Here Today, Here Tomorrow: On the Lifespan of the Literary Magazine
A reprint of a February 2011 article by Daniel Nester and Steve Black, which ran on the now-defunct Bookslut website.
The literary magazine has long had a reputation for its fleeting existence — here today for issue 1, gone tomorrow by issue 3. But is that really true? And does the literary journal’s tiptoe along the precipice of failure differ from what other types of magazines face?
The answer might surprise you.
A study conducted by the authors recently compared the lifespans of every periodical reviewed in Library Journal from 1980–1995. The data from this retrospective study of 2,000 journals of all kinds, the first of its kind, formed our basis for comparing the lifespans of literary journals to other kinds of periodicals.
How long did these literary journals last? How many are still around in 2010? Literary magazines, it seems, do just as well, or just as badly, surviving as long as so-called popular magazines for general readerships.
With these long-held assumptions about literary magazines’ infinitesimal chance of survival upended by a long-term study, we then went around and asked those in the literary magazine world, charts and graphs in hand. Do we now have to admit that a popular, general audience title like Feng Shei Living face the same obstacles to survival as, say, Fence?
The editors, publishers, and one librarian we interviewed were surprised to find that literary journals were no more short-lived than other publications. But how to interpret the data was subject to debate. Some questioned its significance and took the opportunity to and point out that a litmag’s lifespan isn’t an appropriate measure of its “cultural worth.” Others were skeptical of the study sample. The data sparked discussions on everything from the natural lifespan of a journal, the benefits of affiliating with a college, and the reasons magazines survive or fail.
The breakdown: affiliated, non-affiliated, book reviews, and “little”
Here’s how the study worked. Serials librarian Steve Black tagged each of the 2,079 titles reviewed in Library Journal over this 15-year period as belonging in one of three broad categories: scholarly (424), popular (984), or literary (502). Periodicals were classified by subtype (as shown in the table, “Life spans of periodicals by type”). Using databases and research, he determined if a journal was still publishing issues today. Titles without definite end dates were taken out, bringing the total to 1,910 periodicals.
The full version of the study, published in December 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Serials Review, covers journal lifespans as well as record-keeping issues for serial librarians. And it would have stayed within library studies circles, if it wasn’t one day when Steve’s co-worker, Daniel Nester, struck up a conversation about the study. How literary journals’ lifespans ranked compared to other types of journals? It didn’t take too long to find out.
Out of the study’s 502 literary magazines, those affiliated with colleges survived longer — that is, published issues longer than five years — on average (90%) than popular magazines (74%). That’s on par with scholarly journals in the social sciences (89%). Independent lit mags failed at a faster rate than popular magazines, but only by a few percentage points (68% versus 71% overall). “Little” magazines — local interest or underground journals, many of them staple-bound or mimeographed zines — did about as well as popular magazines for the first five years (73% compared to 74%), but did less well over the long haul (22% compared to 43%).
So the next time someone talks about how literary magazines have shorter lives than other types of periodicals, the short but definite response is that isn’t true.
Need for “cultural context”
“The data’s fascinating and really interesting and useful, but we need to be careful about drawing conclusions,” Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), says. One reason for caution: those in the position to determine funding levels for arts organizations, for example, may get wrong ideas from looking at the data.
“The danger is that you can learn a lot from counting,” Lependorf says, “but we’re also dealing with culture and art and you may not get the right idea without the full cultural context.”
The list of literary journals reviewed in Library Journal that are no longer in publication could fill a full magazine itself. Included in the list are giants such as Grand Street (1981–2004), influential journals Sulfur (1980–2000), Chain (1994–2005), and Portable Lower East Side (1984–1991). There are other mainstays such as Negative Capability (1981–1994) and The Formalist: A Journal of Metrical Poetry (1990–2004); High Plains Literary Review (1986–2002), as well as Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly (1999–2005) and Plum Review (1991–1997). Some journals magazines, such as Spelunker Flophouse, lasted one year according to the study (1997–1997), while others lasted a bit longer, including Ailanthus (1986–1989), Futures Past (1992–1994), Forkroads (1995–1997), and Bestsellers (1989–1990). Other journals had a robust initial run, such as Exquisite Corpse (1983–1997) or a short run, such as Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly (1992–1994), only to reappear later as online-only publications by decade’s end.
Much has changed since 1995, let alone 1980, in the world of literary journals. More literary journals have become affiliated with colleges, the whole endeavor professionalized as part of creative writing programs, while the internet has led to a whole new world of online literary journals. Still, those asked for comment agreed that the data stands as a snapshot of how journals started in the recent past fare now.
One limitation, something everyone interviewed for this story was quick to point out, is that these data probably under-represent titles that fail within an issue or two, since the study is based on the magazines Library Journal chose as worthy of being reviewed over this 15-year period. Of the 2,000-plus magazines covered by the study, 136 failed within one year, including 42 lit mags.
Many micropress-run journals would fall under the Library Journal’s radar entirely, Robert Lee Brewer, Senior Content Editor at Writer’s Digest and editor of Writer’s Market and Poet’s Market, observes from his office in Duluth, Georgia. “Many literary journals that start up and break down within two years are started at home.” Even then, Brewer says, the data would miss many “ghost journals,” ones meant for local consumption by hobbyists or a group of friends, which has only increased online. On the other end of the spectrum, university-sponsored journals started since 1995 have probably fared even better than the average consumer magazine, Brewer points out, especially if it is part of a strong writing program.
“Are university-sponsored journals budgets smaller than general interest publications? Yes, they probably are in most cases,” Brewer, who himself has started two versions of the same literary journal, print and online, both of which “fizzled within two years.” Still, he said, “these journals are still afloat, which is more than can be said for many corporate-run magazines.”
During the past decade, both online and in print, Brewer says, “the volatility would be even greater if you loop in the various journals that have easily launched and fizzled out due to the ease of publishing.”
A journal’s “cultural worth”
Jeffrey Lependorf recalls a story from summer 1987, when as a young composer he entered The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, a copy of Charles Ives’s 114 Songs under his arm. Browsing the poetry section, he struck up a conversation with the poet Michael Gizzi, who showed him a copy of a new journal of poetry his son co-edits, o•blék: a journal of language arts. Lependorf bought an issue, featuring work from experimental poets such as Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, and Marjorie Welish.
“I can credit that magazine for introducing me to the world of contemporary poetry,” the composer recalls. Still a composer, Lependorf now works in world of literary magazines, and tells his story to illustrate a point: How long a literary journal publishes — in the case o•blék , he says, was actually “a good run,” 7 years and 12 issues — may not directly translate into what he calls its “cultural worth.”
Some literary journals from the outset plan to be short-lived. Locus Solus, a publication of experimental writing published by Harry Mathews and edited by first-generation New York School poets John Ashbery, James Schulyer, and Kenneth Koch, put out five issues from 1961–1962 and was highly influential. The Hasty Papers: A One-Shot Review, published in 1960, lived up to its name and published only one issue, with a roster of contributors from William Carlos Williams, Barbara Guest and Jack Kerouac, to Jean Genet, Fidel Castro, Derek Walcott, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
During o•blék’s run, poets from such experimental wings of American poetry that the journal featured, most prominently those from the Language school, entered the academy with professor jobs; many won the top prizes, and generally joined the literary mainstream.
Perhaps, Lependorf suggests, there comes a point where some journals can make their exit, having “already did its job.”
Do literary journals have a “natural lifespan”? Should they?
One issue bandied about in conversation of the years is the notion of a literal journal having a “natural lifespan.” A good business model is necessary to keep a magazine healthy, but so is the flow of creative juices. Literary journals, it follows, die natural deaths. “The life of a literary magazine, the myth prescribes, is about seven years,” Rosemary Sorensen wrote in World Literature Today.
“There is a natural reluctance to let [a literary magazine] fade away after its natural lifespan of five or 10 years,” poetry critic Adam Kirsch wrote in the (now-shuttered) New York Sun in 2005. “So it frequently lingers on, the mausoleum of its own past influence.”
Deborah Ager has co-edited 32 Poems since 2003 and is still going strong on its sixteenth issue. “A journal or magazine should exist as long as the readers want to continue subscribing to and reading it,” she says. “If the natural lifespan were seven years, then 32 Poems would be dead and Poetry would be dead many times over.”
The numbers suggest that there’s no critical, across-the-board, make-or-break year for the survival of literary magazines. Of the 412 that garnered a review in Library Journal from 1980–1994, roughly 4% failed each year from its launch through 2010.
One look at our accompanying chart, however, and you might notice the three solid years a college-affiliated literary journal gets out of the gates. Whereas independents, “littles,” and book reviews start their proportional descents, the affiliated literary journal seems to be spotted three years until it’s allowed to fail, when that line turns downward and some end their run.
What makes a literary journal fail? And should they be allowed to?
Raw data on how long periodicals remain in publication cannot determine, of course, how exactly one fails or another stays in business. Perhaps the editors lost creative fire, or suffered what those in the nonprofit sector called “founder’s syndrome,” where a founding editor or editors fail to delegate tasks to others and allow it to grow.
Chris Kubica, editor of short-lived Spelunker Flophouse, which was extant for one impactful year (1997), cites money as the number one factor of why a journal fails, with founder’s syndrome as a close second. “If you have a small staff and a main editor moves on or doesn’t have time to keep working on it and no one to rely on else-wise, the magazine will stop,” Kubica says. “That’s what happened with Spelunker Flophouse.”
Without support from a college, independent journals tend to fall off the map when an editor leaves. “Affiliated magazines have a lifeline if money gets tight,” Kubica says. Affiliated journals have the ability to get help marketing the publication, place ads, give copies out, and sell it in their stores. With a steady stream of interns, office space, free supplies, and free utilities, an affiliated journal can avoid founder’s syndrome altogether.
For his part, Lependorf draws an analogy of starting a magazine to opening a restaurant. “The data might even be identical,” he adds, laughing. Like restaurants, many literary journals fill the needs of a community or reflect something that’s left out. Some journals might serve underrepresented groups, be it ethnic or orientations or otherwise, while some restaurants offer nouvelle cuisine, which might be equated with experimental writing in the journal world.
“There’s this point where editors and restaurant owners get tired of it or they lose money,” Lependorf says. “Then there’s a point where it has to be supported by the community to make sure it sticks around. And then there’s a point where it becomes an institution, and that’s really important too.” In restaurants, such a place would be Peter Luger, he says; in journals, The Kenyon Review.
“Magazines can get into trouble if they spend too much money, publish too often, or don’t take time to learn about audience development,” Deborah Ager says. Since starting 32 Poems, many people have approached her about how to start a literary magazine. “I’d say 99.5% of the people who’ve approached me have been interested in reading and editing submissions,” Ager says, “and not in renewing subscribers, prospecting, developing a marketing plan, promoting the magazine at conferences, or creating a community to support the publication. It requires a variety of labors, and you must have at least a little hunger for each.”
Ager’s insight applies equally well to magazines of any type. Popular magazines as a group do survive a little bit longer than independent and little lit mags, but all share the challenge of sustaining editorial vision and maintaining a viable business model. One naturally associates “popular magazine” with the ad-heavy titles in the checkout aisle at grocery stores.
Most popular magazines, the ones with names like Pinball Collector’s Quarterly, Flyfish Journal, and International Banjo, are as niche-driven as lit mags. Many use business models that rely little on advertising. All need creative people responsible for content.
Despite it all, people keep starting journals
Karen Gisonny, the Helen B. Bernstein Librarian for Periodicals & Journals at New York Public Library, curated an exhibit in 2002 called New American Literary Magazines. “I think of this time as the beginning of the lit mag renaissance we have today,” she says of the exhibit, which surveyed journals that began publication from 1998–2001. Many of those journals have since ceased publication (Crowd, Pierogi Press, Pindeldyboz) and many others have not published in years. Still, “there’s some other major lit mags started during this period.” Gisonny points out, such as Tin House, jubilat, 6 by 6, McSweeney’s, that “are still going strong.”
“Popular magazines are usually positioned to make more money, which means that the stakes are higher,” Robert Lee Brewer says. Without the profit motive, literary journals tend to have more conservative approaches to profit and “may even consider a quality product the ultimate goal,” he says, as opposed more profit from the previous year.
Deborah Ager says, “When I receive a poem that knocks down all my pins, when I meet a young poet whose work we’ve helped bring to readers, when I receive a note from someone who says they love 32 Poems and want to resubscribe, when someone buys nine subscriptions for friends, I think, okay, whatever direction we’re headed in, it is the right one, or a right one.”
There has been the persistent need for what a literary journal offers going back more than a century. In 1930, Ezra Pound described the “little magazine” as fulfilling the “need for intellectual communication unconditioned by considerations as to whether a given idea or a given trend in art will ‘git ads’ from the leading corset companies.”
The data presented here are for printed magazines with production and distribution costs not borne by web mags. The online-only mags may have much lower expenses, but creative fires can still burn out. Maybe fifteen years from now a similar study of failure rates can give us a sense of what portion fail because they lose money and how many fail due to the sapping of creative juices.
John Matthew Fox, author of the Los Angeles-based literary blog BookFox, has ranked literary journals for the past four years. He suggests a website like the online directory Duotrope as the best metric for tracking all the literary journals in the last decade. “It’s a burial ground for the many journals that spring up only to quickly wither,” Fox says. Duotrope “proves that most literary journals are, in fact, short-lived.”
“Steve Black’s data is useful — discounting the fly-by-night operations, once a university journal gets on its feet, it usually tends to keep fighting. That should be encouraging to anyone creating lit journals — if they can tough out the beginning, their persistence will pay off.”