Are Literary Journals in Trouble?

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My publishing career started at an undergraduate literary journal, The Evansville Review. When I became editor in 1996, it was the first paid editing job I held.

In no small part due to my fond memories of that time, and my belief in the power of literary journals, I gave up a tenure-track university job to work for one, the Virginia Quarterly Review—which I had read and admired from afar after Ted Genoways transformed it into a cutting-edge, award-winning publication.

I’m no longer at VQR, but the literary publishing community remains important to me, even if it is something of a love-hate relationship. (Literary types remain far too obsessed with and focused on the print artifact, as well as too quick to separate art and business—or believe they must be antithetical to one another.)

Earlier this week, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review published a piece at their site, Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine Is Good. He writes about a staff discussion, where one editor explained to an intern why they wanted writers to keep submitting after getting rejected multiple times:

… [G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. To emphasis this point, she noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

I posted a link to this piece (and quoted it) at my Facebook page, and I did not expect the conversation that ensued. Some comments were positive, but the majority were negative.

“Well, I got tired of banging my head against the same walls in a system that wasn’t working great for me.”

“If you reject my work for years without serious encouragement and some fine tuned explanation of why, there are other fish in the sea.”

“I don’t really understand how his example is relevant or encouraging. It seems more like a what not to do to me, rather than a what to do.”

“Stories moldering in an endless submission queue do no one any good, including the author.”

“I still think I might better spend the next ten years beating water with a stick—at least at the end of that time I’d have toned arms, instead of a publication in a magazine no one is ever going to read.”

“Well, note to editors of Missouri Review: This writer’s going indie!”

“Screw that.”

In the comment thread, I betrayed my bias toward traditional publishing when I mentioned that I found the piece encouraging rather than discouraging. Aren’t we all preaching how writers need to be persistent? That they need to let rejection roll off their backs?

But clearly this wasn’t the only takeaway for the community of writers—some professional and accomplished—that I reach via Facebook. (I should add here that more than 80 people liked the post and 13 shared it at last count, so it’s getting positive attention, too.)

In defense of literary journals, they can only publish a handful of pieces in the span of a year, out of thousands and thousands of submissions. They often operate on a shoestring, are in danger of losing what little funds they have, and mostly spend their time trying to stay afloat and carry out vital functions (like publishing a magazine).

Also, the kind of work that literary journals publish is largely noncommercial—e.g., short fiction, poetry, personal essays. Such work can have little importance or value when it’s published outside of the recognized literary ecosystem. (This is not a value judgment, but an observation.) Anyone submitting to a literary journal who doesn’t understand this from the outset is ignorant of the game that’s being played. While it’s possible to build your reputation through self-publishing, either in print or digital, the literary community highly values editorial selection and “standards,” not self-publishing.

The Little Magazine in Contemporary AmericaI titled this post “Are Literary Journals in Trouble?” because I would never have been able to fathom the response I saw to Nye’s post even five years ago—even though I’ve written essays about this exact problem! I’ll quote from my most recent piece (published in this anthology):

If a publication only reaches a few thousand people at best, then its influence and prestige must far outpace its actual reach to matter to writers and the broader culture. Even if very few read the publication, and it is a failure in commercial respects, people need to have heard of it and equate its name to respectability and exclusivity.

That game is starting to fall apart because, in the digital age, literary journals premised on great literature must now play the exclusivity game even harder, to the point of absurdity, and manufacture what is ultimately a false scarcity. The number of places and opportunities to get published has never been greater; the cost of distributing and publishing work is falling to zero; most writers can get read more widely by publishing themselves online than in print. Literary journals, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves, are often protected far more by legacy and long-standing reputation than by somehow producing the ‘best quality’ literature.

I go on to discuss that literary journals have done little to move beyond their gatekeeping function. Instead of clinging to the scarcity model, they should create more opportunities for publication and engagement, with themselves as the leaders and moderators in the community. When the number of visits to a publication’s submission guidelines page is greater than that of any of its content—but there’s no interaction with those writers, and in fact writers are simply asked to pony up for a subscription—that sets up a dynamic in which the people who should value you come to either hate you or ignore you. And that is exactly what is happening.

Unfortunately, given how some journals can barely keep up with basic operations, I’m not sure how many will be able to experiment with alternative roles, responsibilities, or publishing models.

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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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28 Comments on "Are Literary Journals in Trouble?"

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susieq777
I read Michael’s piece the other day and found it so encouraging. And then, when reading the negative comments, a sense of bewilderment. I don’t think anyone is particularly happy with the state of publishing but really, so many of the comments just sounded bratty. I wanna make money as a writer ad well, rather than spending it. I’m broke, sick and in despair. But do I understand why my novella subscription to Griffith Review costs 50 bucks? Yes, because the judges are writers too and like to be paid. That theyre way less broke than me and I need… Read more »
Author Massimo Marino
We are witness of a (r)evolution in the publishing industry triggered by Amazon and the like. Jeff Bezos has opened the gates and the gatekeepers are looking at each other unsure of what to do. Self-publishing has created a marvelous thing: everyone can publish a book, and establish a one-to-many direct relationship with readers who buy and enjoy the new voices. There’s a terrible monster that haunts the publishing valleys, too: everyone can publish a book, and readers are exposed to the slush pile for the first time visible to the many. Recently, Books-A-Million has declared that its bookstores will… Read more »
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[…] Literary journals have done little to move beyond their gatekeeping function, and cling to a scarcity model that no longer works in the digital age.  […]

Michael La Ronn
Interesting post, Jane. I’ll admit that litmags are the #1 reason I went indie. Sometimes rejection has nothing to do with your story at all. Even professionals and bestsellers still get rejected. Sometimes a story just isn’t the right fit for a magazine. Nothing you can do–just write the next story and move on. Writers should be writing more stories, faster. It’s the best way to improve your craft as a writer, not slowing down and waiting for a magazine to accept you. A magazine might never even acknowledge you. Then what? But I also think that magazines don’t do… Read more »
Author Massimo Marino

I concur. They put themselves in a corner from where it is difficult to escape.

Charlotte King
I completely agree with Michael. I do most of my reading on my Kobo – major magazines included. Writing and publishing are changing fast but not so fast that these litmags should not have caught on by now. I find the entire process a little frustrating. In a very quickly changing world to arrogantly hang on to old processes and antiquated ideas doesn’t seem to be productive OR encouraging for any of us. I believe we can all survive it but we will have to embrace the change and come up with our own “angle”. I am involved with a… Read more »
William Ash
First, lets look at the literary magazine and its focus. It really is a wing of academia. It socioeconomic background of those that run it, I dare say, would be very similar. They don’t make money because for the most part, the people that work for them don’t need the income. And who reads them, or at least gets a copy? But the role of the journal was to engage a wider audience to writing of value. Unfortunately, it is rather insular. It is really just producing and validating the writing of a small in group. I think this is… Read more »
Moco Steinman-Arendsee

“First, lets look at the literary magazine and its focus. It really is a wing of academia. It socioeconomic background of those that run it, I dare say, would be very similar. They don’t make money because for the most part, the people that work for them don’t need the income.”

Wait…. what? People in academia don’t need income? What century do you think this is? In my experience, the people running literary journals are likely to have a second job in order to fund the publication. You know, on top of their work in academia, which pays them poverty wages.

http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/in-plain-sight/poverty-u-many-adjunct-professors-food-stamps-n336596

Lora

Moco, I just want to note that the article only deals with the plight of the part time college instructor, not the entire faculty. Many, if not most, college journals are handled by full time tenured professors who make an excellent salary.

deixis
Lora: you seem to think that 1) the tenured professors do most of the work, and 2) they fund college journals out of their own pockets. Both of these assumptions are flat-out wrong. Also, there are so many journals that have absolutely no college affiliation. The bigger (“bigger”) ones are run as non-profits. Have you tried paying Brooklyn rent while you’re working at a non-profit? I haven’t either, but I can’t imagine it’s easy. (The smaller ones are run by people who are working three or four jobs to finance their art and pay off their student loans. Barista/yoga instructor/adjunct/dog… Read more »
Michelle Robin La (@MichelleRobinLa)
I wonder if online literary magazines will have more pull in the future than print only ones. Brevity and Hippocampus both have active online communities and don’t have a print version. Writers might prefer to be published in a way that makes their work visible to a wider group of readers and more easily shared. River Teeth and Creative Nonfiction are print based, but they share smaller pieces online frequently to keep their audiences engaged. Creative Nonfiction also has active engagement by its readers/contributors on social media. In creating these online communities they provide a meeting place for writers to… Read more »
Anthony Pacheco
There are many dynamics at play here. One is the mechanisms to reach readers underwent fundamental shifts. The money that gets paid to writers has also gone through a fundamental shift. My lowly imprint gets paid by Amazon, Audible and LightningSource directly. Traditional publishers now have to compete for writers and they are doing a terrible job at it. But,as Michael La Ronn and Charlotte touch upon, it’s the readers that have gone through the biggest shift. It’s not that it is inconvenient to leave the Amazon ecosystem (and it is), it’s that there is so, so much good stuff… Read more »
William Ash
Just one other thought. Some literary journals require a fee from the author to be published–a very academic notion. You should not be paying a publisher for the honor of them using your work. In fact, a large number of academic journals are actually for-profit funded by the author. It is a great business model because you don’t actually have to sell to a readership. In the sciences, you also sign over all copyrights to the publisher. What other business get to charge their suppliers for their product, takes all rights for future sales, and then get to bill the… Read more »
debra elramey (@elramey)
Thank you Jane. You made my day with this thought-provoking piece. I spent most of the 80’s and half of the 90’s in the literary cult or clique – even Allen Ginsberg basically called it that in an issue of Partisan Review. Looking back, I realize our snobbery, my friends and I who spent our money on books of stamps and half our time submitting to what we called the “prestigious” litmags. You know the ones well. Back then, anything akin to “vanity” publishing was anathema, i.e. those anthologies and such that published anybody and everybody and had no standards.… Read more »
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[…] In honor of Short Story Month, Benjamin Wallace extolls the short story, and Chuck Wendig gives his take and asks others to share — what storytelling lessons are you learning from what stories? Literary journals offer publishing venues for short stories and poetry, but Jane Friedman wonders are literary journals in trouble? […]

Lisa Roney
Thanks for these thoughts. I will be taking on the editorship of The Florida Review come August, and it has been my main thought that we need drastic change, even though I certainly don’t mean to put down my predecessor’s work. I want to try to greet that future so many have referred to here, and change is very difficult within academic publishing (for a variety of institutional and resource reasons, as well as attitudinal ones). Anyway, this piece provides evidence for me when I go forth the colleagues and administrators to propose some fundamental changes to business as usual.… Read more »
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[…] It’s a misnomer to talk about a business model for print literary journals; they’re nonprofits and continue mostly due to charity and goodwill. Earlier this year, I wrote at length about some of the existential problems now facing them: Are Literary Journals in Trouble? […]

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