June 30th, 2013 / 12:07 pm
Behind the Scenes

Publishing In Print Literary Journals Is Useless

Between watching my eight-month year old son try and cram his fist into his mouth (teething) and stuffing envelopes at work for eight hours a day (busy work), the following question wouldn’t leave my head: what’s more important in the “world of writing” (sorry, can’t word this any better)  – publishing in print literary journals or establishing a following online? Does anyone care about your new piece in the Iowa Review? Can’t you publish online in small journals and build up a following through places like twitter and facebook and reach a wider audience?

Let me back-up.

I recently received more feedback online from posting a picture of Lays potato chips than publishing a story online. It took me approximately one minute to photograph the potato chips and post to instagram, while the short story, estimating drafting/editing/submitting, took approximately ten hours. It was this juxtaposition that triggered the question above. I understand the two aren’t necessarily connected, but it’s interesting to question the contemporary importance of traditional literary print magazines in a world where even writers are obsessed with online promotion where many of the things they randomly say/do on twitter/facebook/instagram/tumblr gets them more attention.

Who cares about literary journals when a writer can publish work on their tumblr/blog, gain followers from being funny/weird, and spark conversation and interest that way? Does it make sense to spend hours researching print literary journals, submitting, waiting months to hear back? And if your story does get printed in the journal, does anyone read it? The possibilities to reach an audience with your “art” are easier, faster, are larger in scale, than ever before because of social media and blogs looking relatively professional and not like a pimped out and re-colored geocities site. What I’m trying to say is that there’s new avenues to reaching audiences, and these new avenues seem to be reaching and swallowing up the old like the standard print literary journal.

I understand that publishing your story in a print literary journal can be rewarding and prestigious and build your resume, and all that. Sure. Okay. Good for you. But what if you get more feedback, reach a wider audience, and I don’t know, maybe attract the attention of other editors by posting your story online and tweeting it out?

Maybe the question is absurd because I’m currently blanked-out on Lays chips. I’ve eaten three mini-bags today. I tried to think of who would have an answer and thought about other writers but other writers would be biased depending on where they fell on the scale (writer A has published in print journals and has an ego, writer B loves the online shit). I thought about agents. What would agents be more impressed by – a writer with the print journal pubs, or a writer with an online following? Would I just be laughed at? Probably.

I emailed the following question to a literary agent at a reputable firm (I actually emailed the question to a dozen agents, all of which ignored me with the exception of one, which seems and feels about right). I said that if she put up with my nonsense I’d post her responses anonymously:

When considering taking on a new writer, what carries more weight (besides the work itself) – a writer who has published in several print academic journals (ex: Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, Iowa Review) or a writer who has published in small/obscure journals with a large online following (ex: several thousand followers on twitter)?

Here’s the email exchange:


Agent: For me, since I represent many literary fiction writers, those print-journal credits are important. Getting published in a top-notch literary magazine means that a writer made it through a very competitive process, and was selected as part of a small group for that issue. That still means a lot to me in terms of building a literary fiction author’s career.

So, am I totally wrong in thinking a writers social media presence is stronger/more important than publications? 

Agent: I don’t think it’s more important no, though I think it DOES depend greatly on what type of market they’re writing for and how big their audience in each format is. It certainly matters a lot for certain writers. But then there are folks like Malcolm Gladwell who doesn’t even Tweet.

Do you ever look at potential writers social media presence? What if a writer may not have any big market literary publications but they are gaining buzz through small online publications and, say, twitter? 

Agent: That certainly counts for something, yes! It just doesn’t count for everything.


So those publications do matter, according to this agent, who I respect and has published authors I respect. I’m wrong in my initial assumption. I still think it’s an interesting question to think about, especially with the always discussed end-times of print, online pages and colors spanning outward over everything constantly. But publishing your epic prose poem in Kitty Fart Face Review and tweeting it out could still get you a lot of attention, right?


  1. Guest487

      It’s good to strive for a balance between the two, at least that’s the approach I take with my own work. You definitely want those national journal credits when trying to place a collection with a decent press. And I prefer to publish flash online, but not longer stories. Most people don’t want to read a 5,000-word story online and those stories read better in print, especially the stories with a lot of back story and flashback that cover more than a day in a character’s life. Those stories work better on paper.

  2. Matt Rowan

      I think Happy Dog Mom Lit Journal continues to accept your submissions. But yeah, it is an interesting question and it’s certainly one that seems to be changing with time. Tao Lin, Marie Calloway, Sam Pink, and others of the “alt lit” set (a designation I do hope dies soon) seem to be having success in a very non-traditional way. The rise of the internet is affording all sorts of new possibilities with respect to getting yourself noticed and your work in the eyes of the reading public. Still, man oh man, I’d love to be published by Gulf Coast or Black Warrior Review or those others you mention and more.

  3. drewkalbach

      I agree with most of what you said here & it’s something that I think is beginning the break down–ie, the prestige of print journals vs. the stigma of online journals. It all comes from the community. Good, well designed online journals are going to attract an audience. An issue people like to bring up is that online journals are fleeting, but so are print journals. How many little print journals shut down, never to be seen again? Do we really read physical media more closely, more often, than we do their digital counterparts? I say we don’t. Also, I can’t help but think how agents are very much invested in the economics of art: those publications matter to them as a sort of weeding-out process. But in the greater scheme of literary production and proliferation, I think those small, “less important” online journals are what attract readers and keep the whole thing moving. Of course it matters to an agent, but an agent is a specific type of person invested in a specific kind of artistic interaction. Anyway, I love this kind of post/discussion. Great stuff.

  4. Richard Grayson

      “But publishing your epic prose poem in Kitty Fart Face Review and tweeting it out could still get you a lot of attention, right?”

      Probably not.

  5. Guest487

      Yeah, there’s a lot of chatter about how online pubs are read by millions of people, but is that really true? Many people (re: other writers) only read the byline to learn about the writer and don’t bother reading the story, just like they (re: other writers) do when flipping through a print journal. Just because something exists on the Internet and is available to millions of people doesn’t mean those people give it more than a passing glance.

  6. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      There are limits on the online attention unless something goes viral, and then viral is not sustainable past the single viral-ized item. Most of the time the audiences don’t surpass the hundreds, like it strikes me as nearly impossible to build an audience into the thousands and larger without some more corporate promotional machine behind you. I dunno, all I want to do is never have to work again (in a non-art-making day job with fucking circumscribed hours and vacation time) and still have money to pay living expenses, help with our daughter’s school tuition, buy makeup and vintage dresses, and travel a lot, but I know that’s 100 percent delusional.

  7. Guest487

      Roxane’s approach has worked, but she’s able to write super quick and do a million things at once. I’d never be able to pull that off because I’m a slow writer and I’m simply not as interested in popular culture and politics. She also writes about hot button issues within 24-48 hours that draw attention to her platform, and she does it exhaustively to the point where people now Tweet her to ask if she’ll write an essay on the latest brouhaha. I mention her as an antidote to the gimmickry of people like Tao Lin (e.g. Roxane actually has something to offer the world beyond how many pills she snorted up her nose last night).

  8. Roxane

      Not all attention is equal. The question isn’t who is getting attention today. The question is who will still be getting attention in 5 years. The Internet and the immediacy and reach of it, make it possible to get lots of attention in a moment. What will be remembered? This is also true of print publishing. There is a lot of impermanence in the writing world and the Internet simply offers us a new way to be some day forgotten.

      That said, as someone who publishes both in print and online, I am always pleasantly surprised by how many people are reading some of these print journals. I don’t think it’s useless but ask me again what I think in 5 years.

  9. Quincy Rhoads

      I have a tendency to read more of a writers work in print than online. My online reading is well-intentioned, and I have about a hundred unsorted bookmarked articles waiting to be read, but I’m a lot more likely to read one or two stories in Puerto del Sol this quarter than I will to read those shoes of online stories, etc.

      But I’ve only really been published online thus far, too. Alas. Great stuff to mull over.

  10. deadgod

      That online accessibility has thrown much wider open the doors to attention than they are at, say, short-fiction-in-print venues seems a democratizing and perhaps even egalitarian step or leap. Not sure whether democratizing gatekeeping will lead to worse or better choices for the art consumer than the old-fashioned gatekeepers generally made.

      But I’d like to question Shane’s comparison of time-committed-to-impact ratios.

      The instagram that got so much more attention for its one minute than the story is likely to get for several hours of work: is the instagram’s broad impact–1000s of people saw it and dozens reacted (?)–similarly deep? I mean, will people who, say, retweeted the image remember it, or remember having retweeted it, in a year? Maybe! Maybe it’ll become a poster on 100,000 bedrooms… But most groovy retweeted images are, I think, forgotten hours after they’re pinged back into the internet.

      Chances are pretty low for the story’s lasting impression, too. Most stories aren’t all that good, and, because there’s so MANY stories, there are a lot of really good ones–ones that strike a chord that you can be reminded of, but that you’ll not likely remember spontaneously even once for the rest of your life.

      But even the fleet impression that the story might make is qualitatively different than the instagram, in my view. I’m an elitist when it comes to artfulness in language (and visual image): making something that strikes more and heavier tuning forks is ‘better’ than making something that tinkles a tiny tinny bell for a moment. A cute snapshot: cool! But not close to the value (to me) of half an hour with a story that sinks into or rattles me even briefly.

  11. deadgod

      Ha ha — snap.

  12. Rauan Klassnik

      some print journals have real, deserved prestige and back that up with real readership. many academic journals, though, are just silly little trophy, boasting points for ignorant university administrators– and the only people who get these journals (and probably don’t even bother to read them) are the poor suckers who entered some contest that was probably rigged.

      (and just think of the money some of these universities waste on their garbage rags!)

      getting a poem or two, let’s say, into an online venue like The Collagist, Aesthetix, Detroyer, 3AM, etc, will get you a lot more attention, real readers– and those readers, that attention, can convert into 5 years or more.

  13. Guest487

      That’s unfair, man. Many of those “academic” journals are run by hard working (in fact, overworked) editors who view the journal as a labor of love. And I’m not sure what you mean by “real readers.” I’m suspicious of people who use that qualifier. Usually, people who write posts like yours are just bitter that they couldn’t crack a print journal with a Duotrope acceptance rate below 5%, ’cause most of those journals can only run 2-4 stories every six months, and that’s taking nothing from the online journals you mention.

  14. Rauan Klassnik

      I am being harsh … but love doesn’t always make something that’s good or helpful, and those editors often have their hands tied, and aren’t always publishing what they “love” anyways…

      by “real readers” I mean people who actually read the journal.. not someone who receives the journal in the mail and puts it in a stack on the coffee table (or worse)…

      but, yes, again, i’m being harsh

  15. Rauan Klassnik

      it can’t “break down” fast enough

  16. Guest487

      You are being harsh, because I know many of those editors and they are publishing what they love. This myopic narrative, mostly spun online, that journals housed in English departments are soulless and going through the motions is unfair. And as I say elsewhere, a lot of people talk about how often they read online journals, but something tells me they talk about it for a reason, and that they aren’t reading those publications as much as they claim. For me, this issue has less to do with print vs. online and more to do with the inherent problem with lit journals in general–that is, the realty that it’s always difficult to read an anthology, particularly anthologies that span multiple genres. It’s always a safer investment of one’s time to read a book, especially once the reader clarifies her tastes.

  17. Rauan Klassnik

      I hear ya …. what I like about anthologies is that you get a new chance, over and over, whereas when a book’s gone pear-shaped you can close it or suffer … and, again, I hear ya…

  18. Guest487

      Fair enough–that is a good point too (re: anthologies). What I do like about lit journals is the “dip-in-and-out” factor. I usually keep two-three on my nightstand for that very purpose. Right now, it’s Copper Nickel, The Oxford American Summer Issue, and Natural Bridge.

  19. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      This is totally true, I am constantly jealous of Roxane’s speed and also that she is able to so effectively communicate some fairly sophisticated ideas for a mass audience where I’d spend days just feeling anxious abt the thing I needed to write and being lazy and watching television. Except Roxane also watches the television. This is my biggest question about Roxane: How does she find time to write the essays AND watch the television (and teach and grade and edit and meetings, etc.) I know in the past, her answer to this has been, Insomnia, there was a whole period of time where between Roxane and Blake Butler I was like, Goddamit, I want to be an insomniac. Except if I’m up in the middle of the night, no way is my brain feeling sharp and focused enough to write shit.

  20. Roxane

      I wish I had some magic answer but it truly is living in the middle of nowhere and insomnia. I’ve been an insomniac for so long that I’ve learned how to be productive in the middle of the night (not always, but enough). I also don’t have kids yet. In a few years, if I reproduce and/or move from this forsaken place, well, I’ll remember when.

  21. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I was all over the “create our own new mechanisms and platforms,” “make indie lit more like indie rock,” etc. etc. shit like three years ago, and yeah, the breakdown or at least fundamental reorganization of the traditional publishing industry is still in process and everything, but more and more I kinda wonder if there actually is a “cream rises” effect, or whatever the fuck that expression is… Most of the best and/or most buzzed folks from when I first started hanging around in these “scenes” are now at big houses, incl. Tao, Shane, Blake, Amelia, Lindsay, Roxane, etc.

  22. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I think it’s worthwhile tho, to question the emphasis on “lasting impression” as an arbiter of art’s value… there can be something to be said for fleeting, disposable, immediate, anti-progressive, anti-future, anti-timeless truths, anti-transcendence, etc, kinna position — For me this is a queer anti-futurist position Ive been copping more frequently lately, influenced by Joyelle McSweeney’s BUG TIME and Lee Edelman’s NO FUTURE.

  23. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      structurally, I think the process does tend to be slightly more committee-driven, tho, yeah, at the big-staffed academic journals, which potentially means having things like codified evaluation criteria (which could lead to well-crafted mediocrity), whereas a web journal may be more likely to have an editor-auteur with a more singular aesthetic vision. But Ive read shit I loved in every kind of journal that exists, I dont think it’s useful to dismiss any categorically.

  24. Guest487

      I live in the middle-of-nowhere too and am single. Plus, I’m male and society will never expect as much from me as a woman–and I still could never do it. I obviously don’t know you personally, but from a distance, it seems like you have a little bit of “journalist” in you in addition to the creative writer. Tim writes: “she is able to so effectively communicate some fairly sophisticated ideas for a mass audience.” That’s a creative writer speaking about another creative writer who does journalism too. I read your essays more specifically as op-ed columns, the kind that address tough topics under a tight deadline for a mass audience. Most creative writers aren’t trained to do that kind of writing because it’s different than the traditional essay, if that make sense.

  25. cwinnette

      Sooo, am I being totally vulgar to bring up the fact that the more prestigious print publications can typically afford to pay their writers, rather than many of the super awesome, very visible online mags run by eager folks volunteering their own time to put the thing together. I’ve got tons of respect for the online publications who take the time to put something really special together, but the rewards of publishing in those places can be extremely hard to quantify, or even detect sometimes. Money isn’t why I’m writing these things, but when it suddenly comes my way it does genuinely feel good. 100 Facebook likes at the bottom of a story means far less to me than someone saying, this piece has real actual value in the world and I would like to compensate you for it. I also think a single email from someone who genuinely cared about the work is more meaningful, to me, than any number of button-clicks/page-views.

      I think the idea of what kind of attention is lasting is an interesting one, but I still think it comes down to the quality of the work and the attention you pay, as a submitting writer, to what you’re placing where. Some pieces are online pieces (a photo of a bag of potato chips is a great thing for you to have posted online, I’m being 100% serious, that photo would get no real response in the Denver Quarterly, probably), and other pieces are print pieces. They do better on a page, when you can feel them and sit with them.

      I guess my point is, there is good to be had in either venue. For the most part, different kinds of good. But, no matter which way you slice it, more people are going to be excited about potato chips than literature. That’s just true.

  26. Guest487

      Better is obviously subjective, especially in terms of quality, but don’t fool yourself: the more prestigious the press, the more national print journal credits you’ll find in the Acknowledgements. That’s just a fact. Again, I’m not saying that those stories are necessarily better than ones appearing online, but they do carry an undeniable cache.

  27. Ryan Boudinot

      There are two assumptions here that are curious to me.

      One, that the worth of a work of writing can be judged by the size of the audience.

      Two, that the worth of a work of writing can be judged by how much feedback it receives.

      I should say before I continue that I am forty years old and remember a time before Twitter and Facebook. So I am old. Take pity on me.

      But who really gives a shit if an online journal gets reaches x audience and a print journal reaches y audience. Or if anyone provides any feedback at all? Why aren’t we talking about the kind of writing that bursts out of your skull because it can’t be contained, or being so moved by something you read that the world around you looks and feels completely different?

      What about seeking publication through some venue that’s doing things that are interesting and cool, regardless of how many people read it or whether those people send you some sort of bullshit happy comment?

      Is that what writing has become? Fishing for compliments? Who gives a fuck?

  28. Roxane

      We are very close in age so I too remember ye olden days before social networking when I rocked the Writer’s Market, a lot of stamps and no small amount of delusion.

      Given the general readership and folks participating here, the assumption is that we all are writing and reading or looking for things that burst out of our skulls and from the skulls of those we read. Most of the conversations on this site are about that in one way or another. I don’t think this discussion is supplanting the pure delight most of us get from writing or reading.

      Who gives a fuck? That’s a good question. I think most people do, because we’re human and to have your work appreciated feels good. To have someone see something in the craziness in our heads that we have to get out, feels good. It shouldn’t guide creativity but it is there. I wrote when no one read me and will always write, regardless of readership but I do not mind compliments or criticism (theoretically, because, well, see: human).

  29. Guest

      Yeah, I disagree. It depends on where you are in the community, I guess. If you’re in the online lit community, than they do not carry more weight. If you’re in the classic academic community, then it carries that weight you’re talking about. Then there’s the cross section where, online lit writers think it carries more weight, and those academic writers feel it carries less.

      I’m in neither, but I have opened a lit journal and couldn’t believe the shit being published. I have clicked many a page and couldn’t believe the shit being published.

      I akin this to two people, from opposite walks of life, growing up in different countries/cultures, both talking about the same topic. One uses a particular set of words, the other uses their set. Both are talking about exactly the same thing, but because they approach it differently we assume there is an actual difference.

      There ain’t.

      Like so called “buzz”. All buzz means is that there is a lot of talk going on independent of whether the buzz is supported. Sometimes, the person just has a great grasp of PR, and their actual ability to fulfill on that buzz is null.

      Buzz is lame. Talent is awesome.

  30. Guest487

      We don’t disagree–“talent’s awesome”–but you’re conflating several issues here and assuming that a desire to be published in Hayden’s Ferry Review over Tinker Bell Online Quarterly is to assert a preference for the “classic academic life” over some more romantic life.

      It’s obviously a complicated issue and there’s no one way to achieve success. You’re right, “it depends on where you are in the community.” Certain writers won’t be published in prestigious journals that prefer realism. But I didn’t read this post as one that argues that buzz and prestige are more important in the long run than talent, legacy, quality, etc., or one addressing the quality of literature in fancy journals vs. online journals. I read this as a practical piece that provides helpful information. Frankly, one of the reasons I’ve scattered my scat all over the comment section is because I’m excited to see a “market” piece here for once. It’s been a while, and it’s a change of pace from the recent cycle of articles.

  31. Mark Cugini

      Are people really still worried about this?

  32. Quincy Rhoads

      But Ninja Turtles ARE better than Power Rangers.

  33. Bradley Sands

      If you want more readers for your books, developing an online following is more important than getting published in print (seems like a lot of people may be jumping the gun with this before they have something to sell, but perhaps it’s worth doing beforehand). Print vs online journals depends on which venue will get you more readers. For literary fiction writers, print will probably get you more readers than online journals. But doing stuff online like social networking and writing articles for sites will almost definitely be more beneficial to building your following than getting published by print journals.

  34. herocious


  35. Trey

      seriously, it’s not even close.

  36. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Totalllly — and if I try to write that kind of essay, too often it turns into an ACADEMIC essay, not journalism. For some reason this isn’t a problem when I record my youtube videos, which is why I’ve taken to that as my venue for social/cultural-criticism-intended-for-mass-consumption.

  37. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      …Or else it feels too much like the kind of writing Ive had to do for work in the nonprofit sector — grant proposals, e-newsletter articles for donors and constituents, etc. blech.

  38. Guest

      Tell me everytime you hear the Power Ranger cell phone ringer you don’t believe, somewhere deep inside, Zordon is actually calling.

      And everytime I eat pizza, I treat it just like I finished kicking foot-clan ass and I’m celebrating.

  39. Timmy Reed

      Word, Cug. Language art and storytelling are a fuck of a lot older than print or the web and those things are the stars of the show, the medium is just the stage.

  40. leapsloth

      HTML Giant has pulled itself from its lull and the last few posts have been interesting.

  41. leapsloth

      The book smells so good, though, and handles sand well and glare. A great technology, the book.

  42. leapsloth

      When i publish online I get feedback. In print, less.

  43. Matt Rowan

      I was thinking the same thing.

  44. Brooks Sterritt

      A print journal can go under, but they can’t “unpublish” you.

  45. Alex Miller

      If the process of trying to get published in print journals makes you write better, then it’s worth it.

  46. traynor

      Ten hours doesn’t seem like very much time to spend writing a story. At all.

  47. Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: While I’m Away | ErikaDreifus.com

      […] One writer tests his theory that “publishing in print literary journals is useless.” […]

  48. Marcus Speh

      In Europe, literary magazines mean near nothing. I’ve had a similar conversation with my agent who confirmed this. At the same time, having an attractive blog, Twitter or Tumblr site will raise some eyebrows but it also doesn’t mean anything. Nothing anyway compared with the work itself — how likely it is to get attention, how good it is…I have a LOT of followers, altogether probably around 10,000 for anything I write (which is like a billboard in a small town) but it is clear that everyone who will LISTEN to me on those channels is already part of my community, more or less, or my circle of friends — this boils down to 500-1000 people who will actually fork out some dough to see what I’ve written. These kind of numbers do not get anybody in the industry excited. Meaning: all you can really do is write the best book you can write at any point in time. Good luck!

  49. youxi211


  50. Quincy Rhoads

      I’ve been thinking about this post a lot more as of late as I’ve been obsessively checking the comments on posts I’ve written. That instant approval can be addictive and you seldom receive the same level of instant approval from print journals.
      Maybe if our fathers hugged us more as kids this wouldn’t be such a big deal?

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