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What does the future look like for literary magazines?

Subscriptions are down. Submissions are up. What do modern journals need to do to survive?

What does the future look like for literary magazines?
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2. Digital vs. print: Can literary magazines thrive online?

The results of the 2016 election sparked soul searching among many people, Tammy Lynne Stoner among them. She decided to resurrect Gertrude, a literary magazine dedicated to queer voices where she served as publisher before the journal went on hiatus pre-November 2016. As she began reaching out to former staffers, Stoner realized that her old business model no longer made sense.

“I decided to start back up again as a way to hold space for queer voices,” Stoner says. “That meant re-staffing entirely and changing our model from print to online in order to save time and money while extending our reach.”

Gertrude has a lot of company in this transition. A number of magazines have shifted to digital publishing or reduced the number of print issues while accepting more online-only content.

The reason, of course, is money. It costs less to publish content on the web than to create a print edition of a literary magazine, which requires a printer and distribution capabilities – getting the magazine to subscribers. With a website, editors pay the hosting fee and little else.

Bodega, a 6-year-old literary magazine, began as a digital publication. The editors envisioned a lit mag for the digital age.

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“We love print, we really do, but we exist in a world where most of our reading is happening on the subway over lunch breaks,” says Bodega editor-in-chief Cat Richardson. “The idea of carrying around a literary magazine and reading 300 pages didn’t feel realistic.”

There also are aesthetics to print and web to weigh before a transition.

Shifting online begs another question of literary magazines: To charge or not to charge?

“I don’t think all print journals need to go online,” says Patricia Colleen Murphy, editor of Superstition Review at Arizona State University. “A person who has the skills it takes to curate excellent creative writing doesn’t always correspond with having the skills it takes to build a website and online platform.” She says smart journals pay someone to take a website that “looks like a freshman project” to become more polished.

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Of course, shifting online also begs another question of literary magazines: To charge or not to charge? They need to answer quickly or risk alienating their audience. As their newspaper brethren have discovered, readers get annoyed when you wall off content and request payment for something they could previously access for free.  

“I’m guilty of this online too,” admits Jim Gearhart, managing editor of Tahoma Literary Review. “I feel like things should be available and you shouldn’t have to pay. That’s a hard impression to overcome, it’s hard when you’re trying to price a product and you have to compete with something that’s free. That makes our pricing really a challenge.”

Apogee Journal, which is dedicated to publishing underrepresented voices, offers three tiers of digital subscription ranging from $3 to $10 per month. “It’s our primary source of income and has replaced the sale of print journals,” says Executive Editor Alexandra Watson.

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Jennifer Baker, a contributing editor to Electric Literature, sees digital bringing more opportunities for magazines that prioritize and amplify BIPOC authors (those who are black, indigenous, and people of color), including Kweli Journal, The Offing, Aster(ix), and Hyphen Magazine. Other online magazines have arrived on the scene with great promise, such as The Establishment, but, alas, discovered even a digital model is difficult to sustain.

Practical concerns prompt journals to go online as well, notes the staff of the Kenyon Review, who answered questions collaboratively via email for this story.

“We’re slowly losing institutional print subscribers, as the libraries who have historically subscribed have tightened their budgets and begun to move to online databases for print content,” the Review staff says. “Bookstores have limited shelf space, so newsstand sales have taken more time and effort.”

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It doesn’t have to be either/or. Online can complement print. Kenyon Review launched Kenyon Review Online a decade ago, and it functions as a separate magazine, publishing every two weeks. “We’ve expanded what and how much we publish in KRO significantly since its early days, and we have the ability to reach readers all over the world,” the Review staff says.

 

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