‘Cuz They’re Being Supported By the Submitters

There was an interesting article in the New York Times by Reyhan Harmanci about literary journals surviving and even flourishing in spite of pressures from the Internet and consumers’ digital reading habits. But the article misses a key component of how the lit journal industry is supported, in part, by aspiring author dollars.

“With local independent bookstores like A Different Light in the Castro and Modern Times in the Mission struggling to make ends meet, not to mention Borders’ bankruptcy and the general panic of the book publishing industry in the face of the e-reader, it would seem that literary pursuits of all kinds are under attack in this digital age,” Harmanci writes. “But literary journals — a long-tail publishing phenomenon before the Internet made other niche offerings accessible — are thriving.”

The article explains why these journals are doing well. Most have smaller staffs, many are non-profit organizations, most of them are nimble endeavors able to react quickly, and so forth. Those points are totally valid and the journal staffs should be applauded for their yeomen’s labor. As a fan of lit journals, I’m happy to see reports (particularly when so much of publishing news is so dreary) that they’re doing well.

But there’s another reason literary journals continue to succeed: Their readers are the same people submitting stories to them. Those core, dedicated aspiring authors hoping to be published in The Toilet Paper Review or whatever aren’t going to be as fickle as the casual consumer who moves away from hard-copy texts purchased from brick-and-mortar stores.

In a 2008 comment, Waldo Jaquith writes, “We’re on track to receive 10,400 submissions this year” at the Virginia Quarterly Review. Meanwhile, the journal’s Advertising Information page counts their circulation at 7,000+. Jaquith’s comment laments that many submissions come from authors who do not read the journal. And while it’s true that many writers machine gun stories to publications they’ve never seen, the statistics of more than 10,000 submissions and 7,000 readers cannot be ignored.

In a similar vein, Glimmer Train (one of my favorite lit outlets) is reported to have a circulation of 16,000 while receiving “nearly 40,000 stories a year” according to their website. It should be noted, for the record, that Glimmer Train publishes four issues a year, so maybe you can divide the yearly submission count into each issue for 10,000 submissions and 16,000 readers. Same thing for the VQR. Maybe the 10,400 submissions can be divided into 2,600 stories per issue while retaining 7,000 per issue. But still, the bottom line of the point remains valid.

This isn’t to say literary journals can relax on the beach and watch subscriptions roll in as hoards of MFA grads and other aspiring authors support the magazine in hopes of getting published. But it would certainly seem to account in some way for the continued buoyancy of the publications. Every reference book and every editor interview preaches that aspiring authors should familiarize themselves with a journal before submitting. While many boneheads ignore this advice, a great many well-intentioned writers follow the prescription and plunk down their cash before submitting.

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