This question popped up on Facebook a few months ago: “I have an ailing college literary journal on my hands–focused on print. does anyone have tips?”
This is (essentially) what I wrote on Facebook:
#1 Stop printing more than once per year. You’re burning money this way.
#2 Take some of that money and hire a web developer. create a Reddit-like format where people can ‘vote’ up/down on their favorite stories that your team has selected.
#3 Start an email campaign to your list/alumni telling them when a new batch goes up.
#4 At the end of the year, package the top 10-20 into a print anthology (+ your faves if you want).
#5 The End.
The problem with most literary journals is that they’re published to satisfy the people that they’re publishing.
If you get published in a journal or an online literary magazine, you’ll probably read your story the day it’s published, check out a couple more and then never go back to it. The ones that are able to create something different are the ones really engaging readers. Usually, this happens because of a long history (ie The Paris Review, New Yorker fiction section) or a distinct style (Muumuu House, The Newer York).
Yes, people get publishing deals from being in Ploughshares of whatever, but there’s usually another force at work. The people published in those need the publishing credits for tenure or something and a lot of industry people read those things. That doesn’t mean that your work will necessarily break out.
But if you’re in that position, then your magazine is not “failing.” So really, the only option is to create something different and distinctive–either on the topics or the format. My suggestions above are different because of format.
Change the topics.
The recent online “lit mag” I started (NOTICE THE QUOTES) is more about the random topics. I started by soliciting people I liked, then started asking people to write about random topics (doughnuts, coca-cola). I only have 53 followers on Tumblr for it right now, so who knows?
I also decided to use Tumblr, because it’s low maintenance, and it has an audience that’s interested in new things. The design is definitely not glitterature or doll house but it works for what I’m trying to do. And who knows, maybe I’ll change it one day?
Change the format.
The format and topics could go together. McSweeney’s is really good at this, taking a topic, thinking about its structural implications, then designing an issue around it. I was more inspired by the tech world, like Reddit and Product Hunt and Hacker News. They have a simple up/down functionality and the stories could be user submitted or aggregated from a journal. I remember the site Fictionaut doing something similar a few years ago, but they’ve lost a lot of steam for whatever reason.
I drew up a few mockups for something like I outlined above, (ELEVATOR PITCH: The Product Hunt of Literature) but I haven’t made it a priority (more on this later). So if someone takes it, well, so be it. It will work and will be interesting.
What do you think? What should a literary magazine be and how should it operate?