July 28, 2011

A Call to the Writers

Our head-honcho Megan started a bit of a fire with her post the other day. She made the not-so-shocking confession in her short essay that running a literary magazine at a profit is impossible -even financial suicide. The conversation has spilled over into other corners of the internets, even on HTML Giant.

There were many arguments raised by the HTML Giant post by Roxanne Gay of Pank, all which need to be answered in good time, but I want to focus on the importance of writers purchasing journals.

First, let’s get one thing straight. If every writer who submitted to Versal purchased a back copy, we would sell out quickly. Hell, we might even be able to get into the black.

In an ideal world, writers should purchase the journals they want their work in. But the reality is that many submitters have not purchased a copy and in most cases, have never read the journal at all.

But this comment is weighted. Writers are not wealthy people. To get published, sometimes you need to simultaneously submit to 20 journals just to get your work looked at. At 10 to 20 bucks a pop, this adds up. It’s probably damn near impossible to buy all those journals on the regular writer’s salary.

In reality, the writers submitting to 20 journals at a time are the serious ones who do buy a journal when they can. The best you can is good enough for sure.

But it is the new writers, the ones not quite established or working hard at their craft, that have to step up. Supporting journals has practical applications for the aspiring writer.

Something I've spoken about briefly on this blog is how engagement with the writing community as a whole is one of the essential components of being a good writer/editor. Although some engagement should be face-to-face -meeting editors and other writers at conferences, going to writer groups, etc- it is also important to engage with the literary journals that publish new writing.

Just as reading the "big" novelists helps shape your writing style during the formative years, reading journals helps refine abilities. Seeing so many variations of the writing craft -how writers engage with material, how they call upon historical stylistic norms and how they make their work subversive- is a learning experience (for any writer, young or old). If there are so many ways to engage with fiction, why feel obligated to adhere to the lessons of the "masters"?

Where do you fit in? How would you know without purchasing journals what is current? Maybe you don't fit in. Maybe you don't want to? These are the questions some journals can answer.

And if we refuse to buy the journals, then we can’t complain when the model needs to change. We, as the writing community, can’t persist in the same way. Governments in financial turmoil are not going to support leftist hobbies (one of the more infuriating comments from Dutch politician Geert Wilders this year).

Journals will never likely have the large following that magazines who also happen to public fiction might have, such as the New Yorker. We can’t expect it. Something has got to give.

I chortled a bit the first time I encountered submission fees. Do we, as writers, ever get paid?

We cry out when we see submission fees, but what is the problem really? Submission fees are are often less than actually buying the journal itself, and goes toward the publication of a journal that you, as the writer, has deemed worthy of having your piece published in. Some journals have even started PAYING their writers with this model, god forbid. Even better, some journals running contests with a entry fee give a journal away with entry. Can a submission model work in the same way?

But maybe part of the journal revolution can come from the writers, who suddenly, one day, all start buying the journals they want to survive. Even better, the writers start handing them out as gifts, shouting from the rooftops how good they are.

Not everyone has to read Jonthan Franzen.

Note: This post poses a lot of questions and half formed thoughts. No definitive arguments are made here. I want your thoughts on what writers can do to further support their favorite journals.


  1. i am an unemployed college graduate looking to get my work published. the only places i have ever been 'published' are online only literary journals. i do not have an MFA. i have probably spent ~100 dollars in my life submitting to journals, and about half that time i haven't even received a rejection letter back that explicitly mentioned my name in it. i love to write. but i can't care about literary journals (especially when the main concern for many is image rather than concept, which you can chalk up to marketability, which you can chalk up to capitalism, etc). how am i supposed to combat this apathy when it is so ingrained in the system and also when I just don't have the money to remain relevant in the community? i feel like i am stuck in a crossroads here, and this blogpost pertains more to grad school writers or people without financial difficulty?

  2. Hey Alex - thanks for asking these questions. The economics of this, or better said perhaps the trade of it, the mercantilism, is just a growing fact for us as a journal, considering rising paper prices (esp. since the recession), rising shipping costs (esp. since the airline crisis), and the inundation of literary journals in the "marketplace". We have to think about these things because we have to pay our printing bills. But we want to continue to remain relevant outside of this context, so we are also at a crossroads.

    Thought you might also like to know that Versal isn't associated with an MFA program, and I think fewer than half of our team has the degree. So obviously we're not hardwired to that system, and though we can't ignore it we have built what we've built completely outside of it - not on purpose, not in response, not as a "point", but simply because I moved to Amsterdam in 2001 and started it here. As one friend of mine put it, Versal was my MFA...

  3. Writers and journals are inter-dependent, not one without the other. We need to support each other, but how?? Journals get too many subs to respond personally, much less supportively; writers can't buy every journal every time they submit.

    Sub fees that are VERY low are legitimate, especially if the writers are paid. It's also important for journals to signal to writers that they're interested in their work even if not publishing a particular piece to let writers realize which journals are worth pursuing and sustain that reciprocal relationship.