Running a literary magazine is no easy task. There’s a reason many of them die terrible deaths, buried in internet archives or unkempt bookshelves not long after they begin.
If a magazine has been launched with the idea of promoting new writers, getting regular submissions is crucial but tricky. If submissions are bleak, a magazine can still go down the curation path, but the biggest challenge remains – readership.
Yet for those who insist on trying, the experience can also be highly rewarding.
How to begin?
The first step in launching a literary magazine is not just deciding what it will publish – fiction, poetry, flash fiction, photographs, or visual art – but why it should exist at all.
Rohini Kejriwal, founder of the popular online magazine The Alipore Post, which has published hundreds of pieces on poetry, photography, and art since it was launched in 2015 told Scroll.in that she began the project to shine a spotlight on new perspectives. “There’s enough and more talent around us, and voices that go unheard, and the idea for the website is more to enable that, with a bit of curation,” she said.
The next decision is frequency – monthly, weekly, bi-monthly, quarterly, half-yearly, or annual issues. Considering the strength and capacities of the editing and design team, the choice finally comes down to how efficiently the team can come up with something worth reading, sharing, and subscribing to – all within a specific period while managing to pay the bills.
The question of circulation is important to think of before launching. Where is the magazine being distributed? With most literary magazines being digital, social media and networks are critical to develop, for getting readers, as well as submissions. A robust social media presence helps the writing gain more exposure while also growing a network of writers and publishers.
Tanuj Solanki, editor of The Bombay Literary Magazine, explained that the magazine is popular enough now through its social media handles to get a steady stream of submissions. “We share what we publish on a Facebook page, which has more than 1800 followers,” he said. “That’s enough for us. Though more would not hurt.”
Once the word is out, publishers will ideally receive an overwhelming response, calling for an extended reading period after which acceptance or rejection emails can be sent out. Platforms such as Submittable work well to accept and review submissions. They even have automated replies for rejected submissions.
If there are fewer editors in the team, or if it is a one person job, the reading period is obviously longer. For a single editor, the process can be time consuming and overwhelming.
“I find it difficult to make time to read all the submissions alone, and don’t trust others’ sensibilities because I feel I might lose out on a precious poem (to me) if I brought an editor/readers on board to help with the curation,” Kejriwal said. “It also gets so overwhelming to see your inbox with 30 more unanswered mails every week, and then I get burdened with guilt, which is not an emotion I enjoy. So I push the reading period to when I’m absolutely most genuinely interested.”
Rejections are inevitable and Martin Alexander, Editor in Chief of The Asia Literary Review, a quarterly magazine founded in 2000, explained that writers should not be disheartened if their work isn’t accepted. “They should not assume that this is because their work is of poor quality,” he said. “We encourage them to submit elsewhere and to consider us for future work.”
The money problem
And then finally there’s the question of payment.
Phalguni Yuman, a Manipur based poet who actively submits his work to literary magazines believes it is “essential and fundamental” that literary magazines pay writers. “Also, It’s not about money too – it’s just how the world works. The act of paying is essential, besides the exposure,” he said.
Alexander explained that the costs of running an online magazine can be considerable, let alone a print magazine. “Without either a generous individual, corporate or institutional sponsor, a large base of individual and institutional subscriptions and advertising revenue, magazines have to depend on the commitment and dedication of volunteers,” he said.
As a result, several literary magazines are unable to pay writers.
“I’d be happy to pay for submissions,” Kejriwal said. “For now, it’s mutual trust and connection with the people who are kind enough to share their writings.”
A few options for monetisation do exist, but some publishers are hesitant to go in that direction. “I haven’t tried to monetise it, because then it becomes a job more than a passion project,” said Kejriwal, who looks at The Alipore Post as more of a personal project than something she can make money out of.
For those willing to go down that route, monetisation options include advertising, patrons, subscriptions, and charging a submission fee for writers. Solanki, however, said the idea of making writers pay for submissions is not something he is comfortable with. To pay someone to read your work comes with a decrement of dignity.” he explained. “I know that there are views contrary to this, and perhaps they are justifiable for mags that see thousands of submissions. It’s just not how I want to do things.”
He also sounded a warning bell against a model in which major publishing houses cover the cost of running the magazine while paying the contributors. “It is equal to them outsourcing the work of finding new talent to us,” he said. “In the long run, this will force litmags to seek ‘publishable’ writers. The definitive edginess (or quirkiness, whatever you call it) of this independent medium will vanish.”
A lot of magazines do sell their issues. With this, when the final “product” is up for sale, access to it is limited to the “customers”. Free PDF or e-magazine issues tend to work well with patron models or small publications, with publishers often charging for the print version because of the higher cost involved.
“The idea isn’t to make certain content available to only some people who can ‘afford it; or choose to afford it,” Kejriwal said bout publishing online issues for a price.
With the financial side of it remaining tricky, for many publishers, running a literary magazine is not a full-time job. But what matters at the end is the quality of what it being put out and a fondness for, and dedication to, the magazine, writing and art in general. “I’m not doing this for me,” Kejriwal said, “it’s for the greater good to get people to read and love poetry again.”