Thoughts on “saving” the litmag industry

April 9, 2009

I’m not sure online publishing is particularly beneficial to the publishing industry, not if it wants to monetize itself effectively. When someone publishes their work online in a literary magazine or a newspaper as opposed to publishing within their own blog or forum or whatever, both sides (publisher and published) are hoping to make scale and community be the commodities that are monetized. The problem with this, in my view, is that online publishers (and this includes newspaper companies) are charging for their ownership of the IT infrastructure and not the content itself. IT infrastructure holds no inherent value in the Web 2.0 age.

What brings folks back as investors is community and investment, which have to be redefined to be effectively monetized. Newspapers and magazines have heretofore operated in a medium divorced of true community. Therefore they will hurt in a Web x.0 age until they figure this out.

An anecdote: My old house in Vancouver used to get The Globe and Mail, a slightly right-leaning, mostly lukewarm newspaper, which I read because it was there and nobody thought to cancel the subscription. I read it most days before school along with my afternoon coffee. Routine’s a powerful thing. I was not attached to the Globe and Mail per se but to the tradition associated with my behavior. Consequently, I felt no connection to other people that read the Globe and Mail. Why should I? I enjoyed reading the newspaper but it never occurred to me that I was in any way part of the newspaper. That sort of thing will fly less and less in the Web 2.0 world.

At one point, I submitted a poem to Arc Poetry Review out of Ottawa. I received a subscription as part of my submission. I read it with interest even though my poem was never published (and with good reason) because I sought out Arc, essentially self-selecting myself. I found I was more willing to talk to someone about something I read in Arc than I am about something I read in the Globe and Mail even though I was more likely to talk politics than poetry. At some point, however, I let my Arc subscription run out when I began to feel like I was treating it like the Globe and Mail even though I didn’t come to it like I came to the Globe and Mail. If I reference an event in the news, I don’t bring up where I heard it. My point is that literary magazines have to move away from the Globe and Mail model when their readers are almost always self-selected. Folks have to feel like their litmags are talking to them.

Here’s a monetizable model for a literary magazine. I’ll put it up for free. I don’t care if you steal it. More power to you. I’ll probably bring this up at our next meeting.

1) Make users also editors.

I’m constantly amazed by how many people that buy literary magazines are literary geeks. God love the folks that subscribe only to OneStory (which is great btw) but the vast majority of the people that subscribe to litmags want to read, love to read even. As one of the folks that work on StoryQuarterly, I’m wading through 400 stories in the slushpile. I’ve gotten through 50 in the last month. I wish I could read more but I’m often otherwise occupied. If we could open up the editing process to folks who subscribe, perhaps we could make sure more eyes are on every submitted story.

The way SQ works is that there’s a slushpile and tiers. The stuff that gets into the tiers are really good. Incredible, some of them. At the end of the day, what separates the published from the publishable boils down to the editors’ and readers’ tastes. If even a portion of the subscriber base (in the thousands) decided to take an active role in helping out in the winnowing process in the tiers, then they’d have stories they’d want to read. It’s a great way to get people involved. If something I fought for gets published (presumably, my friends like stuff that I like as well), then I’ll be more inclined to bring like-minded folk into the community. Of course, we’ll have to consider quality and such. We (meaning editors and readers) will still wade through the slushpile so the subscribed editors get to comment on and choose only stories that are of sufficient quality.

Subscription as representation. Isn’t that nice?

2) Added value circumvents problems with the medium..

A lot of people don’t like to read. Or don’t have the time. They have iPods and Kindles and other devices though. One of the really neat things StoryQuarterly is doing is having selected authors read from their stories. Essentially an audiobook version of the print journal, soon to be downloaded from iTunes.

It is my belief that no one can say the story as a form is dead. Humans, social creatures that we are, love stories and storytelling. This trait is as old as we are. What we don’t love anymore is perhaps the medium and the presumptions it makes. Another thing StoryQuarterly will do this year is put out an online edition of the stories that almost made it. Windows like this are where free communities can be built that aren’t editorial necessarily and provide free users a place to be involved within the community. I’m fairly certain no one can say the story as a form is dead. Humans, social creatures that we are, love stories and storytelling. What we don’t love is perhaps the medium. Another thing StoryQuarterly will do this year is put out an online edition of the stories that almost made it. This is where free communities can be built that aren’t editorial necessarily.

3) Make literary magazines work for published authors AND publishable authors

People that buy litmags also buy books. People that are published in litmags are often published or are about to be published. I’m thinking it’ll take some creative legal thinking but how about soliciting excerpts of recently published books to drive subscribers to buy said book? Partner with agents and publishing houses to provide an option to buy said book with the literary magazine every quarter.

Let’s presume Jonathan Lethem’s new book is coming out soon and he gets an excerpt published in the magazine. How about giving subscribers an option to (automatically, or manually) have the new book from which the excerpt is taken sent to them along with the magazine? It would have to be at a discounted price that’s conscious of the magazine’s cost of course, at which point it’s a win-win for both parties. Imagine the boost that would give first-time authors to have their books sent out one month after Lethem or whoever.

4) The internet hates static.

Getting people to click the first time is easy. Getting them to click again is hard. The reality is websites have to constantly stay in controlled flux. Books and newspapers are physical products but websites aren’t. Literary sites shouldn’t behave as if they are nor should they reduce themselves to an archive. That’s something most literary magazines don’t get. Yet. Given how most of them are staffed by student volunteers who are themselves starved for time and attention, it’s a natural problem.

In my experience, litmags draw from grad students in Creative Writing and English alone. The solution, however, is inbuilt in the system so this is an easy fix.

Two premises: 1) Literary magazines have access to student volunteer pools.
2)Many students at university are involved in webdesign and graphic arts and website management.

Open up university publishing classes to those students. Co-ordinate, you bureaucratic beast!

That’s all for now.


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