Back at the start of the weekend, I was considering raising the rates for poetry on Ligature Works from $5 to $15. After looking at both my budget for the zine and the marketplace, and giving some thought to game theory, unintended consequences, and being the change I want to see in the world, I have decided that Ligature Works will simply offer $25 for all accepted submissions, poetry and prose.
The reasons for this are basically threefold.
First, having very different rates for the two forms places a material incentive on authors submitting prose works, and yet it motivates us to accept poetry over prose. If you’re mainly a poet and you see someone offering 5 times the rate for prose as poetry, mightn’t that lead you to deforming your work to hit the higher payday? It’s not entirely a hypothetical possibility. The submission guides as originally written even noted the often porous boundary between flash fiction and prose poetry.
As long as there’s economic tension between the prose market and the poetry market, all the creators out there who submit to us would be trying to steer their shorter submissions into the “prose” door while we’re encouraged to shift them into the “poetry” one, which creates an incentive for authors who have written shorter works to pad them out to a “safe” size, at which they can’t reasonably be construed as a prose poem, whether that suits the piece are not. This is contrary to our basic belief that all pieces should be the right length for themselves.
By removing the difference between how we pay for prose and how we pay for poetry, this frees up both sides to behave naturally and submit/receive each work as its own thing.
Second (and strongly related to the first), it seems hypocritical to pay one rate for prose pieces regardless of how long they are, and another rate for poetry pieces, as if the fact that poetry is often less substantial in word count and page space means that it’s inherently less valuable.
I myself write tens of thousands of words of prose fiction a month many months, and hundreds even in most of my worst months, but it’s a good month if I write one poem. Some people spend a year or more getting everything just right in their poem, going through multiple drafts and making sure every word bears the weight of the work.
Third, if the point of the “paying people” portion of this exercise is to reinforce the idea that creative work has value, we need to be prepared to provide value in return. When I set the rates at $25 for short stories and $5 for a poem, I based it on what I’ve been prepared to accept myself. And that’s fair enough. But $5 isn’t a “tacit payment” in the same way that $25 is; it’s way more tacit, way less payment.
Don’t get me wrong; I would still submit my poems to a venue that pays in the $5 range, or one that cannot offer payment. But I find myself unwilling to create a venue that values one over the other.
I’m aware that this decision is likely to have unintended consequences of its own. While the prose rate of $25 is still below what is considered “pro rates”, $25 for poetry is fairly competitive. It’s below the big markets, but above most of the small zines.
One obvious consequence of this is that our first few issues, at least, will likely be smaller than I’d envisioned, in terms of table of contents. But! That’s okay. I’m looking at the 2016 issues as a sort of “soft launch” anyway.