A few days before Christmas the editor’s blog at Identity Theory featured an insightful post in which Andrew Whittaker wondered what the point of small print-run literary magazines might be. Many of these journals, he notes, have at best a limited online presence; some are not online at all. In 2008 while I was employed as Online Editor of The Reader Magazine, tasked with creating a website for the magazine and the Reader Organisation itself, the problem of how much material to put online came up a lot. The fact that it was seen as a problem is instructive enough. I contacted several of the magazine’s contributors to ask if I could publish their work online, but every one refused. In one case a poet actually had ‘his’ editor contact me to explain why exposing his work to (back then) 5000 eyeballs was a bad idea. I guess that poet must be selling thousands of books and being read by millions. Or maybe not.
In fact the Reader Magazine under editor Philip Davis was quite open to trying online publication. We started a blog and began publishing back issues of the magazine online as a download and using Scribd (and I’d recommend you take a look), but after I stopped being a paid employee back in October 2008, the online development went no further. The magazine remains primarily a print journal; it is trailing behind excellent online journals such as The Rumpus and Identity Theory and finds itself speaking only to a (relative) handful of people. The Reader is a journal that measures its subscribers in hundreds yet features big names such as Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney and Camile Paglia. That’s a terrible shame.
Here’s a taste of the Identity Theory post:
These publications put their stories above their readers. But without readers, the best story is as good as a blank page. Readers, it turns out, want different things than they did fifty or even ten years ago.
The necessities of print submission and distribution created, over decades, an entrenched sense of hierarchy, that good stories logically move from writer up to editor and back down to reader. But readers, with new online practices introduced by other media and applied to everyday life, expect a conversation with the people whose work they read. They expect a feedback loop. They expect access to literature.
This should be a golden age of literary journals. And it is, for some larger forward-looking publications. McSweeney’s, the New Yorker, Tin House, and others have found compatibility between financial sustainability and what my old boss Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability”, removing barriers to sharing content so that fans can build communities around that content.
Successful literary publications know that obscurity is the shortest path to failure.