Q: I’ve noticed that some publications now charge reading fees, and I’ve heard a lot of writers say this isn’t ethical. When, if at all, is it okay to pay a reading fee? — M.K., Los Angeles
A: The short answer is: Almost never. The vast majority of reputable literary magazines do not (and should not) charge reading fees.
However, there are a few exceptions. One is if you enter a contest — most contests run by literary magazines charge reading fees, and this is perfectly reasonable because they offer cash awards to winners and often finalists as well (they may also offer a stipend to the contest judge). Many independent and university presses charge reading fees for their contests, for the same reasons.
A normal fee for a short story, poetry, or essay contest is $10-15. Some lit mags are charging $20 or more — for example, Gulf Coast charges $23 per entry for its annual prizes, which includes a subscription; The Iowa Review charges $20, and $30 will get you a subscription as well. These are both great magazines (and it’s always worth supporting them by subscribing), but these fees are quite a lot for most writers, unfortunately, and they’ll add up very quickly if you hope to enter a lot of contests. Small presses will usually ask for a fee of $25 per manuscript for a contest — I’ve seen higher, but this still seems to be the norm. You shouldn’t pay a fee for a regular submission, whether you’re sending an essay to a magazine or a novel to a small press.
Another exception is the “administration fee” that many magazines (among them The Missouri Review and Ploughshares) charge for using their online submissions systems — it’s usually around $3, which is roughly what it would cost you in printing and postage to mail in a hard copy anyway, and it’ll save you some time and maybe even few trees. While the majority of magazines still accept online submissions without charging this fee, it’s not an unreasonable one — and these magazines do not charge for regular mail submissions.
So the general rule is — fees are expected for contests; fees should not be paid for regular submissions, even if the magazines pay their authors (legitimate magazines that pay authors do not charge regular reading fees). If you encounter a publication that charges fees for regular submissions, do a quick Google search on that publication, and what you find will probably help you decide that it’s just not worth it.