Literary magazines – whether little grassroots zines, swanky journals or slick flash fiction sites – are where most of us short story writers and poets get our first ever acceptance. AHH, THE HEADY JOY OF THAT FIRST ACCEPTANCE. The sheer high of knowing that yes, you made it, you’re a real writer now (or at least you are until the goalpost gremlins turn up and move the net, which will happen in, oooooh, about 24 hours). The excitement of shopping around for your next place to submit: this mag folds out into a map; this site’s got an amazing theme; and this one illustrates its stories, look! Which one are you going to try for?
Soon you’re sending out words to lots of mags. And it’s about this point that you notice that mags often recommend you read them in order to understand what kind of work they like.
“LOL. No-one reads lit mags.
Also, I really don’t want to pay for subs, because this mag should be selling to an audience! An audience – er – somewhere over there! <waves vaguely in direction of The General Public>. Or maybe some other writers will buy it. Or maybe the editors should be doing it for free like any other ‘hobby’, amirite?”
The problem with this whole situation is that without support from the literary community, we are going to lose that amazing, teeming, diverse reef that is lit mag culture. It’s already happening. You can see pleas for purchases or donations on Twitter. You can see respected, professional mags announcing that they are running on fumes. Running a journal costs money: Submittable alone, for example, costs over £800 per annum. Printing costs money. Hosting costs money. Promo costs money. Paying writers costs money (and you’ll notice no one supports the idea that writers should do it for free – but that’s a whole other blog). Not to mention the admin and time it takes to manage a mag. Money goes out very easily, but it’s incredibly hard for mags to get money in. If we want to keep them, we have to support them.
You may argue that mags need to sell to an audience, that part of their business model should be promoting their content to readers, not writers. Well, here’s the problem with that: the audience for literary magazines is writers. Writers, a handful of short story aficionados, and one mythical agent who goes round giving out contracts to friends of friends. AND THIS IS FINE. It’s not indicative of a failing model. The only way this would be true is if you, you wonderful writer you, got nothing from buying and reading a literary magazine – and sure, you could argue that, but you’d be wrong. Here’s why:
Reading literary magazines improve your writing. They are full of wonderful work by both new and established writers – work which has been carefully selected, edited and curated – and reading this work is one of the best ways to develop your craft. Of course you can read pro collections of short stories, but you know what? Those collections are mostly by people who are acing it. Sometimes you need to read things by your peers, or those a few years ahead of you. George Saunders and Alice Munro are a lot to live up to. And you can’t chat to them on Twitter.
And of course, the existence of lit mags gives us writers so much. The chance to practice rejection, for a start. If you plan to submit collections or larger pieces of work to agents or publishers, best start limbering up, Mithridates-style. Those little doses of ‘no’; the experience of surviving them and maybe getting your work accepted elsewhere; the way you learn that rejection is feedback and, in itself, invaluable.
The experience of waiting.
‘Cause if submitting your writing teaches you anything, it teaches you how to be patient. And querying a novel after spending a few years submitting short fiction to journals is a lot less scary than going in green. It feels… familiar. Not necessarily great, or relaxed, or confident – just familiar. You’re equipped for it. You’ve already ridden the it’s great/it’s shit/it’s great/it’s shit rollercoaster. You know rejection won’t kill you. And you know how to get over it.
Then there’s the glory of acceptance. And not just acceptance: the feedback that comes with it. Journal editors will cut and polish your work, and you will learn how to hone what you do. After that, there’s your CV. Many of us are writers of short fiction/poetry and long fiction. We’re looking for agents, and publishers. We have no idea what to put in a bio. Having a few publications on your CV from quality mags is helpful.
To get all this good stuff we need mags to be around, and for mags to stay around someone’s gotta buy em. Of course, there are models for running magazines in which the running costs are covered by arts funding, advertising, straight out of the editors’ own pockets, or via subs fees and tip jars. These are all workable models, but they have their downsides. Ads change a mag’s aesthetic. Not every editor can afford to personally fund a lit mag (nor should they be expected to), and it’s an excellent way of excluding cash-poor people from running one. Mandatory subs fees exclude those same people from submitting their work. Tip jars start Twitter flame wars. I knew someone once who said they’d seen arts funding in the wild, but I think they were drunk. Basically, there is no way of running a mag in which it survives on O2 alone and everyone’s happy. Selling content is as valid as any other model. Especially when that content helps writers to enrich and improve their work, support their writing peers, and feed back into the literary community.
Writers need mag culture. So let’s lay some love on mags, and the people we read in them. If you can afford to do it, subscribe to a journal or buy an issue or two. Share copies with other writers, especially those who can’t afford to subscribe. Donate to tip jars. Sponsor free entries for low-income writers. Tweet about your favourite lit mags, and find the writers who wrote the stories or poems you love and tweet about them too, because that does not happen nearly enough.
Mag editors are us. They are writers, lovers of writing, people who love it enough to spend their spare time building platforms that lift up our work and our whole community. And to them I say: