July 28th, 2011 / 4:52 pm

Too Many Of Us, Too Much Noise

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 RandomAssMagazine.blogspot.com 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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  1. Brendan

      A big problem is that very few people actually get their entertainment from short stories/poems and such. At one time, a large part of the population was reading stories in periodicals. Now they watch TV, jerk off on facebook, whatever. If they do read it is some simple minded YA novel or some crumm book with a “sexy” vampire on the cover. Maybe “literature” has had its day.

  2. MFBomb
  3. Roxane

      I think it is related. I read that post a couple weeks ago and thought about that, and this other thing I read somewhere about tiny libraries.

  4. Tanya

      “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.”

      What happened with the Literary Magazine Book Club? Is that still going on? After the first two journals I never heard anything about it again, but maybe I just somehow missed it? 

      I do agree that there is too much noise, which is why I appreciate all the more efforts like the guy who runs Newpages and does the reviews, or Dzanc’s Short Story Month, or even things like http://www.ireadashortstorytoday.com. Also, somewhat related, I really like what Largehearted Boy does and wish with literary journals there would be more correlation with writing and other art forms–music, new media, etc. 

      Since MFA programs are on the rise I wish that in more workshop classes instructors would make their students seek out/purchase/read a new literary journal. I know some do, but more should, and to be honest, in my own workshop experiences I only had one instructor who did. 

      As far as print journals go, I really appreciate it when the time is taken for design. I’ve bought journals on impulse buys because they were beautiful to look at. 

  5. Mike Gross

      unfiltered/unedited response:  sometimes I get a little anxious about all this. & when I’m not taking up investment banking in response to my fears, I’m remembering that we’re doing something new here: it ain’t overwhelming, it’s exciting.  the laws of these new physics will be figured out by dickheads later on.  to me, it’s like the food industry: everyone used to grow their own food –according to my romanticized visions– and then everyone started working at factories and buying cans of Spam & Hamburger Helper.  Now there’s such an overwhelmingly ginormous food industry, it’s granted the participants a new kind of localism –different from both the industrial food complex, and whatever the hell it was before that.  Maybe someone would like to assert that regionalism is a necessary outcome (we’re starting to see) of an overabundance of choice.  once a density threshold is met, perhaps the agent organizes the datapoints into a more manageable system, and becomes more likely to stick to the familiar.  What this means for lit mags, poetry, etc., I don’t know.  I do know that I could care less what’s happening in Alabama (not entirely true) because there’s too much to keep track of here in Colorado.  Maybe that’s not bad, now that everyone has MFA programs, and there’s so many MFAs in every region ever.  Maybe the AWP is the wal-mart of lit mags, and we need farmers markets to serve particular areas.  what we allow “the industry” to be has to be flexible as the speed of cultural evolution accelerates beyond manageable rates.  

      And other things too!       

  6. Roxane

      Hi Tanya. The problem with LMC was that only a few people participated. I think the idea is great and Im committed to it but I am trying to think of ways to encourage participation. Only 5 people have asked what’s going on in the months long hiatus so I imagine, ultimately, that the interest isn’t there. I’d love to start it up again, all that said.

  7. deadgod

      That blogicle is written as “POSTED BY MEGAN M GARR”.  In the comment stream, she also responds as though she’d written the piece.  ???

  8. MFBomb

      “Since MFA programs are on the rise I wish that in more workshop classes instructors would make their students seek out/purchase/read a new literary journal. I know some do, but more should, and to be honest, in my own workshop experiences I only had one instructor who did.”


      CLMP has a program that might interest you and others.  See link below.  The program allows instructors to include journals as course required texts. Students subscribe to the journals for a discounted rate:


  9. M.G. Martin

      Like you said, ‘the cream rises.’ If you actually are: THE EDITOR OF A REAL LIT MAG, then you will succeed in some bizarre, grand or microscopic way. But what’s great about this game, is, unlike the N.B.A., M.L.B., N.F.L., etc., we all have the right, ability (financial and/or talent/luck) and oppoortunity, to ‘make it to the pros.’ Though, ultimately, like professional sports: how well you perform, and which team you play for, determine your career. Love this life.

  10. stephen

      hi Roxane, thanks for your thoughts.

      i’m going to use print-on-demand for my next issue to cut back costs.

  11. Roxane

      It’s no great mystery. I obviously missed it. I’ll fix it when I get home.

  12. Tanya

      MFBomb–I saw that in the comments section from the article Roxane posted. I do think it’s great if instructors were to do it. Unfortunately, I’m not in an MFA program anymore so there’s not much I can do on that front.
      Roxane–that’s sad about the Literary Magazine Club. I did think it was a great idea, although I’m not sure either what could be done to garner more interest.

      I wish there was an online literary magazine that sought out and republished work from other magazines, both online and print, and correlated around a theme. Has something like that been done yet? At the moment I can’t think of anything.  

  13. Paul Jessup
  14. Roxane

      That’s great but I wasn’t writing about you.

  15. Roxane

      The Reprint publishes stuff from print magazines.

  16. Adam Robinson

      I love your write up of Vouched here. I want to see Christopher in action.

  17. Tanya

      Oh! Yes! I will be reading this journal. Also, I had never heard of zine-scene either until now. What great sites to look at. Thanks Roxane. 

  18. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I like the idea of curating around a theme, though. When I was reading almost exclusively short fiction a couple years ago, I used to assemble anthologies inside my head all the time, just like the mixes I’d make when I was a CD buyer.

  19. deadgod

      [political bowel syndrome alert]

      I think that content inundation is, in this case, content-provider inundation. 

      If every person who can read but doesn’t write read as much as some/many writers read, they would put perhaps enough money into ‘writing’ to sustain literary magazines (and other venues for all kinds of literature).  Some of those readers-who-don’t-write-and-previously-didn’t-read-much might, then, turn into:  writers.

      Capitalism channels and concentrates accumulation; the other effects of being in a capitalistic system are oriented by and towards this ‘goal’ or are parasites that haven’t (due to harmlessness) yet been cleansed from it.

      As long as society invests in mass literacy, there’s not only going to be more writing, and more fine writing, than any one person can read–there are also going to be more writers than a capitalistic marketplace can sustain at a middle-class level of material luxury.

      It’s not a practical short-term response to the money problems at Versal or PANK, but socialism is the rational, just, long-term-sustainable solution.

  20. deadgod

      That sounds like an excellent idea on its own terms–that is, an artistically and pedagogically wise idea for CW programs at any level, given the means/end of getting apprentice writers to read lots of examples of different kinds of good writing.

      – but are there enough MFA students (say) to keep all the worthy journals in even tattered clover? – especially after MFA departments start publishing mags to sell to each other’s mandate-driven purchasers?

      It sounds like trying to get auto workers to buy second and third cars to keep their own factories going.

  21. postitbreakup

      jeez stephen, the audacity… the audacity of you to reply in that manner…  the post was not written about you.  just because you’re also someone who runs a magazine and worries about costs, doesn’t mean you can just reply to a post that didn’t mention your name. who the fuck do you think you are…


  22. postitbreakup

      Not arguing, just curious–what would a socialist arts scene look like vs. the capitalist one we have now?

  23. Brendan

      I am not sure higher literacy equates to more great writers. Cars, phones, the internet make people think less. People’s experiences are more stream lined. Most people who are “good writers” have very little original to say. Those who are not “good writers” probably have even less.

  24. Roxane

      Get over yourself post it. Stephen said that because we had an email exchange about how independent magazines can fund themselves. My comment was to let him know I wasn’t picking on him because of that exchange.

  25. postitbreakup

      I don’t really buy into the idea that there was some mythical time when everyone was smarter and more “well-read” the way we’d define it today.  Obviously people spent more time reading, but who’s to say that they spent the bulk of their time reading classics any more than today we spend the bulk of the time reading DFW or whoever?  A lot of the writing was pulpy and forgettable in the olden day, too, or politically/religiously didactic.  Since only the great stuff endures, I think we anachronistically impose the idea that “everyone ONLY read the great stuff,” when really it was the same case as today–people read a lot of garbage, but there are still classics that catch o.

      I dunno, just always very skeptical of any “good old days” type thinking.  I do think a lot of the “enjoying stories” impulse has shifted to television, and that there’s the same ratio of high quality to low quality writing there than there was in the magazines.  The stories that get anthologized/remembered would be like The Sopranos (or whatever higher-class TV show) of today, the many many many many more forgotten stories would be reality TV garbage or whatever.

  26. postitbreakup

      I was purposefully trying not to reply to anything you wrote, but you jumped on me in that other thread for just posting my general thoughts as if I was directly replying to you, and then the last few things you’ve said have been like “I didn’t write this for you” “my comment wasn’t about that” (repeated 3x).

      It seems like if you want all your words read in such a very specific way by only certain people, it’d be easier to post a disclaimer up front about what you’re talking about and who is or isn’t allowed to comment?

      (my name has no space)

  27. postitbreakup

      Seems like statistically  it’d have to, but I don’t think the increase is terribly dramatic.  Since you have to know how to read/write to be a good writer, if you say that .001% (or whatever) of literate people are good writers, and you vastly increase the size of the literate, there will be more good writers even if the proportion is not any higher.  But maybe deadgod was saying the actual proportion has gone up, and I don’t agree with that necessarily.

  28. MFBomb

      I don’t view the program as The Program to Save Literary Journals, but I see your point and I struggle with this issue myself: “It sounds like trying to get auto workers to buy second and third cars to keep their own factories going.”

      Sometimes, these conversations begin to feel that way, I agree. 

      I think it’s just as important for lit mag editors to encourage writers to read books than it is to buy and read their particular lit journals, because those potential submitters and readers will come to the journal with a deeper appreciation of what you, the editor, have to offer. 

  29. Roxane

      That actually isn’t what my last few comments hav been and I didn’t jump all over you. I clarified something. If I jumped on you, so to speak, my commet would have been way bitchier. In this instance here you had no c

  30. stephen

      thanks for clarifying, roxane. i actually somewhat misunderstood your first comment before seeing your second one. cheers.

  31. Roxane

      No problem. Sorry for that. I’m on my phone. Brevity is easiest.

  32. postitbreakup

      Even Stephen just said–and he knew the context–that he didn’t understand your first comment.  Because you’re acting like tone-deaf or something if you don’t get how “that’s great, but I wasn’t writing about you” sounds condescending/bitchy, same with, “I’ve explained like three times what I was responding to” (especially when nobody’s comment that you replied to with that even addressed you).  Not that it really matters.  I “liked” you previously and thought you were helpful; now seems like you’re just very uptight and either tone-deaf or actually bitchy all the time but not willing to cop to it.  Different strokes, you hate me as well, let’s move on.

  33. Rape

      My self-published online lit mag pulls $8500 a week, dunno what you guys are doing

  34. stephen

      there are a lot of print journals, i agree. my opinion as a reader is that i’d like a nice-looking magazine with mostly or exclusively people i’m excited about it in it. i vaguely wish that more magazines were stylish or cool-seeming. i have had trouble finding lit magazines that fit my personal tastes.

      as an editor i may feel less anxious than some, possibly, because i’m not worried about sustainability nor do i have any particular goals for the magazine w/r/t sales.

      my approach is to try and publish exclusively authors i’m excited about and primarily ones who are known in the scene and/or have an active internet presence. and then i keep over authors from one issue to the next creating more of a community or collective feel. and i blog very regularly at my tumblr to promote the authors and the magazine. i’m not sure how successful that has been in terms of awareness or people caring about the mag outside my immediate community. there has been some outside coverage. i have had very limited print runs in the past, so people have primarily read my magazine online not in print.

  35. deadgod

      Not sure what you mean by “equates to”.  ‘More literate people’ certainly does mean ‘more people who could be writers at some levels of ambition and quality’.  That the %ages of them who would want to write and who would be fine (or “great”) writers would be close to the same as when there are fewer literate people seems to me not definite but likely.

      I doubt that people think “less” than people did when they were farming, constructing, manufacturing, or cleaning 15 hours a day.  What’s the evidence that contemporary gadgetry leads to “less” thinking than in its absence?

      Originality is, I think, a red herring to introduce as a desideratum at this point.

  36. Roxane

      I don’t hate you. I have no idea who you are. And I own my bitch streak quite openly but I’m a generally nice person. Take care.

  37. deadgod

      At one time, a large part of the population was reading stories in periodicals.

      When was this?

  38. Brendan

      Postit – I am saying the percentage of people who write well is much lower than 100 years ago.

      Deadgod – Actually, there have been studies that show people’s memory has gone down significantly since the internet.

      Originality isn’t a red herring. Or maybe you prefer to read uninspired crap? If so there is certainly plenty of it out there.

  39. deadgod

      buying your fucking magazine caligula

  40. Don

      Unfortunately, most lit mags just aren’t very good or the writing is good but presented in a really annoying way.  For example, the new Ninth Letter, a lit mag I usually enjoy, is printed in this terrible way with mediocre visual art that makes it hard to enjoy the writing.

      McSweeney’s has an audience outside of MFAers, right?  They’ve done
      pretty well.  I imagine the Paris Review does relatively well, too.  They’re just.. better and more consistent.

  41. Brendan

      In Europe from the 1820’s until WWII. In the US the dates were similar, but not the same. Dickens work was mostly published in installments and he had a huge readership.

  42. Brendan

      I am not saying it is “the good ol’ days”. I am just saying if we are looking for why lit mags aren’t selling, the reason seems pretty clear: people don’t want to read them.

  43. postitbreakup

      Oh, yeah, that’s true.  I wonder if there’ll be some sort of iTunes for lit that separates the stories from the magazines.  Story for .99, get the issue for 9.99, sent straight to your phone/kindle/whatever.  That seems like it’s going to be the only way anything is read in a couple of generations if not earlier.

  44. Trey

      “I am saying the percentage of people who write well is much lower than 100 years ago.”

      sure, but there are like 4 billion more people now than 100 years ago.

  45. Richard

      I too love the idea of the LMC, but I am guilty of not participating. For some reason, book clubs have always seemed like they need to be in person to me. Of course, this is hypocritical, given my interests. I was gonna give it a go last time, but then clunked out.

      If you started it up again, I will give it a go and try to get over my prejudices.

  46. Brendan

      Amazon is doing something like that I think.

  47. Richard

      Tim, I do too. We did the Stolen issue this time and I found it to be incredibly refreshing. We’re still learning, but I can tell you that the plan is to have two issues a year centered on some sort of theme/artifice.

      Roxane, Thanks for the mention! I wish I had the last interview for the August 1 issue so I could publish it early, since there is a relevant interview with Chris Heavener of Annalemma. He wrote a really great blog over a year ago about this very subject that helped to launch both vouched and zine-scene that’s touched on. Here’s the link: http://annalemma.net/blog/connection.html

  48. Brendan

      Okay, so there is more writing. But most of it is pretty awful. So that doesn’t seem like a win.

  49. deadgod

      Don’t get me wrong:  having apprentice writers read (master-culled) contemporary apprentice and journeyman work is a great idea – in conjunction with vigorous contact with masters (to push the analogy maybe too far, maybe not).

      But as a business plan? successful in terms of raise-a-family $ needs for mag writers and editors?

      Like I say:  expose MFA students to lit mags because that professor (or teacher, anyway) thinks those stories/poems/etc. are worth reading.  If it turns out that this curriculum device results in + net $$ for writers as a group, win/win.

  50. Amber

      Agreed. I wish I could. Someday.

  51. Amber

      Roxane, it’s like you read my mind. I’ve been thinking so much about this lately, getting so overwhelmed because I just can’t keep up with all the great journals and magazines out there. It’s so much to reaeverypeering, learn about, absorb.

      I’ve said for years and I truly believe that non-writers would read lit magazines if they only knew about them. It doesn’t help that Borders is closing and Barnes and Noble has stopped carrying lit magazines. It’s a conundrum because let’s face it, most of us do this knowing there’s no money in it, but at the same time what we produce still has to compete in a marketplace just like other magazines. And a lot f artists are shit business people, really. They don’t get it or they just don’t care, so those products die even though they might be fantastic, artistically speaking. PANK and other magazines do better because you guys are professionals, but when even you guys can’t turn any kind of profit…I don’t know. It’s incredibly depressing with bookstores closing and magazines dying, it feels like the end of everything I love. I don’t know how to save magazines, only how to love literature and just keep promoting it the best that I can. I guess that’s all any of us can do.

  52. deadgod

      You bring up probably the 19th c. writer who was the best-seller in the 19th c.  The rough stat that I’ve seen for Dickens was that, during the latter part of his career, perhaps one in ten adults in England were reading his novels as they were being serialized.  That’s a number most of our contemporaries who envy breadth of readership would envy.  That is also not the readership of Collins or Melville, or, in Russia, of Dostoevsky, or, in France, of Flaubert.

      (You know what “cherry-picking” means, right?  ‘Using an outlier inaccurately to represent a trend or generality.’)

      When you say that the part of the population – the whole of which included the uneducated poor and exhausted and/or otherwise distracted middle classes – that “was reading stories in periodicals” was “large” in comparison to the part of today’s population that reads stories, I think you’re using an exaggeration to betray a nostalgia for something that never existed.

  53. Amber

      Meh. Just look at art produced in socialist periods or regimes. It’s almost all propaganda, junk. Art meant to serve the state. I don’t think economics has much to do with it. I get what you’re positing, but in practice it seems not to ever work.

  54. Anonymous

      I have a strong feeling that no one likes this idea but here is how literary magazines can survive: charge a reading fee. Poetry publishers are already doing it. Just charge a fee for unsolicited submissions (or maybe require that the submitter purchase an issue). Not saying it is a cure-all but if you want to keep the paper product alive you have to open up new revenue streams.

      Plus, if you read the damn thing, you ought to get paid. Otherwise you are working for free. Your editorial time is valuable and a big publisher would pay you to read submissions.

  55. Ridley

      You’ve not received any money from your distributor in three years? What are your terms?

      Sometimes you can negotiate an advance payment, if you need the cash. 

  56. Brendan

      Deadgod. I bet you have never agreed with anyone on the internet ever. Actually, Dickens was not the bestselling author in England at the time. It was Reynolds. They were selling fucking tons of copies. Reynolds alone was selling 40,000 copies a week of his serials – Dickens not much under that. Ponson du Terrail in Paris was probably selling more, and writing for 10 different newspapers at the same time. I honestly think you really don’t know a whole hell of a lot about the history of literature. Collins was fucking going for sales plain and simple. So was Dostoevsky. Flaubert had a stick up his ass, but was still a good writer and whenever his books did well was fucking delighted. I am not exagerating. You simply don’t know what you are talking about. But I am sure you will come back with another line of bullshit because it makes you feel good.

  57. Brendan

      Collins was after a different readership than Dickens? Jesus. I wonder if you have ever read either of these guys.

  58. Anonymous


      My own studies have shown some white girls get oddly huffy when they learn I’m getting some of that brown sugar. Do you agree that I wrote this on the internet?

  59. deadgod

      You misunderstand how “readership” is used here:  not ‘the particular readers’ or ‘the kind of reader(s)’, but rather, ‘the number of readers’.  –as in, ‘Careless Reader magazine has a weekly “readership” of one million readers’.

  60. Corey Zeller


      I really liked this post.

      It made me sad though because I had the exact same experience walking into the Borders in my town.

      For some reason, the cafe being closed really bummed me out.

      Also: I remember going up an escalator at AWP this year and seeing Blake Butler and Gene Morgan behind me.  I remember saying something to them like “Jesus, talk about over-saturation.”

      They kindly said something back to me and I felt like an idiot.

      I also felt sort of guilty saying it…like I was talking badly about something I loved and felt was important.  

      And now, to this day, I still think of this one guy literally stoping me at AWP to show me the books he was publishing.  And I just couldn’t have been less interested in the books.  They looked terrible and probably were terrible.

      But in every way this guy was like me…cared just as much about writing as me.  And more, he was trying…even with failure obviously looking him in the face…the guy was fucking trying his best and pouring his life into the thing.

      I just don’t know…

      I often feel that I am no different now (about writing) than I was about comics and horror movies when I was a kid.  In particular, there were these cards called “Marvel Masterpieces” that I collected.  They were essentially playing cards of super heroes and I was obsessed with them…literally collecting the whole set of them.

      I often feel I approach poems and stories that way…I just want and want and want and want.

      And I feel lucky they are there…and fear a day when all this might change…especially with the places like HTLM GIANT and journals I’ve come to love as I developed like PANK and Caketrain.

      I guess it just goes back to that guy I saw at AWP.  It is all about just trying…for better or worse. 

  61. Roxane

      I have to look up the terms. If memory serves correctly, they are arcane but I will look into this advance payment. I didn’t know that could be possible.

  62. deadgod

      Here is an accounting of the best-selling Victorian authors (in English) ’til 1861:  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva90.html .  Here is an accounting of the best-selling authors 1862-1901:  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva120.html .  Perhaps your research puts Reynolds atop these tables, which would be fine to see and learn.

      Whatever you mean by “going for sales”, I say nothing about commercial or ‘literary’ aspirations or any tension between them.  I simply doubt that a greater percentage of people were reading stories in periodicals then than are reading stories in various print venues now.

      You can see on this very thread that I agree with MFBomb at least once in a while.

      I’m glad almost as fuck to disagree with the results of the swaggeringly petulant reading indiscipline that makes you feel at all.

  63. Roxane

      Many people are against it but several magazines have indeed made the decision to charge for submissions. I don’t I want to run a magazine where we make our money off potential writers. As a writer, I am less bothered by submission fees than I used to be. I’ll pay to submit to ASF or Brevity or other great magazines. $3 feels reasonable but I also know I have a chance. So far, I’ve had a great return on my investment. There are many writers who will never have a chance at the magazines where they have to pay to submit and that feels exploitative. We’re all adults but it doesn’t sit right with me. I also think it is a slippery slope where it is $3 today and $20 tomorrow. There’s a magazine out there already charging $20. Who knows? Most editors are going to have to make some really difficult devisions, sooner or later. 

      Editorial time is valuable but most editors are already working for free. That’s just a given. 

  64. Roxane

      I agree that visibility is a real problem. When did B & N stop carrying lit mags? The one up the road 50 miles still has them in stock. That’s a real bummer. That’s the only access most non-writer affiliated people have. I do not think that we’re at the end of anything. I do think things are changing though and that we need to get better about business and figuring out how to reach readers.

  65. Roxane

      I agree that visibility is a real problem. When did B & N stop carrying lit mags? The one up the road 50 miles still has them in stock. That’s a real bummer. That’s the only access most non-writer affiliated people have. I do not think that we’re at the end of anything. I do think things are changing though and that we need to get better about business and figuring out how to reach readers.

  66. Roxane

      Ninth Letter is, at times, over-designed and difficult to read but the magazine is also a collaboration between a creative writing program and a graphic design program so part of the purpose of the magazine (as I understand it) is to showcase not just writing but also art and design. McSweeney’s and Paris Review do have wide audiences. McSweeney’s has great funding, via its founder and it has done a lot to earn its reputation with innovative design and delivery. They get to innovate, though, because they have what seems to be an unlimited budget. In the Panorama issue, the huge newspaper they did, they offered a breakdown of the costs and the cost was pretty unfeasible for most magazines to try something that unique. The Paris Review has legacy and (certainly relative to most magazines), a whole lot of money to get things done, to cultivate excellence, to, for example, publish a Bolano novel across four issues. That legacy is certainly earned. Some of this is a matter of time. The Paris Review was founded in 1953. They’ve had a lot of time to get it right. 

  67. Roxane

      Thanks. You should see him in action. Every time I see him, I am newly inspired about what we do. He makes me want to buy books I already own just to be supportive.

  68. deadgod

      All the American art of the 20th c. was “produced in socialist periods or regimes”.  I wouldn’t call the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China “socialist regimes”.

      What, here, don’t you think “economics” has much to do with??

      Socialism actually is working – it’s what is working.  Let’s try it without using it to recover from or, worse, to prop up our most expensive capitalistic failures.

  69. deadgod

      You were asserting less “thought” today than at earlier times.  Now, you claim that “studies” indicate that techno-ADD is harming “memory”.  Perhaps you are showing, rather than telling, that what “the internet” injures is:  cogency.

      We were talking about how much “good writing” there is today compared to then.  You triumphantly introduce a ‘good: original’ ratio–an interesting connection – and distinction – , to be sure, but, here, a red herring.  Now you contrast “originality” to “uninspired crap” (as though nothing unoriginal were inspired or valuable?).  1 + 1 = 2.

  70. Matt Rowan

      I’m having trouble feeling concern for the lack of profitability for print literary magazines. Now, I grant I might be missing something of the point here. What we want is something sustainable, I assume. But nobody operates under the delusion that indie print literary magazines will ever be above niche to generate profit in a sustainable way, do they? I mean, it’s a nice idea but it’s a little pie-in-the-sky, too, I think. 

      I don’t think an editor should be focused on any of those ends, either. We’ve got enough avenues for profits and audience shares and desire for more, more, more. It starts to sound greedy and self-absorbed and, frankly, despicable. If you’ve started a magazine and you think it’s a great idea, great, hopefully you’ll find like-minded people along the way who share your vision and help contribute to it. To worry about the greater audience you’ve failed to attain is beside the point (as is profit or even just general revenue; although I grant the latter is a practical necessity of print). It’s nice to think you’re reaching a lot of people, but I’d be more concerned with the depth of those cross points, intersections. Is anything significant being exchanged? When an editor says to you at AWP that (s)he likes “great writing” what’s that to you? How do you define it, articulate it, think about it? When I think about it in these terms it greatly vitiates any concern I might have for not having enough. America’d be better off thinking in these terms, too. I liked Walter Kirn’s term for this come from the mouth of his character Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air” (quite a different story from that of the George Clooney-Hollywood portrayal): Sufficient Plenitude, comparing a healthy economy to a healthy human body.

      So I think the real point in all of this is not so much whether there are too many writers to be read but is anybody really reading them, hearing them, interested in what they have to say. And is what they have to say interesting? I can speak for myself, that I am reading, constantly (couldn’t be happier for that fact, what’s more). Reading which includes every story that is submitted through my queue, for my publication, which I make every effort to respond to as thoughtfully as I am able. 

  71. KKB

      Even if it were just one dollar, it would be the answer to the problem that electronic submissions created: unlimited simultaneous submissions to places you’ve barely heard of and never read, let alone supported by buying a copy.  Which means that editors have an impossible job.  I think it’s the right answer.  But I wish it could be just one dollar – – like a pre-internet postage rate.

      I worked briefly as the editor of a university press, and was completely astounded (and unprepared for) the avalanche of submissions.  Oftentimes a hundred a day.  My dream job was to curate rad issues and promote good writers.  (And I did publish a story by an unknown that went on to win a spot in the Best American, awesome.)  But the baseline requirement of my awesome job was . . . just to open the envelopes.

      In an attempt to stem the flow, this journal doesn’t accept electronic submissions.  So all those people already spent their three bucks, plus SASE . . . just not in support of keeping the journal alive.

      And by the end of the year, I had to send back hundreds and hundreds of unread submissions.  With a little slip note that was neither an acceptance or a rejection.  It was nuts.  Eye-opening and bizarre for sure to be on the other end of that submission queue.  I think most writers don’t know what it’s like.  I sure didn’t.  

      But I also know that one dollar per submission would actually count for a lot, and we’d be paying for something that is good for all aspiring writers.

  72. Roxane

      You make a great point. A nominal submission fee would help. PANK is, I’d say a mid-sized magazine with a good reputation, but our submission volume, for a magazine our size, is bananas. It got so bad that for the first time, we closed submissions for the summer, just to have a break. We are inundated with submissions by people who are clearly unfamiliar with the magazine and this is frustrating because we publish a free issue online every month. There’s ample material for someone to get a sense of whether or not we’re a good fit. A nominal fee of $1 might be the ticket to stemming the time, I don’t know. It just… worries me. I will say though that The MIssouri Review, for example, charges $3 for electronic submissions and nothing for postal submissions. That system is a nice compromise and I happily pay that $3 fee.

  73. postitbreakup

      cool that y’all mention franz kafka and strangers with candy on your submissions page, cool headshot

  74. kevocuinn
  75. A reader

      I like it that you’re not afraid to consider the option that a lot of magazines print stuff that people don’t want to read. But the following is a false analogy:

      “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.”

      There is a huge potentional audience of READERS for literary magazines, people who enjoy reading or who even have ambitions to write, but don’t pursue them actively. The way to attract that audience is to either print stuff they want to read (which I take it many editors would regard as a compromise too far), or to try and teach them to read and enjoy what it is you do print. If you believe in the work, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

      Ultimately a lot of this soul-searching on the part of editors is of no consequence. The way to attract people like me, a reader interested in new work, is to foreground a discussion of content. You say:

      “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.”

      As a reader I’m not interested in how awesome you think a piece is. If I can’t find an inroad, it’s going to leave me cold and feeling alienated. The discussion needs to be about the why: why is this piece interesting? Why should I bother persevering with it beyond my first feelings of revulsion or loathing (and I’m not exaggerating – a lot of the work in literary magazines makes me feel hostile)? Give me a key to unlock the door, and don’t act like that’s a disservice to the work if you want to sell some magazines. If you’re not prepared to meet readers halfway, you will fail to find an audience.

  76. Jeck Kelvolkian

      If mags actually published up-and-coming writers and not just friends of the editors and famous writers they would sell more. Friends of emerging writers are much more likely to buy copies than friends of the famous writer and friends of the editor (who would be buying the mag anyway.) There.

  77. Ridley

      Yeah, and also, you have to ASK and BEG and HARASS distributors for your money.  They never (or rarely) just send you money.  It’s the nature of the business.  They will sit on the money for a lot of reasons (gain interest in accounts, etc.,) but the simple fact is you have to be on them about it.  The business has always worked that way.

  78. Don

      Well, yeah, to make a lit journal worth buying requires a big investment.

      I think another way lit journals can have the $ to innovate is to develop relationships with printers and/or convince friends to buy and run printing presses.  My distributor recently bought a nice press, so the future issues of the journal I edit are going to be printed with no money down at all.

  79. Don

      “It is all about just trying…for better or worse.”

      Maybe this is why there are too many mediocre journals and books.  Why not aim higher than “just trying”?

  80. Anonymous

      I think this over-submission problem points to one of the best reasons to charge a reading fee– the submitters are consumers too; they are just consuming a different service than the readers. You mentioned that you don’t want to “make our money off potential writers” but, as this article points out, potential writers are your main audience (probably) so you are already doing that.

      Reading their submissions and publishing their pieces is a service you are providing to them as customers. If only the purchasers of your magazine pay for the costs of this service (your time and opportunity costs) you are just shifting the burden onto them and making them pay for a service (consideration and promotion for unknown writers) that they may not be consuming.

      Point being– someone is paying for your time reading all those submissions. Why should it be 100% subsidized by your readers?

  81. Russ

      I think anyone who wants their journal to have some kind of general readership (and not, say, function like either academic journals or ‘zines) has got to think of it as a business. Even if it’s non-profit, even if don’t believe in a money economy, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that everyone else you’ll be dealing with does. Part of that means accumulating some kind of funding before you start and having a reasonable business plan. Selling a new or unknown journal is tough, but the same is true for any product. Find (angel?) investors. Keep in mind most people won’t care a ton about expensive design, paper, etc, with the possible exception of the cover.

      Also, pay your authors and only accept paper submissions. You’ll get a lot better work. Make a point of supporting authors you like even after they publish a piece with you; play favorites and keep going back to people you like a lot. You’ll develop a style and as their careers develop you’ll develop a reputation as a place that published them.

  82. Anonymous

      Sorry for rambling on and on but I want to clarify my point. Reading and printing submissions from unknown writers is not a rational capitalist transaction. If it were, each story you print would pay for your time reading it and the publishing costs and provide some profit to the magazine and there would be no need to worry about revenue. You would be profiting from each story and the magazine would be generating income. 

      But the truth is a story by an unknown writer is probably a net loss financially for the publication. You consider your editorial time “free,” but it is actually being paid for by someone (because of opportunity costs) and that someone is either (i) the editor, (ii) the reader, or (iii) the submitter.

      Above, I argued that you shouldn’t make the reader pay this cost, but that isn’t really accurate. The reader WON’T pay for the cost. If she would… well… see my first paragraph– there would be no financial problem. So the real question is whether the editor or the submitter is going to pay for it. Which makes me wonder who is getting the benefit of the transaction. 

      If you love editing so much that you will gladly pay to read unsolicited submissions, that’s fine. You can subsidize the magazine out of your own pocket. But I think it is more likely the submitter is getting the benefit of your attention and possible career promotion. So she should bear (at least some of) the costs. No?

  83. deadgod

      How to collect revenue and distribute life’s-blood to writers?  I don’t know.  There are plenty of examples of Things Not To Do, like aligning disbursement with parties or power blocs in some particular government.  There’s a scheme in Britain which goes, as I remotely understand it:  when books by living writers are checked out from public libraries, a small amount of (tax) money – like a royalty – goes to those writers.  Sounds good? – maybe the money coming from a small tax on print materials and internet connection?  Of course, that’s just for writers of material published and in libraries.  –It’s a big question.  But, you know, we’ve pretty successfully socialized literacy acquisition – at least somewhat for capitalistic purposes – ; do we have to stop there?

  84. MFBomb

      I don’t have a problem with $3 reading fees, and have never understand why some writers do. 

      I’m pretty sure I spend more than that on snail mail subs: 1) paper 2) envelopes (large and small for SASE) 3) ink/copying costs 4) gas to post office 5) postage (to journal and also SASE).

      Yeah, pretty sure that’s more than a measly $3. 

      And that’s not even counting time saved when submitting online vs. snail mail. I can send a story out to 10 places online in no time at all, yet I’ve spent hours in the past putting together snail mail submissions, sitting on the floor with material spread out everywhere, addressing envelope after envelope.  

      Most submitters also don’t subscribe to the magazines they submit to, or even read the magazines.  If you don’t subscribe or take the time to read the magazines you submit to, you sound stupid whining about a $3 reading fee.  Here would be my policy, if I ran a magazine: 

      $3 reading fee OR reading fees waived for year if you purchase a subscription. 

      Finally, Douotrope needs to get over its stupid policy that excludes markets that charge reading fees.

  85. deadgod

      Yes; not “no”.  You articulate well what I’d thought at the (legitimate, sure) concern not “[to] make our money off potential writers”:  those fledglings are getting a small something for nothing when they submit for free.  $1 per submission for a story/handful of poems submitted to, say, a dozen mags–what would that be? – an hour and a half of work? or a table waited on at a restaurant? or whatever; anyway, not too onerous to compensate the readers/editors for actual work.  And a magazine like PANK wouldn’t be buying ‘extra’ jet-skis for the kids, would it?  –It’d be putting the dough back into publishing more material, or would get the reputation for not deserving the dollar.  I think you’re right in the first place:  readers who pay for magazines do pay for the whole of editing them, and receive in exchange the product not just of the writing, but also of the wading through submissions.

      Editing from opening the submission to mailing a check is a suite of services that even the unpublished writers (who submit) avail themselves of.  An industry-wide standard of 1-3 dollars really to read a submission sounds fair.

  86. Anonymous

      I’ve seen this $1-$3 figure thrown around and it sounds good but, the truth is, the amount it should cost to read an unsolicited submission is pre-determined. It is the point on the graph at which the axis of [the amount of costs to the editor/publication associated with reading your piece] intersects with the axis of [the amount the market will bear for cost of submissions]. This might be $3 or it might be $20 or who knows.

      I think the $3 idea stems from the concern that magazines not block submissions from writers who actually, literally cannot pay the submission fee. That is a valid concern but this problem already exists. I believe there are elite literary magazines which simply will not read your unsolicited submission (not sure which ones– New Yorker, McSweeneys, Paris Review?). Why is this? Because they value their editors’ time too highly (probably because they pay for it).

      But a better way of putting it is they won’t read your unsolicited submissions for free. Because even though they don’t have a stated charge-per-read, one does exist. If you were willing to offer $100,000 to read your story, they would take it. So, it isn’t that these mags don’t accept paid submissions, they just don’t publicize the price.

      So the question is really not “should we charge for submissions?” but “how much should our magazine charge?” If you charge nothing, you are actually charging some fee to your unpaid editors and (in effect) using it to pay submitters.

  87. Matt Rowan

      Ha! Yeah, quite pro on the humor front. The whole concept of it is that humor is about as ubiquitous as anything in fiction — humor comes in a wide variety of forms — so let’s make a publication that emphasizes this. Ever read Daniil Kharms? I feel like anyone who likes Kafka should read Kharms / at least be aware of his existence. Thanks for the compliment on the headshot, although I learned the hard way that adding an image in this image box is not how you post an avatar. I should have assumed as much, but didn’t. And now, there it is hanging out there inexplicably. Ergh.

  88. deadgod

      I think you mean an intersection not of axes – an ‘origin’ point – , but rather, an intersection of curves – a supply curve and demand curve, respectively, intersecting at an optimal price.

      What (I think) Roxane is saying is that these lit mag editors don’t want actually to profit, or even to break even, on the labor of reading submissions.  They just want submitters to pay something for (as you say) taking advantage of the service of that initial editing chore, and submitting to mean more than slush to the submitters themselves.

      Reading submissions entails cost to whomever pays for the magazine; should the submitter pay, not all that cost – given her/his (assumed) political-economic status – but a piece of it?  I guess we agree:  sure.

  89. Roxane

      I think you have me confused w/someone else. I don’t want to charge for submissions.

  90. MFBomb

      “I think the $3 idea stems from the concern that magazines not block submissions from writers who actually, literally cannot pay the submission fee.”


      This is a common argument against reading fees.  It’s noble and well-meaning, but…it costs more to send a sub the traditional way. It’s also more time-consuming, which might be a factor for a writer with limited means and resources, or a working class writer who might not have enough time to devote half a day to putting together snail mail submissions. 

      It actually seems more class-friendly to make the process more efficient.

      And, as for “blocking,” it would seem that many of these submitters  are already “blocked,” for some of the reasons I mention above.  Additionally, if you’re thinking even further down the socio-economic scale (e.g. someone who is homeless), that person probably doesn’t have the resources to write and send out to lit mags anyway. Not saying that this is right or wrong, more than arguing against the notion that a $3 reading fee somehow discriminates against lower-class people.  I don’t think it does at all.

      The only thing I can think of is the lack of a credit card, but I’m pretty sure most editors would be willing to take $3 dollar bills through the mail if the writer contacted the magazine ahead of time to arrange such an alternative payment method. 

      Another option would be to have a “free” month, sort of like Glimmer Train does a few times per year. 

  91. deadgod

      A nominal submission fee would help.  PANK[‘s] submission volume […] is bananas.  We are inundated with submissions by people who are clearly unfamiliar with the magazine[.]  A nominal fee of $1 might be the ticket to stemming the ti[d]e[.]  I happily pay [a] $3 fee.

      I think you have the various meanings and intensities of “want” confused.  Sometimes people do things they don’t completely “want” to do or even “want” not to do but “want” to do more than their other options.

  92. Roxane

      I suppose that’s one way of looking at it but I don’t have anything confused.

  93. Ashley Strosnider

      I think part of the problem may be that literary magazines can’t depend upon natural selection.  Or, maybe they could, but what if none of ours pulled through? What would we do?  (The we I guess refers to editors and mag staff.)  Supply-and-demand models are scary, because they’d let– who? non-readers, non-writers, or at least, non-subscribers?– determine what gets published. Seems to be a conflict of interest, where we’re all so emotionally invested in our projects and so (rightfully?) skeptical of capitalism that we’ll spend our own money, bleeding out slowly, until that’s that, finally.  The moment of defeat is not when I realize my journal’s down to 4 subscribers.  It’s the moment my department gets out the budget-cut axe and I can’t find enough friends to pull my Kickstarter campaign through. 

      It’s just sad, because like deadgod and brendan are both trying to say, sales haven’t always reflected merit, and we’re stuck in a tiny, closed-circuit economy where the best of intentions and the most discerning, tasteful editing, isn’t always enough. The indie-bookstore that signed my first English major paychecks closed a couple years before Borders.Who spiked my coffee with maudlin?

  94. Ashley Strosnider
  95. deadgod

      The concern for sustainability instead of profit is well-said, but let me turn your interest in ‘greed’ and ‘self-absorption’ on to, say, oil companies for a moment:

      Why do oil companies need protecting from competing with each other?
      Why do oil companies need protecting from paying the environmental costs of their resource extraction?
      Why do oil-company investors and managers need protecting from paying their fair share for infrastructural maintenance?
      Why do oil companies need protecting from, as you frame it, their real “lack of profitability”?

      Some of us tripping on the political economy of publishing see oil companies gaming their “pies-in-the-sky” both political-economically and ideologically and we – I – throw a tantrum.  Wanhnhnhnhnh!

  96. Ashley Strosnider

      haha about tattered clover. if there were such things as tribute bookstores like there are tribute bands, that’s what i’d name mine.

  97. Claire T

      Zine Scene tries to do that

  98. Claire T

      That’s why I started http://sabotagereviews.com: to review small-scale literary ephemera, such as magazines. If anyone fancies reviewing magazines for us btw…

  99. Tanya

      Yes, thank you Ashley. Roxane mentioned The Reprint yesterday and I think it’s a great idea. 

  100. Ashley Strosnider

      there have been other studies to show more people read, generally, since the internet.  and others which isn’t that our thinking is getting worse in some empirical sense, but that it’s changing. like, we got less hairy when we started wearing coats…how evolution has typically worked with new tools.

  101. Nick Mamatas

      It’s very easy to start a magazine these days, thanks to technology.

      Starting one people want to read is as difficult as ever.

      And then there’s the writer-centered ideology—how many journals are started explicitly to generate pages for writers to fill, with readers being an afterthought. One can never create was readers want to read when readers are an afterthought.

  102. Matt Rowan

      Oh yeah, don’t think for a second I subscribe to any of the neo-liberal economic dogmas that fellas like Milton Friedman promulgated in years past, which have seemingly only grown stronger in recent times. Oil companies don’t need our protection. Things should never be “too big to fail” (which I’m no Adam Smith biographer, but it seems to somewhat belie the point of capitalism, right?). I think to refer back to my point about literary magazines’ profitability, I suppose if I can imagine a world in which one part of the economy currently established is operating in a healthy way, it’d be the world of literature and exchange of ideas. At least, I’d like to think so. I’m too disgusted by big oil and other high-profit economic arenas to hold out hope for their solvency in this manner. But yes, there’s no question such industry has their cake and eats it, too. While we do a nice job of defending their right to do so, as a body politic. 

  103. Tanya

      For me, personally, it’s cheaper to send a submission the traditional way. It costs around 1.60 for me to mail one of my stories. I’m lucky in the sense that my father is self-employed and is able to write off office supplies things like envelopes, ink cartridges, paper, paper clips, stamps, etc., so whenever I come home I make use of that. So really, all I’m paying is 1.60 on average per submission.
      I have had friends who used the printing and office supplies at their jobs to save money. Besides mailing, printing really is the biggest cost when you’re sending multiple submissions, and if you can alleviate that cost it helps a lot, and unless you’re writing a 20+ page story, the expense to mail will be less than the 3.00 fee. Also, I would walk to the post office.
      And I know you’re thinking that the difference really isn’t all that much/isn’t really worth it. Well, yeah, for me it is. $1.40 multiplied by 20-30 submissions is enough for me to buy groceries for a week, or pay my electric bill, so yeah…
      I’m not entirely opposed to journals charging fees and when I could afford to I have paid for them myself. What does bother me though, is when journals charge a submission fee when 1.) they largely solicit and 2.) when I look at the TOC and see that the majority of the writers are well-established authors. 
      But anyway, I just wanted to make the point that for some people, the submission fees can be a problem. As for time-consuming–I don’t have cable and for a long time I couldn’t afford internet, so other than reading/writing/school work/working crappy jobs, I was able to spend at least an hour or two to formulate a couple of submissions.

  104. MFBomb

      Fair enough.

      The ideal policy is probably to allow both options. 

  105. Roxane

      I know you were referring to options differently, but I wonder how it would work to allow submitters the option of paying a submission fee of $1-$3 or free, both for electronic submissions, kind of like a Tip Jar. Would any writers pay that fee? It would be an interesting experiment.

  106. KKB

      It’s not true that the New Yorker, McSweeneys and Paris Review will not read unsolicited submissions.  This is a myth.  I have received many kind (personalized) rejections, and one awesome acceptance, from these magazines and I’ve only ever been in the slush pile.

  107. MFBomb

      That’s an interesting idea.  I’d “tip,” though maybe offering some kind of perk would be a good idea, like a discounted subscription? 

  108. Tanya

      You know, I have been thinking about this, and what about an online literary journal where potential submitters had to purchase e-book/audio versions of stories on the website, a portion of which actually going to the writers themselves? Something similar to Sniplits except submitters would have to purchase the story.
      Or if print literary journals had mini-books or excerpts you could purchase on the site for a 1-2 dollar fee and that would allow you submit. Would something like that work? Does anyone think something like this would be a good idea?

  109. Roxane

      Yes, a perk would help. Hmm. I’d be happy to offer a discounted submission for that sort of thing. We’ve also thought about packaging our monthly online issues into a nicely designed PDF to sell for $3 or so to generate revenue but it’s truly been a matter of not having the time to do that on top of everything else we do.

  110. KKB

      I didn’t know about Missouri Review’s policy, but I like it.  Both sets of submissions cost the same for the artist, but one set of fees funds the magazine – – nice.

      And I love the idea, elsewhere, of the one month free reading fee.  To keep things open to everyone.  

      It’s sort of the inverse of what our journal did, and what I now realize many journals do: the contest.  Once a year, for a fee, one set of submissions vies to “win” the contest – – a monetary “prize” strikingly similar to payment for first serial rights to a story, plus publication in the magazine, plus, of course, the resume-worthy title of Winner of the Prize.  Also usually a famous guest judge, so that’s cool.  When you win, you get to know that a bigtime writer read your piece.  Which feels great.  And the famous guest judge’s association with the journal expands the community.  I like that part a lot.

      It’s funny, though, Roxane: I think you and I, though clearly allies, are on opposite sides here.  I think it’s okay to ask for a postage-level reading fee, but I actually think it is wrong to publish an artist’s work without payment to the artist.

  111. Roxane

      I believe in most cases, a writer gets something when they are published, even without monetary compensation. I believe writers should be paid but I cannot say I think its wrong when they don’t unless there are other people who are getting paid in lieu of the writers (editorial staff, etc). 

      Contests are tricky. We run a contest but make no money off it. All the money pays the top three or four winners. I know bigger magazines make good money from the contest. When I see the quality of some of the contest submissions we get, though, I feel conflicted. 90% of submissions will never have a chance, so it feels like preying on delusion or naivete. 

  112. Mike Meginnis

      I’ve said parts of this here before but re: the conversations above on the utility of reading fees, I’d like to share some thoughts:

      It would be insulting to charge a reading fee for work that is not actually going to be read all the way through.$1-$3 for reading a piece is usually very poor compensation for one’s time: I will need at least twenty minutes to properly read a fifteen-page piece, so if I’m maximally efficient and my average submission length is fifteen pages, I’m making between $4 and $12 an hour for my magazine, which isn’t enough money to justify the use of my professional time and DEFINITELY isn’t enough money to justify the use of my time off, which is inevitably what I’m using for my magazine. The numbers vary a little if you’re a slower or faster reader and depending on the length of your average submissions, but what it comes down to is this:There isn’t a lot of money in charging for reading submissions, especially if you charge reasonable rates.And, in fact, most submissions are read maybe 1% or 2%, because you can very quickly tell if you’re going to even consider publishing something. I usually know almost immediately.Paying me between $4 and $12 an hour to read things I will never accept is a very bad deal. And, in fact, I’m not getting the money — my magazine is. Most magazines that charge reading fees have sufficiently large staffs that the most important readers — those on the front line — have very little psychological investment in their magazine, so they won’t feel obligated by the possibility of earning the magazine between $4 and $12 an hour. I can infer from all of this that practically nobody is reading submissions that have been paid for all the way through. Anecdotally I have good reason to believe this is true. As I’ve said, this is insulting. If you were asked to pay someone to read your submission and then they didn’t read it, how would you feel? That your money was well spent?Finally, the idea that charging for submissions will improve the quality of those submissions will increase their quality is impossible to maintain if you’ve ever been exposed to a pay-to-play slushpile. Believe me, it doesn’t get better. In fact, in my experience, it gets worse. Why? Because the worst writers don’t have the self-awareness required to know that they don’t have a chance. That’s why they suck: they haven’t read enough or written to know what’s wrong with their work yet. So they ALWAYS submit, no matter what you charge them, unless they are quite poor. And good writers who are short on funds — not just poor, but short on funds — will decide not to submit, as I often do, because they know they can place their work SOMEWHERE and they won’t have to pay for the privilege. Great writers likewise are accustomed to not paying for the privilege, and they often have connections with editorial staff within great magazines such that they rarely or never have to pay anyway. There are a few who are good enough to print and who have enough money to feel comfortable paying to submit, and those are the ones you will publish, and they are quite often the ones you would have published anyway. But now you’ve excluded the very poor, the talented somewhat-poor, and sometimes the great. It just doesn’t work.

      Charging for submissions is not a solution. It can help a little bit, and I don’t hold it against magazines who charge reasonable rates, but it doesn’t solve anything.

  113. KKB

      For sure writers definitely get something whenever they are lucky enough to be published.  I agree with you wholeheartedly there.

      And I’ll admit, I can’t shake how ugly I find some of this vocab, even though I understand the point and even agree with a lot of it and enjoy reading and thinking about all of it.  But yuck.  Consumers?  Customers?  Feels so clunky and incomplete a way to talk about readers and writers and makers of art.  

      But that said, when you are paid for your work you are a professional.  

      Even if all that is possible is a laughably nominal token payment, the bottom line for me is that we actually should value professional high quality art.  We should value ourselves as professional artists.

      Here is a consumer customer analogy that is wrong in terms of the value-added, but hits the shift for sure: 

      When I suck Roxane’s dick for twenty bucks, everyone knows that makes me categorically different from when I give it to Roxane for free.  Even if I have love in my heart for her both ways, even if it’s just twenty bucks, the money changes who I am.

      But you know, just to be clear, Roxane – – that offer’s only good for you and you only.

  114. MFBomb

      I just thought of this: you might run into some issues with tips if you don’t cap the number, though maybe you implied you would in your previous post when you mentioned $1-$3.  You could run into some problems if a few submitters tip you $20, $50 and then dare you to reject their stories, lol.

      Other than the above issue, sounds like a good idea. I’m surprised more journals don’t have a “tip jar.”

  115. MFBomb

      Just my take: I think some might consider this sort of thing as veering too closely into “vanity publishing” territory (even if everyone who submits has to do it just to submit).  I’m sort of wary of requiring writers to purchase content in any shape or form.  Just looks sketchy for the journal.

  116. Tanya

      So you would rather journals require a submissions fee without getting anything in return other than relying on the word of the journal that your submission is/will be read?
      I understand what you mean about it being too close to vanity publishing, but to be honest, I think once you start charging period (whether you call it a submission fee, asking to purchase a subscription, whatever) in exchange to have your work read it teeters to being vanity publishing. 

  117. Richard
  118. deadgod

      Refreshing to see a point-by-point rebuttal of pro-reading-fee arguments.

      Definitely, one would want one’s submission to be read before it’s rejected (or, I guess, accepted) – small fee or none.

      The argument above was not to compensate the reader/editor fully for the time it takes to read submissions; the argument was for the submitter to bear some portion of that (labor) cost, along with purchasers of the mag (and the in-it-for-love reader/editor, of course) (and the slightly-less-compensated-if-at-all contributors to that issue).  The $4-12 per hour for reading submissions (all the way through) is that portion borne by the submitter.

      –and those submissions that are, within one page of 15, clearly not for that mag?  Well, the reader/editor is now being compensated more like, what, $50 for one hour of going over submissions, right?  ( – or a lot more, depending on how quickly that decision is made.)

      –and look again at that fee:  it’s not a reading-and-criticism fee; it’s a submission fee.  One would be paying for exposure to the expertise that the reader/editor exerts in reading whatever portion of the piece she or he reads.  To go to Aaron’s point, one would be paying a small amount for a service that one would get at that intensity for a small fee or not.  –and it’s a portion of a cost that some non-Rockefeller(s) will bear.  Should small mags buy groceries for every submitter??

      To me, the $1-3 submission fee still sounds reasonable.

  119. Eppie

      I don’t know. I just started a little magazine. For the first issue I am paying writers $1 per letter. That’s right, $1 per letter. If I like their stuff, then they get money. They also get a copy of magazine.

      The question that fascinates me though is the question of desire. How do you get people to desire words the way they desire gasoline or McDonalds? Words burn pretty efficiently. And they can go down fast, too. So, I think I’m on the right track.

      Someday our words will probably be all we have. So, we’re going to want them to last, be something really special. I just need to figure out how to make cars go on them or make people feel like a Big Mac or something so that I can receive subsidies and keep making magazine bigger and more popular.   

  120. KKB

      You know how people are mad about facebook’s zynga games being manipulatively addictive?  The three act structure is, too.  Cliffhangers are.  All our best tricks for narrative are already built around getting people hooked.  But you have to be a master in order to wield it, and you have to practice a lot before you become a master.  And lots of masters today are like all the beautifully talented visual artists who work in . . . advertising.  Which makes many readers / intellectual culture / people with souls suspicious of the tricks of the masters of narrative.

      Like those tv shows that are bad but once you start watching you stick around to find out what happens anyway.  Because the perfect structure of the narrative itself has got you hooked.

      Those same spells work for stories.  But no one wants their stories to feel like bad tv shows.

      I like your one dollar a letter premise.  Will you gladly pay me Tuesday for a hamburger today?

  121. KKB

      I like what you have to say.  

      To me, though, the worst bad deal is good magazines going out of business, or not being able to pay contributors, or having such an astronomically insane submission rate as to sometimes (as was regrettable the case with me) not even being able to give each submission the admittedly cursory read that places pieces in their quick Maybe or No piles.  

      Of course experienced readers know very quickly if something is decent enough for the Maybes.  But by the end of the term I literally had too many to look at.  Not that I’m such a master, but still.

      And I think that a one dollar fee would stop the insanity of those misguided souls who mass blast work that is not a fit at all, sometimes insultingly so (making it clear that not only was the magazine not read, the submission guidelines weren’t either).

      But I like what deadgod has to say, too.  

      A reading fee is not a salary – – after all we’re talking about the possibility of struggling magazines who don’t charge at all changing their ways, meaning editors like you already have your salaries or don’t – – and it’s not a writers’ workshop fee.  Ideally it is simply akin to postage, but postage that goes in support of the magazine itself that all of these writers like us so ambitiously clamor to appear in.  We need good editors.  And we need good magazines.  We should make it possible for them both to thrive.

      Then again, I do hear you and I admit that there is beautiful honor in doing it out of love.  I just want to see the places I love survive and thrive.  And then publish me!

  122. KKB

      Oh, jokes.

      Weird?  Sorry.

      Hilarious?  Thanks!

  123. Mike Meginnis

      Deadgod: Thanks for the thoughtful response! Usually these conversations seem more dogmatic. A couple thoughts in return.

      You’re right that the idea isn’t to compensate fully, I guess my feeling is simply that the compensation will be, in the majority of cases, too small to be worth it. Let’s think for a second about who has the money and time to edit and pay for a literary magazine. It’s going to be primarily (not ONLY, but primarily) college-educated people working independent from the university system, or still-more educated people working within it. In the former case, they have the disposable income to print a magazine, and probably more money than many of their submitters. Not only does it seem reasonable for them to bear the cost, but the free time they give up in producing the magazine is worth so much more than any submission fee can provide that it seems pointless to ask for the money when one is already investing the time. Anyway this is how I feel about it in my position. Meanwhile if you’re in the university system, where I’ve also edited, you really don’t need the money. Some university magazines have gone belly up in the recent past and some will do so in the future, but it’s not an epidemic, and my sense is that the problem isn’t so much austerity budgeting as it is the magazines failing to provide even the thinnest rationale for their own existence; lit mag budgets are, in the university context, peanuts.

      Meanwhile, if we value the labor of writers, then they have already shared in the cost of producing our magazines by writing the content. In fact, I would say that’s really most of the labor — certainly I spend more of my time writing than I do editing, and I’m involved in a fair amount of editing. We might say that bad writers who submit bad work don’t deserve to have THEIR labor valued and therefore those that are not rewarded with publication should have to pay because they are adding to the burden of the editors, but this strikes me as a really ugly attitude. I may not reward poor writing with publication, but I certainly don’t want to charge someone for trying. I like to think they did their best, even if it wasn’t very good. I know that when I really sucked, I was certainly trying, and if I suck today, it’s not for lack of effort.

      That doesn’t mean I’m going to buy them all groceries, which is a sort of ridiculous example. It means I value the work they’ve already done.

      Part of the thing here is that I really don’t appreciate paying when I know I won’t actually be read and there will be no response. That doesn’t feel like much of a service even if it is a very low sum I’m paying. Others will feel differently.

      Finally I agree that $1-$3 is reasonable. I’ve paid it before and I probably will again. But I don’t like it, and I think the evidence it solves anything it’s meant to address is quite thin.

  124. Mike Meginnis

      Thanks for your thoughts. Just a couple things, in addition to what I said to deadgod:

      1. My point is that submission fees very rarely decide whether a magazine will go out of business or not. University-funded magazines can’t justify themselves in terms of reading fees, while independent publications might benefit more (I could pay for much of my magazine’s first print run if I had two dollars for every submission in my slush) but ultimately don’t need the help (I wouldn’t have started a magazine I wasn’t sure I could pay for). The main real advantage of the print format at this point is that it proves you’re willing to stand behind your editorial choices if you’re willing to pay a nontrivial sum to print. If you’re not willing to do that, I’m not very interested in your product, and every time a small press closes for lack of funds, I consider it basically good news: there are a lot of us, and those that don’t want to put in the time and money should find other things to do that will make them happier. That’s what life is about.

      2. You would think that a submission fee would make bad writers think twice, but I’ll repeat that my experience shows that if anything it lowers the quality of your slush. Other editors (I believe one of the eds. from Missouri Review, for instance, which presumably has one of the stronger pay-for-play slush piles out there) have said as much in comments here: it doesn’t remove bad writers.

      Again, speaking anecdotally, the worst submissions I get are from people claiming to be former employees of Goldman Sachs, retirees, and lawyers who moonlight as writers. It doesn’t matter how much we charge these people, they will keep submitting. And I don’t mind! Maybe one of them will do something good one day. But I’d hate to scare off a good, poor writer in an unsuccessful attempt to scare off bad, rich ones.

  125. Roxane

      Isn’t your magazine the one where you asked writers to send in one letter of the alphabet? Paying $1 a letter in that case works out pretty well.

  126. Roxane

      Paying authors is important but certainly won’t guarantee better work. Electronic submissions are a matter of convenience for ME. When I read for Prairie Schooner back in the day I worked with paper submissions. Never again. It is so much work. While electronic submissions encourage reckless submitting, it’s also easier to manage the submissions and dispatch with them. I’ll also say that it is a myth that you get better work with paper submissions. I’ve worked at magazines  with both electronic submissions and paper submissions, and frankly, the quality was worse with paper submissions. People sent in literally, their diaries, as in they put their diaries in an envelope and mailed them to the magazine. There was also lots of work from prisoners. That, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but most of the writing was that of lonely men who aren’t great writers. For the most part, PANK has a really strong submission queue. There’s definitely a good deal of cruft but since we got rid of our submission guidelines, our quality has increased. The volume is difficult to manage but for every submission that makes me crazy in terms of WTF, there are 5 or 6 submissions that force me to make difficult decisions. I agree with what you say about supporting authors after we publish them. One of the things we love to do is make sure we’re following the authors we publish, promoting their work every week on our blog, and encouraging them to submit more work. We’re very interested in new (to us) writers but we are also eager to sustain longterm relationships with the writers we publish.

  127. Roxane

      I hear what you’re saying. I don’t think fostering an aesthetic is antithetical to caring about readers and what they’re looking for. There are ways to do both of these things and any magazine that isn’t responsive to what readers want… I would have to wonder why they’re publishing.

  128. Roxane

      Fantastic analogy and offer. HELLO! (Hilarious not weird.)  The vocabulary around all this is distasteful. One of the things we struggle with in artistic communities is finding ways of being artistic and sustainable without surrendering wholly to consumerism. And yes, when you are paid for your work, you are a professional. I love getting paid for my writing. It’s always a thrill and there’s something fulfilling about it, being compensated for the time and energy I’ve put into my creative work. This is the first year where I’ve been paid more than I’ve not been paid and I’ve been publishing since 1996. I also think that in many corners of the writing community, the mindset is that writers work for free. It’s totally a fucked up mindset and one that would only ever fly in artistic communities but I think this mindset rose out of necessity. There has never been much money for the arts and so if you want to create, you have to be willing to compromise. At least, that’s what many writers tell themselves. I don’t know how we would turn back to the clock, so to speak, on writers, professionalism, and compensation, particularly where “literary fiction” is concerned. Too many publications have become too accustomed to not having to pay and too many writers are eager simply to be published rather than to be treated as a professional. I follow the SF/F writing community and I do believe they offer a lot we could learn from. Most magazines in those genres pay. The Science Fiction Writer’s Association (http://www.sfwa.org/) has a series of guidelines for semi-professional and professional pay rates. They have a page where they warn writers about scams and other practices that are harmful to their writers. For the most part, they really handle their shit. What I don’t know is how these magazines fund their endeavors. I guess it’s probably the easiest answer–they are publishing writing people are willing to pay for. The SF/F community is pretty impressive in how organized/functional they are despite being a large community that doesn’t agree about everything. I’ll tell you what though. When a publisher screws up in that community, they rally like nobody’s business. There are lessons to be learned.

  129. Roxane

      I posted about what FMC tried to do. They offered a $5 (I think) Expedited Submission fee. Some people got pretty riled up. I didn’t expect that. If I offered an optional Submission Fee, it would just be a feel free to tip us fee. I’m guessing we’d still treat all submissions equally. 

  130. Roxane

      Oh definitely. It would probably be best to set it at an amount. I’m thinking $2 or $3. Anytime there is money involved in a transaction, people think they are owed something and ultimately that might be why I’m not terribly interested in submission fees beyond my concerns about exploitation. I don’t want anyone thinking I owe them a personal response or a rapid turn around (even though I do these things already), just because they paid a couple bucks. 

  131. Roxane

      I don’t think most of us are worried about profitability. As you note, I am concerned about sustainability. Literally, how am I going to pay this $3,500 bill from the printer and where am I going to get the $1200 I’m going to need to ship our contributor copies and subscriptions and the $250 for another batch of ISBNS and $450 for the table at AWP and CLMP membership and New Pages listings and advertising and on and on. Then I’m thinking, what do I need to do in order to get $3000 to pay each contributor a nominal fee of $50. That has nothing to do with profit and any profit we did make would go right back into the magazine. All that said, I don’t think profit is a bad thing and I think its misguided that we shouldn’t think about profit. I’m not saying we lose our minds and become greedy capitalists but too often we act like money is a bad thing. I’d love to make money running a magazine. Maybe some day I will. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that.

  132. Roxane

      I don’t think most of us are worried about profitability. As you note, I am concerned about sustainability. Literally, how am I going to pay this $3,500 bill from the printer and where am I going to get the $1200 I’m going to need to ship our contributor copies and subscriptions and the $250 for another batch of ISBNS and $450 for the table at AWP and CLMP membership and New Pages listings and advertising and on and on. Then I’m thinking, what do I need to do in order to get $3000 to pay each contributor a nominal fee of $50. That has nothing to do with profit and any profit we did make would go right back into the magazine. All that said, I don’t think profit is a bad thing and I think its misguided that we shouldn’t think about profit. I’m not saying we lose our minds and become greedy capitalists but too often we act like money is a bad thing. I’d love to make money running a magazine. Maybe some day I will. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that.

  133. Roxane

      It is simply not true that magazines only publish friends of the editors and famous writers. Does this happen sometimes? Of course it does. The world runs on meritocracy. More often than not, though, magazines are always looking for up and coming writers and particularly with small to medium sized magazines, you’re going to find lots of room for newer writers. Now, the bigger magazines are often working mostly with known quantities. This is not strictly about nepotism though. They have large subscription bases who have high expectations and they want to encourage sales so they can continue to publish. As such, its easier to go with a Lorrie Moore than a Jane Doe. Though its not as common, the really elite magazines do still publish up and coming writers. It’s just a lot harder to break in.

  134. Eppie

      Yes. We asked people to send us a letter of the alphabet. We are still a few letters short. So if anybody wants a dollar, send us one. Roxane, why don’t you send us a letter? It would make us very excited! And KKB, whomever you are, I’m sure you’ve got a letter you’d like to submit: plainwrappress@gmail.com

  135. l l

      literary journals are just weird, boring things. 

  136. karl taro

      i agree Roxane. Writers should be paid. There has to be at least the possibility, however remote, of the writer surviving outside the academy or else the entire literary community becomes a division of the academy.

  137. postitbreakup

      I figured as much re: the picture. As much as I like Disqus for some things (way better than Gawker’s system for example), it can be confusing. Didn’t exactly mind looking at the pic is all I was saying, haha. Made me think of the Jordan Castro follow-up post.

      Thank you very much for the Kharms recommendation, Googling brought me to this collection of stories http://www.sevaj.dk/kharms/kharmseng.htm and after only a few sentences I can tell I’m going to enjoy his work a lot, just that selection of stories on the site seems like a treasure trove.  And I never would have heard of him otherwise. Thanks!

  138. postitbreakup

      1st paragraph especially was rockin.  Exactly.  At the core all literature is trying to rope people in, one way or another.  Manipulation at least to the extent of “you will spend your time here and not elsewhere”.

  139. Mcope

      One possible reason for magazine failure is that the writing in the magazines may not be all that good, after all.
      The tsunami of
      free-verse ‘poetry’
             in the first person,
             about the first person,
                      all more-or-less interchangeable,
      that I keep seeing in literary magazines
      is a cogent reason for disengagement with the form.

      *the above is an example – just reformat some prose, and send it off to myfavouritemag.com…

  140. Mcope

      One possible reason for magazine failure is that the writing in the magazines may not be all that good, after all.
      The tsunami of
      free-verse ‘poetry’
             in the first person,
             about the first person,
                      all more-or-less interchangeable,
      that I keep seeing in literary magazines
      is a cogent reason for disengagement with the form.

      *the above is an example – just reformat some prose, and send it off to myfavouritemag.com…

  141. deadgod

      Yes, it’s pleasant to be able to push a perspective strongly without that push being taken personally.

      I’m not sure what “too small to be worth it” means; would a submission fee be more work for the magazine?  I mean, I’ll stoop to pick up a penny.  It wouldn’t cover the cost of reading submissions, so that’d still be a labor of “love”!

      The smallness of the fee – let’s say, $2 – is an argument that each submitter can handle this slice.  Again, they are getting something for it; it’s a fee, not a donation.  Yes, one values the effort, at least, even of writing that one, eh, won’t publish.  –but we’re not talking about ‘valuing’ aesthetically, culturally, or abstractly; we’re talking about doing work with the submission, about the writer paying a small share for that work.  (The $2 is almost perfectly fungible; I took “groceries” from above on the thread.)

      I mean that one wouldn’t be charging anyone anything for “trying”; submitters would be paying a not-fully-compensatory-but-contributory fee for the service of having their submission, ah, at least looked at by the mag they’re asking to publish that submission.

      I agree that political economy is an “ugly” thing to talk about.  Given political economy, there’s almost nothing one does with money that’s not dirty, to me.  a)  Roadkill is ugly, too; that’s the argument for looking both ways when one crosses the road rather than closing one’s eyes.  b)  A submission fee is not punishment for writing poorly.

      If one “know[s one’s work] won’t be read”, wherefore any submission??  That, I surely don’t understand.

      Let me try this analogy:  when one buys a ticket, one isn’t paying to enjoy the show; one is paying to get in.  The legitimacy of how cheated you feel depends on the legitimacy of your expectations.

  142. Mike Meginnis

      Deadgod — I feel like we’ve gotten this to the point where our disagreements are clearly defined, which is about as far as I think we’ll get. I’d be happy to let you have the last word, I just wanted to say as much re: our progress. I think the underlying disagreements have to do with how we conceive the relationship between submitter and editor (I see the submitter as providing ME with a service, not the other way around) and with my desire not to worry about providing sufficient value to my submitters: I currently enjoy the freedom to reject a piece the second I dislike anything about it, and I would not feel that freedom quite as strongly if my slush were pay-for-play. Editing would be less fun. 

      Your position seems fairly consistent, and, most importantly to me, you seem to recognize that charging fees isn’t actually a solution to the challenges magazines face, as many seem to believe — only one strategy that can be employed by those who feel it will contribute to their magazine. It’s not a strategy I like! But no one is saying I have to like it.

  143. Megan M. Garr

      Thanks deadgod and Roxane. Not that it matters much, but yeah, the words are mine.

      Daniel, our newest team member, wrote a response today.

  144. deadgod

      That underlying disagreement is one of the cruxes, but let me phrase it a bit differently:  The submitter who gets published is providing everybody a service – I’d argue:  even readers who don’t ‘like’ the story and even non-readers.  The submitter who makes the editor wish the story got into that issue has provided that reader with a service. 

      –All the submitters who weren’t scrupulous enough to realize that that mag doesn’t ever publish that kind of story? the submitters who send in dashed-off shtuff? the submitters who spray 20 mailboxes at a time – maybe the same story to the same mailboxes as before, only with no revisions?

      All submitters and editors are in relationships of service reciprocity, right?  (That’s one way to begin to think through the justifying lie of political economy.)  Let’s take out the sense – pretence? – that there’s any favors being done, is what I’m suggesting.

      Definitely not a total or perfect “solution”!

      Not sure about a “last” word.  Next word?

  145. deadgod

      I despise your poem
      because it says something
      that hurts my precious heart
      to its

      This poem is a poem
      of my hatred for you
      and a curse
      on your cruelty.

      May your flakes
      be frosted
      with the sugar
      of rainbows, unicorns, and

  146. Russ

      Yeah, Amazon singles is a really interesting concept, and it seems like smaller (though still mainstream) authors are getting attention there.

  147. Matt Rowan

      Your concerns are well taken, Roxane, and I likewise see the importance of generating the revenue to pay various suppliers, et al, while simultaneously looking to do so as economically as possible, while also trying to put together a magazine people would be proud or at least desirous to own. I just want to emphasize my main original point, which is: exchanges like these in this thread (thoughtful discussion and debate and creative exchanges and on down the line of what’s to be had via free thought) are more valuable to me than any monetary remuneration I could be paid. I don’t think profit is bad per se, just more superficial than what interests me. Which is why if it means doing something soul-sucking in another place, another job etc. the other “avenues” I mention, as a means to an end, and have places like this be my respite from that, i.e. the realm of literature. But I admit this begins to sound kind of new-agey, eastern religion-ey, or hippy-ey. At the end of the day money makes the world go round, I concede it. But I don’t think the humanity so foundational to literature should be lost in its pursuit (though I acknowledge you’re not calling for that, either, i.e. point of not becoming “greedy capitalists” duly noted). I’d also add, when talking about, say, a Pank, I see much greater potential for breakthrough into the elite echelon of profitable literary magazines than any of the more niche literary enterprises out there.

  148. Roxane


  149. Roxane

      I agree, re: your original point. At the end of the day, I’d rather write and engage in these conversations than just about anything else. You don’t sound new-agey. I am personally trying to find a way to negotiate art and commerce in ways that aren’t horrible.

  150. KKB

      Okay, can you tell I’ve totally been thinking about this all night?

      Basically it seems to me that this whole postage-level reading fee is an issue in the first place because we’re still in the middle of the transition from print media existing in a world of the physical copy only to print media existing in the online world.  Which generally is super awesome, and I certainly cannot imagine coming of age as an artist without the thrill of places like this.  This is better.  I don’t want to know firsthand what whiteout is.  I don’t want to wonder whether I should submit the single hardcopy in existence of my story or whether I should pay a typist to type up another.  Plus, I like being here now talking to you guys.

      But we are for sure in a transition and while lots of that has been beyond great, we know things are changing and what I’m arguing is that we should be open to changing our beloved literary systems in order to allow them to thrive.  Here.  Today.  Now.

      Because, you know, if things are changing, let’s change things for the better.  I’m such a cheerleader!

      But at the end of the day, the insane mass blast of submissions is due, simply, to mundane details like email, laser jet printers, and electronic submissions.  This problem is weird, but specific.  It doesn’t matter if some of the hopefuls are deluded retirees from Goldman Sachs who’ve never been told no in their life, it doesn’t matter that every piece is not great.  That’s part of it.  As an editor, you just have to find a few great pieces.  And hopeful writers, good and bad, will be from everywhere all the time.

      But I think the sysiphian impossibly facing editors stems from the fact that our concept of submitting to a magazine still comes from a set-up we all set up when submitting hundreds of copies of my story (a day!) was just not possible.

      And that was when it was predatory to charge a reading fee for submissions.  It was also wrong to simultaneously submit, don’t forget.  And so there are good things about that gorgeous literary legacy to keep, and things about that legacy’s system that don’t make sense anymore.

      Another one of the problems facing all of us is the creep of the idea that we will not really have a professional class of artists anymore.  We will just post things for free.  And while that is also cool, I think that posting things for free should exist alongside the possibility of being a professional artist.  Who doesn’t work for pepsi.com.  I think contributors should get paid.  Even if it’s a laughably nominal fee.  Personally, for me it is a moral issue.  We should value professional high quality art & we should value professional artists, right?

      But we have to make that possible.  And right now, a lot of times it’s not possible.

      So if a one dollar fee changed me from someone who submits one hundred copies of my story to magazines I don’t care about, to someone who submits only twenty copies of my story to magazines I read and like, no it won’t make my writing better.  But it will help create a literary world I want to be in, where editors are better able to be good at their jobs, where good magazines are better able to survive, and where I can aim to be a professional artist.

      But blah blah blah, all that said, this basically would only work best if it were the standard across the board.  And I like the idea of it also being standard that every magazine offer one month where all submission-fees are waved and the floodgates are open to all.  Win win.

  151. KKB

      You’re rad.

      I know editors have skin in the game, and I love the beauty and feel and heft and permanence of hardcopies.  But I’d never linked them so clearly in my mind.

  152. KKB

      Yeah but I want to tell the story of my letter and I want to use the fibonacci sequence to tell the story of my letter so that your magazine gets to have two alphabets: letters and math.  And how bonkers is it that someone figured out how to spell B E A U T Y in math?  But then I think I’d break the bank.

  153. KKB

      goddamn it.  my formatting.

  154. deadgod

      a win for snail mail

  155. Danielle

      “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.”
      Love it, Roxane! 

  156. eFicMag Editor

      I run eFiction Magazine. We are a purely digital fiction magazine (come on guys it’s twenty eleven, get with it!). I give away the whole magazine for free. It’s available to read entirely online on our website. Also, I package it up and host it on torrent sites (piracy sites). So far, the technique has worked famously. We’re ranked #15 Bestselling in Arts and Entertainment on Kindle, #2 Top Rated in Arts and Entertainment, #69 Bestselling magazine in all of the Kindle.

      Going digital means our costs are zero–literally. All employees are volunteer. Website is all paid for. Covers are done in-house. It’s wonderful. Our subscriber income is pure profit. 100%.

      The key to our success is simply giving readers what they want. Success as a magazine doesn’t come from editorial self-aggrandizement. 

      There is a huge commerce machine sitting right in front of every lit mag and they’re barely using it! Unlimited shelf space, unlimited graphics, unlimited pages, unlimited potential readers. Digital magazines are booming right now. When will pretentious lit mags get off their high horses and join up? Probably never. They’ll shrivel up and die wrapped in a blanket of false beliefs and technical ineptitude. 

  157. Richard Grayson

      As an old man who started publishing his stories and poems in literary magazines (then usually called “little” magazines — I thought “litmag”‘s “lit” stood for little — back in 1975 and had over 200 pieces in these mags in the 70s and early 80s, I can attest that all the complaints raised here were commonplace then.  Of course there was no alternative to print.  (Some of the litmags were even xeroxed or rexographed or mimeographed.  That was the only cheap alternative.

  158. Roxane

      I absolutely believe magazines need to take advantage of digital publishing and more literary magazines need to take advantage of the multiple digital options available. Some already do, others will in the future. However, the notion that lit mags are inherently pretentious is not fair. I get your swagger but some magazines wanting a print artifact is not pretension. It does not mean they are on a high horse. As for technical ineptitude, well, you’re not born knowing how to produce content for digital magazines. It takes time to develop that skillset. You’ve done that. Great. Have a little patience for the editors who haven’t. The Kindle platform is relatively new. Don’t act like its been around for a decade. Your costs are not zero. Your employees’ time is worth something. They are donating their time but that does not mean there are no costs involved. You’ve just lucked into a volunteer staff. Of course, most magazines, digital, print, or like many, a combination of the two, run on volunteer staffs. Additionally, you have the staff who knows how to do cover design, Kindle formatting, etc. That’s another kind of expertise and again, that expertise is being donated. It’s not free. 

      When you publish a purely digital fiction magazine you are excluding a lot of people from reading your magazine. That’s your right. but not everyone owns an e-reader. In fact, relatively few people do. This is not to say that the magazine I edit, for example, is being read by an audience from a diverse range of economic backgrounds but it could be.  You can go into some libraries and find our magazine and read it for free. If you don’t have an e-reader, you can avail yourself of our magazine. That counts for something. And we also have digital options. For us, we like having that range of options for our readers. Each magazine is entitled to make the choices that work best for their publication. Your magazine sounds great and congratulations on your success (really, those rankings seem great) but there’s really no need to dismiss what others are doing as if your way is the only way.

  159. KKB

      Okay, so I’m back to endless harp on this topic some more.  I was wondering why I’m so obsessed and I realized it’s not because I want to spend more dollars.  It’s because I’ve already given up on the idea of lit mags gaining a wider readership.  And I want so bad for lit mags to continue.  And rise up!  And be better than ever.  So I’ve fixated on this “solution.”

      But it’s the sort of sense made by someone having already given up a bit.Torrent sites, cool, yes, for sure.  Electric Literature & online book promoting videos, love it.  One Story?  Great idea, friend!  But still, we’re only talking to ourselves.  Beachgoers on a beach, that’s cool.  In a real way that’s cool.  I love to hear the choir sing, and they need preaching too.  But in my heart of hearts I wish we were more relevant again.  Like in those good old days you hear so much about.

      And there’s something magical about McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, as much as the indiebound here may dismiss them.

      The magical thing about McSweeney’s and The New Yorker is that some of my friends who are not writers know about those magazines and sometimes look at them.  

      There’s something that scares me about the world of lit mags, though I am uncontrollably drawn to that world.  I think the thing that scares me is part of what Roxane touched upon: inside the noise lurks irrelevance.  I can barely type those words.

  160. Roxane

      I think most people here think pretty highly of McSweeney’s (and even The New Yorker, no matter how we grumble). I certainly do. Their Internet Tendency has published me so it would be silly to pretend I don’t dig what they do or want to be in the print version to which I never submit because I hate waiting a year for a response. I enjoy reading their books and magazines. The guys who go to AWP are some of the nicest folks at the bookfair. The reason McSweeney’s has reach though, beyond this community, is because of innovation and…cachet. They can innovate (an issue as a series of direct mail pieces? Come on–that’s amazing) because they have money. With every single issue, they redefine the possibilities for how a magazine can be published and read. Without Eggers’s initial investment (whatever it was) and his clout in the literary world (as well as that of some of his cohort), we wouldn’t be talking about the magazine because we wouldn’t know what they were doing. Not all magazines would succeed with an Eggers like investment of money and reputation but many more would than currently are succeeding.  The New Yorker, well, they are much like The Paris Review. They’ve been in the game for a really long time. They’ve had time to get it right, to develop the reputation, to draw the big names and the big audience. I mean, they’re part of Condé Nast. We simply cannot compare that magazine with a little indie magazine trying to function on $5,000 a year. I will worry if we’re having this same conversation in ten years about a whole new set of magazines because the ones we’re thinking about today are all gone. Our job, I think, as writers and editors, is to work hard to find ways of making sure that doesn’t happen.

  161. KKB

      Interesting.  I checked out your site, and I also want to give readers what they want if only we could figure out what that is.  And I love the idea of hosting on torrent sites, obvious and perfect and forward-thinking.  But I do have to ask: what do you mean when you present the idea that you’re the only indie fiction magazine?  Because you’re purely digital?  Aren’t lots purely digital?  

      And if your’e living the dream of the internet by not paying contributors and not paying staff and you’ve got a huge commerce machine sitting in front of you and you’re making one hundred percent profit, what do you do with the dollars?

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  163. Michael FitzGerald

      Really nice, Roxane. (And I loved Megan’s post… the idea of her talking to business consultants is badass. If I was attached to a school, I’d definitely reach out to the business programs for help with this challenge. Sic some MBAs on this.)

      A general comment on the ‘so much noise’… there was a time, probably right up until the 20th century, when the ability to read was a commodity. (Andrew Jackson couldn’t read or write.) You could make a living reading people’s letters or eviction notices to them. And even now the ability to type still holds some value. None of us like to look at our creative work as a commodity or our readers as consumers, but prior to MFA Programs/academia become the main financial support mechanism for published authors, this is exactly what writers did. (F.Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks are basically accounting score sheets.) 

      Eventually, once more and more people could read, that commodity lost value. What we’re experience right now seems pretty similar. It’s easier than ever to create (and be supported by academia to do so) and publish, hence the feeling of ‘over-supply’ or significant devaluing of the commodity. There are more writers and publications than ever. There is more ‘bad’ stuff but also significantly more ‘good’ stuff. It sucks and it’s amazing. But it especially sucks for people who were succeeding in the old paradigm. Still, there are a million possible solutions. One unarguably good thing about the internet is that it lets us experiment without significant upfront cost. We can try things out. (At the same time, people can bitch about it immediately too—see the crucifixion of Flatmancrooked in like 3 days of testing something out!). My guess is that someone  not so close to the saltlick will come up with the solution. Innovation rarely comes from within the industry (insert ‘community’ if preferred). When it does, the answer won’t be obvious or perfect, but our chests will slowly relax.  

      (I just reread this. Sound pedantic…. hopefully not. But, I think, in general we should realize it’s pretty crazy out there right now. It’s upheaval. It’ll get figured out. Let’s just not burn too many witches in the process.) 



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  165. Becky T

      Great, great article.

      This is precisely why I started my website, The Review Review. http://www.thereviewreview.net

      We review lit mags as they come out. It’s a way to harness all the content out there and make sense of it, and also to promote dialogue around these issues (in the hopes that having a forum for conversation will yield readership.)

      I wish more sites did what we and NewPages do. Maybe instead of starting new lit mags, some people could think about reviewing the ones that are already out there. It’s a way of processing the content that already exists, because there’s so much good stuff already out there.

      Plus editing is indeed fun, even and especially if you’re editing reviews.

      Founding Editor
      The Review Review

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