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What Should You Do With a Failing Literary Journal?


A previous version of this post was published on April 28, 2015, at JoshSpilker.com.

This question was posted to a literary Facebook group: “I have an ailing college literary journal on my hands – focused on print. Does anyone have tips?”

I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve submitted to literary journals, I’ve been published in literary journals, and I’ve started (and let wither away) a “literary” journal.

Failing literary journal comic by Josh Quick

“The problem with most literary journals is that they’re published to satisfy the people that they’re publishing.” (Illustration by Josh Quick)

There are certainly other journals that are facing a similar predicament. They have the funds, but they aren’t seeing traction. When I’ve been published in a journal, it hasn’t really moved the needle much for me. I’m not sure if I received more fans or readers. The journal never really let me know (I’ll take their silence as “not much happened”).

How can the form be reinvigorated? Is it by putting short stories on paper cups, like Chipotle did? Is it through receipts?  This is definitely an area where fresh thinking is needed.

The problem with most literary journals is that they’re published to satisfy the people that they’re publishing.

If you get published in a journal or an online literary magazine, you’ll probably read your story the day it’s published, check out a couple more, and then never go back to it. The ones that are able to create something different are the ones really engaging readers. Usually, this happens because the journal has a long history (i.e. The Paris Review, New Yorker fiction section) or it has a distinct style (bizarro, theme issues, theme publications).

Yes, people get publishing deals from being in Ploughshares or whatever, but there’s usually another force at work. The people published in those prestigious journals need the publishing credits for tenure and a lot of industry people read those publications. But just being there doesn’t mean that your work will necessarily break out.

If your publication is like what’s described above, then your magazine is not “failing.” So the only option for a “failing publication” in this regard is not to necessarily publish better “work” (though that’s not a bad thing) but it is to create something different and distinctive, in terms of topic or format.

Here’s what I suggested on Facebook:

1. Stop printing more than once per year. You’re burning money this way.

2. Take some of that money and hire a web developer. Create a Reddit-like format where people can “vote” up/down on their favorite stories that your team has selected.

3. Start an email campaign to your list/alumni telling them when a new batch goes up.

4. At the end of the year, package the top 10 to 20 into a print anthology (plus any staff favorites).

5. The End.

My suggestions are inspired by popular websites in the tech world, like RedditProduct Hunt, and Hacker News. They have a simple up/down functionality, and journals that follow this format could easily generate and share stories from user submissions.

The ideas above really boil down to the format and the sharing of content. The topics (dare I say content?) do matter for sharing. McSweeney’s is really good at this. They’ve taken a few outsider concepts (lists, reviews, etc.), and, by giving them a clever spin, are impacting people beyond just literary writers; they may actually be reaching new readers, as well.

That has to be the overall goal – to  reach new readers and not just the typical literary writer crowd. Lit mags and journals have the potential to reach more people – think about all of the writing that is shared across the web – it’s just a matter of finding new approaches to increase the chances of it happening.

What do you think? What should a literary magazine be and how should it operate?


Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable. 

Josh SpilkerJosh Spilker is a writer, blogger and marketer in Nashville, Tennessee. He blogs about books and writing at joshspilker.com