The Web now features a wealth of high-quality literary publications, with more than 300 online and seemingly more debuting with each passing month. Yet even with a decade of documented success, the merits of online publishing are still debated in some circles. Writers are often ill informed on the opportunities such publications can offer both the emerging and established author.
Here’s a look at some of the issues and potential benefits for writers.
More readers for your work
Melvin Sterne is the former publisher of one of the early online publications, Carve Magazine, but he’s a writer, too, who has published numerous works on the Web. “I have received dozens, if not a hundred, e-mails from people who read my work in online magazines. I have received one who read my work in print magazines,” he says. “I know that my online work is read, while my print work (in some pretty good literary magazines) is sitting in a dusty box in a closet in some English department office somewhere.”
Part of understanding the potential of online publication requires the writer to think like a publisher. After two decades that, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, saw a steady decline in literary readership, and during which hundreds of print publications found it harder and harder to financially sustain their endeavors, the Web offered would-be literary publishers two vital benefits: low costs and large readership.
Of the nearly 20 editors I interviewed for this article, almost all identified the low cost of online publication as an integral reason why they chose that option. When my colleagues and I started failbetter.com, finances were a factor not because we didn’t have the money (though we didn’t), but rather because we had seen several of our fellow editors start up print magazines, only to go belly up after an issue or two. This seemed like such a waste, not only in terms of money, but also for the poor writers they had published whose work was soon relegated to the used-bookstore bins (or worse yet, the trash). For us, it wasn’t merely a question of money, but of longevity and impact.
Michael Neff, the recognized “granddaddy” in the world of online literary publications, is editor-in-chief of what has become the online Mecca of literary publications, Web del Sol. “My decision to place literary journals online,” he says, “was a response to superstore economics and the need for journals to obtain more visibility.” The decline in independent bookstores and the rise of the superstore chains corresponded with a drop in both sales and selection of most lit-mag offerings. As evidence of this trend, Bernhard DeBoer, one of the most important distributors of literary magazines in the country, announced last summer that it was closing its doors after 60 years in business.
In Neff’s mind, the Web could counteract the near monopoly of superstores and their relative unwillingness to promote literary journals. In so doing, online magazines found their second, and perhaps more important, justification—the ability to find and sustain a new international readership.
Typically, even the most respected literary print journals have a readership of about 3,000. With the Web, the newest of online publications can dwarf such readership figures in a matter of a few years. In its first five years, failbetter.com saw its readership grow from 5,000 an issue to more than 50,000.
It should be noted that other online publications claim much larger readerships, and that there are many ways to both interpret and misinterpret the size of a Web audience. Nevertheless, the potential for a much larger audience via the Web is not debated.
If you’re looking for a practical case study, then consider the fine literary publication Blackbird. In November 2006, Blackbird published a previously unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath—an event that not only drew much international attention in the news media, but also increased visits for that issue by nearly 200,000. Think of what this meant for both the established authors as well as the emerging writers who had the good fortune to appear in that issue.
Many online publishers pay no heed to how they’re accepted by the traditional sectors of the literary realm, valuing instead the chance to get better readership. “Fortunately, we are largely unaware of the literary establishment,” says Eli Horowitz, publisher of McSweeney’s, which puts out perhaps the most widely read literary magazine online, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. For Horowitz, the key factor in Web publication is that it “can get you a lot more readers, which seems more important anyway.” And perhaps he’s right.
While some online magazines pay their authors, most do not. Truth be told, this is not much different than most print literary publications, unless you consider $50 and/or free copies fair payment. If you’re writing a thriller in hopes of a big payday, online magazines are likely not for you (nor are traditional literary print mags, for that matter). But if your chief concern is simply to get your work out there, then I strongly suggest you take advantage of what online publication has to offer: readers.
An openness to new voices
Because they are not beholden to the dollar, online publications are quite receptive to works by new writers. In drawing a distinction between McSweeney’s print publications and its online sibling, Horowitz admits, “In principle, the print journal is just as open to new writers. But it’s true that the sheer volume of content on our site presents lots of opportunities to get involved.” Lower costs can mean literary opportunity. “A great deal of the decision [to go online] was governed by costs,” admits Words Without Borders editor Dedi Felman. “Without the printing and distribution costs of traditional small-mag publishing, we were able to devote our energies to where we most wanted to devote them.” And for her, those energies were focused on the discovery and translation of exciting global voices.
An openness to new forms
The Web offers something for everyone when it comes to literary publishing, whether it’s intriguing hypertext on Drunken Boat, the collaboration of poetry and visual art in Born Magazine, or the audio adventures of Bound Off and other more multimedia-conscious publications. MiPOesias offers its readers podcasts and, in effect, their own literary radio programming.
Moreover, the technical innovation of the Web has also had an impact on the kind of work that gets published. For instance, the popularity of short shorts and/or flash fiction (works of 1,000 words or less) can easily be attributed to the medium.
An openness to longer work
Even if you are the more traditional literary writer spending your days working on that long novel or 200-page prose poem, the online world wants you, too! With no print-run costs to consider and the public’s ever-increasing Web literacy, what was once a medium for shorter works has now decidedly taken advantage of publishing longer ones.
One online journal, The King’s English, says it specializes in “unpopular lengths” in part because “there’s a lot of vital, eye-popping writing out there being overlooked only because it takes more than 10 minutes to read but it can’t be sold as a book.” (And, the journal adds, it also publishes shorter forms “because the brutal fact is that much of the best writing is overlooked every day of the year, regardless of length.”) The journal’s editor/founder, Benjamin Chambers, told me, “The King’s English was created online because it focuses on publishing novellas and long essays, which isn’t at all economical in print.
This notion was true for failbetter.com as well. In recent years, we noticed that many of the longer, self-contained novel excerpts we published were the most read. (Yes, another advantage of online publication is that we can tell which works are being read the most.) This made us not only inclined to publish longer works, but also provided another incentive for both emerging and established writers to publish online. After all, what will mean more to authors? Getting paid a nominal honorarium by a poorly distributed print publication for publishing their story, poem or novel excerpt, or having a multitude of readers read their writing online and likely purchase the related book thanks to the handy Powell’s Books or Amazon.com link that appears alongside their work?
Unlimited shelf life
The would-be submitter should also note the longer-lasting impact of Web publication. Face it: Other than extreme enthusiasts and collectors, many readers tend to toss magazines after a short period of time (and much of the issue’s content goes unread!). In contrast, stories published on the Web remain available and continue to find new readers. I am often amazed to find out that on a particular day, a story that failbetter.com published 10 issues ago inexplicably becomes the most widely read work of the week. For the Web, there’s no such thing as a backlist; all the work, for every issue, remains in the forefront.
Reading a story on a screen
Even as the number of Web publications grew, there remained the simple concern involving the Web as a medium for reading literature. Don Lee, the former longtime editor of Ploughshares, once held the typical print reaction: “I was skeptical that purely online literary magazines could have any lasting impact. I didn’t know if readers would be willing to read fiction, in particular, on the screen. ... It all felt so ephemeral.”This was a valid point on many levels. All editors like to hold books and magazines in their hands and read them, and there was some understandable anxiety about the readability of a computer screen. And yet, in the span of just a few years, more and more people got used to reading off the screen.
David Lynn, editor of one of the most respected literary print journals, The Kenyon Review, confides that “readers are increasingly turning away from print in getting all their information and entertainment.” Blackbird’s Greg Donovan helps translate this sentiment into its more literary implication: “Folks today can find their way to the great artists of literature, both contemporary and historic, a lot faster and more readily because of the computer and the Internet. Crucially, they are also far more likely to stumble onto it, which is perhaps the best way to encounter the writing and writers you will really love.”
How long will it be around?
In the early days of online literary journals, there was a long-term question of preservation. While a book could live forever on the shelf, some wondered about the Web’s lasting impact and availability. There were several reputable online pubs (literary and otherwise) that simply disappeared without a trace after publishing several years. After all, work on paper can survive for millennia, while information stored digitally today may not be recoverable next week. What did this mean for the hapless writer whose work was no longer accessible?
Fortunately, folks at Stanford University came up with a plan. It wasn’t just literary journals that were publishing on the Web, but an increasing number of scientific and medical journals. “As a result,” we’re told, “academic libraries were faced with the urgent problem of creating and maintaining digital collections with the staying power of traditional hard-copy books and journals.” The LOCKSS Program (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) provided the answer. LOCKSS is open-source software that 185 libraries now use to digitally preserve Web publications, creating low-cost, accessible copies of Web-based content as it is published.
The issue of literary respectability
The perception of online literary publication has changed greatly since the days of the first recognized online journal, Intertext, which appeared in 1991. And yet, some segments of the old literary guard still remain suspicious of the medium’s merit. Fortunately, such folks are increasingly in the minority.
“I’d say the respect for literary journals is far greater than it was in the mid-’90s,” Neff declares. “However, there is still a snobbery, if you will, a territorial, reactionary culture among the print literati that see the e-journals as a threat, and express this by means of dismissive words and gestures.”
We’ve already discussed two issues that initially worked against the merits of online publishing—the readability of the computer screen and the seemingly temporary nature of Web publication. There were two other issues as well—the inexpensive nature of the medium and the acceptance of online publications as, well…publications.
In a weird way, the cost advantage of online publication worked against it. “It’s far easier and cheaper to put together an online mag than create a print one,” admits Scott Esposito, editor of The Quarterly Conversation. Taking that point a step further, SNReview’s Joseph Conlin surmises, “The price of any product alters perception of the product.” Thus, a common argument made against online publication: If it was free for readers, how good could it be?
Establishing a track record of publishing solid literary work addressed this concern. “Online literary publishing is now being seen as having the potential to be a serious, legitimate and professional enterprise, and even the most well-known and well-established authors are now becoming comfortable with online publishing,” says Blackbird’s Donovan. Free or not, Web publication has featured quite an impressive list of authors. Look online and you will find original work by some of last year’s National Book Award finalists (Jim Shepard and Ellen Bryant Voigt); recent Pulitzer winners (Natasha Trethewey and Claudia Emerson); Booker Prize awardees (Roddy Doyle); and many other acclaimed literary voices.
“Ten years ago, even five years ago, the quality of material published online tended to be unimpressive,” says Leah Browning, editor of Apple Valley Review. “Then suddenly, it started to seem that online journals could be legitimate, respectable places to publish.”
This is the future
If you wanted to track this evolution of acceptability for online journals, all you had to do was simply start listening to their print counterparts. Former Ploughshares editor Lee eventually got over his own initial hesitations about the presence of online journals and now admits, “Overall, I think it’s been great. ... In this shrinking market, the more, the merrier; we need to stop having this us vs. them mentality. There’s wonderful material online, and print people need to pay more attention to it.”
The Kenyon Review’s Lynn goes one step further in his increasing acceptance of online publication: “Initially, I thought the Web would be a good way to promote what we already do—getting the word out more broadly (and cheaply) about KR and our programs. I now believe that Web publication and electronic publication in general will surely be the future of literature."
As long as Lynn remains editor, The Kenyon Review will have a print journal, but the Web presence of the magazine, as well as for most print publications, has increasingly become important as a complement to the print version. Nearly all print publications have a Web presence, and more literary publications are turning completely to the Web. “This is the future,” Lynn says. “Get used to it.”
Thankfully, even the most traditional of literary sectors (those that either hold the purse strings and/or oversee the judges of literary awards) are now getting “used to it.” University tenure reviews for faculty now recognize online publication credits.
So, too, do agents and book publishers. Last summer, I received a thank-you note from a writer failbetter.com had published who landed an agent who saw the story online. Indeed, we get agent queries with some frequency. One writer whose debut story we published received a Lannan Foundation Fellowship (a good gig if you can get it!), and the Oxygen Network contacted us about obtaining TV/movie rights to a story.
More important, for online publishers themselves, traditional funding sources such as the NEA helped confirm the value of e-publication in the eyes of the traditional publishing world. As Words Without Borders editor Felman explains, “Bless the NEA ... and all our private and public donors who have helped us not only survive, but helped legitimize us in the eyes of others."
Then there are the annual award givers, such as the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, which came to recognize online publications.
Thankfully, as an editor at failbetter.com, I can attest to the fact that it’s nice to have a work you’ve published recognized by the likes of the Pushcart people. Indeed, my colleagues and I were elated to learn in 2006 that a poem we had published was included in the Best American series. It should be noted, however, that as of this writing, the annual O. Henry and Best American Fiction anthologies are still hesitant to consider online publications. But given the merger between print and online, as well as the advancements in print-on-demand technology, which enables online publications to offer high-quality print components, I think it is only a matter of time before they do so.
This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.