The Future of Online Literary Publications
by Kathy Crowley
What is the future of online literary publications?
Back in the day (squints, scratches butt, pushes reading glasses up), the non-book literary publishing scene was pretty straightforward. There were big magazines, there were little magazines, there were reviews (often published in a vehicle called a newspaper and read fairly widely) and there was academic lit-crit (often published in something called a PhD thesis and only ever seen by a total of 5-10 people).
It was nearly impossible for some Johnny/Janie-no-name writer to appear in a big magazine in those days. So writers scrapped and fought to get published in the little magazines — even though nobody read them. Authors were then paid in actual physical copies of their work which they could then force on unsuspecting friends and family members.
Out of all those different species of publications, what’s left?
Hard copy newspapers are still around, though just barely. And reviewers still get space in the papers, though their opinions and critical assessments may matter less than in the past.
Big magazines still exist, too, and continue to publish fiction. And it remains a major accomplishment for any writer to have his or her work appear in The New Yorker or The Atlantic (or any other major magazine that does not feature Snooki on the cover).
Now let’s look at what’s new – by which I mean let’s look at all the new web-based literary creations. Online literary magazines publish the same sort of material – poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, artwork – as traditional print magazines. Unlike their print-only cousins, however, they are able to include video or audio clips of readings or interviews, blogs, a twitter-feed, etc., as well as new forms such as video essays or video interpretations of written literature.
Then there are sites that incorporate so many varied art forms and features that I don’t know exactly how to categorize them – bigger than a literary magazine, able to leap multiple media in countless quick bounds, more hits than the National Enquirer… you get the idea.
Want some examples? Let’s start with the easiest and least complicated.
1. Old Dogs Learn New Tricks.
Many traditional “little” literary magazines — Agni, Ploughshares, Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, to name a few — have transitioned successfully to an electronic format. While continuing to publish high quality print versions, they’ve added a few e-bells and whistles, such as blogs, electronic submissions, video and/or audio clips, etc. I would be curious to know whether their overall readership is up or down. (I would guess up, but I don’t know.)
2. New Dogs Learn Old and New Tricks.
Many of the publications that began as online ‘zines have decided to add hardcopy compilations or selections from their online volumes. Dark Sky and Juked, for example, are online journals that also produce an annual print version. Blackbird is an online only journal, and although it offers some interesting audio and visual material (for example this reading by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward), it feels very much like a traditional literary magazine. One of the key differences, though, according to editor Gregory Donovan is “Blackbird enjoys an international readership of hundreds of thousands.” That couldn’t happen in the old days of print only.
3. Social Lit
How to categorize sites like The Millions and The Rumpus? The Rumpus describes itself as a journal about culture – and it covers books, music, politics. And more books. It publishes just about every kind of thing you could imagine – except fiction and poetry. “Our long term plan is to have a separate, but affiliated, Rumpus fiction site and Rumpus poetry site. The only thing stopping us is our own laziness,” the edtiors say. But as if to prove how quickly online journals change, I found this: Sunday Rumpus Fiction.
The Millions feels equally cyber-large, though very different in style and tone. It includes essays, columns, book reviews, links. “An indispensible literary site,” says The New York Times.
4. Ezines on Steroids, B-vitamin Supplements and Growth Hormone.
There are some literary sites that seem too large and all encompassing to call literary magazines – at least in the way that we have thought of them before — but don’t fit easily into any other group. Electric Literature publishes a (sort of) traditional literary magazine available in any format (except perhaps grafittied on the lavatory walls), a weekly story, recommended reading, reviews, a blog, and video clips of all varieties, including a collection in which different artists interpret a single sentence from a piece of literature. (Check out this animation of a line from Ben Marcus’ story, “Watching Mysteries With My Mother.”)
PANK, like Electric Literature, is a small empire. A literary venture that also publishes books, a blog, audio clips, and directs a national reading series. Not your grandmother’s lit mag.
Narrative describes itself as a non-profit organization dedicated to storytelling in the digital age. I would describe it as a very active online literary magazine publishing fiction, poetry, non-fiction, interviews, excerpts from classics, cartoons and more.
All this is, as they say, only the tip of the iceberg. As overwhelming as it can seem to those of us whose early relationship with literary magazines involved typewriters, Wite-Out and self-addressed stamped envelopes, I think it’s a good thing. Lots of energy, lots of growth, lots of places for writers to publish and so much for readers to read. Where it will end up — and what these multifaceted multimedia zineblog amalgams will be called — no idea.
What might your ideal literary site look like?
Kathy Crowley’s short stories have appeared in Ontario Review, Fish Stories, The Literary Review, New Millenium Writings and The Marlboro Review. Her stories have been short-listed for Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. In 2012 and 2006 she was awarded Massachusetts Cultural Council Grants. She recently finished her first novel. When she’s not busy preparing for her future literary fame and fortune, she provides care and feeding to her three children and works as a physician at Boston Medical Center. Kathy can be found on Twitter at @Kathy_Crowley.