From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals

Sandra Beasley
From the May/June 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Not long ago a friend of mine gave a reading, after which she was approached by the editor of a prestigious print magazine. Admiring one of the poems she had read, he asked if he might include it in a future issue. She was flattered, but explained that the poem had already been published. He asked where, and she told him: a relatively young journal that publishes twice a year—online.

Today's best online journals offer innovation as well as visibility. Even journals that mimic the conventions of a print format use their Web sites to provide easily accessed, well-organized archives.

"Oh," he said. "Don't worry. That doesn't count."

Most of us share the goal of finding a good home for our work. But where is that home nowadays? Where will our work "count" and have the greatest readership and impact? Creative writers stand at the edge of a digital divide. On one side: the traditions of paper. On the other: the lure of the Internet. As glossy magazines die by the dozen and blogs become increasingly influential, we face the reality that print venues—despite their traditional connotations of prestige, permanence, and physical craft—are rapidly ceding ground to Web-based publishing.

Yet many of us still hesitate to make the leap. "Online journals just seem so evanescent to me," one poet confessed in an e-mail. "They continue to multiply madly, so it's hard to distinguish any from the crowd. Who reads them? Are the editors literate? Are they all just out of MFA programs? I can't defend these suspicions with facts. I feel, privately, as though my work—if published online—would drop into a black hole. I'm no Luddite, but I still hanker for hard copy."

I would have agreed with this sentiment six years ago, when I was just out of graduate school and beginning to submit my work. Online journals were a pale imitation of print, marred by amateurish fonts, garish backgrounds, and the lack of editorial accountability. Even as recently as three years ago, I still would have agreed—online journals were where you sent the misfits, the work that couldn't quite make it into print.

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Digital vs. Print

As one who spent eons in the harness editing print literary magazines (The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Georgia Review) and who was also present and part of the conversation when the online journal Blackbird was being planned, I am very much of the opinion that online publication--perhaps especially for poetry--is an unstoppable force, and one which will do enormous good for the visibility of the art. This article states the case very well. I would add a couple of (to me) interesting facets: I venture to guess that within a relatively short time books of poetry will have a rather different, more diffuse, status than they do now. For quite a long time, the book has been the natural environment of the poem, and I have told students again and again that they don't really see what a poet is doing until they actually read his or her books AS books, more or less as one reads novels. For better or worse, I suspect the book of poetry will shift in its importance, the way the album has shifted its importance in music: albums, or cds, are not gone; but when people can go to iTunes and cherry-pick music song by song, artists cease to think entirely in terms of album-length units. We don't yet have iPoems, but we may in some future. Will that be a bad thing? I don't think so. It will become part of the environment, and the environment will be enriched by being made more complex. Another point, touched on in this article, could be amplified: I think that the archives kept by online publications will become more and more valuable. Countless times I have waded into the warehouse (usually an overstuffed closet) where a "major" literary journal, print mode, keeps its archive. How do you ever find anything in there even if you're physically present? What if the entire catalog of poems, stories, and essays from every literary magazine were available on your computer? That work would continue to live in a way it presently does not; those back issues might actually continue to be read once in awhile. That to me is one enticement to get my own work out there in digital form: people can Google it now, and they will still be Googleing it (or something) 50 years from now.

I'll add two things from my

I'll add two things from my perspective as managing editor at the Kenyon Review--we've also joined the crowd publishing original content online on our website . We're updating biweekly with prose and poetry. We're also concurrently running selected material that appears in the print journal on our online space. So--if you can't afford the hardcopy magazine that you actually manage to find out in the big world, you can still access material that has gone through our editorial process. There were many motives behind the creation of this space--most prominent among them being the simple fact that making exceptional work available to our readers is part of our mission as a non-profit. The web is really, really available. Many of the other reasons we made a move to include online publishing are well articulated in this article. Secondly, the article and TR bring up the conundrum for print journals with a back run--how do you keep all your published material available? What's a responsible way to curate a back run? JSTOR just completed digitizing nearly all 70 years of the KR back run, and have made that available on their website. And yes--you need institutional access to get to that material--most often via a college/university or a library. But we also make yearly individual access available to purchase via our website, at our cost, or paired with a print subscription offer. So: while access is not free, we're also not following a profit-hungry model. And once on the JSTOR site, you can search search search. The pages are scanned as they were printed, so you're seeing a clean digital picture of the actual printed page. Want to find out how many times "pecan pie" has been printed? Easy. (We did it once, in a Peter Taylor story from the Winter 1956 issue.)

Missed messages?

An initial warning went out years ago to the publishing industry. "Go digital, go internet, go forward." Their reply was "go to hell." If publishing is in trouble, they have their self-written epitaph, the economy, and a closed-down, one-mind, one-thought perspective to blame. The industry consistently eliminates subject matter that strays out of their collective, shuttered and towered, main, old-stream consciousness. Why would agents and editors confess and actually brag about their closeness, their sealed society, their thoughts based in and on a dying lifestyle, if not a dying civilization? Get the fuck over it and get on with it, or die, strangled by your own stiff, closed hand in your sealed New York City cloisters. Pomposity and single mindedness doesn't sell on the internet to a very savy drove of young writers who will break away from your publisher's feudalism and initiate a Renaissance of literary freedom without your antiquated systems and your ever so persistent whinning. To the monarchical publishing industry--get over yourselves, morph into something we can respect, catch up, give us something new, or you are on the way out. Second warning complete.

More Than 3 Years

I find it interesting, and sadly telling even today, that Sandra Beasley says that even three years ago online journals were, at least to some degree, suspect. But we must recognize that outstanding poetry--often poetry of a specific context or format related to the journal--has been appearing online for at least a decade.

I think not only of Blackbird and Born Magazine and The Cortland Review, for example, but of A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments (, an online journal publishing a mix of literary work (first and foremost poetry) and technical contributions in each theme-based, twice-yearly issue since 1997. Of course, I'm biased since I'm the founding editor, but my point is that there are a number of long-lived online journals that have been strong, and recognized as such, from the get-go. And by strong I mean both in content and presentation, for both matter greatly.

Thanks, Simmons Buntin

What a wonderful article. As

What a wonderful article. As the editor of an web magazine, I’m excited to see more conversation bubbling up around the merits of publishing online. One thought I’d like to add: the possibilities of inexpensive media production (sound and video recording, digital photography, flash-based link matrices) mean that new writing is not the only kind of content online journals make available. Many online magazines feature podcasts of interviews with writers, videos of live readings, images of manuscripts-in-progress, photo essays that incorporate text, video poems that pair sound and image—the list goes on and on. Such media encourages conversation around the work and offers insight into the creative process. The online experience doesn’t stop there. As Sandra Beasley points out, readers of online publications may share favorite pieces with Twitter followers (it was through Twitter that I found this article), post a link to their Facebook profiles, or seek out a writer on Goodreads or LibraryThing. The possibility of connecting with others through the sharing of literature on the web is exciting indeed, and online literary journals offer myriad possibilities for such sharing. I’m looking forward to watching them grow. ~Carlin M. Wragg,

A little slow in coming, but

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.

Great article. As the

Great article. As the publisher of a web-only resource ( 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.