As part of our Accessible Submissions For All campaign we’ve been interviewing literary journal editors and writing competition administrators to see the different ways fair, accessible submissions can be managed, and the challenges the lit community faces in the current system. You can read more about our drive to encourage a fairer, more equitable system for submissions and publishing here.
In the latest instalment of our Accessible Submissions project we interviewed Jonny Syer, editor of Northern Gravy – a brilliant literary org that’s dedicated to “bringing to light the undiscovered, the unknown and the overlooked, and give courage to those who want to try their hand at writing.”
INTERVIEW WITH NORTHERN GRAVY
What’s Northern Gravy’s model for fees/payment and how has it changed over time?
Being very young compared to a lot of other journals/periodicals/places that accept submissions, we haven’t really changed our model for fees or payments. I suppose the easiest way to sum that up is to say that we kind of, well, we hate fees. Never been a fan of them.
A big part of why we pushed for Arts Council funding was so that we could throw the doors open and let people submit without having to worry about them paying us for us to be able to read their work.
Payments though, we love. We pay our writers. We put that on our masthead, it’s our North Star. We believe in the value of new writing, in the time and sacrifice it takes to write, and we believe in rewarding those who’s work we publish. We don’t pay in exposure either. We pay in money.
Can you give us an idea of the running costs/time involved in running a literary journal or competition? Are you able to pay/reimburse your editors/readers/administrators?
Money doesn’t grow on trees, and time is the one thing they can’t make more of. Sounds daft, but it’s true. We manage to keep costs down by doing a lot of stuff ourselves. Between the three of us, we managed to teach ourselves web design, copy writing, podcasting, invoicing, and how to write a funding proposal. We do all the reading ourselves, all the emailing, all the admin and we manage our own social media.
That takes a lot of time, between the three of us there’s been a lot of late nights, early mornings, and trying to fit Northern Gravy in around our daily lives. When submissions close and we have to assemble the new edition, it becomes a full time job in and of itself. It’s a struggle, and while we do pay ourselves something for our work, it’s never going to even come close to the hourly investment we each make in order to keep Northern Gravy running. But that’s not why we do it
As writers, how do you feel about entry fees and payment?
We get it: we’re working class writers ourselves. (insert cheeky plug here for our poetry editor Ralph Dartford’s new collection Hidden Music, published by Valley Press). We have families and busy lives working jobs that, while they mostly keep the wolves from the door, don’t leave us a lot of spare cash that we could use on submissions ourselves.
Honestly, it’s hard to justify spending money on submitting sometimes. It can feel a bit like gambling, and while you’ve got to be in it to win it, if you don’t have much spare money it can be a hard choice about whether you can afford to submit.
Payments, on the other hand, are essential. We write ourselves, so we know how much hard work, dedication, intelligent practice and effort it takes to write, and to write well, and we think that that should be rewarded. If I put that much work into something else in life, I’d want to be paid for it, wouldn’t you?
With the current lack of external funding, how can we make the lit mag community more self-sufficient? (Or do you think there needs to be more investment by larger publishers/orgs so the onus is less on editors/writers?)
Investment is key. There is money out there, through people like the folks at the Arts Council, but if we want to want to keep places available to nurture, encourage and discover new writing tales, the best sellers of tomorrow, larger publishers and organisations need to put their hands in their pockets and chip in more.
Beyond that? Well, we’re all like a big raft, aren’t we?
Stay with us on this.
We all work so hard to promote and promote and promote what we do, but doing stuff like this, supporting each other, that’s what keeps us all afloat. We have to try to work together, or we’ll all sink.
What are some ways writers can support lit mags?
Number one: Tell people about us. We have Twitter, we probably spend too much time on there instead of actually writing, but we use it to interact with other writers, talk about writing, and share posts. It makes us so proud when we see the writers we publish share that their work is out there and can be read, it’s such a blessing to be able to sit back and know you had a small hand in making that happen.
What are some ways lit mags and competitions can make it easier for low income/marginalised/systemically-excluded writers to submit?
Approachability, and a desire to bring out the best in writers. Like we said, we’re all writers ourselves, so we’re more than familiar with getting rejections. Between us, we have hundreds of rejection letters and emails. Drawers full of them in our desks, letters that all read “Dear You, publishing is a subjective business and we have decided not to publish your work, thank you for submitting, TTFN.”
We try and do things a bit differently. We have to reject people, trust us that part never gets easier, but we also give feedback to a large proportion of the writers who submit to us. It’s more personal, more approachable, and we think it’s respectful of the time and hard work they put in.
Why/do you think it’s important for lit mags/comps to be more accessible?
Lit mags and competitions are a huge part of the budding writer’s early career. Being picked up for publication by a journal, or making a longlist, shortlist or even winning a competition is the kind of thing agents and publishers look for, because it’s a massive vote of confidence in a writer’s work.
But if we put up paywalls and barriers to entry, we rob ourselves of so much brilliant work. Writers who, otherwise, might never pluck up the courage to submit. People who have something to say, unexpected insight or a powerful voice. We need to keep things as accessible and open as possible so that there are places people can try their luck at, get their words out there, and maybe take their first steps toward publication.
Huge thanks to Jonny and the Northern Gravy team for this blog, and for being such a supportive part of the literary community.
If you enjoyed this interview, please go and read some of the stories up at Northern Gravy (and maybe submit something!) and keep on spreading the writerly love…