Keeping our heads above water: can the lit mag survive?

The struggle for lit magazines to survive in the 21st century.

by Gabrielle Lawrence, Poetry Reader

“The problem is not whether print will survive, but how literary publishing adapts to a world where to publish something has lost value,” Jane Friedman writes in an article titled “The Future Value of the Literary Publisher” from Literary Publishing in the 21st Century. It’s no secret that the shift from print to digital sent the publishing industry into a crisis, and with literary journals already existing in a vacuum or a “null economy” as scholar and founder of Versal Megan Garrcalls it, there’s no clear view of the future of publishing. In a time where literary magazines are seemingly becoming irrelevant and dying out, why should we still publish? Editors, readers, and writers are losing faith in the power of literary journals, but we recognize it’s value in contributing to the richness of our literary community.

Megan Garr interprets the literary journal economy as an industry dependent upon both capitalism and the gift economy. Capitalism is of course referring to the exchange of gifts and services such as press and postage. The gift economy refers to the exchange of time, content, and recognition on behalf of the authors and the editors with hopes of greater future returns such as exposure.

However due to the imbalance of the industry, our most common circular business model is failing. That is, hoping that sales from magazines and profits from community-run programs will pay for the expenses of the magazine. For journals without external funding from universities, endowments, etc, we’ve seen this model deteriorate over and over again. There just seems to be no money in the literary magazine world anymore; in the publishing world anymore. Now that publishing is effortless thanks to the digital world, it seems as if there’s no esteem in the practice let alone profit to be made. With externally funded magazines competing in the same space as volunteer and donation based magazines, and the failure of the recommended retail price not offsetting the costs of production and distribution, the industry seems “doomed to need something outside of itself to survive” Garr says.

So why do we do we continue to pour our own time, money, and resources into something that continues to unravel? For the good of the literary society? For recognition and reputation? For the sliver of a promise for greater future gain? Both Garr and Friedman suggest we start there, with the questions that mean the most. Discover the why, and build it into a brand. Focus on branding our publications and drawing out a devoted readership. Focusing inward, on our business models and really crunching the numbers. Or banding together and consolidating in an effort to stretch resources and pool our shares of the market. The point is most literary journals are barely staying afloat, as is the publishing industry. Arkana takes its mission seriously, we’re passionate about telling and sharing stories, and we recognize something needs to change. We can start by breaking away from old habits and having more open and honest conversations about our purpose, our finances, our business models, and how to adapt for the rapidly evolving future of publishing.


Gabrielle Lawrence is a poet and writer.  She is pursuing her MFA in poetry at the University of Central Arkansas. Her writing can be found in Gravel Magazine, Words Apart Magazine, The Chaos: Journal of Personal Narrative and West Wind Literary Journal.
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One thought on “Keeping our heads above water: can the lit mag survive?

  1. Thank you for lifting the corner of the carpet even wider. This conundrum you eloquently speak to is true through the art world. If there were a way to consolidate some of the journals without burying their unique characters, that would be a start. Though the model may evince horror, Amazon appears to offer a huge basket of consumables, but after years of sifting, I am still finding obscure little nooks of good writing and reading. Isn’t there a way of bring more to the foreground?

    Like

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