An earful has been shoved into my brain over the last 24 hours with regards to Narrative Magazine being named the Million Writers Award's best online magazine for 2008. The first person to contact me was Alexis Enrico Santí, the editor in chief of Our Stories and one of the preliminary judges for this year's Million Writers Award. Alexis specifically asked why Narrative was in the running for the award considering that they are essentially the New Yorker of online literary journals and have what he called "a dubious readingfee" for their story of the week submissions (which I specifically praised in announcing Narrative's award).
Others echoed Alexis' comments. The editor of another online journal (who, very understandably, wished to remain anonymous), said:
"It's a dicey game. On one hand, hats off to Narrative for putting out such a professional looking publication (and paying their writers). On the other hand, it's kinda a shame/shell game they're running in terms of their submission policy. I bet when push comes to shove, many of those 8 nominated stories didn't come through the open sub line (nor did their authors pay that fee). And using the cache of Million Writers Award will now get them more would-be-submitters (I would think)."
First off, let me respond to the overall issue of Narrative Magazine being a part of the Million Writers Award. The award clearly states that it is for online publications, which means Narrative most definitely qualifies. They have also been a part of this award since our second year, when Alicia Gifford's story "Toggling the Switch" (published in Narrative) won the overall award. With regards to the award for best online magazine, per the rules it is given to the online magazine with the most notable stories, as selected by the preliminary judges. Once I compiled all the preliminary judges' selections, Narrative came out on top. Simple as that.
But based on the feedback I've been receiving, there are other concerns being raised here. I suspect some of this results from Narrative becoming the first online literary journal to equal the best print journals in power and prestige. I see this as nothing but a good thing. When I started the Million Writers Award, online journals weren't considered the equals of the worst print publications, let alone the best. It's good to have one of us on top, so to speak.
The other major concern appears to center on the reading fees Narrative charges people submitting for their story of the week feature. Reading fees have long been controversial. Speaking for myself, I don't pay reading fees and refuse to submit my stories to places that charge them. BUT--and this is a huge ass but--I also support the magazines I submit my stories to. I mainly write speculative fiction these days, and have been published in the last year in Interzone and Analog; I also submit on a regular basis to Asimov's Science Fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and other places. I'm also a reader of all these magazines, either by subscribing to them or buying individual issues.
My point is that it's tough to publish short fiction in today's world, especially if you pay your authors. While I disagree with reading fees, I also know that if more authors subscribed to their favorite magazines, or donated money to them, reading fees wouldn't be necessary.
As for concerns about what Narrative uses the reading fees for, I have no comment on this because I don't know very much about the situation. Instead, I point people to a post from Alexis, where he offers several suggestions for Narrative Magazine. Some of them sound reasonable, but I'll leave it to others to debate whether or not these are good suggestions.
Please don't take this post as me dismissing the points raised by Alexis and the other editors who contacted me, all of whom I like and respect. To my mind, what this episode shows is that online literary publications are evolving. After this Million Writers Award cycle is finished, I plan to have a conversation with editors, writers, and readers about where the award should go from here. Should we continue as before, focusing on all stories published by any online publications? Or should some magazines and journals be placed on a different level, even though they publish online?
But that's a conversation for another day. Right now, the Million Writers Award is on and focused on bringing needed attention to a large group of deserving authors. Thanks to everyone for their comments and for taking part in the award.