11.16.2009

More on the Literary Market

So, now that we've got this growing bubble of publishing outlets, what's going to happen?

First, I think we're going to see a lot of non-subsidized literary magazines start to fold and close up shop. The ones tied to universities will mostly be okay, although if New England Review gets shut out in the cold by Middlebury College, I think that will set a dangerous precedent for peer institutions across the country.

This all comes down to one of the fundamental questions of the free market system: should insolvent literary publications be saved?

Why don't people read literary magazines? I mean normal, average, every day people. Like my parents. Have they become too much like trade magazines to matter to the general public? You can cite the decline of reading on a universal level, but I say poo poo to that. People are not reading less. They're reading other things. In fact, I'd hazard to say that the rise of the internet and its associated technologies has people writing and reading more frequently than anytime before in the last century. Most of us can't do our jobs without our hands on a keyboard anymore, our eyes glued to a screen. We may not be reading Chekov, but we're reading.

If people aren't reading literary magazines, it's for one of the following reasons:
1. The magazines don't interest them/have content they want to read
2. They are not readily accessible to the casual reader and not easily accessible to the more devoted reader
3. They cost more than the consumer believes they are worth
4. There are other more satisfying outlets for reading that are more affordable, more interesting, or more available to the consumer

It kills me to know that we now live in a country that has like 10 different celebrity gossip tabloid magazines, most of which are produced weekly, and knowing this is so because the consumer's appetite for this kind of reading materials hasn't yet been sated.

And yet, there are so many more literary magazines than readers to sustain them. They're dying off every year. The fact of the matter is, most writers, who would constitute the majority of the literary magazine consumer market, would rather look them up online to see sample work so they know what to send in for publication. They may or may not read the copy in which their work appears. They likely do not subscribe after their work appears. Instead, they move on to other magazines and repeat this process.

It's an economy of use, not an economy of sustainability. Are literary magazines the writer's fossil fuels?

On top of everything else, the literary magazine is a disposeable/non recyclable commodity. That means as soon as it has been consumed or reaches its "expiration date," its relevance ends and it is thrown away or, in many cases, the covers are torn off and sent back to the distributor to prove no one bought them.

From my perspective, what the literary magazine needs to do to stay competitive is:

1. Do it differently. I think magazines that niche themselves are better off than the "everything to everyone" magazines. Tin House and Passager are good examples of this, as is the print version of MiPOESIAS, with its huge glossy pages dominated by photography. It's gorgeous.

2. Do it cooler. Whenever a technological advance democratizes the means of production of something, the outmoded way becomes a form of fine art (like letterpress printing, for example--formerly the norm, now an art form). So magazines like Ninth Letter really up the ante on quality and innovation in design. I say that's a good call. Another great example is the print version of spork, which was community-made, hand-bound, and beautiful.

3. Do it smarter. American Poetry Review seems to understand the temporary nature of its work, and prints its issues on newsprint, which I'm sure saves buckets of money each year.

What are some other ways lit mags can stay solvent and/or relevant today...?

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know I've been thinking about these two posts for weeks. You've really articulated ideas I've been thinking about since I was introduced to the MiPOesias trio of mags and Ouroboros Review this past year. I can't help but wonder why more lit mags don't go this route with POD services which would give them both an electronic and print option (and beautiful print options at that) and allow for greater access and audience.

    Also, a story: I bought kindles for our reception areas at my day job and have moved some of our print subscriptions for newspapers and The New Yorker over to the kindles. Guests love it, in part because of the novelty of getting to play with a kindle, and I love it for the cheaper subscription rates and no recycling to take care of! I find myself drawing a line as to what I can tolerate on an electronic reader (more ephemeral things like magazines and newspapers) vs. books which I still want as an object with all its sensory pleasures. I wonder if lit mags will venture into kindle territory?

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