From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals

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

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.


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.