Thursday, May 14, 2009

How are literary journals like other magazines?

One of my freelance editorial jobs is to gather and analyze news about the magazine industry for a trade newsletter, so I'm very familiar with (actually too familiar, more like overwhelmed and saddened by) the precarious state of magazines in the U.S. right now. Major titles have folded, more certainly will follow, and many publishers are instituting employee furloughs, shortened workweeks, pay cuts, and making severe reductions to editorial and sales staffs.

It's not quite as simple as online killing print (although of course that's part of it), but a much more complex set of circumstances – too many magazines chasing finite ad dollars; spiraling paper, printing and delivery costs; too-cheap subscriptions; low newsstand sales vs. high print runs; and many other factors. Bottom line, magazines need to find a better business model.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised to hear that the excellent literary journal The New England Review, published by Middlebury College, is facing the possibility of folding unless the journal can figure out a new way to fund their existence. We expect our literary journals to be more or less protected from the pressures consumer magazines face, but the recession isn't playing favorites.

Most lit journals are almost wholly dependent on university funding and/or grant support, and colleges are apparently now taking a harder look at their journals. Are they seeing only numbers rather than the value these books add to the literary world at large (and in many cases, to the prestige of their graduate writing programs)? For more about the NER's plight and that journal's intrinsic worth to Middlebury, see this thoughtful article in Inside Higher Ed.

I have subscriptions to only five literary journals – three of which exclusively publish creative nonfiction. Since I'd like to help support other journals, I've made it a practice to buy a copy of any issue in which a writer friend is published. It's not enough, but it's what I can afford and it assures that a supply of quality literary work moves through my house on a fairly regular basis.

I don't have any answers really for how literary journals can pay their own way. Publishing online only? Aggressively seeking private philanthropic underwriting? Throwing a rent party? Who knows. Perhaps, like in the consumer magazine market, there are just too many journals…or, maybe not enough. Maybe some new business model will emerge. I only know that eventually, it's readers, and supporters of the arts of all kind, and not only writers, who will suffer if titles like the New England Review don't survive.

Speaking of literary journals, two years ago, I had a really terrific Saturday in Manhattan meeting up with a visiting Canadian writer friend, on a gorgeous early summer day. We attended a group reading by editors and authors from a varied group of lit journals at the main branch of the NYC library (and then talked over a tasty lunch outdoors in adjacent Bryant Park).

The occasion was the Annual Lit Mag Marathon Weekend, which is scheduled this year for June 9 and 10. There will be numerous readings at the library, and for those who have never been inside this amazingly beautiful building, it's worth the trip just to walk through it -- slowly. Rounding out the event is a Literary Magazine Fair downtown at Housing Works Used Book Café, where it's going to be possible to leave with bulging bags of lit mags (price tag: $2 each) and still have money left over for a New York City-priced meal. Many editors will be hanging about at the shop, too, ready to chat.

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