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.
First up, let’s hear from Christopher Allen, editor at SmokeLong Quarterly – one of our longtime favourite literary journals and always a fine example of high quality work while maintaining free entry for all. SLQ also recently shifted to a paying model and is an excellent example of striking the balance between accessibility for writers and a sustainable lit mag model. But most of all, SmokeLong is made up of some genuinely lovely, generous people, who consistently give back to the lit community with their time and expertise.
Here’s what Christopher Allen has to say about how SLQ goes about things:
INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER ALLEN – EDITOR OF SMOKELONG QUARTERLY
What’s the SmokeLong model for fees/payment and how has it changed over the years?
Our first competition, The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction, was in 2018, and we followed the same model for our second competition in 2020 though we increased the prize money considerably, the fees slightly. Our model is to offer a large grand prize while keeping fees reasonable and competitive. This year our grand prize was $2000, second place $500, third $300, and all nine finalists earned $100. Fees were $13.50 (up to two stories) until April 26 and $15.50 (up to two stories) afterwards. We offered two free-entry days and one reduced-price day ($4 for one story). In addition—and I’ve never told anyone this—we offered all sorts of second-chance entry opportunities at drastically reduced prices.
How did you become able to pay for general submissions, and what was that journey like, or what prompted/enabled the change?
The road to paying contributors can be a slippery slope. SmokeLong was well established before we started paying contributors. A journal’s commitment to pay needs to be long-term and well planned. We immediately began paying contributors after our first competition, but we also opened our tip jar on Submittable and a donation button on the SmokeLong website. These three channels of income make it possible for us to pay contributors.
Can you give us an idea of the running costs/time involved in running a lit mag or competition? Are you able to pay/reimburse your editors/readers/judges/administrators?
In terms of our competitions, all of our editors who read entries are paid. SmokeLong does not engage a celebrity judge. Our senior editors have all judged competitions in the past. We have around 20 editors who read for the competition, and they all read entries blind. I’d say each editor dedicates three or four hours a week to reading entries during the crunch times. A few of us spend considerably longer. It’s a full-time job for me.
All SmokeLong editors have the opportunity to make money at the journal. They’re paid for writing reviews, doing interviews, and drafting blog posts. Our senior editors are paid for giving feedback to submitters. And SmokeLong editors with experience in teaching creative writing have the opportunity to teach a module in our workshops.
Our running costs: Submittable and Paypal fees, website maintenance and renovation, payment to contributors, cover artists, quarterly guest editors, and translators. We also pay a fee for our workshop website. We have budgets for marketing and conferences (if they ever happen again).
As a writer, how do you feel about entry fees and payment?
I’m unlikely to enter a competition if the entry fee is disproportionate to the prize money. I definitely understand a journal’s need to make money, but I would never pay $20 for the potential of winning $500. I’m not sure what a good gauge would be. Maybe a fee less than 1% of the grand prize per story entered?
Winners of competitions should be paid immediately. I’ve been in the situation that I had to hunt my money down. This should never happen, and it won’t ever happen to a SmokeLong winner. We always pay upon publication.
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?)
This is a difficult question. There are lots of journals that exist and do just fine existing without making a penny. These journals are respected labors of love run by saints uninterested in making money. They have a lean volunteer staff, don’t charge for submissions, and don’t pay contributors. And that’s fine.
Then there are journals who feel a need to pay people. I love paying people. So I’ve generated a sustainable business model with the goal of paying more and more and more. I’ve also been lucky enough to inherit a respected quality journal (thanks to Dave Clapper, Randall Brown, Tara Laskowski, Beth Thomas, Kathy Fish, Nancy Stebbins and the dozens of other editors who have contributed to SmokeLong’s success over the last two decades).
I would not want a larger organization influencing my decisions as a publisher.
What are some ways writers can support lit mags?
Read them. Follow them on social media. Share links to stories on social media. Celebrate the writers, the artists, the interviewers, the reviewers, and the editors. And, yes, donate a few dollars here and there—if you can—when you read something you love. We have a donate button at the end of every story, and we’re very grateful for the nod.
What are some ways lit mags/competitions can make it easier for low income/marginalised writers to submit?
At SmokeLong we will always provide free and reduced-price competition entry periods for low income writers. They need to be watching our social media channels to hear about them. This is on the honor system. No questions asked. But if we find out you have a villa in the South of France, we’ll be pissed. General submissions (non-competition submissions) at SmokeLong are—and will always be—free.
Marginalised writers might in fact have quite a lot of money, so I’m not sure reducing our competition entry fees specifically for them is the appropriate way to reach out to them. We make every effort to let them know that we—as well as the world—need their stories.
In terms of submitting to the journal, I hope marginalized writers see themselves in the stories we publish. We actively support marginalized writers.
Why/do you think it’s important for lit mags/comps to be more accessible?
Creative people need routes to success. We love being able to offer paid publication, awards, and nominations. Money, however, shouldn’t be a barrier to this. We see the tweets and posts on social media from writers lamenting high fees. We hope they’re watching for our free entry days during our competitions. Submitting to the journal will always be free. That having been said, it sometimes helps to have to pay something. An entry fee makes (some) writers think four or five times before sending in a story that isn’t quite ready.
Thanks so much to Christopher Allen and SmokeLong Quarterly for taking the time to let us see behind the journal curtain. If you enjoyed this interview, please do take a minute to go read some of the amazing work published up at SLQ (or some of Christopher’s own work!), submit your own work, and keep spreading the literary love…