Why Do Online Literary Journals Still Act Like Print Journals?

Straight Forward Poetry uses ISSUU to produce online “magazines.”

I’ve been submitting poetry to literary journals for more than 20 years, so I’ve been following the trend toward online publishing pretty much since it began. In the mid ‘90s, before broadband and when I still had an AOL account, a few poetry listservs were popping up that sent out contributed poems to subscribers. If I recall, most of those listservs weren’t all that selective, but some were quite good. Some probably even evolved into proper online pubs. One I recall from that period (because the archives are still online) was realpoetik. Every time it went out to its thousand or so subscribers as an email blast, readers would be treated to a few new poems. I think my first poem published by a mainstream online literary outlet was The Painted Bride Quarterly, which went online around 1999 or 2000. Now there are online lit pubs starting up new every week. I get the call-for-submissions emails frequently, and Poets & Writers maintains a pretty good list as well. Currently I send out poems to both print and online pubs in fairly equal measure. I like online publishing because of the ability to share—I can tweet and Facebook post my published poem to get it out to a wider audience. Sometimes I can even get reader feedback that way. Despite what the editor of the Pushcart thinks, online publications count as legitimate outlets and can be of very high quality. Still, I notice something about most online pubs that strikes me as curious—they’re hardly different from print pubs. Some, in fact many of the newest ones I’ve seen, go out of their way to look like print pubs. They format their content as downloadable PDFs or use ISSUU.com to produce online flip books that act just (well, sort of) like print—you turn digital pages and even see the gutters and page numbers. I honestly don’t get that. As an editor/publisher you’ve selected a delivery method (the internet) that naturally thrives on dynamic user interfaces, yet you choose to format your publication to copy the least dynamic medium. Even ebook readers such as the Kindle don’t go out of their way to make their ebooks act like books. They make them fit the delivery device. PDFs and flipbooks are also extremely difficult to actually read on a computer (and they’re worse on a phone or tablet), and they don’t allow easy sharing. Another perplexing way online pubs act like print pubs is in their publishing schedule. Most of the online publications I read and publish in post content on an issue schedule very much like paper journals. The Painted Bride Quarterly for instance (a hybrid pub—PBQ also still does a print annual) publishes on a quarterly schedule—four times a year just like it did back in the old days of pulp. One of my favorite online pubs is the Cortland Review. It gets about 90,000 visitors a month (how many paper journals can claim that) and also publishes on a quarterly schedule. Why, when you’re not restricted to printing resources, mailing, sales, or any of the restrictions of paper, would you hold to an old-fashioned style of quarterly publishing? First a little perspective—my day job is as an editor for a consumer web site. This site gets about half a million visitors a month. We publish four-to-eight articles a day (a mix of long features, photo features, product reviews and short news items). We’ve got a pretty decent following from an enthusiast audience, but we also rely heavily on both social media and search engines for our reader traffic. Since the site’s business model is based on advertising, we need to keep the readers coming steadily. Both search engines like Google, and social sites like Facebook and Twitter, depend on frequency. If I waited three months between posting stories  on my website Google would ignore it and Facebook readers would forget it. Frequency is the key to reader attention. Yes, good content is important—that’s what gets you reader respect, but you need frequency to battle the onslaught of competition for attention in order to get the reader to notice you in the first place. I also understand that putting together a quality online lit journal takes time and energy. Many of the best online outlets have teams of volunteer editors who meet to discuss the submissions, then go through a back-and-forth process with their authors to collect bios, photos, and proofs. That’s good and gives me confidence that they’re taking my work seriously. But still, why let the power of a dynamic medium go to waste. What’s the web site doing between all those months or weeks of inactivity? What’s going to get people to visit it? My guess is that those sites may have a flurry of activity when each issue is first posted. If the editors are wise they’ll have sent out an email notice to readers (of course, first they need an email list) that the new issue is available. After the first week though, that activity trails off, and the site probably gets little more than a few Google hits a day when someone is looking for a particular author or the site’s submission guidelines. I know I personally forget about many of those online outlets in between issue releases, even though I probably haven’t read them completely. Why?  Because the site chooses not to compete adequately for my attention. On the other hand, we have the daily poem sites such as Poetry Daily, Verse Daily and Writer’s Almanac (and now Rattle is doing something similar with archived work). Those sites kill all the other traditional online pubs because they offer two of the things the web likes best—frequency and brevity. By offering one new poem each day (and they aren’t even technically new; they’re republished with permission from the original book or journal) they give the reader a reason to go back frequently. And by only offering one poem, they satisfy my time constraints problem. Online readers usually want something they can digest quickly and be done with it—that’s why simple news aggregators such as Newser are so popular.

Triggerfish Review # 9

Do I want every single online pub to just copy what Poetry Daily is doing? Maybe that’s not the best approach, but something closer would be wonderful. Consider an online journal that published 25 – 40 poems in a quarter. Maybe a couple of interviews and book reviews get mixed in. By spreading out the publishing to a weekly schedule, the site would encourage more frequent visits and probably get their authors more exposure (because visitors tend to read only the first few items and then leave). The workload for the editors would not considerably change because each piece would still be entered into the CMS in the same way. The only difference would be in the timing. The other benefit would be the ability to send out more frequent email alerts. If the site wants to monetize their pub, frequent email newsletters are more attractive to advertisers. Finally, lets talk more about the medium. What is the web capable of offering? We’ve got text, audio, video, sharing and community. So then why do 99% of the online lit pubs only operate with text? I’ll go back to the Cortland Review again, because it’s rare in that it makes most of its poems available in audio format. The site also uses a video on occasion. Those two things make it unusual, but in 2012 that shouldn’t be such a big deal. Getting a decent MP3 recording isn’t difficult these days—most smart phones have good audio and video recording capabilities, and every 13-year-old knows how to upload a video to youtube. What about community? How many people spend hours on Facebook sharing links, making jokes and commenting on status updates? This tendency to form into hives is natural online, but most online lit pubs have no community involvement at all except maybe a Facebook page (and many that do maintain FB pages don’t fully take advantage of them). Rarely do pubs allow comments on work or involve the authors in online engagement. Beloit Poetry Journal (print, but with a web site) added a new feature this year called Forum. In it selected authors are invited to write a short essay about their poem (from the current issue) and then readers are encouraged to comment on it. It’s a small start, but it’s a good idea. So far, participation looks to be minimal, but I commend them for doing it. At the same time, what may be the most interesting part of the site gets buried down at the lower right. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I don’t like online pubs. In fact I’m pretty confident that the future of poetry publishing is being crafted right now by pubs like some of the ones I’ve mentioned. While paper is still great and often preferred (my annual expenses in print books and journals is enough to warrant hiding from my wife), online pubs can, when they want to, offer as much or more pleasure and opportunity. In some circles there’s still a bit of snobbery around the concept of online publishing, but that’s fading. Sure, it’s easy to say you’re starting a new online journal. A wordpress account and $10 for a domain, plus some friends to give you poems, is really all it takes to start—but to succeed and make an impact takes a lot more. It’s the lot more that I want to see more of.

Who’s Reading Your Poetry Submissions?

At Prairie Schooner, “about 40 graduate readers look through the submissions, determining if they are eligible for the magazine. ”

from an article in the Daily Nebraskan.

Prairie Schooner does not currently accept electronic submissions (this is changing soon) nor charge for submissions.

By the way, I’m not judging, just pointing it out (I was a screener for Mid-American Review when I was a grad student). This is a question often discussed in writing circles and becomes more interesting as more journals adopt submission fees–see previous post for complete context. I know a lot of writers worry that a 24-year-old grad student may not be the best judge of what literature is “eligible.” I know I’m a very different reader than I was 20 years ago.

Pay to Play Poetry Journals: Is This Right?

NOTE: This post is 8 years old. A lot has changed in the market, and I’m not completely sure how much of this post I still stand behind. It’s getting harder to find publications that don’t charge, so I find myself willing paying fees more frequently. 

The Nov/Dec issue of Poets and Writers magazine ran a story on what may be one of the most important issues facing the literary community, or at least the literary journal community, today. The article discussed the emerging trend of literary journals charging writers for content submissions.

Several journals, including the Missouri Review, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review charge a fee of $2-$3 for writers to send in work for possible publication. Some, like the Ploushares, only apply that fee to online submissions while others require the fee from all unsolicited submissions. None of the journals mentioned in the article or in online conversations that followed it charge authors for solicited submissions.

The fee issue created a little hurricane in several blogs and forums for obvious reasons. At one point a private listserv conversation by editors belonging to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) was made public, eliciting more outrage from both writers who read the emails and the editors who (rightly) didn’t want their debate on the issue made public.

Now of course I know that times are tough for literary journals. They’re facing three primary problems. First, funding for literature (particularly in university-affiliated journals) has been significantly cut. Second, the workload continues to increase as the number of people who want to get published (partially fed by expanding MFA programs) gets overwhelming (one editor said he receives about 1,000 submissions a month). Finally, while interest in getting published increases, subscriptions decrease—less people are buying the journals.

So of course that means that both money and time are stretched thin. I get that. I work in consumer magazine publishing myself. I understand the problem of shrinking staff/resources and shrinking budgets. I never met a dollar I didn’t like. What I don’t understand is how the answer to the problem is to charge the very people whose work publishers should be embracing and without whom they’d have no product to publish.

A few editors commented that they hoped charging writers would limit the amount of submissions they received. So far the results haven’t proved that. If they want to receive less submissions, how about shortening the open submission period? I have trouble understanding a paradigm in which an abundance of artists is perceived as a problem that requires a punitive response.

Do writers expect special treatment when they’re paying for their work to be read? Many journals use interns or grad students to screen their open submissions—I was one of those when I was a grad student 20 years ago, so I know how it works. How long do these readers spend on a submission? Often they only spend a minute or two on a piece, maybe less (and still take six months to respond). In their defense, bad writing singles itself out quickly; however, if a person has paid for the privilege of submitting should that person expect a more thorough reading, maybe even something more than a generic, unsigned rejection form? Maybe a faster response? If you think money doesn’t influence expectations in a relationship then just ask to borrow money from a friend and see what happens.

While I don’t like contest entry fees either, I see a big difference. With contests there’s the promise someone will get a big payoff (hundreds or thousands of dollars in some, book publication). Most literary journals pay little if anything. The most frequent payment is a copy or two of the journal.

A few of the journals who charge fees for unsolicited submissions also note that the acceptance rate for open submissions is less than 1 percent. This means the 99 percent are essentially subsidizing the work of writers who were invited to the journal and didn’t have to pay the submission fee. How is that fair?

On the Facebook page of an editor on a well-know literary pub (a pub that doesn’t charge fees) I made the comment that a journal that needs to charge its rejected writers in order to survive needs to examine its business model and maybe rethink its product into something people are more likely to pay for. Or the product could be redesigned into something that cost less to produce/mail.

I was quickly shot down by another editor for the blasphemy of equating an art journal to a business or product. I understand the sensitivity considering the political climate and all, but what I meant and believe is that if the publication is not able to find a supportive audience without imposing a submission tax then that is a publication that needs to wonder about the need it is serving. I’m not saying a literary journal that’s losing money needs to shut down, but it should think seriously about its place in the community and whether or not it’s doing a good job. If readers aren’t willing to pay for it, is there something wrong with the publication? Is there something wrong with its outreach or marketing?

One of the rationales for charging for online submissions is that the fee of $3 is roughly the same as we’d be paying for postage and envelopes. That may be the case for fiction writers who mail 25 pages at a time, but for poets who mail 5 or 6 pages it’s not even close. And even if the costs were the same, why does the saving in postage now have to go to the journal? Why does a journal get to profit from the opportunity to reject you? Let’s be honest, with acceptance rates of less than 1 percent, they’re profiting from rejection.

So if ultimately the problem is a lack of paying readers, how about solving that problem rather than creating a new ethical problem?

One of the problems with submission fees is that they inadvertently discourage subscriptions. Hopefully most writers feel some sense of obligation to the journals they’re targeting and especially the journals they’re accepted by. Hopefully that sense of obligation occasionally results in a purchase or subscription. But with submission fees the writer feels that he or she has already met that obligation, but at a much lower cost (and without the benefit of receiving the journal). Why feel obligated to buy a copy when the writer has already done his part by sending in a $3 rejection fee?

Right now I’m subscribing to seven  journals at a cost of about $95 a year. I send out about 30 poetry submissions a year. From some of the editors’ comments on the leaked listserv I should be subscribing to 30 journals a year. Is that really reasonable? Next year I’ll re-subscribe to about half of those journals and subscribe to three or four new ones so over a number of years I’ll be able to sample a wide range.

Some editors suggest the option of only allowing subscribers to submit. The problem with that is that it creates a closed little club. The journal turns from a public forum to a private one, and it greatly reduces the pool of qualified writers.

I do recognize the problem. Really I do. But the burden shouldn’t be put on the people whose work creates the journal. Even more, the burden shouldn’t be unevenly put on the people who are least likely (due to high rejection rates) to be a part of the journal’s forum. If journals look at this as a reader problem, not a revenue problem, then they won’t leap to the most vulnerable population available to be exploited. They’ll instead be forced to look at themselves, their audience and their mission and come up with creative solutions to the problem.

So far I personally haven’t faced this situation since none of the journals I’m interested in charge fees, but many editors seem to believe that the fee model is bound to become the norm. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’m interested in hearing what other people think.

Read comments from the Missouri Review here.

Read the opinion of Gian Lombardo, editor of Quale Press, here.

Go here for the blog of Laura Maylene Walter, author of the Poets and Writers article.

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