Essays

A Space Ripe for Experimentation: The Future of Print Literary Journals

By posted at 6:00 am on May 18, 2017 0

Most writers I know submit to online journals first, and, in some cases, exclusively. Online publication often happens significantly faster than print, can reach a much wider audience, and the pay is — sometimes — competitive. Thanks to the innovative designs of some journals — like Paper Darts and Diagram — the days of online lit looking like endless variations on Blogspot templates are long gone. And yet, people continue to print literary journals. Even though they’re cumbersome, labor-intensive, and more expensive. Even though it’s not clear whether anybody actually reads them. Even though some back issues of Barrelhouse (the journal where I’m non-fiction editor) have been piling up in various editors’ basements for years.

In February, I joined thousands of other writers at the annual AWP Conference, at which several hundred exhibitors were selling books and literary journals, and many people were happily stuffing their tote bags. Among writers and editors, there is clearly still a demand for print. If we accept the premise that editors will continue printing, then the question isn’t “Is print dead?” but rather: what should print do to distinguish itself from digital? How can we justify the existence of this product in the face of cheaper, more accessible alternatives?

Last year, when I proposed to the other Barrelhouse editors that we go fully digital, I was unanimously outvoted. And then a week after I finished writing this essay, we started discussing it again; our poetry editor, Dan Brady, argued that we were running out of ways to innovate within the form of the print journal and had to move on to bigger challenges. We’re an independent literary journal and small press that is fundamentally opposed to raising funds via Kickstarter or submission fees, so half of our time is spent hustling to raise money, and most of the remaining energy is devoted to trying to get the print product together. Steven Seighman, founder of Monkeybicycle, which went fully digital in 2012, described the process of producing print issues as “overwhelming” and “unsustainable.” In every way, our lives would be easier if we stopped printing issues.

But if we’re going to continue making this thing, then we need to think about what we can do to make it distinct from online journals, and how to make it a viable enterprise.

To work through this problem, I talked with the editors of more than 20 literary journals, asking for their visions of the role and future of print issues.

Fetishizing the Physical

“For me, the print thing has to do with a desire for substance when fewer things are physical,” Barrelhouse co-founder Joe Killiany says. “I like the feel of books, I like the feel of albums.” Fiction editor Matt Perez adds, “People develop more of a relationship with a book…Having it around, on your coffee table, in your bag, on the back of your toilet, etc., feels a bit more like a relationship.” Most editors I spoke to offered some version of this answer first.

But, given all the drawbacks to production, acquisition, and storage of print journals, there has to be more to a print journal than fetishizing the physical artifact. There has to be more than the smell of the pages or the tactile pleasure of holding a book. I already own lots of books. Why do I need to feel or smell more of them?

Emphasizing Design

The design possibilities online are seemingly endless, but they are distinct from those in print. Using the physical object as a basis for creating a journal that is not only beautiful to look at, but interestingly laid out, editors can make their print issues into something that cannot, exactly, exist online. McSweeney’s is the obvious example here, but there are plenty of others. Andrew Mitchell, co-founder of Outlook Springs, describes the print journal as, “A space ripe for experimentation.” In discussing his relatively new journal’s aesthetic, he says:

I realized that if you’re going to create these beautiful, concrete objects, then you really need to think about them as their own separate thing; in other words, though the writing itself is most important…the Object, too, needs to be treated and considered as an ‘object.’ It can’t just be a container for the work.

Each issue follows the conventions of a literary journal, but also includes playful touches like advertisements from fake companies and fake MFA programs, all of which are located in a single fake town. They create a secondary text beyond the primary text. They, “treat it as an art object, with its own set of sensory experiences that we would play with.”

Nick Greer, editor of Territory, an online-only literary project about maps, adds that the print product should, “Explore the idioms of its medium, stuff that either isn’t easily replicated in/translated to other media, or stuff that enjoys and interprets the tropes and conventions of its medium.” Greer’s email included some especially ambitious suggestions, like bricolage, pastiche, and disappearing ink. He adds that the history of print is so rich that it has more potential than any other form to be self-referential, to toy with readers’ expectations and emphasize the evolution of the object itself.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until four years ago, we at Barrelhouse were devoting so much energy to reading submissions and shaping the contents that we’d neglected to think about what the actual issues looked like. Like many editors, we took for granted the most basic elements of printing: ink, binding, quality of print, etc. For years, Barrelhouse was printed at one size, with the same font, layout, and printer, and then one day, editor Dave Housley dropped a dozen new journals on the table in front of us. “These journals all look great,” he said. “And ours looks like shit.” We realized then that, although we’d been happy with the older issues, many of them now looked dated and boring. We changed printers, changed page sizes, added an art director, and reconsidered everything about the way our journal looked. If you’re asking someone to spend money and space on storing your magazine in their house, you have to give them as many compelling reasons as possible to want to hold on to it.

The obvious counterpoint to all this design talk is to note the sustained success of a journal like One Story, the design of which is as simple as possible. It’s an intentional simplicity, though, an obvious aesthetic choice, which Territory’s Thomas Mira y Lopez describes as making you feel like, “you’re the recipient of this treasure meant just for you.” One Story editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan thinks the design is appealing to both writers and readers:

[We want to] showcase one outstanding short story all by itself. No bells or whistles. A physical object that comes to you in the mail, that you can carry around in your pocket, that you can read and collect, or pass on to friend, or leave for a stranger…To be an author and to have an issue of a magazine be solely dedicated to your story is pretty wonderful.

Focus and Depth 

Beyond the stripped-down design, One Story’s distinguishing feature is that each issue highlights a single, sometimes quite long, story. They create a space for longform storytelling that might otherwise not find a home online.

The clearest distinction between most print and online journals is the length of the pieces they’re able to run. With rare exceptions, you just can’t publish something longer than 2,000 words online and expect many people to read it. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but as an editor, I can assure you: an online story, no matter how masterful, begins losing eyes the moment the reader has to scroll down more than once. I have one friend who reads whole books on his phone, but most other people I know barely have the patience to read a full text message on their phones.

Print gives you space to develop a longer narrative. It lets a story breathe. Readers have fewer distractions, and they also open a book with the understanding that the book will demand their full attention. Please indulge me as I state something obvious: it is much less distracting to read from a book than it is to read online. Nate Brown, managing editor of American Short Fiction, says, “Printed works of fiction demand your sustained attention, and books are single-function machines: you open a book, you read it, you close it, you set it down, and you go to sleep.” ASF, like many print journals, also runs online issues. And while they do publish some shorter pieces in print, Brown argues that one of the primary functions of the print issue is to run these longer stories and essays.

As online publishing becomes the norm, the form of contemporary fiction and essay has changed to accommodate the needs of online readers. Flash fiction, once considered a niche genre, is published widely now. Writers are cutting their stories ruthlessly to meet strict word counts. This may well be an overall positive development; few things in this world are as intolerable as a bloated short story that goes on for 1,500 words too long. But I admit to often feeling unsatisfied by essays I read online, which read more like ideas of essays, written in very nice language but either underdeveloped or edited to the point of hollowness. Some stories just need more space. I’ve become convinced that print journals should be printing even longer stories and essays, giving homes to works of prose that otherwise can’t be published elsewhere. This is why in the next issue of Barrelhouse, we’re going to run a novella-length essay, inset in the issue itself with its own cover. If I wanted to, I could find three to four excellent essays to run in the same space, but why not exploit one of the strengths of print — people go to it to look away from the rest of the world — to showcase an essay that might otherwise never be published?

The Future of Print

When I asked Christine Gosnay, founding editor of The Cossack Review, what editors should do or change if they want to keep producing print issues, she gave me an answer that reframed the conversation for me:

If a magazine’s editors want to keep printing books, they should. It should be because they have a very clear editorial vision: they want to put this type of thing into this type of binding and show it to as many people as possible because they have a passion for what they’re selecting. That extremely ambitious and cohesive outlook is what can tie a book together into something different from an online issue, which is more likely to be shared piecemeal amongst different groups of people and possibly ignored.

There are more eyes online, but there’s even greater competition. The whole point of a print journal is to create a singular work that speaks for itself. The design matters, and the specific pieces you publish matter. Everything matters. But what matters most is that you believe deeply in the artwork you’re creating and that you’re proud to present it as a cohesive whole to your readers. They may not read it cover-to-cover (I rarely do that even for issues of Barrelhouse), but they can experience the issue as a single entity representing a particular aesthetic.

The heading for this section is overstated, because I’m not smart enough to predict the future of print. Most editors I spoke to said they were determined to keep printing issues, despite all the effort, time, and money. Each is taking a different approach, but the consensus is this: the biggest mistake any editor can make is to stop pushing to improve his or her journal, to produce print issues thoughtlessly and without trying to innovate to justify all the other inconveniences of physical media. As Greer says, “If you’re worried about evolving to keep up, it’s already too late. Those who evolve don’t see it as evolution or some kind of other painful but necessary metamorphosis, they’re just swimming in it, breathing it.”

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