It's the Format: The Problem with Literary Magazines
In reference to the previously mentioned writer's conference I attended, I wish to clarify a few things. First off, One City is a literary magazine that often publishes good material, and I don't intend to knock it. But Joanna Yas's performance was genuinely baffling to me: she went to such lengths to complain that no one bought her magazine and then was so resistant to the idea of changing the format to make it more attractive to readers (Her exact quote, again, was "I'm not necessarily interested in giving the reader exactly what they want.")
To the same question, Charles Valle, editor of Fence magazine made an interesting observation about there not being that much difference between the price-per-unit of thicker and thinner magazines, meaning reducing page counts wouldn't make lower costs enough to be a worthwhile option. While this strikes me as essentially untrue (more on that below), I think it's telling that an editor of this kind of magazine thinks it is. I think it was Yas herself who explained on the panel that one of the reasons literary magazines don't do well with Barnes & Noble is that Barnes & Noble doesn't know what to make of them—they're billed as magazines yet they have the page count (250 pages in the latest issue of n+1 as editor Allison Lorentzon was happy to tell us) and the price tag of an anthology—that is, of a book. Well, it's not just Barnes and Noble that is having this problem. I don't know what these things are supposed to be; I think most other readers don't either. Yet this is the format that most literary magazines—even extremely reputable, famous journals like The Paris Review or Granta—go with. This raises the following question: are they operating under the assumption that this is just the way things are done and there's nothing to be done about it? If that's the case, it would certainly explain the headscratching by one and all that even well known and highly regarded journals are constantly in the red.
People have heard of Open City, people want to be published in Open City, but people do not want to read Open City. Or, perhaps, more accurately, people do not want to buy Open City. Again, this isn't to knock Open City in particular; what's true for Open City is true for almost any literary magazine I could name. Open City just makes a convenient example.
Open City is published three times a year. I have an issue of Open City here, issue 18, titled whimsically, "I Want to Be Your Shoebox." It is 253 pages long. It's list price is $10.
253 pages is a pretty big commitment. After all, I could spend that time reading a 250-page book by Fitzgerald or Faulkner or anything else that I would know was good in advance, rather than material by a bunch of people the vast majority of whom I've never heard of. In fact, to read even a fraction of the reputable literary magazines that come out, say Open City, Fence, n+1, Granta, The Paris Review, Agni, Zoetrope, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, Tin House, and Glimmertrain—each of whom produce three periodicals a year on average—I would need to commit all the time and money I would otherwise spend on the novels and short story collections I normally read.
Which is all to say, let's not kid ourselves. These things look like anthologies, they cost like anthologies, they are anthologies. They're generally anthologies of writers that are mostly unknown, marketed solely by cover-copy that consists of their almost unknown names and little else (there are notable exceptions to this—McSweeney's, for example, has done much to advance the notion of interesting cover copy). The question the editors of these magazines should be asking is not "Why aren't more people buying our magazines?," it's "Why should anyone buy our magazines?" Who would buy them? Who does? Writers considering publication there? Maybe an agent or publisher or editor whose job involves reading these things? Maybe the editors of other literary magazines? Who else? No, really, who?
My point here certainly isn't that literary magazines should stop publishing unknowns. Rather, literary magazines need to require a lower entry cost in time and money to make it easier for readers to take a chance on them. Because that's what we're doing when we buy a magazine of short stories and poetry by writers we've never heard of: taking a chance. The editors of literary magazines need to start recognizing that, stop blaming the readers, and realize whose fault it is that their magazines aren't worth the risk.
But what about Valle's objection regarding price-per-unit? Aren't there some complicated printing numbers that prove that the way literary magazines are published is the only economical way to do it?
Well, what about Cometbus?
Yes, Cometbus, that little glossy zine that costs $2.50 and has been self-published and sold in independent book stores for 20 years. Cometbus came out in a high-quality edition on a regular basis that sold for very little and made at least enough money to keep itself going for two decades. And Cometbus isn't the only one; there are legions of zines out there being printed and sold in the same basic format, small and cheap, most of which have circulation numbers even smaller than literary magazines.
But zines are disreputable, and Barnes and Noble's won't carry them. Okay, what about genre magazines like Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog and Asimov's, which publish pocket sized editions of 100+ pages on newsprint at $4 a pop and emphatically are carried by B&N, Borders and other chain stores?
And what about One-Story, a literary magazine which publishes a single story every month in pamphlet format for $2 each ($21 dollars for a year's subscription), and is the only literary magazine I subscribe to as a result. (May I recommend The Ledge?)
There are clearly other ways to do this. There are clearly other people who are doing them. Which all just serves to reiterate in simpler language what J.F. Quackenbush said yesterday. Instead of complaining about no one reading literary magazines, why aren't the editors of these magazines doing something about it?