Years ago, before internet, if you wanted to submit a story or a poem to a literary magazine or to a writing contest, you needed to print it out, put it an envelope and send it off.
Sometimes even, you had to include inside another envelope with your address on it, and with enough postage for it to travel back to you so that the editor could post your submission back if it got a rejection. All of that was costly to writers and time-consuming. With the rise of the internet, that system has mostly fallen away. Now it is as simple as pressing a button to send your submission off.
That simplicity has increased submissions, especially ill-matched and inappropriate submissions, likely a hundred-fold. For a small literary magazine or writing contest that can be daunting. Because of this, some of them have begun to charge a fee to enter.
In the past, a good rule of thumb to avoid getting scammed was that you should never pay to enter a writing contest or to submit to a literary magazine. This is no longer the case. Prestigious literary magazines such as Glimmer Train now charge fees for submissions as do most literary magazines published by overseas universities. This is worse for the latter since most litmags associated with such university writing programmes do not pay for using the writing if you get an acceptance. On the surface it seems like madness, and many writers agree that it is.
There are some valid arguments for charging these fees. One, as mentioned above, is to reduce the slush pile. If the writer has to pay to submit, the hope is she will make sure that what she is submitting is appropriate and well-edited.
Another reason a writer might agree to pay the fee, is that she wants to support that literary magazine. She thinks it is a worthy endeavour and this is a way to support it. I think the better way is to actually buy subscriptions to the magazine, but perhaps the writer does both, I do not know.
The fees sometimes pay the readers a small fee. Since many of the readers at such litmags are often writers themselves who have a passion for the publication and that small stipend is helpful.
Personally, I have never paid to submit writing to a literary magazine. The amount is usually about $2-3 USD, which appears minimal, but it adds up and, frankly,
As for writing contests that require a fee, I have in the past entered one of these. Again I would normally not advise writers to pay to enter a writing contest. Judging in writing contests is subjective. I say that as a writer who has won writing contests, but I have also judged them and spoke to judges about the process. Straight away the bulk of the submissions will be dismissed for very obvious reasons, mostly they are just bad.
Then you will have about five percent of the submissions that rise to the top. At that point it is up to what the judge likes. Often, if there are a handful of very good submissions, for example three, and there are three judges who are adamantly behind their favourite, you sometimes find that they end up picking a fourth submission as the winner because they can all agree on that one, but cannot give way to compromise on the one they personally love best.
The thing with me, sometimes I do not enter contests to win. I enter contests to be forced, under a deadline, to complete a new short story. I am one of those oddballs who work best under pressure. So I used to enter a quarterly contest that gave you a topic and then you had to write a story on it within 24 hours. That contest I did pay the minimal entry fee. Not because I expected to win, I once got a highly commended no more, but to finish a story under that pressure.
(Next week I want to continue this topic with how to spot a money-making scam when paying fees)