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Literary Publishing Can Be a Brave New World: On Vision, Business, and Audience
Writer & Publisher reflects on strengthening indie lit business and culture
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I’m an ex-academic, MFA dropout who managed to stumble my way into independent book publishing after several thwarted career attempts. While I’ve done quite a few different things, the common threads have always been looking to build community and cultivate creativity, whether in the nonprofit or education sectors. Along the way, I’ve also managed to begin a modest writing career—no books in my bio yet, but I’ve had some significant publications, both paid and unpaid. Last year, my husband and I hit the ground running with our bootstrapped, home-based press, Belle Point Press. I am learning as I go every day, but I think my eclectic background has allowed me to have a broader perspective about the realities for both literary publishers and writers, as well as how we can learn from other communities.
Most of us are likely familiar with the rhetoric and various arguments within the current literary publishing industry, particularly around submission fees and sustainable funding models, or the respective roles of publishers and writers. Bring in the issue of paying writers for their work (or not), and it adds another layer of discussion. It’s exhausting and often contentious, but I wonder if it always has to be.
I spend a lot of time reading different viewpoints as they emerge and recycle around the internet. The Lit Mag News Substack is a useful source of various perspectives and ongoing discussion among the comments; I’m grateful for this forum and the service that Becky provides. Although I have my own values as a traditional publisher (and writer who occasionally earns a little money from her work), I try to be open to considering the nuances and challenges that go into the publishing process for other people in an increasingly complicated literary landscape.
The most recurring problems I see involve a few interconnected levels:
● a lack of clear consensus about our shared values and how we define them
● gaps in knowledge about the practical/business sense needed to operate sustainably in the publishing industry
● ambiguity around who our target audiences should (or could) be
Overall, the literary world tends to espouse a lot of the same language on a regular basis—community, diversity, transparency, accessibility—but I do not always see clear definitions for what we actually mean or what kinds of metrics we use to measure such things. At the same time, a paradox exists where certain levels of literary publishing are more gatekept than ever or access is otherwise decreasing (think, for example, of the pervasive contest model and ever-rising book submission fees), while new publications/publishers are frequently opening up without a unique or compelling rationale for their existence.
Publishers must be able to articulate what they care about and what they’re trying to accomplish, what they hope to add to the literary community; the duplication and imbalance of resources among many literary outlets is troubling and counterproductive to cultivating a deeper community. A publisher’s vision should be clear enough to rally their audience around them and attract their ideal writers and readers. And it’s critical to have practical steps in place to gauge how well we live out the values we claim to uphold in our literary ventures.
A publisher’s vision should be clear enough to rally their audience around them and attract their ideal writers and readers.
But how? This is where the business or “practical” side of things comes into play. It has to, despite the fact that a lot of folks may see “business” as a dirty word in artistic pursuits. Publishers have a responsibility to their audiences—both readers and writers—to develop sustainable models—financially, creatively, and logistically.
There can be a tendency for writers and other literary types to frame things as “labors of love,” a truism that may motivate us to get up in the morning but cannot (on its own) justify the existence of a professional platform. Publishers take the hopes of writers (and in many cases, the money of readers and/or writers) in their hands; they offer a space for new work to be read and shared with a wider audience than the writer could likely achieve on their own. Publications help develop a writer’s career and enable readers to feel less isolated in a culture growing only more fragmented; they nurture literary communities and help other writers learn more about the work of writing, how their voices resonate with and depart from contemporary art.
Ideally, such models—at least when operating independently, beyond academic programs (often used primarily to educate students) or free online lit mags (focused primarily on open access)—should also build systems that enable more tangible support for writers (i.e. payment or other compensation of material value) while still taking care of their resources in order to make sure they can stay afloat and keep growing their community. Before undertaking such an ethical obligation, publishers have to work out plans for how they can manage the entire process with their audiences’ needs in mind while remaining true to their own editorial visions. This includes several things, though this list is likely not comprehensive:
● Submissions system/guidelines (sub manager, response timeline, accessible information, etc.)
● Staff dynamics: clear roles for staff members; growing mastheads
● Relationship between publisher and authors—making it mutually supportive/beneficial
● Editorial/design process: Handling work respectfully and making it accessible to readers
● Relationship to readers: if print, fulfilling orders efficiently and pricing things fairly; marketing publications to the appropriate audiences, helping readers find them and see why the work has value to them
I’ve used the word “audience” a lot here deliberately. Literary folks frequently bemoan the lack of readership; it’s hard not to become disheartened, or even cynical, when we feel as though so few people actually read (much less subscribe to) literary magazines, buy our books, or click through our Twitter links. Publishers struggle with limited publicity resources for a variety of reasons, some out of their control.
Although it’s true on one level that focusing on one’s audience can stifle creativity, to pursue a literary career without a community in mind is shortsighted at best. I choose to believe that there are more readers lurking both within and beyond the typical literary channels; it is up to us—all of us—to find them. A publisher’s role ultimately has to be to get to know their audiences and meet them where they are. Even better if writers help publishers do the same.
So what practical steps can we take toward achieving this vision sustainably? I have too many ideas bouncing around to propose comprehensive solutions, but I do have a few simple and/or creative suggestions/observations:
● Look closely at your mission statement and the language you use to describe your publication. How is it unique from other publishers? What need are you trying to fill? Who are you trying to reach? Try to be as specific as possible. Clarifying this vision will lay the groundwork for how to develop your model in practical terms and help guide the ideal readers and writers to you. (This particular insight draws directly from Joe Biel’s A People’s Guide to Publishing, a book and human to whom I’m regularly indebted.)
● How can you gauge whether you’re working actively toward this vision? Again, be specific. What does it look like to you? Transparent submission statistics? Bookstore research to find your target retailers? Membership in groups like CLMP or listings in databases? Emphasis on particular genres, communities? Who are the literary models you want to emulate (or not) in what you publish? What are you not seeing that you think we should see more of?
I choose to believe that there are more readers lurking both within and beyond the typical literary channels; it is up to us—all of us—to find them.
● Stop operating under a scarcity mindset. Live within limits that enable you to leverage your resources and goals and to do more with less rather than bemoaning the less. Time and other resources are precious commodities for all of us, which is why it’s so critical to develop and implement systems that empower you to make your limits work for you. As a two-person operation with our press, for example, I rely heavily on systems like Google Forms to streamline various administrative tasks, from book submissions to publicity requests. It keeps my inbox less out of control and makes information easier to find.
● Develop an efficient submissions system: Submittable or another system need not be the default if you cannot fund it through your own resources. Establish certain submission filters (required questions geared toward finding the people/projects that fit, strategic sub windows) to (hopefully) help address/reduce the excess without making that exclusively the writers’ responsibility. Why not make a required question in the sub form that asks submitters to mention a recent piece in your lit mag or press they admire and why, for example? Ask specifically—beyond the generic cover letter placeholder—how their work connects with your mission or other work you’ve published. In this area especially, more “literary” publications could learn much from those that lean more speculative, an area of the industry that consciously avoids sub fees and still handles large volumes of submissions with grace.
● Build monetary incentives into your publication that add tangible value to consumers: produce print issues—now even easier and lower-risk with POD tech—develop creative merch, build up a membership/subscription base, offer workshops or other creative opportunities to writers. Make your work and community an investment. Some presses “waive” fees with a book purchase or include a discounted book for a sub fee; while I’m personally still in the No Sub Fees camp, I can also appreciate the expectation from publishers that potential authors should be more aware of their catalogs. If you’ve never seen any of their books, how do you know you’d actually trust them with your work? (To me, that’s still different from requiring a sub fee upfront without any expectation of receiving anything in return, but I won’t dig into that argument here)
● I get weird brainstorms on a pretty regular basis. One of them recently was this idea that smaller online lit mags could combine resources to produce joint print anthologies—tapping into their multiple (though potentially overlapping) audiences and developing potential revenue streams (not that anthologies are substantial money-makers, but if done thoughtfully, maybe it could be worth a try). It would be wonderful to see more frequent collaborations between lit mags and small presses of various kinds: joint workshops, readings, etc. What if we could cross-promote each other’s products or go in together on online storefronts? Leverage our resources together. I was inspired reading this older post that was referenced in another Lit Mag News post a while back.
● Run crowdfunding campaigns (another lesson from the speculative crowd and other more community-oriented presses like Microcosm) to provide tangible rewards to readers and rally support around your larger vision. Build community.
While I may only be one small, newer publisher, it cannot be denied that the literary publishing world is cracking, and it needs fixing. Bemoaning the loss of what was without implementing new, stronger solutions is not only irresponsible; it’s counterproductive to supporting the actual voices—the actual culture—we claim to champion. I have to believe that a better, more mutually supportive literary community is possible, but it will take creative, courageous solutions to make it happen.