A heartening article in the NYTimes, which I hardly ever read seriously due to their disgraceful dismissal of literary translation, caught my attention yesterday. Literary journals are doing well despite economic difficulties, publishing industry difficulties, and rashes of bookstore closures. Literary journals, because they are focused on small communities of like-minded readers, are not only surviving they are thriving.
The article then goes on to talk about a bunch of wonderful west-coast print journals. Emphasis on print. They talk about how the internet hasn’t really changed their goals, though all of them are making moves to online presence by digitizing their archives, building new websites, etc. The same stuff that I heard a lot of at the 21st Century Publishing Conference at Emerson.
But what about online journals, many of which have been around for a decade or more, and many of which are doing incredibly well? Narrative Magazine, for example, is increasing their income annually. And of course, the article mentions Electric Literature, which has a slick website but offers no content online. None. They do ebooks and print on demand. The complete elision of online journals, that fall exactly into the model this article is supposedly lauding: small infrastructure, non-profit, niche-oriented. The small size, the volunteer-driven structure of many of the most successful literary journals, and the focus is what makes online journals like The Diagram so wonderful.
This article all but dismisses them. Worse, the author doesn’t seem to acknowledge that online is more than a supplement, a fad, for a print journal. Online is where innovative literary publishing is actually happening. The final quote really makes this clear: literary publishing is not about making money. In fact, it really can’t be. The author misses the point of what The Rumpus’s founder said. Print journals need to make money to continue to print, their operating costs are higher. If the key to literary journal publishing is doing as much as you can for as little as possible, online wins. Every time. The focus is on getting work to readers, not getting subscribers to pay. That little shift of intent makes all the difference in the world.