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From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals

Senior editor Mary Flinn recalled one of the inspirations for the magazine's foundation, a process that began in 1999: "I remember a comment by Don Lee, then editor of Ploughshares, to the effect that Ploughshares was offering all of its content online because our job—as editors and publishers—was to find as large an audience as possible for the authors that we publish, and the work that we love." In order to maximize the content's reach, Blackbird offers the text of each poem as well as an audio recording. The editors are determined to give their authors not only a wide readership, but also a degree of permanence: "One of our advantages is having the archive available whenever you come to the journal. No hunting for back issues in the back stacks," Flinn says.

The notion that Web-based journals are easily launched—and are therefore easily abandoned—is central to the reservations of many writers. No one wants her poem or story to be corrupted by spam or broken links. And we've all heard horror stories about a journal that has simply disappeared—and all of its content with it. But is it really any different from a print magazine that folds, leaving all its copies to molder in someone's garage? If your work is solicited by an online journal, consider applying a little top-down pressure for the benefit of all contributors. Before submitting, ask the editors about their plans for preserving past issues, whether it be through long-term domain ownership or a system such as LOCKSS, an initiative of Stanford University that provides libraries with digital preservation tools.

For some writers, the question may be, "Why bother? If there is any disadvantage to publishing online, why not stay in the realm of print?" When I began lining up gigs in support of my first book, Theories of Falling, I thought the most meaningful connections would result from disciplined legwork—the query letter, the complimentary copy, the friendly follow-up e-mail. I quickly realized the process was more like catching eels with your bare hands. Opportunities are slippery little suckers; you're at the mercy of spring breaks, distracted hosts, unspoken quotas. Sure bets fell through. "Maybe" silently drifted into "No."

So when prospects came out of the ether—an invitation to read in Michigan, a nomination to the Georgia poetry circuit—I was shocked. In particular, my work seemed to be finding a toehold among undergraduates. Soon, my curiosity chased after my gratitude. Where were these people encountering the poems? Over and over came the answer: online.

One professor explained that he regularly asked his workshop students to bring in poems found "in the wild." Given that this generation of kids doesn't brush their teeth without Twittering the fact, it's no great surprise that "the wild" is digital. After a third student brought in my work in the space of two years, the professor grew curious.

Reader Comments

  • Jendi Reiter says...

    Great article. As the publisher of a web-only resource (WinningWriters.com) I'm very happy to see online publication getting more respect. The poetry and prose of our contest winners reach 25,000+ subscribers through our e-newsletter; not a lot of print mags can say that. Though I do like the poetry book as an art object, a web presence seems crucial to building readership.

  • LaLoren says...

    A little slow in coming, but I'm glad online is finally getting some recognition. Yes, great publications have been around for well over a decade, and the downside of this is now that the "venerables" are coming online, they will again overshadow those original online only journals that brought respect to the medium. I started editing for my first online publication in 1999, and, yes, back then I still saw publishing online as a second choice. However, about 5 years ago I started working to get all the stories I'd originally published in print that were now sitting in contributor's copies in the back of my closet (with the rest probably in a dump somewhere), published online. Those stories now enjoy ever lasting life and every now and then a complete stranger will e-mail me about having just discovered one of them.

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