Okla Elliott: Since one of my goals for doing this editors forum is to promote literary journals and hopefully garner subscriptions for the journals involved here and others, could you discuss what you think editors and writers could be doing to increase readership of literary journals? For example, one tactic I’ve used is to require workshop students to subscribe to one journal from a list of ten or so; the idea being that it both educates them as to what is out there in terms of publishing options and it promotes the habit of supporting an industry they eventually want to support them. What else can/should we be doing?
Aaron Burch: I really like the idea of encouraging and/or requiring journal subscriptions from students, but maybe that’s just because I have a couple people doing that in their classes right now and so I have just this week been the benefactor of a good number of new subscriptions. But, really, why not use some of that student money that would go toward a textbook anyway to support a journal or two and, in the process, it teaches them about what is out there, both as readers and writers. I am really just repeating what you said but, yeah, I like it.
What else? I don’t know. I’m often too overwhelmed with everything else in my life to think of new ideas to get the journal out there and, as often as not, I’m happy that this thing that I work on while bored in my apartment, in between Netflixing episodes of Dexter and Mad Men, gets out there at all. But if anyone has any big ideas, I’m all for listening to them, stealing them, and then using them for my own and Hobart‘s benefit…
Anne McPeak: Requiring students to subscribe to literary magazines is an excellent way to build good habits, for sure. But I’d also like to see more reaching out to readers who are not writers, or not necessarily interested in publishing in the journals they subscribe to. I think one of the biggest challenges for literary magazines is expanding our audiences beyond the usual suspects. Surely there are readers out there who have never seen a literary magazine, but would be really intrigued if they did. I was reading a copy of the Harvard Review on a New Jersey Path train once, and a couple followed me outside to ask me about it. They had been debating whether it was a book or a magazine—and they were surprised to learn what a literary magazine was, but seemed genuinely pleased by the information. Those are the people I’d like to spend some time reaching out to; the question is how, of course. We table at the Brooklyn Book Festival every year, which attracts 20,000 people who are interested in books, but don’t necessarily know about literary magazines. We also aim to distribute to stores that sell more than books—boutiques and galleries, for example—so that we diversify the group of people seeing us as much as possible.
This reminds me of Raymond’s description of the salons NYQ has been organizing. Much of what I do on a day-to-day basis turns out to be marketing, and the more inventively and honestly and generously I can approach this task, the better. I love that the NYQ salons are as much about community-building as they are about donating. If literary publishers want to keep publishing, we need financial support, and ideally, that goes hand in hand with building a broad community that is interested in, and believes in, what we publish.
Jacob Knabb: Students being required to subscribe is a nice thing and it is money that goes to a good thing. (That said, ACM hasn’t benefited from that yet. Maybe some folks out there could make their students buy the new Bestiary issue! We need the money, baby!) Textbooks are insanely expensive and after one or two workshops or lit courses, most students have an anthology with the baseball cards of American letters anyway. Why keep reshuffling the deck and paying 60 bucks a pop to do so?
Raymond’s salon idea is a great one and something I’ve been doing on my own already (though it didn’t occur to me to do it as ACM and to charge a small fee for attendees). This is a grand idea. Hosting a reading series can also be a great plan. In a city like Chicago there are tons of reading series, but this isn’t the case everywhere, and even in Chicago there are new and awesome series starting up all of the time.
But there are other, cooler ways to do it. Featherproof Books publishes free mini-books. Go to the site and check it out if you are not familiar with this concept. It’s very smart and gets them a lot of good mojo. Promotional efforts that also provide free stories and poems, instead of matchbooks and pins. Don’t get me wrong, I love matchbooks and pins, but those mini-books are even cooler. If you have good art and illustrations in your magazine, then I’d encourage people to make small runs of silkscreens. We do this, and it’s a good way of generating some extra funds while also featuring our artists in a larger format. The same can be done with Tee-Shirts. I’ve seen people successfully put together broadsheets with poems or excerpts of content and this has been another goof fundraiser. Some of these ideas require money upfront, but typically at least break even and result in some lovely artifacts and free advertising.
There are probably other, better ideas, but I am drawing a blank at the moment. Being proactive and DIY about things while putting out strong work is the way to go. You know what I think is the most helpful of all, though? Don’t be an asshole. Pompous people, editors with attitudes, and ‘inside scene’ types end up losing a lot more often than they win in the literary world. Writers don’t have time for it, and there is simply too much competition out there to make it feasible.
Ben George: I said earlier that I didn’t think writers should submit their work to a journal unless they had read and enjoyed that journal. This may have indicated that I think all readers of literary journals are writers who want to publish in them. But I didn’t mean to suggest that. While in my experience the readership of literary journals does seem to be frustratingly insular, at Ecotone we do come across readers with no writerly aspirations. And, like Anne, I would love to bring in more readers outside the clique of writing programs. We recently had a little mailing campaign where we sent out gratis copies of our “Evolution” issue to instructors of evolutionary biology, encouraging them to subscribe and to ask their institution’s library to subscribe, and offering their students a discount subscription rate as well. Time will tell whether this was effective. Getting and then maintaining readership is always a struggle with a literary journal. But when you put so much effort into winnowing and then editing and arranging compelling work, why not try to get it to as many readers as possible? I think as an editor you owe this to your contributors. If you don’t care to win more readers, what’s the point of the venture? Assuming your purpose isn’t just to provide one more venue for publish-or-perish teachers on a tenure line.
That said, I used to work as an editor at Tin House, and I can tell you that even the Tin Houses and the Zoetropes of the world are still relying heavily on writers, writing students, and people in publishing for their readerships. They’re just capturing a larger share of the market, to put it in business terms. So don’t forget your base, as they say. In short, yes, I’m in absolute agreement that using literary journals as part of a workshop is a fantastic idea, and Ecotone is working on ways to get the word out to as many students and apprentice writers as we can, and to give them affordable rates. It’s my belief that creating an interactive Web community is crucial to building readership these days, and we have been working for a while on a new site. The goal is to launch it with the next issue, in mid-November. We’ll see if we make it.