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Monday, December 5, 2011

Tweeted Questions: Lit Mags From Scratch

There's been a burgeoning of literary magazines in the past year or so, and the interest in the literary community seems quite alive and well. If you've ever considered starting a literary magazine of your own, you can thank Ms. Courtney Maum (@cmaum), one of our Twitter buddies, for prompting following panel discussion with the question:
I would love to know the behind-the-scenes process on moving a lit mag from a germ of a (maybe alcohol-fueled) idea into a living thing.
Specter, Mensah Demary   Specter Literary Magazine has only existed a few months and we're approaching our second issue. Still, there's a lot we'd like to do differently, should someone invent a time machine. That said, motivation and passion are prerequisites for launching a literary magazine. By and large, there's no pay involved; there are easier ways to attain attention as well. The space between idea and reality—in any endeavor, including lit mags—is where one's passion will be tested. You'll ask yourself why you should bother with site design, with mission statements and staff, and so on. What's the point? Passion for literature, for the literary community in general, motivated us to get up and get going—and to sustain our efforts.

Ninth Letter, Jodee Stanley   The most important part of starting a new lit mag, especially if you’re working with a group of people, is talking, talking, talking, and WRITING THINGS DOWN. Brainstorm about what you want to publish, where you want your journal to fit into the literary landscape, WHY you want to publish a journal, and how you'd like to see it happen. This is how it was done at Ninth Letter—once the founding editors spent some time talking together, they realized that they all had the same sense of what they wanted to see literary publishing doing (taking more advantage of the printed form, showcasing a wider variety of narratives), and from there they were able to draft a mission statement that, although it was primarily an internal mission statement, helped guide them through the more practical concerns of how this product would be put together and marketed to the public. Go through your brainstorming notes and highlight repeated words—those will be a good jumping off point to defining your mission. For us, words like "interplay, intersection, exchange, merge, undefined, new definitions," and so on kept cropping up in discussions, which really helped us focus on the collaborative project Ninth Letter came to be.

Joyland Fiction, Brian Joseph Davis   Joyland was indeed alcohol (and travel) fueled. Emily Schultz (Joyland's co-publisher) and I had made a lot of friends over a couple of years of touring our books and we wanted a way to keep working with our contacts. I also had a vague notion that distributed editorial with really divergent tastes among the editors could be an interesting model for an online journal. The magic moment was when we convinced our original web designer, Bill Kennedy, also a great digital artist I've worked with on several projects before, to build the site for us. I made the logo in a half hour, sent emails to our original four editors seeing if they'd be interested, and from there it kept going because it kind of worked.

CutBank, Josh Fomon   For CutBank, our vision started back in 1973 with William Kitteridge and some great grad students, but each year there is a rebirth of sorts with every new editor. To quote our former Editor in Chief, Kate Rutledge Jaffe, "Essentially, we're phoenix-like—okay, we don't turn to ash, but we do have to be reborn yearly via graduate student scrappiness, vision, integrity, and enthusiasm."

We are entirely student run and our funding fluctuates year to year, which means that we really have to be passionate about getting administrative work done (and there is a lot of it) as well as coming up with enough funds to put out consistent, quality writing. Thankfully, a community exists around the magazine that fosters enthusiasm and dedication; readers are equally important as editors to keep the cogs of the machines running. Most importantly, it's imperative to reach out into the community of writers; when a lit mag is first burgeoning, one has to not only reach out to established writers, but also must foster the truly unique voices that will find loyal readers.

Black Fox, Racquel Henry   The idea for our magazine started with several events during our MFA residency program. We were realizing that a lot of people weren't open to genre work, no matter how good the writing was. We wanted to create a space where writers of all genres could be published, as long as the work was of quality. When we agreed to take on the endeavor, we sat down to brainstorm an actual name for the magazine. Once we had the name, we had to figure out how to get the word out for submissions. We decided our first step should be to create a website. The website would have all the information about the magazine and how to submit. We researched literary magazine after literary magazine to see how they operated, and that's how we decided how we wanted ours to be run. We listed ourselves on various free forums, put up flyers at local universities and even paid for ad space in a writing magazine. We also discovered the power of Twitter. It was a slow start, but we were able to put out Issue 1 and submissions have picked up.

Barge Press, Shawn Maddey   Barge Journal (and Press) actually took about a year to develop from an alcohol-fueled germ of an idea into an alcohol-fueled colony of ideas before my brother and I even decided to begin trying to figure out the first aspect of making a run with it. It really began as simply the two of us being passionate about a few key things: the arts and our personal shared aesthetic, really wanting to share and spread and support that aesthetic, and wanting to promote Pittsburgh as an artistically strong and unique city. A lot of this time was spent figuring out what we wanted to promote, how, why, the best way to go about it, etc.—then poof, one day we realized that we had all the foundation we need to rock this shit, and, even more importantly, the conviction that we could do it in very different ways that would befit our aesthetic for the bizarre. We were all learning on the job, and nothing's that easy when that's the case.

One of the first things you learn, through any number of weekly drunken editorial sessions, is simply how to have a discerning eye. There were many early submissions we held on to for way too long—out of fear we wouldn't get anything better? Out of uncertainty in what we really wanted? Whatever it was—but you have to learn to get over that. It's really not dissimilar from a writer submitting to mags like ours (and I, like most other editors, have certainly been on both sides). As a writer, rejections don't hurt, you learn to improve your writing from them... If you don't learn that, if you don't adapt to it, you've got no direction and no business in this business, as an editor or a writer. (On the other side of the coin, sending out acceptances is just as awesome as receiving them.)

Then there's actually putting the book itself together. Compiling all the pieces—did I mention that the whole time you need to keep updated on people's bios and mailing addresses, especially if you're sending them pdf galleys like we do? All the details you don't notice at first, like missing italics or incorrect font size, line editing, trying to figure out what's a typo and what isn't. Then there's finding a printer. This isn't terribly difficult, but it is time consuming. Keep in mind, unlike many other places that rely on grants or outside funding, every issue we print comes out of my own pocket. Every penny. (That's many pennies, especially for someone working as a mere server at a brewpub.) Certainly, there are other mags that share this perspective. I'm not saying we're singularly unique in that respect, but it certainly seems we're out of the norm, and cost becomes very, very real, and very much a potential hindrance. You have to look at quote after quote, seek out printer after printer for the best price, wait for samples to make sure they're pro, learn about bleeds and costs and paper stocks, cover stocks, it goes on and on, but this is really the nuts and bolts of publishing. Perception-wise, there's a giant difference between natural and white text stock, between 10pt. cover stock and 12pt., between matte finish and gloss finish (and which looks better specifically with your cover design). But when you hold that first printer's proof in your hands, it's like Christmas no matter what time of year. Seeing your work take form as a real-life object, knowing all the hours that were poured into it, it's amazing. Now's the next frontier: figuring out how to sell the damn thing. Naturally, we've got plenty of ideas.

Hayden's Ferry Review, Beth Staples   HFR also grew out of an MFA program, and was going strong for twenty years before I took over. So as to not repeat what's already been said, I'll just offer up one piece of advice, and that would be to define a clearly articulated mission. Personally, if I were to start a new journal, I'd want that to be way more specific than "the best fiction, poetry and nonfiction." There are lots of well-established journals already touting that. Part of my job these last few years has been to figure out how HFR does more than that, or something different than that, which is why we've grown our translation and art sections. I think it boils down to this: you want to be able to answer the question, "Why should I subscribe to (or submit to) your journal?" The mission, of course, influences all sorts of other choices: design, marketing, logo, format, grant writing (I said grant writing, for reals!) etc. etc. In such a competitive (and non-lucrative) market, I think individuality should be a big priority.

Black Fox, Racquel Henry   The common denominator I'm noting is that there is, without a doubt, a love of literature. We are clearly all in this for the sake of good writing and definitely not the money.

Barge Press, Shawn Maddey   We've all cited love of literature as having to be the necessary motivation in starting up a journal or press. And that's true. You should love it to your core. There's honestly a great deal of people out there that embrace and support passion and vision; loving literature, to me, means taking advantage of that. It means being as passionate as you can be about your work and wanting desperately to not just produce literary publications but to work hard to always be expanding awareness of the small presses and always broadening literacy and readership for the betterment of your community. It's quite honestly shocking how many people are completely unaware of even the concept of small presses and literary magazines/journals. Best advice I have: the community in the broadest sense is your best friend in this venture and it will welcome the efforts you make to better it, plus the face-to-face sale is a crazy powerful weapon that the big houses, no matter how much money, can't duplicate.

We've enjoyed the challenging and interesting questions we've received from our friends on Twitter. If you have a question about writing topics, publishing, the ins and outs of literary magazines, or anything else you might wonder about (how many editors does it take to figure out how to turn on a perfectly functioning, new coffee pot?), let us know! Tweet us, message us on Facebook, or email us at

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