Pay-To-Play in Traditional Publishing, and Why We Need to Talk About It

1 Aug

A few weeks ago, I was querying when I kept coming across agent after agent who was closed to submissions except from those who they’ve met at conferences. Below that, a list of conferences was provided, where a writer could go and purchase a ticket (often in the hundreds), and then an additional ticket to pitch them (somewhere between $50 and $200 extra). 

I almost went on a Twitter rant about accessibility and paywalls, but decided against it. 

Then I saw this:

Of course discourse followed, many of whom were against the offering. But honestly? It feels a little hypocritical to me. Or, rather, willfully ignoring the overall bigger issue here. 

There are lots of ways to pay-to-play in traditional publishing, and it was only a matter of time before it got egregious.

The traditional publishing landscape has always had issues–nepotism, lack of accessibility, etc.–but what I find the most frustrating is how contradicting the landscape can seem to a new writer. 

One of the first pieces of advice writers will hear is that money should always be flowing to the author. Agents shouldn’t be charging reading fees, editors shouldn’t be charging packaging fees, etc. However, we have created an environment where there’s exclusive conference pitching, MSWL’s e-consultations, and the freelance hiring of editorial staff and agents for query/manuscript critiques. 

As someone who works in library programming where our speakers are often literary agents, editors, and authors, I understand that we all need to make money here, but we’ve largely ignored how this environment has confused up-and-coming writers–many of whom fall prey to scams because of it. A more common issue I’m seeing, though, isn’t necessarily writers falling for scams, but rather writers feeling obligated to pay-to-play. In fact, I have been one of those writers before. I think most writers have at some point. How could you not, when you keep hearing success stories from those who could afford that one conference, service, or MFA program? The odds feel stacked against you. And the truth is, they are.

Networking is an essential role in any business, and networking—more often than not—costs money and time.   

This reality is why so many turn to buying opportunities. In fact, I’ve blogged about one conference I personally attended when I was not in the financial place to do so (but why I didn’t regret it). You can read that piece here: How Writing Conferences Can Surprise You 

I was so desperate to move up in my writing career that I sacrificed my health, wealth, and other well-being for a measly chance at talking to somebody–anyone, really. I didn’t end up with an agent, but I did find some of my best writer friends that I still have to this day. I don’t regret it for that reason. But I haven’t paid that much to attend a conference since. I just can’t justify it. Not when querying is free. In fact, I got my first agent through the slush pile. Not at a fancy conference. Not through a consultation. A free, one-page query I workshopped with fellow writers I found online. (Again, for free.) 

This is why I tell newer writers that conferences/meetings are great, but not to spend money if you are struggling. Querying is FREE. There are lots of free resources and opportunities, including scholarships. 

Here’s a quick list:

  • QueryShark
  • QueryTracker (there is a premium version, but you do not have to use it)
  • MSWL (search the database for free; some classes are also free; other classes and consultations are not.) 
  • Free newsletters and articles through Writer’s Digest, Publishers Weekly, etc. 
  • Google around for writing blogs! Especially from writers you read. 
  • Jami Gold
  • IWSG (Insecure Writers Support Group) 

We also have free writing and publishing classes at The Story Center, open to anyone in the world. You do not have to have a Mid-Continent Public Library card to use our services or attend our programs.

Speaking of libraries, if you have access to a library near you, you may have free craft books and publishing resources that you can check out. 

These resources are great to help any writer begin their publishing journey. 

You can also apply for scholarships funding memberships and conferences. Many don’t know that you can also volunteer your way into a space. It never hurts to message the conference manager and ask what your options are.   

That said, I’m not asking agents/writers/editors to not charge money for critiques or pitch opportunities. What I am asking for is a greater focus on accessibility and affordability. 

If you’re only going to be open to those who can attend conferences, make sure you’re contributing to conference scholarships. If you’re often sharing your services, make sure you’re sharing free writing blogs/tips you see that you think your followers will find helpful. You may consider doing a giveaway every once in a while. 

On a larger scale, we need to be advocating for publishers to pay their editors a living wage. We need agents/writers to make a living wage, too. That way, we’re not all side hustling ourselves into a pay-to-play model only few can benefit from. 

Most importantly, we need to be championing free resources more often. 

We need to make sure everyone feels welcome in the traditional publishing landscape, not just those who can pay. 

~SAT

5 Responses to “Pay-To-Play in Traditional Publishing, and Why We Need to Talk About It”

  1. josiesvoice August 1, 2022 at 7:27 am #

    Shannon, great post! Reality is that some folks will do anything to get a quick buck at the expense of others. I am talking about the unscrupulous ones. I am not familiar with the writing and publishing business but I also heard stories of payola—radio DJs being bribed to play an artist’s playlist or grease money to players to dump a game .It is how the world goes. Opportunities abound even the unsavory ones. Have a nice day!

    • Shannon A Thompson August 1, 2022 at 7:31 am #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! And yes! This is definitely not unique to publishing. It’s in every industry. I believe transparency about opportunities is key to preventing newcomers from falling into predatory practices. There’s definitely legit services. (MSWL e-consultations, for instance, are super legit.) But I can see why new writers get confused about which paying paths to take, and I’m tired of seeing folks getting taken advantage of. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!
      ~SAT

  2. kingmidget August 1, 2022 at 9:08 am #

    I rarely submit short stories for publication. I’ll pay $5 or $10 to do so, as long as the site pays for publication. Other than that, I’m unwilling to “pay-to-play.” And those agents who will only accept submissions from conference attendees … nope, not interested.

    But then, I’m pretty much done with the traditional publishing world anyway. I’ve yet to figure out how to crack the secret society, to reveal the code, figure out the magic words, and I don’t see the point. That said, there are a couple of pieces that if I finish them, I may try to query a bit. Just to see.

    • Shannon A Thompson August 1, 2022 at 9:12 am #

      I will keep my fingers crossed for your submissions! You also brought up another excellent point of the traditional publishing industry! Magazines and anthologies that accept short stories and poetry often have a paying fee structure, which can be really confusing for newbies who are told to avoid reading fees. (It can make it harder to discern which are legit, too.) It’s just another layer to this confusing pay-to-play cake. Thank you for bringing that up!
      ~SAT

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pay-To-Play in Traditional Publishing, and Why We Need to Talk About It – johnrsermon - August 2, 2022

    […] Pay-To-Play in Traditional Publishing, and Why We Need to Talk About It […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: