Too Many Of Us, Too Much Noise

Posted by @ 4:52 pm on July 28th, 2011

Over on the Versal blog, one of the editors (Megan M. Garr) talks about the impossible economics of publishing a literary magazine and there’s a great discussion taking place in the comments. Money and literary magazines–there are no easy answers. The whole post is worth reading. After a conversation with some strategy consultants, he writes:

They were appalled by some of the cliches we throw around every day. Like, writers are poor. Like, people submit to journals they’ve never read. Like, bookstores buy the journal at a 40% discount. Like, bookstores don’t even buy it, they just take it on consignment.

I was floating after that meeting. I took a breath, got some perspective, confirmation that we navigate somewhat crazy waters here, that we model ourselves after the socialist university mags or the utopian zines but we’re actually crashing against regular-old capitalist realities. So of course our survival has become rather freaktified and precarious.

I am going to think out loud here, so bear with me.

There are few clever options for funding a magazine editors haven’t tried–big name writers, subscription drives, giveaways, and on and on. Editors sometimes come up with something really innovative but then that innovation wears off and it’s back to the drawing board. Even most university supported magazines are struggling. At PANK, our funding goes down each year and it was never that much to begin with. We’re lucky in that we do pretty well with sales, especially at AWP, but also via our website.

My co-editor and I also regularly ask ourselves, “How are we going to survive as a print magazine?” We have no earthly idea but I must also tell you I’ve started emotionally preparing for some day having to say, “We are not going to survive as a print magazine.” Sales are good but are they enough? Not likely. We’ve branched into electronic offerings but is that enough? Not even close. We have some advertising but 80% of it is ad exchanges. We are distributed by two different distributors and have yet, in three years of distribution, to see one single penny. We’re essentially giving the product away. It’s maddening. With every issue, we have to compromise or consider compromises–should we stop publishing a two-color interior (yes); should we use a lesser paper (not yet); should we print fewer pieces in each issue (yes); should we change the size to a more traditional size (not yet). I won’t even get into the nightmare of shipping costs but a nightmare it is–envelopes, postage, international rates, damaged issues, people who don’t update their addresses, and on and on and on. It’s all about money and there’s never enough no matter what we do and it’s mostly okay because we love what we do enough to do what needs to be done to keep it out there in the world.

I love the print magazine, the heft of it, the shape of the content we put in each issue, seeing the issue on my bookshelf and knowing that this artifact exists, that it cannot be deleted or unpublished. This is not nostalgia. I love the Internet and embrace electronic books but I also love opening a box of new issues and inhaling the smell of ink. I love taking the magazine to a coffee shop and reading through it even though I am already familiar with the work and I especially love attending conferences and fairs where I can talk to people about the magazine and put it in their hands and let them browse and ask questions. When something catches their eye, I love being able to talk to a new reader about why I fell in love with that piece. I often wish there was a way to do what I do at AWP, for example, online–a way to sell the magazine in a personal, passionate way. Something about a blog post or blurb on the digital screen is simply not the same because there’s too much digital noise. There are too many editors writing about how awesome the work in each issue is and they mean it, they believe what they’re saying, but so does everyone else in the virtual room saying those same things about their magazines.

If you ever get a chance to see Chris Newgent sell books at the Vouched Books table, you should. He started this small book concern where he has a table of books he’s willing to vouch for. We’ve talked about it here before, but you have to see him in action at a reading or other event to really get how awesome the idea is in practice. People hover around the table and listen to him talk about the selections he has with him that day and more importantly, people actually buy the books. He’s not getting rich off this but he is able to move books in a way that is personal and connected. He has a manageable inventory so you’re not overwhelmed by 10,000 choices. You have twenty or so books to consider and someone who can tell you what you should know about each of those books so you are better informed to make a buying decision. It is concierge book selling at its finest. It’s the kind of service you can get at an independent bookstore, only his enterprise is mobile. There is a lot to be said for curation, for saying, I’m not going to sell everything, I’m going to sell what I love most.

I went to the Borders store last night in a town about fifty miles from where I live, the closest thing to civilization in these parts. The liquidation has started and the store was a sad, sad place. I kind of wanted to step in front of a bus after a few minutes in the store. The stench of failure was everywhere. The coffee shop was already closed, empty chairs turned over on empty tables, most of the signage taken down. The bathrooms are permanently out of order and blocked by a large bookcase and an angry sign. The employees were in IDGAF mode and who can blame them? The ceiling was dripping with placards advertising shallow discounts on merchandise.  Even with the discounts, Amazon was cheaper for many of the books I looked at. I checked on my phone. The store was a real mess, books everywhere, out of order, and more than books, there was a bunch of crap. That’s the only word for it–toys and games and movies and bullshit you don’t need to find in a bookstore. People milled about the store like buzzards feasting on a carrion and hey, I was there too, looking for bargains. I almost bought a copy of Emily Griffin’s Something Borrowed but the sticker price was $14.99 and the discount was 10%, and I was interested in paying like $2.99 for the book because the movie was terrible. As I looked around the store, even in it’s diminished capacity,  I thought, “This is too much.” How could anyone possibly know what to read in that store swollen with books, too many of them mediocre? How could any reading experience be meaningful amidst so many choices?

This is a question we face when we buy books online too but online you can read about a book on a blog, or in Bookslut or in a Fancy Newspaper Review of Books, for however long those last, and then you can consult with Dr. Google and find that writer’s website and see what other people are saying and you can have something to go on before you buy that book.

When it comes to literary magazines, you can visit that magazine’s website and maybe they have a blog and maybe they take the time to update that blog with some regularity. Maybe they’re on Facebook and Twitter and now, Google Plus, and maybe they update those because to get anywhere, you have to be everywhere online. You can also consult Dr. Google and see what people are saying about a magazine, if people are saying anything about a magazine, though let’s be real, most of the time, it’s just the writers published in that magazine. You can consult Duotrope and learn some statistical information. In a few cases, you can go to an actual bookstore and browse that magazine but there’s a lot to keep track of. There are so many damn magazines. I subscribe to too many. I subscribe to more magazines than I can possibly read. The only ones I read with regularity these days are American Short Fiction and The Paris Review and with everything else, I read single issues and do the best I can but I can’t keep up because there are also online magazines, you see, and let us not forget, there are books, which I also enjoy. We are inundated by content because we are inundated by content creators, all clamoring to put themselves in front of an audience who will see them hear them feel them touch them. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with all this but it’s something that has to be acknowledged.

I read something online the other day, shared by Matt Bell via Google Buzz, about a writer who staged a fake kidnapping or something like that to get the attention of an agent so he might sell his book. That depressed me too, the idea that he didn’t believe in the strength of his writing, he believed in the strength of his psychotic ploy. He believed that in order to stand out, he has to do something absurd instead. Is this what we have come to? I’ve said it before and I still believe it to be true–cream rises to the top. If the writing is there, what you want for your writing will come, maybe not in the timeframe you want or in the package you originally envisioned, but it will come. Perhaps I tell myself this because like most writers, I’m putting in the work and I’m waiting and I am hoping something comes of it. When I read about writers staging fake kidnappings, though, I wonder. I wonder what the next crazy writer is going to do to satisfy that need to have your work read.

I’ve often seen the argument that if literary magazines were selling what people wanted, they’d be able to financially sustain themselves, placing the blame on content or aesthetic. Sometimes, that might be the case but I don’t believe it often is. I also don’t believe that writers not supporting the magazines is the problem. That’s a tired argument. Writers support magazines just fine.

Are literary magazines selling something people (beyond writers) don’t want? I don’t know. I guess, based on how dismal the financial outlook is for nearly every literary magazine in the country, the answer is yes. What do we do about that? How do we get readers who are not writers? I have no problem with writers as the primary audience for a magazine because so many people want to be writers. Saying writers are the only audience for literary magazines is like saying people who like to swim and go to the beach are the only market for bathing suits.

Sometimes, I think there are too many magazines just like I felt, last night in Borders, that there were too many damn books in the store. Everyone wants to be a writer, but increasingly, everyone wants to be an editor, too. Everyone thinks that they have some special vision only they can usher into the world.  I noticed in the comments of the Versal blog post that at least two people said, “Hey, I’m starting my own magazine.” Almost daily, I get an e-mail from an editor saying, “Hey, I’m starting a new magazine.” You look at Duotrope and know, the one thing we have in surfeit, is magazines. Not all of them are great but my goodness, if you want to be published, start working your way through the list. It’s going to happen.  As an editor, I get it, the desire to start a magazine. Editing is awesome, and being able to discover work and shape issues the way you want is fun and interesting. I’ve learned so much as an editor and hope I have the privilege of doing it for a long time to come. And yet, I also think, another new magazine? Another run by an editor who doesn’t care enough to even spend $10 on a domain name and maybe a little more on a WordPress installation? Another magazine where the editors don’t know how they’re going to fund each print issue? Are these magazines, multiplying exponentially, really going to offer something we’ve never seen before? Is becoming an editor really that important?

One of the primary challenges with getting people to buy magazines is that there are too many. It’s not that magazines aren’t doing great work or that editors aren’t marketing their product well or that they haven’t found the right price point or whatever magical solution we’re all desperately searching for. People want to read the exciting work in Magazines A, B, C, D, E, F, and G through Z but it’s not financially feasible to subscribe to all those magazines and there’s so much noise that it’s hard to find a way of saying that Magazine P is worth buying over Magazine V. The audience is there for magazines, but too much product is available. Look at AWP. The bookfair is insanity. It’s a thrilling insanity, but there are more magazines there than you could possibly read in a lifetime and at each table two or three people stand there and tell you, “We love great writing,” and each of those people is telling you the God’s honest truth. Most of them are truly committed to leaving the literary world better than they found it but none of us want to admit that we’re running out of oxygen in the room. The good news, I think, is that we (writers, readers, editors) love this literature thing so much, we’ll endure the tightening in our chests as long as we can.

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