Short answer: Pay submission fees if you think the reward is worth it.
It is becoming increasingly common for publications to charge a reading / administrative fee for submissions. This is less of an issue where you submit directly via an email address or website.
However, when you use a site such as Submittable, there are often reading fees attached, and it’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth submitting. Publications pay to use Submittable, so you’re offsetting some of that cost, along with printing costs etc. The idea is that these fees are roughly on par with what you would have paid in printing and postage costs in the olden days of snail mail submissions (which necessitated including an SASE if you wanted a reply).
Where fees are charged, $3 seems pretty standard, though some places are charging up to $5. Before paying this, ask yourself if you’re happy to support a particular publication whether they publish you or not. It’s also worth considering whether contributors get paid; it’s easier to shell out a submission fee if it goes towards compensating writers for published work. You might decide you only want to pay fees if there’s a good chance you’ll get an acceptance. Conversely, you might save your spending for the long-shot publications that you’re desperate to appear in.
Reading fees for longer manuscripts are much more common, especially where you’re submitting short story collections or poetry. Quite often, these manuscripts will only be considered during open reading periods once or twice a year, and a press might charge $30 to look at your work. The fact of the matter is that most small presses are running on shoestring budgets, often with volunteer support, and simply can’t devote the resources to reading unsolicited manuscripts for free. You’ll need to do your research into individual presses to decide if they’re worth the expense.
Contest fees are standard. The fees cover administrative costs, printing costs, potential publishing costs, sometimes judging fees, and prize money for the winner/s. Again, consider the possible payout against the initial outlay. A $10 entry fee for a $1000 prize seems much more reasonable than $10 to potentially win $100. In some cases, a prize might be small on a monetary scale but come with exposure or prestige worth more on balance.
Some publishers will reduce or negate entry fees for underprivileged writers whose limited means make publications and contests otherwise inaccessible. Check individual websites to find out whether this is an option.
— Nicole Melanson