Digital Digest: Literary Magazines Learning to Surf

Adrian Versteegh
From the January/February 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

With a title like Electric Literature, you’d never guess that just about the only place this Brooklyn, New York–based quarterly doesn’t publish is on the Web. Instead, the editors release each five-story issue via Kindle, Sony Reader, PDF, ePub, iPhone, iPad, and print on demand, leveraging along the way nearly every possible social-networking and multimedia outlet, from Facebook and blogs to audiobooks and viral videos. In a memoir-cum-manifesto penned recently for Publishers Weekly, cofounder Andy Hunter laid out a strategy of aggressive risk taking, calling on literary magazines to adapt or perish. “Last year in Samoa,” he writes, “a group of surfers survived a devastating tsunami by riding the wave. To us, the digitizing of content is also a tsunami, and no seawall of any height or thickness will protect the entrenched.”

Lovers of the literary object can take some comfort from an unlikely source: Wired editor Chris Anderson, who recently suggested that the digital shift could prompt a renaissance in artisanal publishing.

The question Hunter and his coeditor, Scott Lindenbaum, are tackling has bedeviled periodicals of all stripes ever since the inexorability of the digital shift began to make itself felt: How can publishers ensure a market for good writing in a medium that has accustomed readers to free content? Consumer magazines have essayed a variety of (usually abortive) approaches, with Esquire releasing an enhanced, Webcam-activated edition last year and Popular Science becoming the first title available as an iPad app through the Bonnier Mag+ platform last spring (with six- and twelve-issue subscription plans in the works). And after more than a year of delays, Next Issue Media, a coalition comprising Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., and Time, Inc., is set to launch what reports are calling a “Hulu for magazines” early this year.

Similar to the Bonnier Mag+ platform, Next Issue Media’s “digital storefront” will allow publishers to make their titles available as apps on Android devices. But while overall magazine readership has been on the rise and advertising revenue has rebounded somewhat, after a dismal 2009, total sales—particularly at newsstands—have plummeted nearly 25 percent over the last two years, according to industry analyst Baird Davis. Moreover, initial figures on periodical sales through the iPad have been lackluster, leaving publishers uncertain about whether digital ventures can ever fill the financial gap left by consumers’ retreat from print.

Commercial magazines are one thing, but how can literary journals, which are typically at a disadvantage in terms of budget and advertising, expect to fare as the digital sphere expands? In many respects, new media have been a boon to independent publishers, who can now sidestep old-school printing and distribution costs by using print-on-demand platforms such as Issuu or the Hewlett Packard–backed MagCloud.

Social networking has meant new channels for the marketing and promotional duties that now take up the bulk of many indie publishers’ time, while collaborative literary sites such as Fictionaut, which lets users share work and form groups (and where Electric Literature, predictably, enjoys a large following), allow the formation of communities willing to foster emerging authors. Given the expenses associated with print and facing a storm of recent cuts to the universities and nonprofits that typically provide their funding, some publications are going entirely digital, as TriQuarterly, Northwestern’s half-century-old literary magazine, did—to great clamor—last summer. “I think more and more of us will likely migrate from print to online,” Colorado Review editor Stephanie G’Schwind told the Huffington Post at the time.

But, as experiments with newspaper “pay walls” have shown, being online raises its own set of difficulties. While most publications are happy—or at least recognize the demand—to make some of their content available for free (as the Paris Review did this past October when it posted the archives of its legendary interview series), the long-term place of periodicals in literary culture is dependent upon their economic viability.

Uncertainty is breeding innovation along with anxiety. London-based Shortlist Press, for example, which launched in December, sells single short stories at ninety-nine pence a pop, iTunes-style (akin to a digital-only version of Brooklyn-based One Story), and shares the profits with authors. Narrative, a primarily online magazine with extensive multimedia content, is able to pay its contributors comparatively well partly on account of the hefty submission fees it charges (twenty dollars for prose; fifteen dollars for up to five poems). “Two years ago, people had very little sense of what digital publishing meant, and now everyone’s scrambling,” coeditor Tom Jenks told PBS MediaShift. “It will probably be a decade or so before there’s a clearly recognized model for literary publishing the way there used to be.”

Among the more robust journals, the digital model that does seem to be emerging involves a crucial shift in how the transaction between publisher and consumer is conceptualized. Less willing simply to pay for content, readers are instead buying into a literary service—a relationship emblematized by the app. Whether on the iPhone, iPad, Android, or the host of other reading platforms currently competing for attention, the app opens a two-way portal between reader and magazine, allowing feedback, updates, cross-promotion, and social networking.

Ironically, it was McSweeney’s—best known lately for its advocacy of traditional print—that was among the first out of the gate, offering a subscription-based iPhone app in fall 2009. Both Narrative and Electric Literature offer free apps, with the latter billing its entry as the “first multimedia literary magazine for the iPad.” In the fall, the journal also launched Electric Publisher, a service that works with writers and indie presses (Melville House and Kaya Press have already signed on) to build custom apps. Stephen Elliott, author of the memoir The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf, 2009), was an early adopter. “As an author, I want you to have the best experience,” Elliott told the New York Times. “People want to talk about the books they are reading with other people. Why, with everything we know, wouldn’t you include a chat room with your e-book?”

Of course, there are plenty who could offer arguments as to precisely why one wouldn’t do such a thing, and, for the time being, the literary app remains a digital supplement to the thing itself. “For me, if there’s a piece of writing that I care about, I want to have the physical object,” Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, told the Los Angeles Times early last year. “There’s a permanence to it, a different kind of permanence than if you find it on a Web site.”

Lovers of the literary object can take some comfort from an unlikely source: Wired editor Chris Anderson, who recently suggested in an interview with Business Insider that the digital shift could prompt a renaissance in artisanal publishing. “Maybe the quality goes up,” he said, “so that as print gets smaller print gets better, and then print becomes kind of a beautiful artifact for those who value just that.”

The hard facts, though, suggest that the Electric Literature crowd could be on the mark with their tsunami analogy. By the time this article goes to print, Apple is expected to have sold more than 10 million iPads, while smartphone sales, according to a report from the Gartner research firm, will have nearly doubled over the past year. Literary magazines have historically been vital as spaces for new writers to emerge, to hone their craft, and to develop a following. But as we continue to move more and more of our socializing, our purchasing, and, for better or worse, our reading onto the screen, periodicals—whether they maintain a print presence or not—will need to start learning how to surf.

Adrian Versteegh is a Henry MacCracken fellow at New York University and the editor-at-large of Anamesa.