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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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6. Everyone agrees: It’s essential to pay writers (but not everyone can)

Emily Everett, managing editor of Amherst College’s The Common, sighs when the topic of paying writers comes up. “There’s such a big gap between how much we appreciate and love our writers, and how much we can pay to support them,” she laments.  

Every magazine that pays wishes it could pay more. Every magazine that doesn’t pay hopes to be able to pay writers one day.

Some magazines offer little more than an honorarium, though they see it as a critical distinction between paid and unpaid work.

Every magazine that pays wishes it could pay more. Every magazine that doesn’t pay hopes to be able to pay writers one day.

Since SmokeLong Quarterly, a journal devoted to flash fiction, began in 2003, it has been largely in the hole financially. The magazine didn’t pay writers; it could barely cover online hosting and other essential costs.

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But editors always listed paying writers as their top priority. A 15th anniversary contest helped generate the funds to begin doing so.

“It’s always been our goal to be able to pay writers for their work, but it’s sad that it took so long to get there,” says SmokeLong Quarterly co-editor Tara Laskowski. “Still, I’m so thrilled that we are finally a paying market. It’s been long overdue.”

SmokeLong isn’t alone. Atticus Review recently offered all contributors to an issue $25 apiece, a first since David Olimpio purchased the journal.

Most editors are writers themselves in their off time. They understand the labor involved in producing a piece worthy of publication. At the same time, editors face financial pressure.

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Gertrude, a free digital magazine celebrating queer voices, doesn’t currently pay writers, “but that is a huge goal for us this year,” says publisher Tammy Lynne Stoner. She does pay for cover art. “Our hope is to grow Gertie, [our] book club, and use those funds to support our contributors.”

Writers submit to unpaid markets for many reasons. Some see them as a potential stepping stone to bigger journals – a way to bolster their resume. Others perceive, rightly or wrongly, unpaid markets as less selective, offering a better chance to get published.

Either way, says Carrie Muehle, outgoing managing editor of Northwestern’s TriQuarterly, if you harbor dreams of getting rich off literary magazine submissions, it’s not going to happen. “From the artists to the people working on the journal, this is a love, not a money, profession,” she says.

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Innovations at literary magazines

We all know the “innovate or perish” philosophy has both up- and downsides (look no further than the whole catalog of DC Comics movies for evidence). Often trying something new paves the way for another innovation you can implement down the road. Here are a few ideas literary magazines have tried out in the past few years that appear promising:

      • Kenyon Review: Expanded its translation offerings by adding a translation workshop and hiring two translation editors.
      • EVENT: Hosts an annual event called “Aboriginal Voices: An Evening of Poetry and Prose” to promote local Indigenous writers’ work and broaden engagement with the community.
      • Barrelhouse: Offers a yearly grant to emerging literary organizations to encourage new voices. Past recipients include an organization encouraging young girls who write in Pittsburgh and Fiyah, which publishes speculative fiction and horror by black writers.
      • Apogee Journal: Runs community workshops that cost $20 per class, underwritten by groups like the New York State Council on the Arts and Brooklyn Arts Council. Workshop teachers often encourage participants to submit their work to Apogee, getting new voices into the magazine.

 

Love literary magazines? Dive into our essential reading list:

 

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—Toni Fitzgerald is the copy editor for The Writer. She is currently writing her first children’s book while working out her complicated feelings about the serial comma. Web: Tonifitz76.com.

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