The newly published Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine records the history of the American Lit Mag with essays and articles from the onset of print to the digital age. This round of Six Degrees Left brings together a group of dedicated lit mag lovers–real writers and editors, some who have pieces in Paper Dreams, as well as others who have caught our eye with their devotion to language.
Check in with Richard Peabody, Travis Kurowski, Steve Himmer, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Kelly Forsythe, Jen Michalski, and Jessica Poli in this fifth post as they look to the future, discussing how lit mags will survive.
*Read the first four posts of this conversation here.
We know that there aren’t many literary magazines born with deep pockets. What are some of the most successful ways literary magazines can stay afloat? And are there any methods of fundraising that would tarnish their literary value? Is there a limit to how commercial lit mags should be?
Steve Himmer: I’ll just reiterate my concerns about crowdfunding mentioned earlier. But I’m not opposed to being commercial, especially in positive, compelling ways. I don’t know how much money they make from it, but the Conversations & Connections writers’ conference Barrelhouse puts on is a phenomenal, powerful example of this—it supports the magazine, I hope, and supports the community, the state of the art, the next wave of emerging writers, whatever you want to call it. That’s as good as it gets, to my mind. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m conflicted about reading fees. Lower ones, maybe, I see a case for but I’m sure we’re all aware of some magazines charging as much to submit as others do for a subscription. And when I get email after email after email promoting a journal, day after day, that turns me off pretty quickly and definitively.
Roxane Gay: I am leery of crowdfunding because it is so unsustainable but I do respect and recognize that crowdfunding makes it possible for people without deep pockets to create magazines. That democratizing is important. There are no easy answers when it comes to the financial end of things. Commerciality doesn’t concern me. We raise money in the best ways we can. Printing magazines requires actual cash and the printer does not take idealism as currency, nor does the postal service.
Richard Peabody: We’re not an official nonprofit. We have always lost money but are not beholden to any org or board or college that might attempt to censor what we publish. I made that decision early on. Now that everybody is using Kickstarter it’s lost its cache. Even university mags and presses plead poor. When new editors tell me they “have to make money” I always laugh. There’s no $ in the arts. Never has been, never will be.
Dave Housley: First of all, thanks to Steve for the shout out to Conversations and Connections! We’re very proud of that conference and hearing Steve say those things is incredibly gratifying. I should say right now that we’re currently open for registration for our Fall conference, which is in Philly, and takes place on September 28 (we also hold the conference in DC in Spring). J. Robert Lennon is the keynote for the upcoming conference, and details are here. Sorry for that brief commercial break, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
On this topic, I think the conference we run is also a good example of something that funds some of the cost for the magazine, but also sends money back out into the small presses and literary magazines who participate (about a third of the registration fee goes directly out to other participating presses/mags), and (more importantly) helps connect all those smart, awesome people with writers who are out there trying to make their work better and, in some cases, just dipping their toes into the literary magazine or writing scene. I think everybody really wins with this conference, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to start paying writers this year.
We do lots of other things that fall into this same kind of category. We run online workshops, sell t-shirts. There’s a podcast, Book Fight!, that’s done by two of our editors, Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister. For a long time, we mainly made money at events,which is something we’ve gotten away from. I should also say that in addition to all this other stuff, we’ve really been focusing lately on selling the print products (we just started printing books, too, in addition to the magazine) — trying to cook up marketing ideas, getting the word out there, putting up “bonus” material on the website, whatever we can think of — and that’s worked well in terms of just hustling to get the books out there. Like I said, we’ll try anything.
As far as what might tarnish literary value, I don’t know if it falls under that category, but we draw the line at submissions fees. I personally don’t submit to places with submissions fees. I feel pretty strongly about it. Barrelhouse doesn’t charge and won’t. There’s something that feels predatory about it, to me — the power dynamic is not equal.
That said, I also think there are enough markets out there that writers are free to just not submit to places that charge fees, so every time there’s a little kerfuffle about it, I think, well, just don’t submit there and all that will dry up and fade away. Nobody is making you submit to Narrative.
Richard Peabody: No submissions fees. Absolutely agree.
Travis Kurowski: Of course there are no easy answers. And things cost real money.
Here’s another nugget from that same meeting with Jeffrey Lependorf: “Direct giving is the only growth area in literary publishing.” Now that was 6 or so years ago, but I find it interesting that this was years before the phenomenon of Kickstarter, which made direct giving simple & fun at the grassroots level. Let’s see if this continues to hold true.
But we’ve got some great energy working on these things. And digital publishing has changed the landscape entirely.
And I’ll be keeping my eye out as Megan Garr of Versal and her team of researchers try to figure out the Gordian Knot of the US literary economy—her essay in Paper Dreams is only a portion of the work she is doing in this area.
I’ve also been very impressed by the numbers Dave shared with me about the Conversations & Connections conference. Seems like a slam dunk.
And yes, though I know Megan would disagree, please no submission fees. Not until people start paying to audition for the theater and to send their resume to employers. (And if these things are already happening, just don’t tell me.)
In his essay “Influence, Commerce, and the Little Magazine,” originally published in the Missouri Review, Eric Staley writes, “Editors inherit from their predecessors the constant awareness of potential collapse.” What does it mean that editors partake in creating a magazine with knowledge of its inevitable end? Is the cycle of: dying journals—newborn journals—dying journals somehow crucial for a progression of literary art?
Richard Peabody: Perhaps. I killed Gargoyle in 1990 only to bring it back in 1997. I’ll give it up when it’s no longer fun. Maybe in a year or two? Dunno. But yes, all art is about birth and death and resurrection of new voices. Being part of that conversation, part of that process, has been a great ride.
Steve Himmer: They should come and go. All art should come and go—aesthetics get worn out, ways of reading get worn out, energy shifts from one place to another, and that’s as it should be. But if a journal matters, if it does something, hopefully that energy goes someplace new when a younger artist or writer or editor is inspired to do something of their own. That’s not quantifiable but it’s crucial—I can still remember the first few stories I read online or in small magazines, and I doubt many of those publications are still around.
Roxane Gay: Daniel Nester and Stevie Black did a piece for Bookslut some time ago about magazines and their lifespans that I think remains relevant. Journals come and go, and not to be flippant, everything comes and goes. We’ll stick around as long as people are interested in reading what we publish. So long as people continue starting new magazines and other artistic endeavors, literary art is going to continue to flourish.
Travis Kurowski: When I read the question, I had some ideas—but then Roxane said them all. Read that Bookslut piece. It was a lit mag paradigm-shift for me.
How important is it for a magazine to also publish editorial and critical subject matter? What are the benefits of this practice compared to one that only offers creative work? Is this second magazine still a part of the literary conversation?
Richard Peabody: Some literary schools of thought do spread the word and get the work out by reviewing in-house. I believe the review and interview aspect of lit mags have benefited from online zines and blogs. I think more people read those online than they do the actual creative work. Back in the day we gave a lot of pages over to both. But it was so time consuming–getting books to reviewers, nagging them re. deadlines, asking for books to review, arranging interviews–we had to let it go. We haven’t run a review since 1990. Now we are the “second magazine” that only offers creative work. We don’t have a particular literary ax to grind, and yet Gargoyle has a particular reputation for the work we publish.
Steve Himmer: As Richard said, more people do seem to read reviews, interviews, and essays than read the fiction which is meant to be the focus of it all. That’s surprised me. We added reviews to Necessary Fiction to complement the stories, and really to help spread the word about new small press books. And we later added features like our “Research Notes” series for the same reason, but those seem to be the most popular things we publish now—though I don’t have the numbers because I’ve never paid any attention to tracking hits or that sort of administrative obsessing. I recently saw someone say on Twitter that magazines or websites that publish reviews, etc. without publishing new work in the genres they review are parasites on literary culture. I don’t quite agree with that but maybe there’s something in it—if everyone’s looking for places to review their own books, or places to read about or assign their students to read about “craft,” and if those things are in some ways easier to write… well, I’m not sure where I’m going with that but I think it makes me a little bit nervous.
Roxane Gay: It’s important that some magazines do it but not that all magazines do it. We don’t publish criticism in PANK, and have never really considered it. We do publish criticism on our blog and our readers seem to enjoy it. It’s a great way to foster a conversation about writing beyond our magazine.
Kelly Forsythe: We publish reviews and occasionally interviews in Phantom Limb. I think the reviews are important because we only publish two per issue, so there is a lot of attention paid to those titles and carefulness and deliberateness in the reviewer’s analysis. It heightens awareness of new collections just by linking to them and showing their cover images. The interviews usually generate solid and important conversations. Do I know how many folks read those critical sections? No, but I think it enhances our scope and muscles as a little magazine.
Travis Kurowski: As Roxane says, “It’s important that some magazines do it but not that all magazines do it.” It is nice to see that literary magazines are absorbing some of the lost book reviewing space in major newspapers and magazines. Wayne Miller was telling me recently that at Pleiades they’ve increased their reviews section and that this is a huge draw for readers. People are hungry for these things, especially online. Heck, I can hardly go to a restaurant without reading a review online. It’s increasingly becoming part of the culture. (Thanks, Bezos.)
As for critical subject matter, I’m all for it (especially class issues, gender, the environment, race, etc.)—but it’s not a necessity. As Steve said, rightly, in the previous question: “I’m always wary of ‘should.’”
Do you feel that literary magazines have open sources of communication with each other? Magazines like Phantom Limb promote other magazines through Facebook and other social media as a way to promote their past contributors, and The Adirondack Review posts recommendations for good writing they find anywhere. Should lit mags direct readers to other outlets of what they consider strong writing?
Richard Peabody: We have always steered poets and writers to other markets. We’re all part of the tribe and after 37 years in this crazy biz I’m pretty adept at said steering. Yes, of course, help the newbies out. Talking up magazines is a large part of that because in college they only learned about top 50 blah blah. Open their eyes, open their minds, show them the possibilities.
Kelly Forsythe: I definitely see an advantage in sharing the love. As you mentioned, Phantom does this…because why not? Richard said it: we’re all part of the tribe. Not because we “should” or “should not” but because it just makes sense and we enjoy loving on other journals and publications.
Steve Himmer: I’m always wary of “should,” but yes, I try to make suggestions if I think a story might be good fit somewhere else or might appeal to a particular editor. And I try to spread the word about what our past contributors are publishing elsewhere or what’s going on at readings, festivals, other publications, and so on. Not because a journal “should” but because I, personally, enjoy doing it.
Roxane Gay: Other magazines are some of our biggest cheerleaders, and it is absolutely mutual. We love the work of our peers and it’s a joy to spread the good word about what they do. Should? I think people should only spread the word about things they believe in. Boosterism helps no one. I would hope, though, that editors are able to find excellence beyond their own publications. There’s no shortage.
Dave Housley: I’m a huge fan of all the people and magazines that are participating in this discussion. Richard published my first story. Thanks again, Richard! Roxane blogged for us for awhile (come back, Roxane!), and Steve’s been to our conference. As I said before, I think one of the things that characterizes this community is the fact that we’re all so supportive of one another. The stakes are just too low to be anything but supportive, to be honest. And nobody understands our particular set of triumphs, failures, and problems like the other folks who are editing literary magazines. It’s so supportive that we’re holding three hour readings at AWP because we just want to pull in everybody we can and we love the work we’re all putting out. That’s its own particular problem (the three-hour reading), but the impulse for it comes from such a generous place that it’s really lovely (the impulse, not the experience). In the past, we’ve shared information about printers, about processes, tips and tricks and frustrations. There’s a varying level of organization around it, and a good deal of that kind of information sharing might happen over drinks, but it happens all the time.
Lately, I think even some of those top 10 magazines are getting into the spirit. Ploughshares has been a huge supporter of Barrelhouse and our conference, and we’re in regular communication with Andrea Martucci, who is, I think, really taking Pshares from a musty old top 10 market to a vital and important magazine that’s actually out there interacting in the community. Same goes for Michael Nye and Missouri Review. I’m sure there are others out there, but those two definitely come to mind.
Travis Kurowski: “We’re all part of the tribe.” Hear, hear, Richard. I mean, just look at Dave’s response. Priceless. I’m sharing that with my students next week.
Richard Peabody is the founder and editor of Gargoyle Magazine and publisher of Paycock Press. He has written over ten books of poetry and fiction and his 2012 book of poems, Speed Enforced by Aircraft was nominated for a National Book Award. As well as editing (or co-editing) ten anthologies, Richard also teaches fiction at John Hopkins University. In 2013, he received the Above and Beyond Award from Beyond the Margins for his ongoing generosity to other writers and his important contributions to the world of literature.
Travis Kurowski is the editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. He teaches creative writing and publishing at York College of Pennsylvania. He is founding editor of Luna Park, soliciting editor for Opium Magazine, andLiterary MagNet columnist for Poets & Writers. His writing has recently appeared in Little Star, Armchair/Shotgun, The Lumberyard, Mississippi Review, Hobart and > Kill Author.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.
Dave Housley is the author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of short fiction. His work has been published in Columbia, Nerve, Sycamore Review, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse, a literary magazine that bridges the gap between serious art and pop culture.
Kelly Forsythe has poems published or forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, The Minnesota Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and American Poet. Her reviews can be found in the Los Angeles Review, NewCity and The Rumpus.
In Fall 2011, she was introduced by Noelle Kocot as an Academy of American Poets “Emerging Poet.” She is the editor of the online literary magazine Phantom Limb, the poetry book reviews editor for Los Angeles Review, and works for Copper Canyon Press.
Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel, The Tide King, was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize).
Jen is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.