When I saw authors in my social networks posting happily about having pieces accepted at the publication, I thought it was great to see another market for short fiction, even an unpaid one. Who am I to turn my nose up at unpaid markets, after all? And there's nothing unusual about subscription-based short fiction periodicals.
But when I read that the ebusiness is looking editorial managers for genre offshoots of the original publication, it raised a red flag. Each editor chosen will be responsible for putting together an entire publication, from soliciting, selecting, and editing submissions through selling subscriptions and marketing. This work will be compensated in a percentage of the price of each subscription. Authors may, or may not, be paid out of the editor's cut.
As a business model, this is pretty straightforward. Come up with a good idea, put the first iteration into practice, and accumulate associates whose compensation is dependent of their ability to sell the product. These associates can push that compulsion downhill by compensating a new tier of associates (authors, the generators of the actual product) according to their ability sell the product. The person who originates the idea keeps a chunk of the profits, and a tidy business is born with a lot of built-in incentives for everyone involved to purchase the product and sell it to their friends and acquaintances. This is a business plan with a venerable history. After all, this how Amway and Mary Kay work, isn't it?
So why does this bother me? I've submitted plenty of work to places that pay less than pro rates (which, despite the name, are of course laughably low when you're talking about short fiction), or that pay token rates plus royalties. And I know that publishing is a business. I've worked for Harcourt Brace (which become Harcourt General, which became Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Wizards of the Coast, the Journal of Democracy, an indie women's magazine that squeaked by on ad revenue and cash infusions from the publisher's mother, and a marketing magazine so thick with ads it was difficult to find the few pages of actual content. But all of these places treated authors and editors as producers of content, not as the sales or marketing staff.
Yes, publishing is a business. But at its foundation, publishing is about getting words and ideas to readers, about communicating information and transmitting intellectual and creative experiences. Publishing is about the word, and words are written by authors. When any business is built around a stream of unpaid work, there's a fine line between canny business practices and exploitation. When any publisher treats authors like a flock of sheep to be sheared of content without compensation (the Huffington Post has perfected the model), the quality of those words suffers, and the credibility of the publication is diminished.
We have a choice, as writers. Believe me---oh believe me!---I know exactly what it's like to want to see something of mine published somewhere, anywhere. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with unpaid markets, or fledgling markets, or token payments plus royalties. We all have to start somewhere, and if this is where you or I start, that's fine. But be vigilant, and be aware of your own worth. When you encounter a venue that asks you to pay to be published (examples I've run across include being asked to pay for editing services before a piece can be published, or being asked to sell subscriptions), you need to consider whether you're being offered an opportunity or being fleeced.