About ten days ago, I put this poll up on the blog here. While not a great number of responses, I am pleased with the number of people who took the minute or so to offer their opinions on the state of contemporary literary magazines.
One of the things I wrote in that original post was
We know that there are more literary magazines than there are readers, but not as many as there are writers,
and this is a problem. Another problem writers come across is that there is little payment available out there for accepted works. That is a discussion outside of this one.
Why are there more literary magazines out there than there are readers? We could attribute this to many reasons, but let’s take a look at the poll. Two of the top three responses have to do with the reader’s perspective.
First is the accessibility for reading. I think this reflects a split in the market that most of publishing is undergoing right now. On one side, printed literary magazines cannot get the distribution to bookstores and newsstands, and rely on readers seeking out the magazine and purchasing a subscription for growth of readership. Some magazines (in fact, most print magazines I have submitted to) have begun rolling a subscription into a submission fee. This can be an effective method of increasing the readership. Even if a writer does not renew a subscription, the editors can hope for a relatively stable number of contest submissions each year. I would be interested to see how much of a journal’s subscription turnover can be attributed to this. On the other side, the digital magazines have a whole wealth of problems to be overcome–and that is just inside one platform. The editors have to decide on which platforms to be available (just for example – Kindle, Nook, .pdf, website, app, etc.). I imagine that different devices handle these options differently, and possibly poorly. Creating a separate app just for the publication is a whole other can of worms that, frankly, most creative types don’t have the knowledge or time to implement. Several journals I have published in offer both a print and digital edition (often digital being the cheaper version), but do not offer the purchaser the choice of both.
Another accessibility issue to consider is whether pricing may be outside of general acceptance. A consumer can often buy a Kindle edition of a novel for around $10 within a couple of months of release, or a physical copy for around $25 at release (even on those books with an msrp of $35 or more). The reader spending that much is often comfortable with his or her appreciation of the author before spending. A literary journal, however, is often a gamble, and often costs on the order of $15 (though finding them discounted at AWP is a common occurrence).
Yet a further way to understand accessibility is the intellectual accessibility of published pieces, a problem which has resulted in myriad attempted and failed solutions. This is yet another in-depth discussion which does not belong in this essay, but let’s take a quick look, if just to address the issues. First, we can agree for the most part that the literary market is not the same as the popular publishing market. This has always been true, and can be attributed to multiple causes. Second, however, we can agree that the public is not stupid. Sales of books by several authors and some of Oprah’s book club picks can attest to this. Third, we must conclude that we are then talking about accessibility in terms of shades of what the public is willing to bet on. One question editors might begin asking themselves is how much of literary goings-on, or maybe literary schools, or maybe academic criticism might the average reader have to understand in order to understand what this poem or story or whatever is saying? Another question an editor might ask is how boring the piece is. These two questions might answer a lot of our issues with this type of accessibility. Again, this is a much deeper discussion than what I have offered here so far.
This gamble brings us to the other reader-perspective response in the top three–the quality of the pieces published. How many times have any of us purchased a journal for $12 or $15 dollars, only to be disappointed in most of the content? This is not a cheap gamble for the reader–literary journals don’t have nearly as much resale possibility as the new novel or even poetry collection. So what is a reader to do? I know that when I gamble (with the lottery ticket I buy maybe twice a year), I rarely spend more than a couple dollars, and I expect to be disappointed. On the other hand, when I buy a subscription to a large journal for $30 for two issues, I expect not to be disappointed. Unfortunately, I usually am. Maybe there will be a couple of poems, and perhaps a story, that do not bore me in the tomes I receive. And they often are tomes. If we take a look at some of the more successful journals, they are not tomes. Titles such as Poetry, or The Paris Review, or 32 Poems, or One Story, or Glitter Train are not full of great works by any means, but they are more successful because they publish more issues, receive more submissions, can select top-quality work, and do not publish 300-page monsters. Smaller venues and university-associated journals are often restricted by the academic year (and budgets) in which they operate, and often only produce one or two issues per year. Their funding is limited, and their staffs are limited. In student-run publications, editorial preferences tend to drift; while in faculty-run publications, there is often too much a sense of rigid editorial preference. All of these things result in often questionable quality of published pieces, I think.
While I do not want to specifically discuss the economic issues facing literary journals, I think we can all agree that what is discussed above is the result of those economic pressures. I’d like to ask you readers what some solutions might be here at the end of this first part of result-analysis. Further, how does all of this reflect on Amazon’s decision to launch a weekly (!) literary magazine?