More on the Literary Market

So, now that we’ve got this growing bubble of publishing outlets, what’s going to happen?

First, I think we’re going to see a lot of non-subsidized literary magazines start to fold and close up shop. The ones tied to universities will mostly be okay, although if New England Review gets shut out in the cold by Middlebury College, I think that will set a dangerous precedent for peer institutions across the country.

This all comes down to one of the fundamental questions of the free market system: should insolvent literary publications be saved?

Why don’t people read literary magazines? I mean normal, average, every day people. Like my parents. Have they become too much like trade magazines to matter to the general public? You can cite the decline of reading on a universal level, but I say poo poo to that. People are not reading less. They’re reading other things. In fact, I’d hazard to say that the rise of the internet and its associated technologies has people writing and reading more frequently than anytime before in the last century. Most of us can’t do our jobs without our hands on a keyboard anymore, our eyes glued to a screen. We may not be reading Chekov, but we’re reading.

If people aren’t reading literary magazines, it’s for one of the following reasons:
1. The magazines don’t interest them/have content they want to read
2. They are not readily accessible to the casual reader and not easily accessible to the more devoted reader
3. They cost more than the consumer believes they are worth
4. There are other more satisfying outlets for reading that are more affordable, more interesting, or more available to the consumer

It kills me to know that we now live in a country that has like 10 different celebrity gossip tabloid magazines, most of which are produced weekly, and knowing this is so because the consumer’s appetite for this kind of reading materials hasn’t yet been sated.

And yet, there are so many more literary magazines than readers to sustain them. They’re dying off every year. The fact of the matter is, most writers, who would constitute the majority of the literary magazine consumer market, would rather look them up online to see sample work so they know what to send in for publication. They may or may not read the copy in which their work appears. They likely do not subscribe after their work appears. Instead, they move on to other magazines and repeat this process.

It’s an economy of use, not an economy of sustainability. Are literary magazines the writer’s fossil fuels?

On top of everything else, the literary magazine is a disposeable/non recyclable commodity. That means as soon as it has been consumed or reaches its “expiration date,” its relevance ends and it is thrown away or, in many cases, the covers are torn off and sent back to the distributor to prove no one bought them.

From my perspective, what the literary magazine needs to do to stay competitive is:

1. Do it differently. I think magazines that niche themselves are better off than the “everything to everyone” magazines. Tin House and Passager are good examples of this, as is the print version of MiPOESIAS, with its huge glossy pages dominated by photography. It’s gorgeous.

2. Do it cooler. Whenever a technological advance democratizes the means of production of something, the outmoded way becomes a form of fine art (like letterpress printing, for example–formerly the norm, now an art form). So magazines like Ninth Letter really up the ante on quality and innovation in design. I say that’s a good call. Another great example is the print version of spork, which was community-made, hand-bound, and beautiful.

3. Do it smarter. American Poetry Review seems to understand the temporary nature of its work, and prints its issues on newsprint, which I’m sure saves buckets of money each year.

What are some other ways lit mags can stay solvent and/or relevant today…?

The Book Bubble

Is the publishing bubble going to burst?

I’m thinking a lot about how literary publishing has really exploded in the past several years, with the rise of small presses, nonprofit presses, print-on-demand services, diy publishing, and so on. I think it is fantastic that there are so many ways to get books into print now, but I’m also a little nervous about the book market’s ability to sustain such diversity.

Whenever there is a technological advance–such as, say, the internet–there follows an enormous market swell of entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on the advance by founding companies, services, and such. Affordable desktop publishing was one such advance, extending the means of book production to more hands, and print-on-demand technology has been another leap forward, making those production means endlessly affordable by reducing the amount of up-front capital required to found a press or even print a catalog of titles.

All of this has, so far, meant great things for writers, particularly poets, whose work is not widely read by the American reading public. While the for-profit world tends to operate in a Darwinian way (the market determines the lifespan of a product or company), nonprofit organizations crop up whenever “market failure” occurs. Consider market failure to be something like the vanishing of the passenger pigeon. Nonprofit organizations ensure that for any market, nothing goes out of style. Instead, nonprofit orgs require the interested percentage of the market itself to support the activity by making charitable gifts, which are, in non-profit speak, the same thing as venture capital is to the for-profit, but the return on investment is social rather than capital in nature.

Now, more than ever, poets possess the means of production for their work, reminiscent of the days when writers assembled their own “pamphlets” of work. Wasn’t Walt Whitman’s book essentially a self-published title? It feels like it could be a very democratic time in publishing.

Except for that fact that many publishers are going to fail, particularly with the recession.

It’s as likely that a big publisher will fail, and possibly more likely because there is more capital at stake there, more money spent up front on printing and marketing, than a POD press, or even a DIY press. I think we’ll start to see a significant change in the publishing model, although I’m not exactly sure what that is. I fear poets will see more and more fee-based contests, but as an idealist, I’m sure there will continue to be fee-free ways to get books bound.

The internet + desktop publishing + print on demand technology = completely user-based production integration. For example, my online magazine, LOCUSPOINT, costs me $100 per year to keep alive. My labor is volunteer, my authors are volunteer, and my readers are volunteer (meaning they don’t pay). I feel like it’s a good use of my $100 dollars (and my time!) to do this. A print magazine’s budget can soar to $30,000 per year, just due to printing ($5K an issue), postage (yikes! always increasing), and staff salary (when appropriate). So, you tell me: which is the more sustainable model?

There’s a growing sense, though, that when the internet is involved, content should be made available for free. Charging for access to information on the internet is quickly becoming a fool’s errand, and I think another change we’ll see to that model is that fee-based news services will die (sorry, New York Times) because there are alternative options that don’t charge (Yahoo! news, for instance). And Google, with its insistence on extending services to clients for free, is really at the vanguard of this transition.

So this begins to beg the question: will there come a time when books are free? Now that we have Kindle and Sony Reader running around, it’s more possible. With the production costs of the bound book decreasing, there are fewer things to pay for. Normally, this would mean an increase in the profit margin, but in this case, it means a reduction in cost to the consumer because they sense there’s less value in their purchase (like how iTunes songs are cheaper than songs you buy on non-rewritable media).

And the next question: should books and literary magazines be free?

Yes, that is the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Free distribution is likely to widen readership (with no barrier to entry, people of all economic backgrounds can participate, which is something many traditional presses forget about, even contests who charge fees forget this).

Free distribution means the purpose of the activity is not to turn a profit, but to accomplish something else.

Perhaps what we’ll see now is use of the literary magazine as a “preview” of books to come. Like, a press collects a cohort of authors into its fold, uses its literary magazine to promote and publicize their work through a free system of distribution, and then entices readers to purchase books (online, naturally) so that they can read the whole thing.

…and isn’t that a model we’ve seen before (to some extent)? “Schools” of writers, banding together, publishing their work themselves, distributing it free or for low-cost, and then publishing books…

…yes, it sounds like something that happened the last time there was a significant advance in publishing: the photocopier.

Chapbooks: Scarcity Influences Demand

So, a while back I posted via myspace that I was almost out of chapbooks.

Now, I am out.

I have some more coming soon, but it’s going to take a few weeks because—yes—more have to be printed!

Thanks to everyone who already bought one and for those of you who’ve shared your responses with me. It means a lot.

On a sidenote, are you my friend on myspace? Because I want you to be.