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How I learned to stop worrying and love online publishing

[Ed. Note:  I’d been following Sean Bishop’s posts on the Ploughshares blog with interest, excitement & frustration.  Which is to say I sometimes agreed, sometimes disagreed, sometimes wished for a broader recognition & sometimes wanted a narrower focus.  No matter, I was always provoked into thought by what he wrote.  When Ploughshares pulled the plug on a post before I even had a chance to read it, I wrote to him to offer it a home here.]


The following essay was originally published by Ploughshares, on their blog, on June 25. The next day, Ploughshares “unpublished” the essay with no comment or retraction. They have not responded to any of my requests to explain their decision…. I no longer blog for Ploughshares.


About a year and a half ago, when I began brainstorming a new journal of culture and literature, my peers confronted me over and over with the same question: print or online? And my response, at the time, was almost knee-jerk: print, of course. All of the journals where I most wanted to publish, as a writer, were print publications, so naturally my magazine would be made of paper too. And why teach myself to code websites just to produce a journal that, by sheer fact of its electronic format, would be considered second-rate?


It didn’t take long to change my mind. Twenty months later, after a lot of research and number crunching, I’m now preparing to launch issue one of Better—that journal I dreamed up less than two years ago—exclusively online. The idea of actually printing it, packing it in envelopes, and mailing it out seems almost ludicrous to me now. Like many younger editors, I’ve found myself wrapped up in a transition that has already begun to revolutionize the literary marketplace.


Finding the Form


If you’ve been alive (or, well, publishing) for five years or more, you probably remember when only a handful of online literary magazines were half as well respected as their ink-and-paper counterparts, Blackbird and DIAGRAM being among the first to break through the stigma. But if you cruise on over to Duotrope and browse their list of fledgling literary markets, then you’ll see that times have changed: almost every new magazine is now online-only.


The recession is likely a huge motivator for this shift, causing even longstanding print magazines like TriQuarterly to move exclusively onto the web. Money is tight, and printing/shipping costs can easily run more than ten thousand dollars for a single issue. All you need to publish online, by contrast, is a domain and a host, both of which come cheap. Since wireless access and open-source, user-friendly content-management software are so ubiquitous these days, online publishing seems like the obvious choice for emerging magazines.


Though the shift itself has been rapid, the online journal as an entity in its own right has been slow to find its form. Even now, most online literary magazines are comprised of static text organized into distinct quarterly or semi-annual “issues,” complete with tables of contents. Sometimes they’re even organized to look like print publications, with animated “page turning” effects. All of these aspects are unnecessary holdovers from print culture. Reading these magazines, I sometimes feel like I’m watching a silent film where the camera is fixed in place and the actors, because they are trained for the stage, gesticulate wildly and unnecessarily. Watching old films like that drives me nuts. I want to scream, STOP! What are you doing?!?! Stop waving your arms like that! There’s so much more that film can do!!


And there’s so much more the internet can do, too. Fortunately there are a handful of online journals that have begun to exploit the web’s potential. Not surprisingly, many of the big-time journals with expendable incomes were the first to make good use of the form—they had the money to pay web developers to do it. But as usual, some of the most exciting evolutions are now happening in the rank-and-file, totally profitless “little magazines,” as they used to be called.


So here’s a list of some of the most promising young online literary journals, in terms of site design… by which I don’t necessarily mean aesthetics (and certainly don’t mean quality of content in every case) so much as I mean user-friendliness and inventive use of the internet as a form. They’re the journals that serve as inspirations to me, in one way or another, for what my own magazine might grow to resemble.


Born Magazine


Born sells itself as “an all-volunteer project that brings together writers, artists, and others from diverse fields to create storytelling artworks.” Basically it works like this: an editor solicits you, or picks your story/essay/poem out of the slush pile, and then pairs you with a designer who turns your work into an interactive Flash application. One of my favorites is “Zoology,” a collaboration between poet Sasha West and artist Ernesto Lavandera, which will give you a much better idea of what Born is up to than I could possibly explain here. This is no stage play haphazardly adapted to film, it’s the real deal: a multi-media text that couldn’t exist anywhere but online. It’s a form of literary journal only the internet could’ve, well, birthed.



la fovea and Ink Node


Although at first glance these publications look nothing alike apart from being online poetry journals, they’re actually very similar in their underlying philosophies and structures. La fovea, founded by poet Frank Giampietro, does not have distinct “issues” but rather accumulates over time. Giampietro taps fellow poets as “nerveheads” who then solicit poets of their own and, at least hypothetically, so on and so forth. It’s a way of showing chains of literary influence and appreciation that a print journal, being a more-or-less linear reading technology, can’t really do. Much like “sitemaps” (the inverted family-tree-like diagrams that web developers use to plan the navigation structure of a web site) la fovea branches out from a central starting points into multiple nerves and subnerves.


In certain respects, Ink Node is a more extreme, younger cousin of la fovea, founded by a small group of people including the multi-talented poet/essayist/Radiolab celebrity Brian Christian. In much the same way that Gmail first distributed itself, each poet invited to contribute to Ink Node is given a small number of invitations they can offer to other poets they admire, who then get invitations of their own to offer. Poets can “subscribe” to one another, as well as rate and comment on one another’s poems. Previously published works are acceptable—making the site a useful professional tool for poets who don’t have a website of their own—though only brand-new poems may be published weekly on the magazine’s homepage, managed (at least last I knew) by Christian. Rather than following a tree-like structure, Ink Node is actually built much more like a nervous system than la fovea, branching exponentially outward but then linking back into itself through multiple channels until the original branching structure is invisible and unnecessary to follow, meaning unlike la fovea, it has no true center. Again: it’s a format that couldn’t exist anywhere but online.


The Digital Americana 


Designed specifically to be read on an iPad or other tablet, The Digital Americana is the youngest magazine on this list so far. Granted, services like issuu have made it easy for any print publication to publish a tablet-ready edition, but The Digital Americana is custom-made for that format and is a useful reference for any magazine that might want to make its tablet-editions more interactive. It features audio and video, and the navigation (though not perfect) is versatile in that you can navigate as if it were a print journal or an online journal with almost-equal ease.


All online journals would do well to start testing their sites on iPads and smart-phones as a matter of course—way too many online magazines try to get fancy using mouse-over effects that make navigating pretty much impossible on a tablet, where there’s no such thing as “rolling over” an image or link. Looking through The Digital Americana is a good starting point to make your journal more tablet-friendly, which all editors should do, since in five-to-ten years there probably won’t be any meaningful distinction between tablets and laptops. Bye-bye, mice.







[PANK], Linebreak, The Nashville Review, and The Monarch Review  


I’m sure there are a number of other journals that could be included here, but one of the most basic things an online magazine can do to make itself a little more dynamic is to include sound recordings of its featured works, or to incorporate music or other audio in some other way. Some journals (like Linebreak) ask poets and writers to record themselves reading other writers’ works, while others ([PANK], for instance) ask their authors to submit recordings when accepted. This gets easier as more and more people own phones with sophisticated and surprisingly capable recording applications. Beyond this, it’s an issue of accessibility: visually impaired individuals will thank you for including recordings, and those with freakishly more-than-adequate vision will just think it’s cool to hear the work read aloud.


HTML Giant 


Okay, so HTML Giant isn’t really a literary magazine. If Gawker weren’t already Gawker-for-writers, then I’d probably say that HTML Giant is Gawker-for-writers. But I’m including it here anyway because I think it’s the best example of how online journals need to adapt to the internet format as far as response-time and tone are concerned. In the days of print publication, books would sometimes get reviewed years after they were published, since print-publication schedules often require six months or more of lag time between finalizing content, doing layout, and then getting the issue back from the printers. What I mean is, online magazines need to tighten up their response cycles, behaving more like newspapers than old-style journals. They also need to be a little less stuffy in their delivery of information and criticism, in order to adapt to the tone of the internet-at-large (some would say the internet just needs to get more “professional,” but screw those people… professionalism is dumm). HTML Giant is a useful measuring stick for where online journals are probably going in terms of commentary and criticism.




I’ve never read this magazine, and in a number of ways it probably doesn’t belong on this list at all. But I’m including it to suggest that the relationship between online and print publication is on the verge of reversing itself.


For a long time, the online identities of magazines have been seen as secondary to the print identities. When I was the managing editor at Gulf Coast, where alongside my co-editor Laurie Ann Cedilnik I completely overhauled the online and graphic identities of the journal, this is more or less how we understood the website: a venue for original and exclusive online content, yes, but in the service of selling more issues and subscriptions of the magazine in print. Whereas in the past, a magazine’s website was a way to keep readers engaged even when they weren’t holding a physical copy of the issue, I think the opposite will be true very soon: many online journals are going to offer optional “real world” content as a way of keeping their readers engaged, and to give them some physical sense of ownership of the journal.


Dirtflask is kind of an extreme example: if you want to pay the cost, they will ship you a small bottle filled with dirt and rolled-up-scrolls containing the contents of the online issue. Awesome. Other journals might achieve similar, less self-mocking effects by mailing postcard-sized “broadsides” to submitters every few months, or something along those lines.


Not to get all Jean Baudrillardian up in this post, but at least as far as literature is concerned, the physical world is about to become secondary to the digital world. Argue all you want to the contrary… it’s still true.

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