The Internet really seems to baffle literary journals. Those with high standards for print design often have inelegant web designs, the Paris Review for example. But moreso, very few journals have figured out how to use the Internet to financially supplement their respective missions. The brief overview and suggestions below are based on one assumption: for a journal to survive financially, it should worry less about protecting its content and more about becoming viewed as indispensable.
money for nothing
The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses funds and maintains an incredible resource for its paying members called the Literary Journal Institute Toolkit. It is an in-depth look at what journals do to survive and thrive, from picking a distributor to crafting an effective direct mail campaign.
One poorly understood area the Toolkit explores is how a journal really makes its money—it’s not by selling more individual copies necessarily; it’s by methodically moving a reader up the chain from “Single-copy buyer” to “Subscriber” to “Renewing subscriber” to “Donor” to “Board member.” Each step means more income generated on lower expenses. A particular passage illustrates this progression:
Renewals are by far the single most important marketing effort you have. They generate the bulk of almost any literary magazine’s revenue. Without too much effort, they produce the highest return of any other promotion. (How else can you get over a 50% response rate?)
Once you have succeeded in renewing a subscriber, that subscriber becomes increasingly loyal and valuable. They respond better than other subs to any other items you are trying to sell (books, tote bags, readings, events). They are also the most likely to give gift subscriptions and to give money (if you solicit donations). To lose a subscriber who has renewed already is more costly than not getting a new subscription in the door.
The Literary Journal Institute Toolkit: “A Quick & Dirty Look at Newsstand Sales”
In short, it costs a lot to sell one copy. Production, manufacturing, distribution, author compensation. It costs far less less to receive a donation: perhaps a direct mail campaign, perhaps a dinner event, perhaps a friendly phone call. The goal is get money in with no money out—money for nothing.
and your chapbooks for free
When I was grad school and working in a large tutoring office, a coworker/poetry student went around the office and offered to sell everyone a small collection of his poems (a chapbook) for $7. I bought one; I had read his poems before, liked them, and was happy to oblige. But no one bought a copy who hadn’t already read his poems, even though they had worked alongside him. They weren’t prepared to spend money on something when they didn’t know what they’d get in return.
There’s much to be said about inflating the cost of a product, even (or especially) art, in order to give it a fraudulant sheen of value. It works everywhere from convenience stores to consultancies and works particularly well in contexts where consumers have little objective information to base their own pricing upon—I’m scared to think what I would have paid for my first digital camera had there not been online user reviews to give me a proper sense of each camera’s true value.
But charging a premium on writing is a direct impediment to its distribution. When journals hoard their writing, so must their readers. When journals only make a small portion of their stories and poems available online, readers who visit journal websites encounter very little of value that they can associate with the journal. There’s less to get excited about. There’s nothing to share.
Remember: the writing itself is not a journal’s only source of value. There’s the experience, there’s the chance to create community—a community with such mutual affection that it wants to contribute money to prolong its own existence. And there’s the value of the different media, web and print. On the web, writing is easy to share. In print, writing is easy to love. Readers know this. They want to get excited. They want to convert themselves from tryers to buyers to full-on benefactors.
Journals simply need to keep the paths open.
Example of vibrant online journal with all-free writing: McSweeney’s
Reference I wanted to make but couldn’t because the content wasn’t available online: The Paris Review has a great interview in the Fall/Winter issue with poet Jack Gilbert, who talks about his non-concern for contests and cash prizes—and other poets’ obsession with them. Perhaps true, but I think it’s more important to point out that very few writers publish with any hope for meaningful compensation—most would simply like to know that they are being read by as many people as possible, another vote for free and easy online access.
Parting shot: While the same can’t be said for magazines and newspapers, there is no evidence that posting all of a journal’s content online cannibalizes sales. Moreover, no one pirates journals. There’s simply too much value in the touchable, subway-able, coffee-table-displayable print edition of a journal, and as long as that’s the case, there will always be a low, neighborly fence between how someone uses, say, Ploughshares and how someone uses www.pshares.org.