entry fees.

One of those contest entries resulted in not a win but an offer to publish a poem in the publisher’s online magazine. So I guess that’s something.

I sent out 30 lit mag submissions from which I received 3 acceptances. In spite of the sturm und drang all those rejections caused, the big picture is somewhat cheering.

But I thought I had submitted more than that. There are a handful I haven’t counted because I haven’t gotten a response yet. So by the end of the year, I think I’ll be at 35 magazine submissions. Will I eke out another acceptance? Given my usual ROI, I doubt it.

Most of those were online submissions for which I paid nothing. One was a $2 fee that I now bitterly regret paying, as it was for nought and was against my better judgment and my general refusal to pay online submission fees. A couple were mail-in submissions, with postage well below the $2 fee many lit mags are charging, plus I can walk to the post office, so I get some exercise out of it.

I got one paid reading gig, and I sold some books out of my own store, so made a little money. I gave a couple of workshops. My little paid book review gig garnered me a tiny sum. Not that I’m in it for the money, but if I’ve got to lay out some dough, I want to get some back in once in a while.

And so it goes. This in no way addresses the qualitative pleasures (and pains) of being a writer — I enjoyed so many things, camaraderie, experiences, experimentation and play, am proud of the work I did, happy to have gotten my work into some venues. But sometimes I have to step back and just look at the numbers with an eye toward how to conduct the po biz in the coming year.

Intentions: Double my submissions next year.

Should I pay more in entry fees? I don’t think so. This amount made me gulp, but it supports a variety of publishers I want to support, and that feels supportive of my work, whether it got accepted or not.

Is it all worth it? Can’t I just be content making work?
No. I want it out there. I want it read or viewed. I want it appreciated. Or criticized, or whatever.

Yeah, I know, friends, that I get down at the mouth throughout the year. But I also feel buoyed sometimes, amused often, engaged in my work, and hopeful. Do I fail to mention that? Remind me to mention that.

I sometimes get the sense from people that they think I should be content just making the work, that there’s some kind of purity in that. That the search for publication success is somehow a sullied enterprise. Egotistical, perhaps. Or at best, a fool’s errand.
I say, it’s part of the artistic process — do the work, put it out into the world, take your shots and huzzahs as they come. Complain bitterly along the way; dance foolishly around with glee. It’s all part of the equation.

All I Have Is Empty Pockets Now; or, The Submission Fee Dilemma

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a full length and a chapbook length collection of poetry submitted out hither and yon for rejection — I mean, for publication. (I mean, “publication!” — positive thinking requires exclamation points, don’t you think?) Then just recently while thinking about a recent poem I wrote, I realized it sort of fit with a few other older poems that I still like. And they fit with some other drafts of poems that I’m interested in. And suddenly, I think I have another chapbook!

I greeted this realization with a groan. I can’t afford to have another chapbook!

I’m spending hundreds of dollars on the two I have, each contest, reading fee, sucking at my pocket.

How much is it worth spending on any one manuscript? To torture myself, I totted up how much I’ve spent on the full length manuscript, which started its life as a chapbook, which I also sent out a bit as I was working it outward into full length. A lot of money. At what point do I give it up as good money thrown after bad, a lost cause?

At some point (soon!), I will focus on sending only to publishing companies with free open calls. But I know I can’t do that until about half the poems are published, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s getting expensive too! My list of target lit mags to send to is rapidly diminishing as I refuse to pay reading fees. (Yes, yes, I know the arguments for supporting lit mags with reading fees, and yes, in theory I support the idea, but in reality, it’s budget busting. I buy individual print-based magazines and books at the bookstore.) So I need to do some research and revamp my lit mag list.

If one believes, and I do, that part of the equation of being a writer is having a reader, and if one suspects, and I do, that a more well known publishing company offers the opportunity to have your work read by more readers, or reviewed toward that end, and possibly put you in touch with a wider range of other writers who may inspire or offer collaborative or other kinds of interesting opportunities, then to some degree I have to do this forking forking-out dough to get my work considered.

Or, at least, I think I do.

But for how long? How much? Or do I rethink the whole enterprise?

I’ll pay someone to tell me.

No payin’, no gain?

The good news is that the number of journals I’m interested in sending to is rapidly decreasing, as I — at the moment, anyway — refuse to pay a fee. So my workload is decreased. I know the thinking — no one subscribes, a mag needs income somehow, the Submittables of the world charge for use, etcetera. But I’m not in the position where this passion can COST me more money than it already does. I can live with never making any money from it, but it can’t drain me. Add submission fees to contest fees plus whatever I spend a year on a little creative development — a workshop here, a residency application there — and the books I buy to keep developing on my own, and it all adds up to too much. Yes, a small handful of magazines pay their successful submitters. But my ROI is terrible. The odds of my winning a spot in one of those magazines are far too unfavorable, given my submission-to-acceptance ratios. Yes, as the investors say, “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” But still. Trying to hold down my submission outlays while I’m still trying to build my case as a strong poet may sound counterproductive — we all know that a good, strong list of publications in which your poems have appeared is a nice skid-greaser for publication of a book. But I’m not going to be able to carry the literary magazine world on my back. Such work would require…a new pair o’ shoes.