What is a Literary Magazine? A Panel Discussion – Part II

In the past 40 years that Columbia Journal has been a publication, there have been several changes within the literary magazine landscape, and these shifts bring up questions around what literary magazines are and what they can be. The student publishers of Columbia Journal, began asking some seemingly basic questions when we were tasked with creating a literary journal of our own: What is a literary magazine? Do they create culture, or reflect it? Can lit mags be revolutionary? To answer these questions, we gathered together four of the editors and publishers whose projects most inspire us: Molly Kleiman of Triple Canopy, Rebecca Wolff of Fence, Alexandra Watson of Apogee, and Mark Krotov of n+1. Here is Part Two of an edited version the conversation that took place on Columbia’s campus on December 12, 2017. Check out Part One here.


Columbia Journal: This is a question mainly for Mark and Rebecca. We want to know a little bit about why are you supporting print publications basically if you can get the same quality content online for free. Talk a little bit about the relationship between print and digital and obviously anyone, feel free to chime in here. And how do these elements work in tandem? How do they fill in the white space left by one another? What is a good working relationship between print and digital?

Mark Krotov:    

A great question. I guess the first thing to say is that just structurally the way that the magazine, the way that our operations are organized, print gets significantly more editorial attention. A web piece, even a really exquisite web piece is likely to be edited at most by two editors, at most a couple rounds each, which is still a lot. Editing is inherently an inefficient process. It just takes so much time, but it’s also the most important process, and we’re committed to it. We have an editorial board, with have two editors in chief, and then a number of editors on the masthead as well. It functions as a collective, so everybody, all the editors decide on print pieces together. Many of them are edited collectively, some of them are written collectively. Just the amount of editorial effort that goes into the print is still larger. It’s always going to be larger. With that put in a way, that’s kind of tautological answer.

More practically, I think like as Rebecca said, print does seem kind of like this anachronistic in some ways, but I think it’s proven to be a really enduring technology. Around 2007, 2008, as the e-readers were actually being launched, there was some kind of conversation around: is a print form already kind of redundant. But in fact, I think in the last few years have shown that there’s still a place for it, there’s still bookstores, there’s still libraries, there’s still people. There’s still thousands of people who are maybe unlikely to read it online or to at least unlikely to read it the same way. I’ve been around the magazine for a long time but only have been in the office for the last year and a half or so. Reading back through the old issues, it’s striking how contemporary they are and how these pieces were and how much they caught. They caught that because it took them a long time to come together. The writing took a long time. The editing took a long time. The rewriting took a long time. The reediting took a long time. The publication took a long time. There was a lot of accretion along with that, but yet because of the production process, because of the editorial process, these pieces are never going to be quite responsive in the same way that all the crap that we’re bombarded with on the internet everyday is responsive.

Online, we’re not producing crap. We’re not even producing hot takes because it takes … An n+1 hot take is still, I think, pretty lukewarm by everybody else’s standards, but even that means our expectations of a web piece are different. It doesn’t have to fulfill the same obligation that history as a print piece does. Any piece that’s in the print, we want these things to be read in 10 years. We want somebody to say this really captured this piece of fiction or this essay really captured the moment.

Whereas for web, of course we want it to last, we hope that it contributes, but it’s not … the weight of expectation is slightly smaller. It also just lets us do weird shit a little more freely than the print magazine does. We publish fiction that maybe a slightly more off-kilter and maybe wouldn’t quite necessarily receive full editorial collective approval. We published print pieces or web pieces that maybe where the authorial is not necessarily aligned as much with the kind of print voice even though those are quite diverse. It’s a different set of expectations. It’s a different timeline.

Rebecca Wolff:

I want to try to respond to this not with my usual response. I’ll get to my usual response, but first, the reasons that I want to try to make Fence more available as a web object, a digital object, have only to do with serving the contributors by making their work more widely available. To that end, our website has been a disaster for about, I don’t know, seven years, ever since my divorce. My ex-husband was my webmaster and when he was out of the picture, I just haven’t found a good way to really engage with the internet. I remember the question as something like, “How are you choosing to use this medium in concordance with the other medium?”

The answer would be I really haven’t put a lot of energy into it because I, as a publisher and an editor and a human being am not that into the internet. I really don’t like it. I don’t use it much. I think it’s bad for people. Those are just my basic premises that I operate in as a human editor or publisher. I try to keep my children off of it all day long. That being said, I totally do get the incredible potentiality or whichever kinds of energy I may be missing out on if Fence isn’t participating in the lighter of the internet. Things you put on the internet… become content. I mean, maybe books are content too. I don’t know. Do books or does print qualify as content or is it just paper with words on it? I don’t know.

Alexandra Watson:

I said before that we’ll publish our tenth print issue. It’s actually our ninth print issue because our fourth issue was digital. Then when we switched to a new website server, we lost the entire issue… so there are trade offs. We had a year long conversation about this because all of our editors are so into the physical object of books… especially the art, the visual art, just translates so much better on paper, and there’s this sort of prestige for the contributor I think too of seeing their work in print. But I would say also that I think the proliferation of online publishing has made it possible for more types of voices to enter the literary landscape. I mean, I’m thinking of poets like Morgan Parker who basically kind of built their literary following through Twitter and through sharing things with small online only publications.

Columbia Journal:

Without directly asking the dad question, “How are you going to make money?”… how is your publication sustained financially? And wherever your cash flow comes from, how do you see that impacting the creative element?

Alexandra W.:

Apogee is a sponsored project of an umbrella organization that has the 501c3 tax status, and that was really a useful thing for us to find out just to not go through the process of actually applying for a 501c3 which is a way that a lot of organizations get their grants and funding from a city or a state or a federal arts funding organizations. As we have a fully volunteer staff and none of us are full-time working to make the journal run, that gave us a way of sort of collecting and making everything line up for tax purposes. I would say here a few things that we’ve considered and then we’ve decided not to do because of the implications of your question about how it might affect the creative content.

One is to charge for submissions. That’s the kind of top thing we have just rejected many times because we believe that even … I mean, a lot of journals will charge maybe a $3 reading fee. We totally understand why, especially if you are hiring people and that’s their job. I mean, you have to pay them somehow. But we’ve always found that the wanted to try to take down as many barriers as possible for our contributors. We haven’t yet had a contest, although that’s something that’s on the horizon, doing contests where you have a guest judge and then you charge for entering into the contest. Some things we have done though are community workshops which we usually do with help from city or state funding commission. These are things that if you’re into starting this kind of thing yourself, these are the things to know.

We do really low cost workshops. All the profit that we get from tuition ends up going into the journal. We sell the copies of the journal. Then we take individual donations. It’s a big way that we are earn our money as well, but I think … We don’t do any ads. We haven’t done any ads yet. We’re not super financially sustainable. We’re just kind of going off the steam of our passion and indignation so …

Mark K.:

I’ll just say briefly, I think that we’re certainly publishing more online then we used to. Publishing more online as opposed to just publishing the print magazine also means paying more writers for more work, so that’s a market shift. But for us, that’s mostly meant just to being more aggressive about subscriptions outreach, being more aggressive about fundraising, like a lot of places we have a yearly fundraiser that takes up a lot of our energy in the fall because it’s a lot of work to put these things on. I think the subscriptions element of it is not necessarily always the most generative and proportioned, but it’s certainly the most important because subscribers, as long as you’re doing enough things, they stick around. They’re less fickle than some of the people who might want to give you money one year and then give to someone else the next year.

Molly Kleiman:

Advertisements don’t populate anywhere in the frame of the piece that we publish. The funding model we have is actually aligns more with a small scale nonprofit arts organization, so we have a board of directors. We also have another giving circle called the publisher’s circle, similar to what like a museum might have. They give us money but do not have any impact at all on what we do. We have these sort of more individual giving streams. A third to a half of our funding comes from foundations, both private and public. As many of you probably know, as everyone here knows, governmental grants make up 5% of our operating budgets. It’s very small. We do have a membership model that’s similar to the NPR model of the today, so everything’s free. But if you like what we do, you can give $3 a month then we’ll send you a tote bag and a book, which is basically a way of upselling and circulating our books. Also, our books, they don’t really make us money. We know it’s going to be a net loss with printed books, but we still care about doing them. As soon as we got our first grant (which was a big one) from the Warhol Foundation, the first thing we did was paid contributors, those starting from issue three. Then later paid ourselves, but what we found is we want to, as we’re part of building a magazine has also been this really interesting and creative process of building the organization.

Rebecca W.:

It’s been an interesting change over the course of Fence. I started it without realizing that starting a small mostly poetry press kind of means that you also are going to become a fundraiser. It took me about 10 years or, well, really 15 years to understand that I really didn’t want to be a fundraiser and that I really just would rather basically shrink Fence than do fundraising as part of my job. Part of the reason that I was able to take so long to notice that is that at the beginning of Fence, the fundraising part of it came ridiculously easily, not because I was doing it but because people are just actually had made a bunch of assumptions about me and Fence at the beginning, namely that I had a lot of money. I think Fence fit very nicely into a kind of a picture of what a literary journal is. There were people who were like, “Oh, I love giving money to literary journals. Let me give some money to you.” I actually had three major donors just approach me at the beginning, so we were able to kind of go on that for quite a while. Then at a certain point it became clear that my job, if I chose to accept it, as the publisher and editor of this literary journal was going to turn into benefits and cultivation. Part of the thing you have to be good at if you’re going to raise funds is articulating your mission in such a way that it speaks to a very, very broad variety of people who may have actually know real contact with what you really perceive your mission to be.

Columbia Journal:

This is a political moment. (Though, I think every moment is a political moment.) But how do you think about your publications as activist and how, especially for Apogee, do you avoid pigeonholing your writers as marginalized or writers of color and just elevate them to just writers?

Alexandra W.:

The question often comes up as what counts as political writing. I mean, just hearing the voices of marginalized communities is already a political act in itself. I think the biggest strategy for avoiding tokenization is having people on your editorial board who are coming from different backgrounds. That’s really, I think, the only way that you can really avoid. I mean, in my experience at least, I’ll tell you a brief anecdote, I mentioned the DAPL series that we did. We actually don’t have any indigenous or First Nations editors on our board. When we put up our call for work, one of the pieces of language that we used in the call had to do with federally recognized tribes or something like that. We actually had someone on Facebook, one of our readers comment and say, this is problematic language because there are many tribes that are not federally recognized that you should still be making this open to them. The person who commented ended up co-editing that series because we engaged her in dialogue.

I think that it can be really easy to get really defensive about issues like that. There was actually an example of this: an online publication published the best of New York writers for the year and all the writers happened to be white. They got really defensive about it when critiqued. They were like, “Well, we take blind submissions so we don’t take into account the identities of our contributors. It has nothing to do with their identities, it’s just our standards for quality ended up aligning with these people somehow.” I think that that’s not the right reaction. I think you should be open to the possibility that you are short-sided in your editorial practices no matter how un-intentioned you might be. It might just be from the kind of values that you’ve been taught are the hallmarks of great literature.

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