I get a lot of questions like this. I don’t see a reason for writers to ever not submit to literary magazines, even if they cannot afford to pay their writers in more than a few copies of the issue.
Many literary magazines cannot pay their writers. Literary magazines, among magazines, are not the most widely read magazines on the rack. Many magazines out there tend to have small circulation and a limited subscriber base. Magazines generally with larger circulation, that tend to get more reads, will generally pay their writers a set amount for their stories, if only because they can afford to.
As writers, there isn’t a point that we should decide to stop submitting work for “free.” Instead, we should be submitting to magazines that we believe in and want to be a part of. When you do start publishing stories more frequently, you do begin to build up a name as a writer and through that you may attract an audience, a literary agent, or the attention of other magazine editors, who will ask to see more of your work.
So contrary to popular belief, most new literary magazines are not insanely profitable. Paying a writer in printed copies of the magazine is a justifiable. Many small magazines hope to grow to the point of being able to pay their writers. I know writers who are more choosey with where they submit their work because they want their stories to be associated with certain magazines. Regardless of where you submit, I think you should always first strive to be familiar with the kind of work the magazine publishes and think of how your work may fit in with the magazine’s aesthetic and attitude.