I must hasten to say that I have no problem with fees for contests. I also understand and support those presses that charge reasonable fees for reading a book submission, which takes considerable time and manpower to evaluate—not to mention the costs of publishing and marketing. But should they charge a poor poet five bucks to submit a few poems for an issue of their magazine? That sounds like good old greed to me.
In the case of some magazines, "established” ones in particular, I believe there is a bit of snobbishness and exclusion at work. It’s like they are saying "we are the elite; only those serious enough to pay need apply.” On the more benevolent side, perhaps, it’s also an attempt to curb the avalanche of submissions that some of these magazines receive. However, there are better ways to accomplish that task. For one, just close your doors to submissions for as long as necessary. I also worry about another motive: Charge a fee, get some funds, and reject the unknown poets who you’ve already decided have no chance in hell of getting into your publication. That smacks of con game to me.
To be fair, some fees are in place because the journals use online submission systems such as Submittable. These systems charge the journals a monthly fee for their services. However, the cost is comparatively low and in most cases does not justify the reading fees charged for submissions.
If fees become the norm for individual poems and short prose, I fear literature will become more divided and ultimately impoverished. In our society the gap between rich and poor is widening. So too in literature, publishing opportunities may be limited by the gap between elitist publications and the rest of us. Many of us poor poets and writers won’t be able to buy our way into those magazines, and those magazines will never have the opportunity to discover fresh new writing. I wonder, however, if they care. The literary world has always been a fraternity, but it is disturbing that it seems to be moving toward becoming a completely closed society.