All You Need to Know About Publishing in Online Lit Mags
By Chuck Augello
For many writers determining where to submit one’s work can be a daunting challenge. Most literary journals receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions per issue, and even an accomplished story can have trouble breaking through. Yet a quick glimpse of the literary landscape shows no shortage of outlets for poetry and fiction.
The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) lists over two hundred member journals in its directory. While most are traditional print journals the index also includes several newer, online-only journals. The expansive rise of the Internet over the past decade has triggered a boom in online fiction and poetry. The website LitLine, a project of Illinois State University, references 240 Internet-only journals in a list that is far from exhaustive.
Since all things, including literary journals, are far from equal, how do you determine which journal might be a good home for your work? This can be especially tricky with online journals, which often lack the name recognition of their more established cousins in print. So how do you determine if an online journal is a valued platform for your work or some obscure corner of the web you’d be smart to avoid?
Identifying Potential Markets
The first step is the obvious one: visit the site. The submissions page of almost any journal (print or web) will advise prospective contributors to read the journal first. The online journal Thieves Jargon takes it even further, requiring potential contributors to include the name of at least one story published on the site and one’s opinion of the story as part of any submission. The point is clear: if you don’t know the editorial and aesthetic sensibilities of a journal you might be wasting everyone’s time by submitting your work.
Read the journal and ask yourself: Do I like the work that they publish? Is it as good, or better, than my own? While the quality and integrity of your story is fixed, the perception of potential readers can be influenced by the other work surrounding it. If the first story you read in a journal is terrible, how likely are you to keep reading that journal and give a second story a chance? First impressions matter—and you want the journal that publishes your work to make a strong one.
Most writers have a hierarchy of journals based on prestige, payment, circulation, and other factors that guide their submission process. There are several excellent resources to help you create your own hierarchy. One of the best is maintained by the writer Cliff Garstang. Garstang uses Pushcart Prizes to rank journals based on their respective number of awards. Garstang’s method, explained on his website, uses a ten-year rolling database assigning points for each prize or special mention awarded for work from a particular journal. Separate lists are provided for Fiction, Poetry, and Non-fiction.While the top of the 2014 rankings is dominated by well-known print journals like Ploughshares, Tin House, and The Paris Review, several online journals also appear on the list, Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, Blackbird, Narrative, and failbetter among them.
While a particular ranking can be telling, inclusion on the list, whether in the Top Ten or Top One Hundred, assures potential contributors that the journal participates in the wider literary community. Most writers want their work to reach beyond the limits of a specific journal, to be part of the literary conversation. Having your work appear in a journal that nominates for Pushcarts and publishes stories that have actually won increases the chance that your own story will be noticed and become part of that dialogue.
Another useful resource is the storySouth Million Writers Award, created to “honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines…” Citing the tendency of both The Best American Stories and O.Henry Awards to ignore online fiction, the editors of storySouth strive to promote online fiction to the wider literary community. Interested readers can discover which journals have published award-winning work by checking out the storySouth website.
Author John Matthew Fox has created a ranking, similar to Cliff Garstang’s Pushcart ranking, in which Million Writers Awards nominations are used as criteria. While this particular list is becoming outdated, it is still helpful in identifying online journals that reach out to the wider community.
The website New Pages is a must-read for every writer as its Magazine Review and Magazine Stand provide capsule descriptions of both print and online journals. Prospective readers and contributors can review the contents of previous issues and determine editorial needs through the Magazine Stand entries. New Pages also features a Call for Submissions section identifying journals actively seeking new work. Since few have the time to read even a fraction of the journals being published, New Pages is like having a cool friend who keeps you up to date on the latest happenings.
Any journal listed in its Magazine Stand has passed a vetting process, as New Pages applies a variety of criteria in determining which journals to include. Among the criteria required for a journal to make the cut:
· Regular print cycle
· Clearly defined issues of the publication
· Maintains an archive of previous publications
· A clear editorial process for submissions
· Transparency of editors
· Treatment of contributor rights
· Work of the editors is not prominently or frequently included
The website of the magazine Poets and Writers provides a similar resource through its database of literary magazines. The database allows users to search by genre, subgenre, format, and payment. Potential users should be aware that this database, as well as the New Pages data, is not exhaustive. Many online journals fail to appear in either database; more common are those that appear in one resource but not the other. The criteria for inclusion in the Poets and Writers database are provided on the Poets and Writers website FAQ section. Of note is the circulation requirement; a journal’s circulation must exceed 100 to be included on the list.
Duotrope is a searchable database where users filter their search by genre, style (literary, satirical, quirky, etc.), length, minimum payment, and submission type. Also provided are market updates and a tracking tool for users to monitor their submissions. A unique feature of Duotrope is a listing of journals no longer open to submissions and those that are currently defunct. To be included on the site publications must meet the following guidelines:
· Accepts unsolicited submissions
· Must have an official, up-to-date website
· Guidelines must be posted on website
· No fees to publish
· Full disclosure of rights assumed
· Active editor at the helm
· Submissions open to a broad audience
· Must be in existence at least six months
· Publishes regularly (minimum one issue/book annually)
Duotrope will not list any journal that publishes everything it receives or one that frequently and predominantly publishes the work of its editor/editorial staff. A new journal (one that has published its first issue within the last six months) will receive a “fledgling” indicator next to its listing until the above criteria is met.
Since the goal of most writers is to have their work read by a wide audience, circulation numbers must be considered when evaluating a journal. There are several free websites that provide information on the number of visitors to a particular site and before submitting to an online journal the writer should always check the website’s traffic.
Url Metrics is one such site but there are many more, and a simple Internet search of “URL Metrics” will provide several viable options. Reviewing the journal’s traffic provides the writer with useful data as to how many readers might potentially view their work, and when compared with the circulation numbers of traditional print journals, builds a strong case for the growing prominence of web-based journals.
Most writers would consider The Iowa Review and The Indiana Review to be well-regarded journals in which he or she would be proud to publish their work. Each reports a circulation between 1,000 and 2,500 for editions that are published twice each year. At the high end, one can assume a story published in one of these journals is viewed by 2,500 potential readers during its six month run as the current edition. (There is anecdotal evidence, reported in Travis Kurowski’s recent book Paper Dreams, that literary journals are often shared and may reach more readers than circulation numbers indicate, but let’s assume that the 2,500 represents an accurate estimate.) During that same six-month period, an online journal like Smokelong Quarterly receives 5,724 unique visitors, more than twice the number of circulating issues of The Iowa Review. A sample of other online journals shows the following: (unique visitors/6-month period)
· Monkeybicycle - 9,168
· Wigleaf - 2,436
· Word Riot - 24,930
· Narrative - 115,050
· Failbetter - 53,076
While unique visitors do not translate directly into readers, it’s a useful gauge of potential audience. The most popular online journals, based on site visitors, have an audience as large, or larger, than many long-established print journals.
Those inclined toward skepticism may question these numbers, with good reason. Using the free analytics tools often provide inconsistent results. Consider Anderbo, a popular online journal that recently ceased publishing. The website Url Metrics reports 1,642 monthly visits; yet the directory published by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) credits Anderbo with 28,000 unique visitors each month. The difference is significant, and not isolated. The journal failbetter reports 60,000 unique visitors in the CLMP Directory. URL Metrics reports 8,846.
When questioned regarding the discrepancy, Anderbo editor Rick Rofihe stated that the site reported total hits rather than unique visitors. “Where the 28,000 came from, I’m not sure,” Rofihe responded. Tom Jenks, editor and co-founder of Narrative, agrees that external web analytics can “vary a great deal.” While Narrative does not disclose its internal numbers Jenks confirmed that the journal has over 170,000 registered readers. “In a year’s time each will visit, on average, four or five times,” Jenks reported via e-mail. “Of course in reality some visit more, some less.” The editors of failbetter did not respond to an inquiry.
Despite the inexact data web analytics are still useful in providing an approximation of potential readers. Will the writer know exactly how many people are reading his or her story? Of course not, but checking web traffic does allow writers to steer clear of those sites with few if any visitors during a given month.
Evaluating the Journal
Once you identify a site to which you’d like to submit, the next step is evaluating the journal itself. Let’s look at two online journals: Barnstorm and Gemini Magazine, both of which appeared in a recent Call for Submissions on New Pages. Each was viewed with a simple question: would a writer want his or her work to appear in the journal?
The homepage has a clean, simple look: white background with a plain banner on top stating “Barnstorm Literary Journal.” There’s a menu bar that allows the viewer to quickly navigate to Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction. To find the first story a viewer has to scroll down below the fold, a definite drawback. Each entry (blog, story, or poem) has a professional and eye-catching black and white photograph above its title. The About page informs readers that the journal is sponsored by the MFA Program at the University of New Hampshire. The editor-in-chief, Amy Stauber, and the Fiction Editor, Emily Lackey, are both students in the MFA program. The Faculty Advisor is Thomas Paine; a quick Amazon.com search shows that he has published two books, including a novel with Houghton Mifflin. Url Metrics indicates that circulation is low with less than 300 visitors per month; the CLMP Directory does not address circulation. There is no payment to contributors.
The four most recent stories are published by writers who list other publication credits, including Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, and The Missouri Review, so Barnstorm appears to be a journal that other published writers find acceptable. The journal is listed in both the Poets and Writers and Duotrope databases as well as in New Pages, and the site features an active blog with links to other journals. The four most recently published stories were all polished and professional, with "Hermits" by Brandon Bell a personal favorite.
One drawback to Barnstorm is the font, which is small and difficult to read in the longer pieces. The website has a very minimal look – no banner ads or pop-ups or intrusive Facebook links. This is a plus for me, but some readers might find its look almost puritanical. Information about Pushcarts or nominations for other prizes was not available and it does not appear that Barnstorm has any.
The homepage of the August 2013 issue features a flashy look: colorful artwork ("Tropical Fallen Angel" by Linda Cheng) dominates the center of the screen; links to the different stories surround the artwork, and an author photo is above each title. This provides a slight “vanity” look to the site but many potential contributors might disagree. The photos are of high quality and resemble standard “author” photos.
The staff page identifies several readers, mostly MFA and MA in English graduates. The only editor is David Bright, who started the magazine in 2009. A few publications in smaller journals are listed for him. The magazine seems to be contest-driven, as the stories posted are identified as “First Place” or “Honorable Mention.” The first thing one sees when entering the site is a large purple banner claiming “Win $1,000! Poetry Open.” Of course there’s nothing wrong with winning a thousand bucks but the presentation of the contest feels close to hucksterism. To its credit, Gemini has a long explanation of how it judges its contests and appears to have a fair and credible method in place.
The writers published on the site have other publishing credits, mostly in small journals, and one contributor had an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. The stories themselves have an excellent look: a large, easy to read black font in the center of the screen, and readers have the option of downloading the story into a PDF format. This is Gemini’s biggest selling point: unlike in Barnstorm, the stories here are pleasing to the eye. The only distraction is a large “Download Here!” button on the side of the screen. The story quality was uneven but all were polished, professional stories.
There is no payment for contributors “at this time” but Gemini does nominate for the Million Writers Award. Web traffic is a fairly impressive 2,715 unique visits per month. The journal is not listed by the Poets and Writers database but does appear in Duotrope.
Would I want my work to appear in either of these journals, and if so, which would be a higher preference? The author-photo centric look of Gemini turned me off, but it has a high circulation and the stories are visually engaging. I prefer the more minimalist look of Barnstorm, and its authors had stronger publishing credits. Barnstorm also gets the edge in having an association with a University MFA Program. It’s not clear how Gemini maintains itself financially. (Contest entry fees appear to play a strong role.) Given the University connection there’s a better chance that Barnstorm and its archived stories will still be active on the web five years from now rather than Gemini, which appears to be the work of one editor/publisher. My choice would be Barnstorm, but Gemini, because of its high web traffic and appealing font, would also be given consideration.
In evaluating online journals, prospective contributors should consider the following:
· Quality of Work Published on Site
· Qualifications of Editorial Staff
· Publishing Credits of Past Contributors
· Web Design
· Engagement with literary community (prizes, links, association with MFA program)
· Age (How long has it been publishing?)
· Recognized by other sources (Poets and Writers, Duotrope, New Pages, etc.)
· Potential Payment vs. Reading Fee
Regarding the fifth bullet (web design) writers should be familiar with the research done on how people read on the web. Eye tracking studies conducted by Jakob Nielsen of the consulting firm NNg have shown that readers will scan a page in a pattern that is roughly shaped like the letter F. Readers start in the upper left corner, take two horizontal swipes across the page, and then swipe vertically down the left of the screen. At a select mid-point the reader will make a few more horizontal swipes before continuing his or her left-side vertical descent.
Two lessons can be drawn. An online journal’s website should adhere to the F-shape. If content is located on a part of the screen that viewers are prone to miss, the journal might best be avoided. Secondly, consider how your own story matches how people read on the web. If your story opens with a long paragraph of description readers may turn away before engaging with your narrative. A story that opens with a two or three sentence paragraph and short, punchy dialogue is more likely to be read online as it follows the natural inclinations of the eye to scan content in the F-shape format.
The final bullet point—the presence of a reading fee to submit one’s work—is a growing concern, as many print and online journals have begun to charge for submissions. Most of the fees are nominal, and for print journals may include a copy or a subscription, but some journals, like Narrative, have fees as high as twenty-two dollars. Potential contributors might consider this a way of “supporting the arts” but one should always use his or her judgment before paying a fee to submit, particularly for a journal that does not pay contributors.
This last point raises the complicated issue of cash. Should a writer always be paid when publishing her or her work? Does the lack of payment somehow diminish the perception of the author’s work? Gone are the days when Kurt Vonnegut could quit a PR job at General Electric and support his family selling short stories to magazines like Collier and Saturday Evening Post. Writers of literary fiction learn quickly that payment is often elusive.
The challenging economics of the writing life is addressed in the new journal Scratch, which explores “the relationship between money and art, literature and business” while raising the questions “Is writing sustainable? Should it be?” The Internet, with its expectation of free content, has made it harder than ever for artists to receive payment for their work. Writers are told that “exposure” for his or her work should be payment enough, creating a literary economy that mirrors the larger one, with a shrinking “middle class” of writers unable to sustain themselves. (Those interested in the politics of the issue should check out the National Writers Union and its efforts to organize writers.)
When submitting your story, essay, or poem, should payment be a consideration? Definitely. While paying markets are a minority, they do exist. The Poets and Writers database lists 772 journals open to literary fiction; a total of 101 make cash payment to contributors (13.0%). Most are print; very few online journals offer payment at this time.
Before submitting writers should make a list of at least ten journals in which he or she would like to see their work. If one of the ten offers payment, move it to the top of the list. While cash payment is not the only mark of a story’s quality it does convey a sense of professionalism, and a journal’s ability to pay is a strong indicator that the editors have established a viable enterprise. At the beginning of a writer’s career the quality and reputation of the journal, online or print, should probably trump payment, but the two are not exclusive, and as every writer knows, writing is work.
Of course most writers would be foolish to dismiss a journal simply because it doesn’t pay; many journals strive to pay contributors but lack the resources. While The Huffington Post was rightly condemned for not paying many of the writers who helped build a website that was eventually sold to AOL for $300 million, the economics of literary journals differ significantly. Often the money just isn’t there. Your goal should be to have your story presented in an aesthetically pleasing way to an audience of smart and careful readers. Sometimes this will include payment; other times not. The virtual impossibility of earning a living selling stories to literary journals frees the writer from making payment a primary concern. Payment should be one factor to consider, but it’s not the only one, and lack of payment never diminishes the achievement of publishing your work.
Most journals, online and print, are open to simultaneous submissions with the understanding that the writer will withdraw her work if it is accepted elsewhere. With response times that can average three to six months, writers are wise to submit to several journals at once; otherwise it could take years to place a story that might have been accepted earlier had more editors had the chance to read it. Yet simultaneous submissions can be tricky if not managed strategically.
If you submit to top tier and secondary tier journals simultaneously there’s a good chance that the secondary tier journal will accept your story before the top tier has made its decision. While the acceptance is great news, you’ll never know if it would also have been picked by your top choice. A good rule is to submit to several equivalent level journals and wait for each to respond before expanding your possible options.
Do the Work
While the relative ease of creating an online journal may trigger apprehension about the quality of the endeavor and the lingering stigma of self-publishing, writers need to adjust to the new reality—in the coming years online journals will occupy a large share of the literary landscape and failure to engage with them will limit a writer’s ability to reach an audience. The number of online journals being launched each year indicates a thriving literary culture, and author Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) is excited by the possibilities:
There are amazing online journals and they’ve introduced me to a wide range of authors that have inspired me…I think the focus should be on the work. There are bad online journals, but there are bad print journals. It’s about finding places that publish writers you admire and working to place your name alongside those people. (Interview, Jelly Bucket, December 2013)
Concerns about quality can be lessened by following the criteria discussed this essay. If the editorial staff and past contributors have valid qualifications publishing online is no different than publishing in a print journal. Popular online journals like failbetter and Smokelong Quarterly receive thousands of submissions each year and publish only a small percentage of them, the same as any print journal. If the potential contributor has exercised due diligence in evaluating the online journal before submitting, he or she should feel confident that the site is a serious and credible literary endeavor. Like anything else, you have to do the work.
Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, three cats, and several unnamed birds that inhabit the back yard. His work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Juked, Word Riot, Hobart, Jelly Bucket, decomP, and other journals. He has a MFA from Queens University and is the fiction editor at Cease, Cows.
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Kudos on a well-written article regarding publishing online. The only "fault" I could find with it was not mentioning Eclectica Magazine (www.eclectica.org). We've been online for the past eighteen years, and not only were we the leading Million Writers publication back in 2008 when John Matthew Fox posted his ranking, but we still are, with more notable and top ten stories than Narrative and Blackbird. I'm grateful for any mention that we get in articles like yours, as we don't have corporate or university sponsors, advertising revenue, etc. We are one of the sites charging a nominal submission fee ($2), with which we cover about half our expenses. Those expenses include $100 worth of cash prizes given out to our Spotlight Author each issue and two runners up.
I respectfully hope you'll keep us in mind for the future. Meanwhile, thanks for shedding light on the online literary scene.
Very helpful. But join me in trying to suggest to all litmags that they make available, for free download (or $1 at most), a copy of at least one piece that they think characteristic of work they like and used recently.
Read this very useful article, but Cliff Garstang's metric of evaluating mags based on Pushcart Prizes calls up a question for me. Doesn't Pushcart famously ignore electronic publications? Or has Bill Henderson evolved from that policy?
- Kristin Kovacic
I’ve been wanting this information for a long time and usually deferred to continue creating stories instead of taking the time and effort to seek what is offered in this article. I suppose I no longer have an excuse not to market my stories. Thanks.
- SK Figler