Friday, July 29, 2011

Hot Potato: Talking about the Lit. Mag Problem

A conversation that comes up again and again is the death of the printed word. I know, you say, we get it. Well, not enough people are getting literary mags/small press books. Or maybe not the right people.

The latest conversation stems from a post by Megan Garr @ Versal Journal's blog. Versal was named among the "top indie innovators" (November/December 2010) by Poets & Writers and has included work by Alice Notley, Brandon Shimoda, Julie Doxsee, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Noah Eli Gordon (just pulling out names I'm familiar with). Although I haven't read it (so I'm as guilty as anyone), Versal seems like a legitimately awesome magazine. On the blog, Garr makes good points about the nature of lit journals in a "free [capitalist] market," namely that most editors are idealistic and bad at marketing / strategy. We try to work the new media, but with perhaps unrealistic goals, and without physical results (i.e. sales).
Some pull quotes to think about:

"[O]ut of all the Versals that leave this house/my hands/our stock/Amsterdam, only about 30% of those are actually sold. The remaining 70% go to all the expected places, free."

"Last Wednesday, we had the rare opportunity to sit down with 9 upper level strategy consultants to talk about Versal
. They were appalled by some of the cliches we throw around every day. Like, writers are poor. Like, people submit to journals they've never read. Like, bookstores buy the journal at a 40% discount. Like, bookstores don't even buy it, they just take it on consignment."

Sobering, and, I know, far from shocking for anyone associated with small press and indie lit magazines, which is the point of Roxane Gay's post over at HTMLGIANT: Too Many Of Us, Too Much Noise. In it, Gay thinks through some thoughts on the market we're all, for better or worse, in. There is a good conversation brewing in the comments, so please read. The issue, it seems, is a little bit of everything (of course) but there are two concerning points made:
  1. The increasing amount of literary magazines (and books for that matter) in print.
  2. The relatively static audience for those magazines and books (i.e. mostly writers, editors and publishers).
Doesn't take a Wall Street Banker to realize this is unsustainable. For sustainability, either the amount of magazines need to go down, or the audience (customer base) for those magazines needs to increase. If not, you are left with a literary culture that is defined by a large number of rapidly appearing and dissolving magazines and publishers. It's hard not to make a connection with fungus: "The growth of fungi as hyphae on or in solid substrates or as single cells in aquatic environments is adapted for the efficient extraction of nutrients, because these growth forms have high surface area to volume ratios."

I think Literature (with the capital L) doesn't survive if it only derives nutrients from itself; that is attention/support/inspiration from the writing community itself. We all know writing that is too self-referential (often described as "navel-gazing") becomes weak, anemic, and ultimately forgotten. Good writing knows how to mix the author's voice with the outside world. If Literature is fungal in relation to popular culture, it's also infectious. Gay makes a point in her post:

"I have no problem with writers as the primary audience for a magazine because so many people want to be writers."

Although I agree with this (I mean, MFA applications/programs are continuing to grow), are we not just thinning the blood so to speak? I believe that although writers are the main audience for literature magazines, the creative person who is NOT into writing looks at it all and is a bit overwhelmed. Gay senses this as well, and points out that her favorite (and most successful) responses to PANK are face to face at AWP, where she can "put it in their hands and let them browse and ask questions. When something catches their eye, I love being able to talk to a new reader about why I fell in love with that piece." As a bookseller (both formally in an indie bookstore and as a advocate among friends in real life) nothing beats being able to demystify a reader who hasn't engaged with poetry and allow them to realize they don't have to be a poet to read and enjoy poetry.

What we may need, then, is not more readers or even less magazines (as Gay points out: "cream rises to the top.") but more advocates and missionaries, like Chris over at Vouched. A quote from Roxane:

"[Y]ou have to see him in action at a reading or other event to really get how awesome the idea is in practice. People hover around the table and listen to him talk about the selections he has with him that day and more importantly, people actually buy the books. He’s ... able to move books in a way that is personal and connected. ... It is concierge book selling at its finest"

This is how I approach poetry on a daily basis. I recommend books/authors I love, books that are connected to the people I'm suggesting to. Difference is that I don't sell books, mostly lend them, but I like to feel that opening (usually) non-writers' consciousness to include poetry helps create a better audience for small press publications and poetry magazines. (Not to mention readings: shout out to my running co-workers who came to my last reading because of our poetry conversations/lendings.) The power of opening people up to art can be seen in Vik Muniz's Wasteland:

Maybe that's a little idealistic, but I am a writer with publishing aspirations, so whatever. There is a conversation in this documentary where Muniz and Tiao, a recyclable trash picker about contemporary art. Vik asks Tiao what he though of contemporary art, and Tiao responds he thought it was crap. Vik asks if this is because he didn't understand it, an assertion Tiao rejects but then proves correct when he says that once he saw the trash from above, he appreciated the art a lot more. Once he was open to this new perspective, he became more interested in other artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose story connected to Taio's understanding of life. I paraphrased this exchange because I believe the underlying point is valid for all art: understanding of one artist begets greater appreciation (and participation in) other art.

So how do we approach the issue of earning enough dollars to fund print magazines (and chapbooks?) Hell, I don't know for sure (does anyone these days?)  Some simple things though:
  1. Product. Either find the best of the best and go solicit them (a mix of high quality national and/or local writers), go cross-disciplinary (the gene splicing of the publishing world) or offer something you can't find anywhere else. (Note: knowing the audience will help with the curation of content.)
  2. Audience. Make sure you actually have an audience before you start up a lit magazine/press, especially if you are actually printing things (read: high-ish overhead). Here obviously "writers" isn't enough. What type of writers? What interests do those writers have within writing? If you find someone is putting out a quality publication that has the audience you're thinking of, consider volunteering/joining them instead of diluting the market going after the same (small) audience. 
  3. Distribution. Even with a great product and a known, sizable audience, you still need to get the magazine/book into their sphere of awareness/hands. The best place for distribution might not be in book stores or coffee houses. Don't forget about being an advocate.

Ultimately, it's a labor of love. Every one involved in small press loves what they do, or they wouldn't do it. And they love it so much that they'll keep publishing and promoting and giving away what they can. As summed up by the proprietor of a hidden used bookstore owner Michael Seidenberg:
"It's a losing battle; we've lost. I just want to do as much as I can."- Michael Seidenberg, Brazenhead Books

There's No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books from Etsy on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hot Potato: 22 things

A great post at HTMLGIANT by Blake Butler, who's been candid about his submission process recently, incluing a list of every place he had submitted for a year. This is a great list, from top to bottom vocalizing my thoughts on publishing, especially on polishing at journals you actually read/like/think you'd like. Great stuff!

22 Things about Submission

- From the field thanks to BlogPress.