What is the future of the Small Literary Magazine community?

Short story writers and small press literary magazine editors are an important community.  This wasn’t apparent to me when I first started submitting my short stories around, “way back” in 2010. I also didn’t understand the majority of these magazines operated with volunteer staffs and a lot of love, fantatical dedication and sweat equity.

Think about that for a moment. The time it takes to create a short story and then the time it takes for a staff of dedicated volunteers to assess that work and determine if it’s a fit for a journal. We all keep doing it, in a positive reinforcing circle, and it’s produced inspiring work.

There have been several postings I’ve seen around the web recently about what it takes to run a small literary magazine (SLM). Most of these discussions talk about the financial, or lack of financial, support for the small literary magazines (SLM).

As a writer who has placed 15 of my pieces with SLM’s, and I’ve not gotten (nor expected) any payment from it, I can tell you I’m also personally unwilling to pay reading fees to an SLM to read my work. This would be the case for me if I got paid for my short stories or not. It’s also why I don’t participate in contests that charge reading fees. To me, that feels more like gambling than a contest. It’s more like a poker game where everyone puts money into the pot and winner takes all.

(As a side note, and my apologies to the U.S. Post Office notwithstanding, I’m also unwilling to kill trees to circulate my work. It boggles my mind that some of these ancient, old-guard SLM’s …The Paris Review, for example… still get away with living in the 19th Century when it comes to accepting submissions. Get with the program, people. The New Yorker accepts electronic subs, so there should be no excuse for others. Support Submittable and get a Submishmash account for your SLM and come into the 21st Century. You know, where the real people live with computers, email accounts and everything.)

I’m ready, willing and able to interact with a volunteer staff as a writer volunteering to provide my short story for free in exchange for publication, and I’m also ready to help publicize that SLM and encourage others to read it. I’m happy to see (some) advertising on the SLM’s website, or for people to pay for subscriptions, or merchandise, or door-fee fueled special events. I have no issue with SLM’s that solicit for donations on a voluntary basis either.

I volunteered for a short while as a slushpile reader at an SLM, and I’d be willing to do it again. I enjoyed it tremendously and I felt like, even for a brief stint, I was able to give back to my community.

Where does all this leave us as a community of writers, editors and staff, small literary magazine afficianados, readers and everyone else who participates in this wonderful machine we all feed every day of the year?

You may not like it, but it leaves us exactly where we are today. We have decided to participate in this thriving community because we are compelled to write and produce our work, and others are compelled to dedicate themselves to provide venues for writers, artists, photographers, etc. to showcase that work.

While it’s unfortunate that the economic climate for artists in the United States has never been fantastic, it’s never going to stop writers from doing what they need to do: write. Short story writers and SLM editors are no different. Their compulsion to support the community is real, and their dedication to it palpable.

I’m grateful to be a part of this community, and proud to count myself among their multitudes.

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7 Responses

  1. Well though out post Carol. I agree with most of what you’re saying, except in regards to contests. I understand the philosophy of your feelings, but I still think it’s a legitimate way to provide some “atta boy” money and recognition to writers, without forcing a struggling, doing-it-for-the-love-of-it SLM to go out of pocket.
    Reading fees however – that feels icky. Sort of like, “we’re only going to provide a space to showcase great writing that we don’t pay the writers for, if the writers pay for it. Except there’s no guarantee your story will be accepted. But we’re still more than happy to have you pay for the privilege of considering whether you’re worthy.”

    • Thanks for your thoughts Wren.

      I know some folks are willing to pay for contest entries, and for now I’m still on the other side of the fence.

      I may eventually have to re-think my paper submission policy, because more and more I’m seeing markets I’m interested in that don’t accept electronic submissions. But for now, I’m embracing markets that have embraced the cheap and easy technological solutions available to them. 🙂

      • I hear ya’ on that. I started noticing around a year ago that if I saw an SLM only accepted paper submissions, I would just disregard them as a potential submission source. I don’t get why any mag would not want to move past that. Then I start wondering if they really have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the literary world anymore. Or maybe I’m just lazy…

        • Yeah, I also wondered how an SLM was on top of what was happening in the literary world, but they probably don’t care about that so much as sticking closely to their own literary asthetic. Some of those “paper only” publications have built up an aura of authority within the literary community. I think paper subs only is an assertion of that power, it’s a statement “we can do it this way because WE are X,” than anything else.

          I once contacted Fiddlehead, published in a Canada. I asked the editor (Via Email, by the way) why they don’t accept electronic submissions. Here is her response, make of it what you will:

          The editors examined various electronic submissions scheme, spoke to other journals, etc. and decided—given The Fiddlehead’s resources and current priorities at this time– to not do electronic submissions. This question will be revisited I am sure in the future.

          And I do not know all the reasons for the final decisions, but certainly there was a concern about the number of submissions. It already takes between three to nine months for an editorial response to be sent out because of the volume of submissions.

          As you noted there are some literary journals that do accept electronic submissions. A couple of websites that can help you locate other such literary journals are:

          Duotrope’s digest: http://www.duotrope.com/index.aspx

          NewPages.com: http://www.newpages.com/npguides/litmags.htm

  2. short story literature to me is a part of the literature the same way is poetry or “long story literature” often the concept is more important than the size and a short story can have a very strong meaning. I could bring the example of Æsop ( Greek: Æsopos)who’s fables are samples of great short stories. Although I am not a Christian I admit that what is called “paraboles of Jesus Christ are some great symbolic short stories. Sufi teachers had some great mystical stories often as jokes that conveyed powerful spiritual messages So a short story can deliver a powerful message and this is what counts.

  3. Yesterday I had some more thoughts about small story writers. I tend not to see writers as a community or to categorize them but I see each writers as an individual mind and voice. The author of a novel or a book with many pages often is harder to be judged. If we add the PR and marketing community we can have a light-mindless story appear the next Gone with the Wind and the author of a flop to appear the modern day Tolstoy. However a meaningful short story has a powerful voice and the judge is the reader. A story with a powerful message will be remembered and revered, the same way as Aesop’s Fables. The hard part of a novelist is tyo create a story with a message. The difficult part of a short-story writer is, to convey a message, through a story.

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