Writers tend to be uncomfortable talking about money. Maybe it’s because there’s so little money in writing, because commerce can muddy art, or because money often seems a private matter. But when it comes to getting paid for our literary labors, transparency empowers everyone.
Let’s be clear: It is a privilege to be able to write without compensation. That so many writers are expected to do so embodies one of the central inequities in publishing. By paying so little, literary publishing is set up to reward the economically privileged who can afford to give work away, and that setup needs to change. It’s a travesty that money and privilege determine who is heard, because some of the most vital, pressing stories are told by people with the least power and fewest resources to tell them. Thankfully more literary magazines have found ways to pay contributors, and some waive submission fees to writers who cannot afford them. It’s a start.
During the approximately twenty years I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve published books, a chapbook, personal essays, cultural criticism, reportage, photos, and interviews, and I’ve been a magazine editor, all while working retail and other jobs. I’ve been paid five dollars and over a thousand dollars for essays and have given many more away. I’ve been paid more by commercial magazines for some of my reported pieces than any of my book advances. While a few literary magazines pay contributors—as much as five hundred to a thousand dollars for prose—most pay between fifty and a few hundred dollars for literary essays, poetry, and fiction, work that takes months to create. And many simply don’t pay at all.
Writing is creative. Publishing is business. As a writer who wants to be published, you’ll have to decide whether compensation determines the value of your writing or if you prefer to avoid mixing creativity and money, period. That calculation might be different at different times in your life, based on your existing income, and your ideas about the value of writing and the less quantifiable value of publishing, such as reaching readers and building a writing résumé. Conventional wisdom says that if you want to sell a book to a traditional publisher, you’ll benefit from first building a platform as an author known for working in particular topics or genres. One way to start building a platform and reaching readers is through publication in literary magazines. Few writers, however, can live off such small, inconsistent payments, and I would argue you shouldn’t try to do so. I’ve always worked day jobs for that. There are many ways to write for money—content marketing, copywriting, journalism, technical writing—but for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, there may be good reasons to write free of charge.
Still, “good reasons” don’t matter much when you’re financially strapped. Most of us have to earn a living somehow, and for some writers the idea of giving your work to a publisher for free—even if that publisher is a small, under-resourced yet popular literary magazine—is a nonstarter.
How to find paying markets
You can start with databases, though there are surprisingly few. The pioneering crowdsourced Who Pays Writers? mixes literary magazines with freelance outlets and empowers writers with details about rates and payment issues, such as how long the money takes to arrive. Chill Subs gathers well-known outlets alongside new, small publications. A quick search reveals that roughly one third of the 666 pubs in its database pay writers. Granted, some pay ten bucks, but ten bucks is ten bucks. The Poets & Writers Literary Magazines database provides listings for nearly a thousand publications, with filters for payment and genre. Although it doesn’t separate paying from nonpaying, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ directory is a helpful place to begin.
Databases are a good place to start your search, but the best resource writers have is one another. Browsing the lit mag shelves and Googling individual submission guidelines is effective but exhausting, so try crowdsourcing recommendations on social media. Attend literary events and ask writers where they submit, then see if your tastes match. Although attendance can be pricey, the AWP Annual Conference & Book Fair offers a wealth of resources and information. With hundreds of exhibitors, AWP’s bookfair is the nation’s largest marketplace for literary journals, presses, and arts organizations, and socializing there in person provides payoffs that solitary web research may not. Your fellow writers often have the same questions you do about getting paid for their work, and some have answers, too. Exchange information on paying markets, or how to be direct but polite when inquiring about pay rates or waiving submission fees. Pooling information empowers everyone.
When to publish for free
As poet Robert Graves famously said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Writers already absorb so many costs. They steal time from work, vacations, and sleep to write without an assignment or contract; submit, sometimes for a fee, with no guarantee of publication; and perform the administrative tasks of a writer—researching markets, preparing submissions, following guidelines, and so on—gratis. But there are reasons to consider publishing your work without financial remuneration.
Literary magazines are some of the most exciting, inspiring spaces writers have. They are a writer’s ally and playground. They foster creativity and individuality, facilitate human connection, and dare to suggest that ideas and beauty matter as much as money and status. Literature is not like other writing, and lit mags dedicate themselves to reaching those who appreciate it.
When you give lit mags your work, you help sustain their mission and join a living thing. It’s exciting to collaborate with editors who are passionate about writing, and obviously it’s exciting to see your work in the final pages. The entire process provides an exhilarating social aspect to an art form practiced alone.
I can’t quantify the excitement of knowing a reader connects with a story I lived and wrote, but I can feel it. After twenty years of writing, I still feel it, which is why I’m rambling to you here. I love when mags pay, but I make art because something compels me. No small compensation can compare with the heightened creative state when I conjure ideas in the shower and move paragraphs in my sleep. For me the value of this work comes first from my experience writing it.
So I keep submitting and collecting rejections to chase those moments when I create something powerful and hope a reader discovers it. I have cried reading e-mails from strangers who took the time to tell me an essay resonated with them. That can be the best part of the process. That’s what publishing for free pays me.
Your submission strategy
Assessing lit mag pay rates against your hourly labor is so painful that you’d be justified restricting your submissions to paying journals. But this would significantly shrink your potential pool. Think of all the singular publications you would miss: Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters; Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women; and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, to name just a few. And how would you assess how much is enough for your work to feel valued? Is $100 too low but $300 enough? It’s different for everyone.
When you consider how many lit mag editors are passionate volunteers or graduate writing students laboring without pay, giving them your work in exchange for their editorial time seems a fair trade. They’ve built an obscure, demanding, potentially money-losing magazine because they love literature and are willing to work to find the readers who feel the same way. Personally that passion makes me want to give them my stuff for free.
This whole question of compensation raises the question of why we bother making art in the first place. For ourselves? For an audience? For money? All of the above?
If you get paid for making magic once in a while, then you win twice. Hey, two hundred bucks is the start of a research fund for your book project. That’s money for fellowship applications, magazine subscriptions as you search for more outlets, and at least twenty submission fees, since many literary magazines now charge to read. Put it back into the literary ecosystem and keep writing.
But if your rule is to never give your work away, then don’t. Submit to the highest-paying markets first, then work your way down to smaller-paying markets. If aiming for mid-tier paying outlets seems more practical, then start there, but don’t let self-doubt or criticism deter you from submitting to places like Granta or the Paris Review.
I gave away much of my early work because I wanted to build visibility and my reputation, but I did so intentionally, to magazines I loved. Just do not let any publication use that argument to convince you to publish without compensation if you do not want to. You decide how much you need the publicity.
If you are able to occasionally give it away, you might contribute to the literary community by helping more writers get paid. Guide your peers to paying outlets, suggest their names to editors, agents, and publishers. You might even create new outlets to publish them yourself, be it in a print mag, an online mag, or platforms like Substack. Share, publicize, promote—put the work of writers you admire in front of your own readers. You can also offer free guidance and free editorial services when time allows. I do this when I can. Many writers do. Sometimes helping talented writers tell important stories is a truly satisfying way of getting paid. Other times you may want to hold out for the money.
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for Harper’s, the Dublin Review, the Atlantic, and Brick, some of which were named notables in Best American Essays, Best American Sports Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. His last book, The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley (Bison Books, 2020), was a finalist for the 2022 Oregon Book Award.