Ask two dozen editors what the future holds for literary magazines, and you get two dozen answers (beautifully rendered, of course – the editors are also talented writers themselves). After noting the recent closures of a number of literary titles, we contacted people in the literary community to discuss the genre’s future, its biggest challenges, and what inspires them at a time when they report receiving more submissions than ever.
One thing the two dozen editors we surveyed agreed upon: Literary magazines are changing – evolving to match the times. Here are six things editors are thinking about as a new decade looms.
1. Make that money: Magazines must innovate
The late, great literary magazine Glimmer Train long displayed this message on its website: “There is no such thing as a profitable literary journal. To the best of our knowledge, all surviving literary journals are supported by universities and/or by individuals who love short fiction and are willing to put their own time and money into them.”
Simply put: Literary magazines aren’t money-makers. Most struggle to make enough to survive. “A lot of magazines have had to reinvent themselves,” says Beth Staples, editor of Shenandoah at Washington and Lee University. “There have been a lot of sad stories of great magazines going out of business.”
“The problem is that more people want to get published than want to read.”
The biggest issue? A sharp decline in subscriptions, which fund many literary magazines. It’s not just lit mags, of course – circulation is down for newspapers and magazines, too. Digital subs simply aren’t making up the difference.
“Regular subscriptions aren’t how people are paying the bills anymore,” observes Emily Everett, managing editor of The Common at Amherst College. Adds Patricia Colleen Murphy, editor of Superstition Review (Arizona State University): “The problem is that more people want to get published than want to read.”
Financial instability displays differently with different types of lit mags. Ones associated with colleges may seem steadier, but they still have concerns. Editors mention a number of academic publications that recently shut down or lost faculty advisors through budget cuts.
Independent magazines, with no foundation or school behind them, often face an even tougher go. Many have become more niche to survive, targeting a narrower audience than the broad-interest successes of the past.
“I’ve heard editors say they want to be the next Paris Review. The problem with that is not even the Paris Review could be the next Paris Review – there’s no longer a climate for that type of literary magazine or model,” says David Olimpio, editor-in-chief and owner of the Atticus Review.
Magazines have to get creative to make money. For instance, EVENT offers a reading service for writers, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a work for $100. Editor Shashi Bat says EVENT also generates revenue by holding workshops and multi-day festivals.
Independent magazines often rely on their owners or founders for funding when they go into the red. “We went through those years of not really being sure we’d exist from one issue to the next. We’d have to pool our money – ‘OK, we all owe $275 to have it printed.’ There was really no other way to get the money,” says Barrelhouse’s Dave Housley. He’s been with the title in various roles since its founding in 2004 and now organizes the conferences, which Barrelhouse initiated to get a new stream of income.
Charging for submissions and contests has become a way to balance subscription losses for many magazines. Yet the ethics involved in that can be tricky.
“For journals to make any money, we need to rely on the writers who submit to us, NOT the readers of the publication,” says Tara Laskowski, co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. “In an ideal world, that would be flipped: Readers would pay for the content, not expect it for free, and writers would not only not have to pay for the chance to possibly get published, but might also get (wait…this is a shocking idea) PAID FOR THEIR WORK.”
The future of literary magazines will require even more innovation to make money. But there is hope: Conferences and other money-makers allowed Barrelhouse to begin paying writers in 2014, 10 years after its founding. “I think if we were only relying on print products, I don’t think we could keep going,” notes Housley.
What about advertising?
With the financial concerns facing literary journals, you might think a few full-page ads for a writer conference or new novel-writing software might pay the bills.
But the majority of literary magazines don’t accept or pursue advertising. To some degree, this is a practical consideration; lit mags are small operations, often volunteer-run. They don’t have the luxury of an advertising sales staff. As it is, editors are strapped for time.
“I’m not against advertising,” says David Olimpio, editor-in-chief and owner of Atticus Review. “I’d just like it to be more focused toward what this community would want to see, be more tasteful. And I haven’t figured out a way or had the time and energy to put into doing that.”
It’s also a matter of perception. Lit mags don’t want to become commercialized. There’s a prestige factor to being accepted in a literary journal, where a writer’s work might be discovered by an agent seeking new talent. Ads jar that perception.