When we write, we write in one direction. We start with our pens and we attempt to reach out to readers. We get twisted and turned through a bevy of editors and, if we're lucky, publishers, or sometimes we just skip the middle men and go straight to interested readers, but writers who aren't willing to write just for the joy of it are hoping to make some connection with some readers.
It's important not to forget the importance of the reader in this connection. We start something, they finish it. And if they like what they've read, then they will repay us. Either they will buy our book, or they will send us feedback. The completion of this connection depends upon the reader alone. We as the writer should not force it, and the middlemen (editors, publishers, agents) should not allow us to force it.
So, if you think you're a good enough writer to consider submitting your work for publication... or even to an agent, remember the path of this connection. The writer starts it, the reader finishes it, and sends you payment, through the various middlemen. Thus, if you find an agent or a publisher willing to gamble that your work will connect with readers, they should be paying you, not the other way around. The reader has paid for the book, the money has gone back to the publisher, and a portion of that money comes back to you. That's the way the legitimate publishing system works. This, for all its flaws, is the best way to ensure that things that deserve to be published are published, and things that don't deserve to be published aren't.
It's not a perfect system. Like democracy, it's the worst system possible, until you consider the alternatives.
Consider what would happen if this wasn't the case. Your agent, if you get one, is supposed to work as hard as possible to sell your story. The incentive to do this is that he or she gets a commission on the sale of the book -- money which comes from the publisher, which comes from the reader. If, on the other hand, you pay an agent up front to agent your book, what guarantees do you have that the agent will actually sell your book? What incentive exists for the agent to really get working? No book, no money. Now get agenting!
Similarly, a publisher's job is to work as hard as possible to sell as many books as possible. The incentive to do this is that they get the revenues from book sales (again the reader), from which they pay you a royalty. If, on the other hand, you pay a publisher to publish your book, what incentive does the publisher have to warehouse it, distribute it and market it? They already have your cash. No, a publisher must be willing to take a risk. Only by taking that risk does a publisher come out on your side, with goals that match your goals.
Despite how obviously wrong this counterflow looks when written out, you would be surprised at how many scams exist in the realm of agenting and publishing. We have unscrupulous "agents" who charge writers "fees" before marketing the books to publishers. They coddle you, and tell you that your book is the best thing that they've ever read, now send us $200 so we can send it out to another five publishers. The book is great! Send more money! But the book never gets published.
Then there are veiled vanity publishers. It's important to note that most vanity publishers are legitimate businesses; just don't expect to be taken seriously as a writer if you go this route. You pay the vanity publishers money, you supply the manuscript, they produce a book. End of story. The problem comes with a subclass of vanity publishers sometimes referred to as subsidy publishers.
Vanity publishers make no other commitments beyond producing a book. Subsidy publishers promise to warehouse, distribute and market your book as well, all for X number of dollars. More often than not, the subsidy publishers promise things they can't deliver. Book distributors and critics don't take vanity published authors seriously, so why should they take subsidy publishers any more seriously? Books are never distributed to stores, and an author finds himself with a lot of useless copies on his hand, and several dollars lighter.
The Science Fiction Writers of America have a very good page on the scam of subsidy publishing and another on unscrupulous literary agencies in their reference page of publishing pitfalls. Some of these scams can be really egregious; witness the Woodside Agency scam, which turned into one of the worst cases of Internet abuse and cyberstalking in history.
But even if there were no scammers, going against the flow of writer-editor-reader and back again upsets the checks and balances of writing. Writers can write all they want for the love of it, but if a connection with a reader is sought, it is the reader that drives the process. A reader is highly unlikely to read the works of an author who has attempted to bypass this process by paying to have his or her work published. The editor is absolutely necessary in bridging the gap between reader and writer. The reader counts on the editor to separate the gems from the crud.
There are exceptions, of course, like fan fiction, but the rule in general holds.
Which is one reason why Ravenlike, a weblog about writing is upset over the actions of Gothic.net. Gothic.net is a webzine, among other things, that is struggling through the dot.com bust and the collapse of web advertising revenues. In order to try to make money to stay afloat, they attempted a subscriber service, much like Salon is doing. When this didn't work, they reversed their policy. Readers can now read the content of Gothic.net for free... writers have to pay to get their works published.
Never mind that this editorial really signs the webzine's death warrent: "writers suck. They have such big attitudes. If they complain about our policy, it's because they suck. Now pay us money so that we can print your stories, which we think suck." Great way to drum up business, huh? "Yes, I'd like to be hit between the eyes repeatedly with a brickbat. How much to kick me in the gonads as well? Five bucks? I'm in!"
Whether the editor of Gothic.net admits it or not, Gothic.net has become a vanity press. The decision on whether or not to print material rests not with an editor gambling on a writer's ability to produce something a reader will buy, but with a writer's willingness to pay to have his or her stuff printed, regardless of quality. The editor of Gothic.net has already admitted that he expects to publish some pretty dire stuff.
I may not be good enough to get paid for my material, but I know plenty of people who are, and they will never submit to Gothic.net. The only people, at this point, who will submit to Gothic.net will be those who can't get their material published, and for whom publication is more important than the simple joy of writing. The webzine, to use the editor's own words, is going to suck.
The poetry journals that Erin is published in don't pay much; often no more than $30 or $40. But even that small amount is enough to separate the gifted poets from the dabblers. Even if all the author received was a free copy of the magazine (as is the standard in fan fiction), this would be enough. The minute literary journals such as Malahat Review, the New Quarterly or Grain charged their authors to publish their works, their readers would drop their subscriptions en masse. With the editor's incentive no longer being to publish the best works received, woe betide the reader who has to slog through the drek. The only people who would conceivably want to stick around are those who get an extra thrill over badness, possibly like the viewers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
It is the death of this webzine as a serious publication, plain and simple.
After reading this article, Erin tells me about this classic scam for poets: the fake anthology. You enter a contest, and you're told that you win! Congratulations! You can see a copy of your poem simply by paying $70 for your very own copy of this anthology, which fits conveniently beneath your coffee table. Marvel as your work is set up against the 1500 other poor suckers-- I mean, lucky winners in this year's contest. Pay another $500, and attend a conference with these other poor suckers in beautiful Minneapolis. In February.
This is quite common, actually. In terms of poetry, it amounts to little more than vanity publishing, and there might not be all that bad with it. Some argue, the poet gets the joy of seeing his or her work published, and only spends $50 for the privilege. Never mind the fact that there are other anthologies out there which can accept and print such work for free, but anyway. Still, nobody reads these fake anthologies except the contributors themselves. This is not publishing, and those who are serious about being published need to be aware of this.