The end of the small print journal. Please.

I recently came across an old professor’s list of literary journals from 2002 while searching for publications to add to Readsfeed (my project to assemble and track every new story, poem, and review posted online by respected literary outlets and send them automatically to readers via Twitter @readsfeed and RSS).

Here’s the list:

List of literary journals

Many of those publications, though, I couldn’t include in Readsfeed because they don’t actually publish content online.

These technologically stingy websites made me wonder: what exactly is the mission and use of literary journals in the digital era?

90% of the journals on that list are ones with perfunctory web presences, with pixelated logos, PDF samplers that could easily have been posted as HTML, and a mailing address instead of an email address or a form for submissions. These are sites created around 1999 when editors thought “Maybe we should have a website?”, then made one, and still oddly maintain them within their ten-year-old frames.

It’s a failure of attention, care, or caring that makes their content irrelevant or literally unreadable online.

This failure is especially true of smaller journals, most of which don’t post stories and poems online. They post excerpts at most, a table of contents on average, and a mere physical mailing address for requesting copies at worst. And they do this because they don’t want to cannibalize their hardcopy sales.

Except what they’re actually cannibalizing is their readership.

These publications put their stories above their readers. But without readers, the best story is as good as a blank page. Readers, it turns out, want different things than they did fifty or even ten years ago.

The necessities of print submission and distribution created, over decades, an entrenched sense of hierarchy, that good stories logically move from writer up to editor and back down to reader. But readers, with new online practices introduced by other media and applied to everyday life, expect a conversation with the people whose work they read. They expect a feedback loop. They expect access to literature.

These publications, then, are in trouble, because they don’t communicate with their readers when they easily could. They don’t seem to care that a generation is coming of age that loves books, loves talking about books, but which does it all with electronic mediation: ordering books on Amazon, posting a review on their blog, recommending a poem on Facebook, forwarding a bookstore’s email saying a favorite writer is coming to town, finding like-minded readers on Meetup.com to get drinks with.

This should be a golden age of literary journals. And it is, for some larger forward-looking publications. McSweeney’s, the New Yorker, Tin House, and others have found compatibility between financial sustainability and what my old boss Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability”, removing barriers to sharing content so that fans can build communities around that content.

Successful literary publications know that obscurity is the shortest path to failure.

To ask the question again, what is the mission and use of literary journals in the digital era? It can’t be publishing for publishing’s sake, because anyone can publish now. It’s not as much to act as gatekeepers, because huge communities exist using easy technologies to find and elevate good writing.

The mission of journals, as I now see it, is to contribute to and nurture conversation around good writing. To be experts without excluding. To offer literary context without condescension. To carve out space for literature. At heart that mission isn’t any different than it was eighty years ago. But in the digital era, that means making good writing easily, more freely available.

To do that, small journals don’t need to–and shouldn’t–print a bound volume four times a year.

Smaller print journals served a great purpose when sharing a short story or poem was restricted by geography. Print and voice were the only media. But things have changed. All traditional purposes of small journals–including teaching students to evaluate fiction, bringing attention to great new writers, creating a literary community–are now better served by posting writing online or using other forums in combination, such as public readings, fan groups, podcasts, and almost everything else besides print.

The small print-only journal now, for its small audience, is inefficient, maybe even a waste of money. The only thing it’s really good at? Keeping people from reading good writing.
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  • Anonymous

    Good stuff Andrew.
    As a writer, an important offering that on-line literary journals allow that print-only journals do not is greater breadth of publication. They bring more writers to the table and they are able to publish more often.
    I tried for a year or two to publish in print-only journals with no success. However, the onslaught of on-line offerings has allowed me to publish in three this year. That being said, I sometimes feel a certain stigma attached to online-only journals. -H.

  • Vito

    Great post. I love the idea for the twitter/rss feed. As editor of shaking like a mountain, a journal that publishes solely online, the constant struggle seems to be relevance. As if placing work online somehow diminishes the quality of the work, which we know to be completely false. The amount of great submissions we get shows that at the very least, the writers know where things are heading.

    As a side, I'd love shaking to be included in the feed. We publish poetry, fiction, and nonfiction influenced and inspired by music. We'd gladly post a link on the shaking site as well.

  • edwardmullany

    Great post, Andrew…I like how you articulate the purpose of literary journals today: "To be experts without excluding. To offer literary context without condescension."

    The hierarchy is being replaced by a sort of democratization, though the important thing is that good writing still be recognized as such. In other words, we should work towards a democratization of the literary community while still upholding some kind of standard (if that makes sense).

    all best,
    Edward

  • Andrew W

    @Vito Done! I've been slowly making my way through all the literary magazines here (http://www.pw.org/literary_magazines) and update the Readsfeed list when I get to the bottom of each page. So later today, you'll be listed–but you're officially included in the feed aggregation.

  • Sbrak

    Great post. I hope you've opened the eyes of some of these publishers. There are some great magazines out there that could reach a vast readership if they only changed their strategy. I think what holds some of these magazines back is a fear of losing what profits they do make by selling their journals. I think many reluctant publishers see the Internet as a place for free information, where the people making money are the ones designing the engines of information while those providing the information are seen as volunteers.

    However, I do disagree with you on the point that small publishers should cutback their printed issues. I for one don't think Threepenny Review (and the like) would lose its print readers if it offered more online content. And I certainly wouldn't mind if the cost of that online content was a few ads in the margin.

    As for your project collecting literary magazines, duotrope.com is an extremely useful database of literary magazines.

    Thanks again for the read!
    -Steven Breyak

  • Anonymous

    Isn't that interesting. like what Alan Kirby is saying about what comes after the postmodern ~ the "pseudo-modern" ~ at http://www.philosophynow.org/issue58/58kirby.htm. Thanks for a such a thought-ful post.

    Tamara

  • m@

    I also disagree with the idea that "small journals don't need to–and shouldn't–print a bound volume four times a year." It occurred to me as I read the article that this would be overcompensating; while these "old-school" publications could use some updating, it seems to me that what's needed is a kind of symbiosis between online and print availability.

    This is an overall issue facing all the arts – look at what the music and movie industries have been doing to adjust to brick-and-mortar versus click-and-order. Are they succeeding? Saw a video the other day that said 95% of all music downloaded this year was done so illegally…

    Interesting and important topic.

  • E. Willner

    Gimme a break: first, most small-print journals, and most of the best, are online — many exclusively. And I'm defining "best" as providing a). a counterpoint to the larger journals, which aren't interested at all in experiments or the up-and-coming authors and issues (the New Yorker? Really?), who often take a different view from the major authors; or

    b). another path. Consider Action, Yes or Lamination Colony or Forklift or anything that's coming out of Ohio these days and so damn many others. These journals allow people with interests in questions that those writing for Poetry or Chicago don't care about — the gurlesque, approaches to form and identity that take e-life and avatars into account, for instance. These may be the questions we'll all be asking in 10 years, or they may not be (that's the nature of experimentation — experiments risk failure or going astray), but they DO broaden the conversation to include new issues, and they ARE generally available online.

    So Whitacre is either ignorant of the embarrassment of riches out there or when he says "to nurture conversation about good writing," he's defining good writing as only including stuff in the current mainstream. If he really wants a more democratic, and wide-ranging discussion, he could give a bit more support to smaller journals that expand the conversation beyond what those who are published in McSweeney's or Poetry or the New Yorker (!!), those who've already Made It — for the most part, not the up-and-coming thinkers — have to say.

    PS, there are also journals like 6×6 made by people who are interested in bookmaking, which is why they publish only hardcopy (and often pretty beautifully) — and why shouldn't they be? That's another avenue to explore, new approaches to a pretty old art.

  • Fox

    "First, most small-print journals, and most of the best, are online."

    Willner, this is simply not true. Most small-run journals are still in print. Especially the ones run by universities. The ones online are frequently not as esteemed — meaning they are publishing more commercially viable fiction (attention-grabbing!), but not true art. 19 out of every 20 online journals I can't make it through a single story because the writing is so bad. Now, with a lot of print journals I don't like the story, but at least I respect the craft.

    Narrative and Electric Literature are the future of online literary journals. Quality + Online = Success.

  • Cheryl Gilbert

    "The mission of journals, as I now see it, is to contribute to and nurture conversation around good writing."

    Thanks for this. I've been reading Karl Popper's essays , and there's something he talks about regarding the critical conversation which led me back to thinking about literary journals. As though the editor were gathering the threads, but there was in fact a kind of progress built around a give and take. I haven't worked all my thinking about this through, but you put your finger on some of my questions.

  • Anonymous

    I think this is a good discussion to be having in and around the literary magazine community; however, I feel that it is too soon to be so strongly condemning print journals for continuing to print. The beauty of a transition period is for everyone to find their way and the technology and the art to find a mutually comfortable place in which to live NOT to see a new technology and immediately jump on that band wagon full force especially with the technology changing as rapidly as it is in this era. In time this will all shake out, but right now I don't think it is correct to be condemning print journals for doing what they do any more than it is for someone in print to condemn the online avenues of publication. This is especially true of those most strongly condemned in this post, the smaller journals, who have the smallest budgets, especially for new technologies, but still add to the flavor of the literary discussion for which this writer seems to be yearning. "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

  • Anonymous

    Why are coteries in Ohio somehow better than those in Illinois or Indiana? How is sniping a way of "broadening" a conversation?

  • Rick Rofihe

    I am old enough to (dimly) remember listening to 78 rpm records — suddenly there were 45's (singles) and 33's (LP albums)! Everything went fine for the next quarter-century until CD's took over. I was alienated — I turned my back on music for a couple of decades, until I acquired a car with a CD player. Not as awful as I'd thought! Meantime, CD's had become obsolete — DOWNLOADING was where it was at. Someone taught me how to turn on a COMPUTER! And all the music I hadn't missed and had missed was there for me — with pictures! — on YouTube….

    • In a practical sense, the paper book or journal or magazine or newspaper
      is already as obsolete as the vinyl LP-record is, especially when it
      comes to the time and costs devoted to their manufacture and,
      especially, distribution. I was born into an era in which recorded music
      still came on heavy 78 rpm discs — now even my compact discs
      are passe. When Kindles and Nooks started popping up around me I figured their users to be odd show-offs, parading their electronic affectations. I still don’t own an e-reader, but soon I’ll be the one, even to
      myself, appearing strange, cluttering up my — and others’ — environment with hard-copy.

  • Rick Rofihe

    p.s. Rick Moody & I duke this out here — but he had a French "second" in his corner…
    http://www.americanshortfiction.org/blog/?p=2220
    — Rick Rofihe, Editor
    http://www.anderbo.com

  • Sandra Rouse

    Fascinating conversation! I review short stories published on the net and I would venture to say that the longer short stories are not getting the same exposure as the shorter length works. In all fairness, I don't fault the editors or writers. It's the technology. Most readers just don't want to spend an hour reading a longer work. That said, the exposure of shorter works has been a boon to short story writers and readers. Hopefully, new technology will continue to address and support our reading desires. Or, do we entertain the idea that the print media have achieved the perfect form for the longer work?

  • Tom Holmes

    First off, there are a couple of comments about profits. Small journals aren't making profits, so that shouldn't even be brought into the conversation.

    As for printing versus online, you can't read an online journal in the bathroom, in the woods, on a plane, etc., but a printed journal can be read in those locations. Plus, as someone mentioned above, 19 out of 20 online journals are “bad,” which is true. (Notice: I didn’t say your online journal was bad, but my experience with online journals is that about 19 out 20 online journals have poor writing.) I wonder, does a printed journal have more at stake because of the money and effort that goes into creating the journal? I think the editor of the printed journal spends more time with the submission. So, as a result, only about 1 out of 20 print journals are “bad.”

    (Someone should run an analysis of the response times for online journals vs. printed journals. I think the investigation will show that the online journal response time is significantly quicker than the printed journal, even for the printed journal that accepts online submissions, as my journal does. More time spent with a submission tends to a higher quality journal. (Of course, a journal is only as good as its submissions.) A good place to start that investigation is at http://www.duotrope.com, which is my second favorite website.)

    But the most important reason for the print journal: the reading experience is much more involved. It's more personal. The connection to the writing and the author is much more intimate. When I read online, I feel distant from the text, and as hinted at in an earlier post, if the online text is too long, it becomes a bother to read.

    Plus, I want to hold what I'm reading. The heft of the text, the heft of the journal is a wonderful experience. Plus, I want to talk back to what I'm reading by writing in the margins. Plus, I want bookcases with books and journals. Plus, look at me walking down the street into the coffee shop with a journal in my hand. That’s an experience. It’s concrete. It’s real. That’s cool.

    While the online world is interactive, the printed page is much more interactive.

    This question could also be rephrased: would you rather talk to a person face to face or on instant messenger? How you answer that is probably your preference for the medium of the text.

    Note: I’m not discouraging the online journal or any medium that promotes literature. The more access to literature the better. The more people promoting and celebrating literature the better. The more the readers the better. I’m just stressing the experience, and for me and others, the printed page is the more enjoyable experience.

    Plus, and maybe the truth is in the following sentences: While appearing in an online journal is a wonderful experience, being in a print journal is a more wonderful experience. I want to be in print! I want contributor copies!

    Tom Holmes
    Editor
    Redactions: Poetry & Poetics
    http://www.redactions.com
    (a web site where poets will find valuable information for publishing, including a list of poetry book contests, a list of almost all the poetry book publishers, and almost every poetry journal with “Review” in its title, among other things.)

  • Alexis E. Santi

    I wrote a similar piece in this same vein, for some of you may be interested: http://www.ourstories.us/Summer_2009/AESanti_Essay_SU09.html

  • Kaat1220

    Sounds like you got rejected a lot and are bitter. Much of what you find online is of questionable quality, and sometimes, illegible. Many internet writers (not all) quickly post sloppy work so they can say they are published. Even news articles feature writing at a 9th grade level. Small print journalism is about having a passion for producing a quality journal with quality poetry, etc. with little or no regard for what is considered popular. Finally, you can hold a journal or book in your hands. You can easily find your favorite poems fifty years from now without sifting through endless archived pages to access a poem or story. How about you do your thing, and let them do theirs.