The topic of reading fees came up on Twitter again this week. Since I don’t seem to have talked about this for a while (about 3 years, in fact) here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking.
First off, what do I mean by reading fees? I mean any kind of payment or purchase required before your own writing will be given consideration. Some places have tip-jar options, or you can pay if you want feedback rather than a bald yes/no, but those are not a barrier to entry as they’re not compulsory. I can think of 3 types:
- A stand-alone competition e.g. the Bridport prize
- A competition run by a magazine or media company e.g. Stand magazine or The Sunday Times
- Run of the mill submissions e.g. to a magazine for publication
Secondly, why is it a problem? After all, in the age of instant electronic submissions isn’t it reasonable to want to put the brakes on the half-baked, ill-considered, nothing-to-lose, late night entries? Some poor soul has to read these things. And the prize money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t expect people to judge competitions out of the goodness of their hearts, and there are printing and website and publicity costs… Well, yes. But still…
2/2 So the same voices go unheard, and the voices that can afford to be heard are heard. And those of us who can't afford it feel left behind, excluded from a club that we're just not welcome in.— Sarah Davy (@sarahdavywrites) June 11, 2021
It was Sarah Davy of Northern Writers Studio who got me thinking about all this again this week. If you’re not a writer you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Nobody’s forcing anyone to enter competitions and sure, we’d all love some free money but there’s no need to whine if you can’t afford to enter. Except, in short fiction at least, it’s those competition wins (or shortlisting, or longlisting) that get you noticed, show people you’re at a particular level, get you work. So they matter, and consistently deterring particular groups from entering means you’re consistently holding them back from – shall we call it career progression?
I’ll take the 3 types of fees in reverse order. Number 3 is easy – it shouldn’t exist. If you think of a magazine, publisher or production company, who are their customers? Readers or broadcasters, I would say. Logically, the customers should be who they’re charging. If they’re charging money to submit a story or a script and what they’re offering in return is what the average person outside the industry would imagine is their day to day business (we will print this story in our magazine and sell it to readers, we will pitch this sitcom to the BBC and hope they pay us to make it) then it looks a lot like exploitation. Kind of like charging the actors to appear on stage as well as making the audience pay for tickets. If you can’t get by without charging writers, you haven’t got a viable business model and you might want to have a rethink.
Number 2 should allow for funding of prize money by the magazine etc profits. Ironically the biggest prize money, the most publicity and arguably the most kudos comes from two competitions with no fees – the Sunday Times short story prize and the BBC Short Story Award, both presumably funded via their other business, and/or sponsorship. They weed out the time-wasters by requiring a certain number of publication credits. Now, I have other problems with those two (if the judges can call in stories that haven’t even been entered, it’s not a level playing field) but they’re not putting up barriers to writers with little spare cash. In other cases, you would hope that their normal business (selling books or magazines, for instance) would give enough money to at least subsidise the competition. If it doesn’t, and they’re in fact hoping the competition will subsidise the magazine, then we’re back to the scenario in number 3.
The ones I find it hardest to know where I stand on are the first batch, the competitions that just are. The Bath flash fiction or novella-in-flash awards, the Bristol short story prize (which came out of a magazine originally but it no longer exists), the Bridport. As far as I know, they charge fees to enter, a certain number of writers will be selected for their annual anthology which they then sell, and any profits from that will be ploughed back into the competition. They often have early-bird discounts, and the Bath has a regular (free) writing competition where the prize is free entry to the quarterly award. Once they’re up and running you could think of them as being a bit like scenario 2, only with a single product that isn’t the main focus of their business, but mainly they’re getting their funds from entry fees. Tricky. I have entered the (quarterly) Bath award 5 times (2017×2, 2019×2, 2020), the Bristol twice (2013, 2020) and the Bridport twice (2013, 2017). Why?
The cash prize would undoubtedly be nice, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped writer. It could pay for a course, a new laptop or snazzy software, books or a research trip. Perhaps a treat, as a reward for all the rejections you put up with for the remainder of the year. Or the gas bill, so that’s one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to concentrate on a plot knot. But is that the main reason we want to enter? (I say ‘we’ but I’m on a well-paid contract till next summer, only working 3 days a week but my annual salary still starts with a 2 so I can afford these things at the moment). If it’s easy money you’re after, lottery scratchcards are a better bet – you won’t have spent hours writing and rewriting, and when you don’t win it won’t feel like a judgement on your talent and possibly your worth as a human being. So it must be something else that’s drawing us in. External validation. The thrill of having that famous judge rate your work. Kudos. Bragging rights or a notch on the CV (that career progression I mentioned earlier).
Which leads me to my first suggestion:
Judging, printing and publicity costs will remain but if the prize fund needs to be £1000 instead of £5000 surely you can knock a couple of quid off the fee (the small fees still add up but it’s a start) or afford to waive fees for more people. Sarah Davy mentioned the problem of there only being a handful of free entries, and these having to be applied for. This means people of limited means are competing with each other for those coveted places, and there are plenty of people I know who have the attitude that there’s always someone worse off than them so they would never apply. Also, it’s mortifying to have to plead poverty, particularly since writing’s a small world and it could be someone you know who’s processing the applications.
About 10 years ago I worked in a university estates department and there was a presentation on the implications of the Equality Act 2010. I recall there being some emphasis on treating people the same where possible – so instead of saying if you need level access you can go round the side of the building, you make the main entrance accessible. Or in my case, you make the general campus map hold all the accessibility information instead of requiring people to ask for a separate map as we had done previously. So instead of making people prove their need and compete for access,
Or happy hour, or whatever suits you. You can announce it in advance, spring it on people on Twitter at short notice, mention it in passing in an email newsletter 2 months beforehand and it’s their own fault if they don’t write it on the calendar. But in some way, you’re saying whoever enters during this slot doesn’t have to pay, and you’re trusting that the entire cohort won’t wait to enter on that day. I believe SmokeLong Quarterly already do something along these lines.
In some ways, I think we’re in another argument for universal basic income, but until that day comes there are things that can be done to mitigate the discriminatory effects of reading fees, which you would hope would be a popular move, what with all the talk of diversity in publishing recently. Like it or not, if your magazine or competition is seen as prestigious in your field (poetry or flash or crime-writing or whatever) you have some responsibility for ensuring you aren’t only selecting winners from those who can afford to pay.
Bridport prize (novel) £20; Bridport prize (short story) £12; Bridport prize (flash) £9; Bath Flash Fiction (or novella-in-flash) Award £9; Bristol short story prize £9; Mslexia novel competition £25; Mslexia short story competition £12; Mslexia flash fiction competition £6…
If you fancy taking the sting out of all those fees, you can always buy me a cuppa…