The Challenge Faced by High-Quality Literary Journals

high quality literary journal

Over the last year, I have consulted with a range of literary journals at very different stages of development. Here’s a description of three of them:

  • One of the journals is a household name in the literary community with lots of subscribers—a strong brand in an enviable position.
  • Another has been around for several years and has established a good reputation. It’s doing well compared to its peers.
  • And the third has just released its first issue and is in the beginning stages of establishing a readership. It already has an admirable roster of contributors.

Each journal has a print subscription available, combined with some online offerings. They do things “right” and treat writers well. They engage with the literary community online. And they all suffer from the same problem: They distinguish themselves based on delivering high-quality literature.

Today, our problem is not finding more great things to read. It’s finding time to read the great many wonderful things that are published. If I stopped acquiring new reading material tomorrow—if I canceled all my subscriptions and turned off the internet—it would take years before I exhausted my supply of high-quality literature. Of course, this speaks to my many years of acquisition and the particular demographic I belong to, but the primary audience for high-quality literary journals is more similar to me than not.

Yet literary journals still operate and market themselves as if we were all starved for high-quality literature. Here’s a sampling of statements from a few well-known journals that describe what they publish or who they publish for:

  • Has a long tradition of cultivating emerging talent
  • Has published many great writers
  • For the many passionate readers
  • Publishes quality literature
  • Devoted to nurturing, publishing, and celebrating the best in contemporary writing
  • Finds and publishes the very best writers

These journals often take pains to emphasize, “Hey, we publish great writers, but we also publish undiscovered writers, too!” That’s really not any more distinctive than a dedication to high-quality literature. It’s just high-quality literature from a different source, while appearing perhaps more gracious, enlightened, or hard working. We look through our slush!

The result: These journals become indistinguishable from one another. To be fair, some have been around for decades and established their missions during a very different era. But now that we’re in a transformed publishing landscape, how many journals have meaningfully revisited what they do, why they do it, or who they’re doing it for? When they consider what distinguishes them from their peers, what is their answer? For many I’ve talked to, the answer is to reiterate “quality” and how that quality gets sourced. (For a publishing operation that has considered these questions meaningfully, take a look at this post from Coffee House Press.)

The bald truth is that no one cares about a high-quality literary journal, just as they don’t care about high-quality writing, as pointed out in this excellent piece by Hamilton Nolan:

Many writers believe that our brilliant writing will naturally create its own audience. The moving power of our words, the clarity and meaning of our reporting, the brilliance of our wit, the counterintuitive nature of our insights, the elegance with which we sum up the world’s problems; these things, we imagine, will leave the universe no choice but to conjure up an audience for us each day.

The problem is that nobody ever bothers to inform the audience. In fact, this imaginary Universal Law of Writing—“Make something great and the readers will come”—is false. … The audience for quality prestige content is small. Even smaller than the actual output of quality prestige content…

At the 2017 AWP, I sat on a panel about money and transparency, and someone in the audience asked how they could turn a publication based on volunteerism and free contributions into one that paid staff and writers. The short answer is you can’t unless readers are willing to pay and/or someone is willing to gift you into existence (e.g., grants or institutional support). There is no magic solution or sustainable model for the garden-variety “high-quality” literary journal. And whether readers pay you or patrons do, everyone looks for something deserving of their dollars, that has some kind of unique or inspiring place in the market, something beyond “quality.”

There is no meaningful audience to which you can market high-quality writing, at least outside of the AWP Bookfair. There may be a meaningful audience for high-quality writing that’s focused on a particular issue, cause, or movement. Or a publication that is unfailingly focused on promoting and celebrating a specific style of writing. (I remember fondly The Formalist, an erstwhile poetry journal that published only formal poetry.) But a publication that wishes to grow and flourish by positioning itself as a high-quality literary journal? As Nolan says, “I am here to tell you that it will not work.”

Posted in Publishing Industry.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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20 Comments on "The Challenge Faced by High-Quality Literary Journals"

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Sandra J. Kachurek

Rather than putting money into an editor, one should consider a publicist?

Philippa Rees

I did, supposedly the best in London, and they took the entire budget which would have paid for targeted advertising, free review copies, and concealed the one circumstance that a publicist should have run with- that I was, and had to be, self published! Net result nada. An enthusiastic agent will do more than any publicist for they need the money too.

Lynne Spreen

Stunning. Refreshing. True.

Carmen Amato
Very true on all counts, yet I am surprised at the number of calls for submission I see from small and/or start-up literary journals. None offer payment, of course. Many have an esoteric focus that naturally limits both the submission pool and audience. Perhaps the calls I am seeing are for online-only journals which don’t have print overhead costs to consider. Yet Jane nails it with the line “There is no meaningful audience to which you can market high-quality writing.” Marketing with impact is nearly all genre-specific. Maybe if you want to have a high quality literary journal, and make… Read more »
Cheryl

Jane: I am on the board of a small literary journal that just celebrated ten years. We have published some extraordinary work. Respectfully, is your message to me and to the other hard working editors to close down? Is there really no place for us among readers and writers? Thank you.

Jenny Bhatt
I hear ya. I am one of those writers who has submitted to various literary journals and been published in a few of them too. Though I’m not in the top names like The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, et al, I have been glad of the opportunities despite the limited readership. For one, as an “emerging writer,” it helps to know there are a few other people who consider my writing good enough to share with the world. For another, just the entire process of getting a piece out there into the world is good practice and experience. As… Read more »
Susan Weidener

How true. This is the truth of the changing publishing landscape. I’m thinking you wouldn’t have written this column even a year ago. Another reason we in the indie publishing movement keep publishing … to get the work out and let the chips fall where they may.

Mary Langer Thompson
I’m glad someone is finally talking about this. As someone who has long believed that to be in a “juried” magazine or recognized “literary” magazine, is what one should aim for, and who has made it into some, it has ceased to be fun. I now know a lot of journals with editors who are open to experimental forms and take a wide range of selections because they are moved by them and want to share. Many are community based and meet often in person and have fun together. My own writing club, The California Writers Club, has evolved to… Read more »
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