"Curate the Journal You Want to Read." Editors Give Advice to Editors
Question: In this crowded market of lit mags, what advice would you give newer editors for making their lit mags stand out? For ensuring the longevity of their lit mags?
Barbara Diehl, Senior Editor, The Baltimore Review:
For making your lit mag stand out:
A basic awareness of design principles (or someone on staff who can help with this) and as few distractions from your content as possible (no ads and other fluff screaming for attention) are a start, but if you haven’t got consistently stunning content, you’ve got nothing. Just window dressing. Celebrity writers may get attention, but the work they submit must be worthy of that attention. If it isn’t, politely decline. Ask them to submit again in the future if you think highly of other work they’ve published. Don’t settle. Publish the work of new writers when their work blows you away. Take risks. Pirates, flying men, a prisoner rodeo mixed with more traditional stories—why not? We’ll have a story with zombies in our spring issue. A literary short story? Yes, it is. Different? Yes. But we loved it. So it’s in. Strive for diversity of all kinds. So many voices should be heard. Do they all have an MFA? No. Nominate your contributors for every possible prize out there—and there are a good number of honors to be bestowed on lit mag writers now. Be aware of them. You’ll stand out if your contributors score prizes. Good for them. Good for you.
For ensuring the longevity of your lit mag:
Know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. A lit mag is not something to start on a whim. Do your homework. Talk to other editors. Find out as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of being a publisher before putting out any call for submissions. But to take a step back: Examine your motives. Why, exactly, do you want to get involved in a project that will take an enormous amount of your time (if you take it seriously), much of it spent in activities that are not particularly glamorous, and which will probably result in little to no personal financial gain? In fact, you may end up paying out of pocket for pens or bookmarks with your lit mag logo on them, because you want to have some cool freebies for AWP and don’t want to put a ding in your lit mag’s checking account. You’re passionate about showcasing great writing, and you want the literary community to know you exist. Great. Passion. If you have the kind of passion that doesn’t fizzle out at every little disappointment and obstacle and incomprehensible tax form—that’s a start. You’re also going to need people with a similar passion. Not wishy-washy or flighty sorts who will stick pins in your passion. Having a knockout editorial staff will help ensure longevity. These people will change over time. Know that from the start. No organization, or lit mag, can be entirely dependent on one person to survive for many years. Any editor-in-chief will have to consider succession planning at some point, and how to ensure a smooth transition, if that editor wants the lit mag to continue. Know when it’s time to release something you love dearly, and let someone else take your place.
Zachary Cosby, Editor, Fog Machine:
When it comes to online journals with a rolling publishing schedule, most of your readership doesn't read "the journal", they read "the people". They start by checking out the work of already familiar names, and then click one (maybe two) other people before going back to whatever else is on. It's important to make those moments of exploration worth their time. And for us, that seems to always fall back on publishing work that we 100% believe in. I want to feel an emotional or intellectual stake in each collection of writing that goes up. By making it personal, ultimately it will click with readers much more than publishing what you think people want to read, or worse, hitting publish for the sake of publishing. And if you want longevity, keep it interesting. Not for your readers, but for yourself. Your journal is only going to last for as long as you want it. And from my experience, that depends on how much fun you are having. Are you meeting new people and having good conversations about the work? Are you taking the time to learn new skills (photoshop, coding, print production, etc)? Are you opening yourself to a sense of wonder and discovery as you explore different writers? Remember, publishing your friends is cool, but making new friends through publishing is even cooler. Have fun with it.
Michael Fischer, Assistant Editor, Profane:
You have to pick an angle. I don’t think it’s really feasible, with so many lit mags out there now, to start another one just by saying, “We want great, edgy writing.” Well, yeah—you and everyone else. There are too many established, amazing lit mags already asking for that same thing. So you have to find an angle on that statement, something that’s going to light a fire under enough good writers to get you strong material. For example, at Profane we look for work that is (guess what) profane, however people choose to interpret that word. We try to be a home for the kinds of things that normally go unsaid. That’s enough of a departure from just asking for good, edgy writing to spark inspiration in potential submitters.
You can never ensure longevity, but I think you can do yourself a lot of good by shamelessly using your network. Every writer you know, every writer who someone you know knows, every writing program or conference or workshop you’ve ever been a part of—all assets for your lit mag. Not just as sources of submissions but as potential audience, interview subjects (if your mag includes interviews), contest judges, etc. Entrench your lit mag as deeply in your social and professional networks as you can.
Also, build a reputation for being good to your contributors. Be grateful to them and promote work they’ve published elsewhere. That kind of stuff matters. As big and crowded as the lit mag scene appears to be, it’s a smaller world than you think.
Michael Prihoda, Founding Editor, After the Pause:
As to making your lit mag stand out, I think it requires an immense amount of pre-planning, i.e. research (or homework). You need to know the market you are about to step into before stepping into it. Now, there are more lit mags around than anybody has time to research, but any aspiring editor ought to acquaint herself with what is available, what some of the best publications are doing, how they do it, and how a new editor might do something a little differently. Despite the grandiose offerings available, the age of media makes differentiation and diversity nearly infinite. Namely, there is always some new niche or twist you can put in your lit mag that you can then emphasize and leverage, thereby hopefully achieving recognition and status. If, when researching, you only come across lit mags that you'd like to replicate and not mags that actually inspire you to tread new ground, I'm going to gently suggest you walk away from the venture. The market doesn't need two of the same magazine. It needs carefully produced, thought-through, and crafted venues that garner a special following based on the magazine itself being special. Now, without being too long-winded, the above is not to discourage a magazine from its birth because the editor acknowledges overlap. There's going to be some of that. But a carbon-copy helps no one.
As to longevity, I think that again requires planning. Plans can be malleable and change over time but if you don't have a plan of some kind, it's too easy to burn out. And, as an author, few things depress me more than being very excited to have my work in the inaugural issue of a brand new mag I really got behind philosophically/artistically, only to then check in on that mag a few months later to find out no second issue would ever come. There's a host of reasons for this but I think having a plan or not having a plan contributes in large part. In addition, magazines, once established, need to be adaptable. They should try new things and be willing to fail (but not fold completely). When I think of the first issue of After the Pause and I compare it to the most recent issue, they are vastly different, while retaining the same a...p feel I set out to give our readers from day one. I love encouraging new editors and I get a jittery/happy feeling every time I come across a magazine just starting out with all its verve in the "Submissions" page. But editors owe it to themselves, the authors they plan to publish, and the readers they hope to reach, to have a clear plan and to do their homework before ever asking anyone to be a part of their mission.
Spencer Chou, Editor-in-Chief/Fiction Editor, The Nottingham Review:
Make it clear what kind of writing you want to publish. You often see newer lit mags saying not much more than 'Send us your best work' or 'Please read work we've published to get an idea of what were looking for', or something well-meaning but pretty vague, or even nothing at all. If you're explicit about the kind of writing you publish, not only will you be more likely to stand out, but you'll be more likely to attract the right kind of submissions (making your life easier). There are other ways for newer lit mags to stand out, such as responding to submissions quicker than other places or giving feedback with rejections. Those things aren't possible for every editor, but they are ways to stand out from the crowd when submissions are still relatively low.
As for longevity... be prepared for the amount of work involved. It requires more time than you might think to read submissions, send rejections/acceptances, edit, format, run social media accounts, design and maintain a website, answer queries, etc. You won't have as much time to spend on other things that are important to you, which often seems to be a reason why lit mags cease operating. You should be aware of this from the beginning and consider whether you're going to have enough time to dedicate yourself to the role in the long term. Similarly, be prepared for it financially. There are certainly options available to do it for free (and the possibility to even make a little money), but there can be costs involved (website, submission manager, printing) that could make it prohibitive to you if you're not prepared or your circumstances change.
RM Cooper, Founder & Managing Editor, Sequestrum:
Make sure your publication is filling a need. There are a lot of publications in the world today, and the spaces of "we publish quality writing" are well-filled. What are you doing differently? Why should writers and readers care? If an editor can answer those questions (and they're willing to put in the work), they'll be just fine.
Kelly Davio, Publisher & Poetry Editor, Tahoma Literary Review:
For a journal to stand out, stay relevant, and stay in print, it’s important to have more than a strong aesthetic and an enthusiasm for good writing (though those things are, of course, important); a journal needs a good business plan. It’s critical to establish a sustainable budget, a defined organizational structure, a manageable publication schedule, and robust communication among staff in the early days of a journal if the founders are going to prevent burnout and survive unforeseen challenges.
Kimberly Ann Southwick, Editor-in-Chief, Gigantic Sequins:
Dear New Lit Mag Editors,
Congrats! You've embarked on a journey that will most likely be, and remain, a labor of love until you kill it or it kills you. Know your own strengths, but more importantly your weaknesses, and surround yourself with those who will complement your strengths with their own, but whose aesthetics overlap yours. Building a team of hardworking trustworthy people is a difficult task, but the better your team, the more room you have to focus on making what you do successful. Figure out as soon as you can why your lit mag matters. Does it fill a hole where no other lit mag exists? People will ask you what hole you fill in the small press world for the first ~3-5 years of your journal's existence, so knowing how to answer that question is key. Don't give up on your own writing if you're a writer, and don't let anyone tell you that great editors can't be great writers and vice versa. If you're passionate about both, find a way to make them both important to you that acknowledges the overlap and difference between the two roles. Finally, have fun. If you're not having fun, fix it: delegate more or better, negotiate relationships between your staff, figure out the right way to communicate with everyone, find a resource or tool that helps to make your life easier, readjust your production schedule so that it makes more sense with how your life has changed, etc. Welcome to the wonderful world of lit mag editing-- and THANK YOU for what you'll do to make the writing community better in your service to it.
Sincerely, Kimberly Ann Southwick, Gigantic Sequins EIC
p.s. GS is celebrating its 8th birthday this April! Have faith in your abilities to make a difference in the lit mag world. If it's important to you, you can do it.
Michelle Tudor, Journal Editor, Wildness:
My biggest advice would be to just be your own thing. Curate the journal you want to read, publish the things that cause a reaction, and always be open to a variety of new (or established) voices that pass your eyes.
With regards to longevity, hmm, don’t expect anything and always plan ahead (a few issues at least). That way you’ll always have enough time to get past any slumps in submissions or delays from contributors. The simple truth is that creating and maintaining a journal for the long haul takes a lot of effort and if you don’t see yourself being able to maintain that then you have to surround yourself with people you trust to help you.
Lorcán Black, Editor-in-Chief, Anomaly Literary Journal:
I would definitely say try your best to do something a little different. It’s true that the market is absolutely saturated (which is, in my opinion, a good thing for writers) and it’s a necessity to do something to make your lit mag stand out- whether it’s having a certain angle or theme (work by women or LGBT writers only, as just two random examples) or just having a YouTube channel or podcast. Utilizing social media is a must anyway but utilizing it well can be tough to do- time wise as much as anything- but with so many quality lit mags starting up every year, it can obviously be really difficult to do something new or different, but it’s definitely something that needs some serious consideration.