The Death of the Issue?: New Challenges and Opportunities for the University-Affiliated Literary Magazine
In an October 2009 presentation to librarians, graduate students, and professors at the University of Iowa, librarian and copyright activist Molly Kleinman convincingly argued for the virtues of the Open Access (OA) model, a platform in which writing (mostly scholarly writing in her examples) is published directly to the Web and made freely available to readers. Concerned that traditional publishing models place too many walls around scholarship, Kleinman and other OA advocates envision journals that aren’t cordoned off from readers by the price of an individual subscription or, more likely in the age of online research, by the price a university library pays to a service that provides electronic access to content.
Rather than subscribe to a print journal or check one out from the library, scholars now are more apt to search online for a single article from within a journal. OA dispenses with the print artifact altogether and allows for single articles to be searched for and printed out at will. This new model does away with subscriber revenue, Kleinman conceded, but it saves on paper and glue and ultimately increases readership exponentially. These journals give up on the dream of being supported by their readers, usually requiring funding from a sponsoring institution instead, but they fulfill their mission of disseminating knowledge to a wider pool of readers while operating with a smaller price tag than ever.
“Does this mean the end of the print journal?” one slightly-anxious sounding audience member asked Kleinman during the Q & A period.
“Books are a useful technology,” she replied. “I don’t think the book is going to go away. You can read a book in the bathtub and not have to worry about being electrocuted. However, in the world of journals, there might not be so much need for the ‘issue.’ Print-on-demand may take its place.”
The slightly-anxious sounding audience member was me. I’m the managing editor of The Iowa Review, a print journal that is so dedicated to being a print journal that it has produced several issues a year for the past forty years, accumulating a collection of 125 text-artifacts that we display proudly in our office—from the 1970s covers with sans-serif lowercase type on a taupe background to the four-color, semi-gloss covers of 2010.Are we part of an ecosystem of endangered species: the “issue,” the “printer,” the “subscriber”? And if this group succumbs to the inevitable, what becomes of those other often-declared-to-be-threatened species, the “writer” and the “reader”?
This essay describes the small literary magazine at a crossroads, one seen from an admittedly particular and limited perspective, that of a defensive, reactionary, Luddite editor who loves the smell of paper and glue and savors the look and heft of a book. And yet, one also who spends most of her day in front of a screen, who is comfortable reading from a screen, and who notes in her own research and reading life how, by the time she surmounts the walls surrounding content in a non–OA environment—not to mention driving to a bookstore or ordering and waiting for a physical copy online—she could have already read the content if it had been OA.
The first question I will explore is the paper versus pixels question—whether to continue as a print journal or to follow many literary magazines into the online-only world.And looming behind that decision is the funding question: if we take away barriers to our content by making it freely available to everyone, how will we stay afloat?
Online-Only and the Question of Bathtub-Worthiness
Based on my own experience at The Iowa Review, I’ll eagerly confirm that Molly Kleinman is right when she says that the OA model would save journals money. Printing is extremely expensive. Mailing is ridiculously expensive. And there are less obvious costs as well. For example, selling The Iowa Review in bookstores turns out to be a marketing expense rather than a revenue stream because the distribution industry is geared toward mass-market magazines. Having shelf space in Barnes & Noble means paying to print and mail a large number of issues, with the unsold copies being destroyed. Larger magazines can absorb the costs because they print in bulk and sell so many copies that they make up for the loss. We, on the other hand, feel the pain of every issue we pay to print that eventually gets pulped. So why not ditch the physical incarnation of The Iowa Review and just post its stories, poems, and essays online, where printing and distribution are free and instantaneous?
To answer this question, I’ll turn to one of the keynote essays in this issue of IJCS, “Wiggle Room and Writing,” in which Virginia R. Dominguez describes blurting out to the chair of a search committee looking for an editor for American Ethnologist: “But you should know that I don’t really read the journal!” Dominguez further confessed that she thought of it “as a resource and not as a reading pleasure.” The search committee chair—who didn’t read the journal either—gave her the job. Dominguez’s confession reminds me of how many times I have heard people say, “The Iowa Review is highly respected. I don’t personally read it, but…”
According to a more scholarly, less literary model of consuming texts, there is no shame in either confession. I have the habit of referring to The Iowa Review interchangeably as a “literary journal” and a “literary magazine” because in my private, arbitrary system of classification, a “journal” hews more to the academic world, like American Ethnologist. A “magazine” is more popular, like—to pick an example from the opposite extreme—Us Weekly. I think The Iowa Review, in terms of its accessibility, is somewhere in between.
On one hand, like the American Ethnologist, it is part of a process by which writers professionalize, attempting to gain publication in its pages and then proving their professionalization by presenting a list of their publications to those who may give them teaching jobs. In the case of American Ethnologist, the professionalizing people are faculty and graduate students in PhD programs, and in the case of The Iowa Review, they are faculty and graduate students in MFA programs. Another group of professionalizers in the case of literary journals consists of those who hope a literary agent will spot their work and sign them. But in either case, like Virginia Dominguez, they look upon the journal as a resource, not reading it cover-to-cover but scanning the table of contents for work by their colleagues and competitors and studying that work to learn the state of the art.
If this were the only function of The Iowa Review, perhaps I would agree that it is best to do away with the issue and make individual pieces available online. But, in my opinion, as highbrow as it may aspire to be, The Iowa Review should also always be a “magazine.” Like, well, Us Weekly, but in a very limited sense—not in the sense of over-utilizing pink type and breaking new ground in photograph-to-text ratio, but only in the sense that The Iowa Review should be among the magazines that people pick up and read of their own volition, for pleasure. The literary magazine will never be an academic scholarly journal. The Iowa Review’s creators would not want it only to be scanned for articles that a reader feels is directly relevant to his or her career. We will always hope for what, borrowing from Molly Kleinman’s litmus test for print, I’ll call the “bathtub reader.” This person is more interested in enjoying than studying, and may want to consume the journal somewhere else than in front of a computer screen.
Positing more distance between The Iowa Review and the world of journals like American Ethnologist isn’t absurd, as the literary magazine is about art, and art tends to be more immediately accessible than scholarship written for a specialist audience. Franz Kafka said, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” He did not add that we have to have a particular academic degree, number of years of training, or command of a subfield’s terminology for the ice-axe to function. That is not to say that art is always immediately accessible, or should be. A reader might find herself challenged by some of the work in The Iowa Review to think in a new way, or to read with a higher tolerance for not quite understanding what is going on. Even the most ambitious creative writing professor hopes to engage this type of reader—the non-specialist lover of words—at least some of the time, not just to accumulate C.V. fodder by publishing in a journal no one reads.
Funding: Lit Mag as Tote Bag or Mix Tape
While a printed issue may be the preference of the bathtub reader—a constituency that will exist if a literary magazine is any good—there is no arguing against the nanosecond convenience of having content available online. But as we contemplate becoming OA, we have to assume that, as lovely as our print issues may continue to be, a number of readers will simply stop paying for subscriptions. In a world of free content, who will pay the printers, the designers, and the web designers—not to mention the writers?
First, to justify continuing to produce a paper issue, there must at least be some readers willing to buy it, which means the printed magazine must provide added value over what is available online. Its appeal as a physical object can be part of this value. Providing a bit more content or a bit more timely material in the print version than online would help as well (perhaps by not putting the entirety of an issue online until the next issue is out in print). I also have started to believe that the editorial hand should be more visible than invisible, that there should be editor’s notes, themed issues perhaps—whatever can convey an editorial personality that doesn’t overshadow the work by individual writers but gives a distinctive aura to the whole magazine. Us Weekly has a mission statement: “We are the magazine that presents lots of glossy celebrity photographs and limited amounts of snappy text to distract you from your anxiety at flying in a tin can twenty thousand feet above Iowa” (my paraphrase). What is The Iowa Review’s mission statement? “The Iowa Review is the magazine that…” To finish the sentence with “…presents the best poems, stories, and essays” makes us just like fifty other literary magazines.
The individual poems, stories, and essays are outstanding; don’t get me wrong. It would be fine with me to be known as the magazine that published a wonderful story by Kodi Sheer about a medical student who is haunted by the ghost of the cadaver she is dissecting. Or a poem by Bob Hicok that ponders the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech while avoiding the usual conclusions found in mass-media soulsearching. But I also want it to be known as something else: something you read because it is The Iowa Review. Something that is a coherent whole.
A distinct personality and identity, plus beautiful typography and design, integration of art and color, and an object that is pleasant to hold, attractive enough to be preferable to a bunch of printed-out PDFs, and sufficiently low-tech that it can be brought into the bathtub without fear of electrocution—all these qualities would justify the existence of a continued print version of The Iowa Review. It is true that having all the material available online would mean a decrease in paying readers. On the other hand, an increased online readership could also lead to new opportunities.
Take, for instance, the trajectory that led me to being one of those people who uses a public radio tote bag to carry groceries to my car. I first discovered NPR in college and have listened to it ever since. It has been freely available to me all that time, which is lucky since I only had enough money in my student and, later, gradstudent budget to cover rent, food, and utilities. Now that I can fathom spending money on something not absolutely essential to my continued bodily existence (a change that happened, oh, about four months ago), I am a diehard fan of public radio and they’ve got my membership for life.
Could The Iowa Review follow a similar model? Make it free for the poor and undecided, build up loyalty, and then put the screws to those with money—whether gently encouraging individuals to take it to the next level with a subscription, or writing more grants to funding institutions? The issue that subscribers receive in the mail would be like my NPR tote bag: something not absolutely necessary since the content is (mostly) already out there, but something that adds value to the product and convenience to the subscriber’s life, as well as reminds her of her values and tastes, and makes her feel good about her generosity.
The presence of our content online could also allow for creative ways of generating revenue. Here’s a speculation: perhaps a fan of Donald Justice wants to create his own issue of The Iowa Review featuring all the poems Justice ever published in the magazine, or a teacher tired of the “contemporary” literature in the Norton anthology wants to create an anthology of truly contemporary literature for her college classroom, or a newly published writer wants to create an “issue” featuring his poems and send it to all his friends for Christmas. Customers could order these issues to be printed on demand. Of course, they could easily create their own “issues” by printing out PDFs, but again the notion of added value comes into play in that they will receive a product with our paper stock, cover, and distinctive look. These kinds of “issues” would not be the issues that we had in mind when we assembled our version of the magazine, but they could serve a wider variety of needs and allow greater reader interaction with the product.
“The album is disappearing too,” said my favorite music-lover, when I complained about the death of the issue. He finds this loss regrettable and continues to buy albums, but still, MP3s are how he gets most of his music most of the time. And while albums may be on their way out, no one is predicting the end of the user-created album-length mélange of songs—an item that those of us of a certain age will always nostalgically think of as the “mix tape.” Why not allow readers to create mix tapes out of The Iowa Review?
As Molly Kleinman pointed out, institutional support is an important element of funding OA journals, and it would have to be part of a more open Iowa Review as well. One of the public radio shows I began listening to for free, the excellent On the Media, talks so much about the challenges of traditional media in the digital age that it has created a jingle specifically to introduce stories of that nature: a chorus warbles chirpily, “Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper in-dus-try!” In these segments, there is talk of leaving the for-profit model behind and remaking newspapers as nonprofits. Literary magazines are one step ahead in that we are pretty much de facto nonprofits already. Why not embrace our nonprofit status and declare ourselves a public service that deserves to be funded by grants, donors, and patrons?
In our case, one such patron has been and, I would argue, should continue to be the University of Iowa. Of course we should try to convince big foundations that we improve the world at large so much that we deserve their funds. Until then, however, and even then, I believe we deserve university support as well because we benefit the university. We are a flagship publication: we go out into the world carrying the Iowa name and the kind of good writing that the Iowa writing programs promise to teach their students.
But it is not just a self-declared “writing university” like the University of Iowa that should support literary magazines. Other literary magazines also fulfill their university’s missions: they train graduate students and undergraduates in career skills, they provide a common ground that brings students from different programs together to work cooperatively, and they bring prestige to their universities among those in the larger literary community, which may include prospective students and faculty.
Whenever I pay for an expense of the Iowa Review, I have to check a box on an online form averring that the expenditure supports the mission of the university. Each time I check that box, I believe it wholeheartedly. In these harsh economic times, it is difficult for universities to justify literary magazines, which may seem like boutique projects or frills, but they are investments that provide returns in cultural capital that end up turning into real value for universities.
Ultimately, embracing a non-profit model can help us redefine our mission as well as reach out for more funding opportunities, whether from our own university or from grant-awarding foundations. We and other literary magazines help create a space for non-commercial innovative writing, for the poet who will never sell a million copies, for the magazine that will never be Us Weekly. The survival of these things at the margins of mass culture makes life better for us all.
I’ll end with another example, again from the medium of radio. Our Spring 2010 issue features an interview with Michael Silverblatt, host of the radio show Bookworm. Silverblatt’s obsessive love for books and intimate discussions with their authors make for an unlikely hit show, but it has a devoted following. Interviewer Sarah Fay asked how it came to succeed in our supposedly “post-literate” age, and Silverblatt spun a yarn of how he started hosting the show on a volunteer basis, how it went out onto the airwaves for free on public radio station KCRW in Los Angeles, how it is also now available as a free podcast, and how all these components of “free” led it to find an audience. “NPR has a demographic above forty years old, ours [at KCRW] went down to above thirty, then down to above twenty, and now our station has a demographic of teenagers too. […] Once I substitute-taught a class that John D’Agata was teaching at Cal Arts, and one of the kids said to me, ‘I’ve been listening to you for as long as I’ve known how to read,’” Silverblatt said (Fay 37). This broadening of audience led the Lannan Foundation to recognize Bookworm’s value and step in with funding. To find these new audiences, Silverblatt and KCRW had to first reach out to them, and The Iowa Review has the same opportunity through digital availability.
To summarize, then, having argued for the importance of the print literary journal in all its bathtub-safe glory, I also see the value of making much of our content freely available online. This will require continued support from our university, along with the development of new and creative ways of raising funds from readers, donors, and foundations. Above all, we want to be read. We want to be read more than we want to be paid in the traditional sense of someone handing us cash for something written on a piece of paper. There are too many excuses not to read these days. Why let people off the hook by keeping our content from them? I think The Iowa Review is so good that I want to share it with you, in as many ways as possible, in whatever way works best for you, whether you can pay or not.
Dominguez, Virgina R. “Wiggle Room and Writing.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. Online Forum. 2009. Rpt. in this issue.
Fay, Sarah. “A Lowly, Humble Bookworm: A Conversation with Michael Silverblatt.” The Iowa Review 40.1 (2010): 33-42.
Hicok, Bob. “Shorn.” The Iowa Review 40.1 (2010): 29-30.
Kleinman, Molly. “Open Access or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Internet.” University of Iowa Libraries’Celebration of OpenAccess. Iowa Memorial Union, Iowa City. 20 Oct. 2009. Lecture. On the Media. Natl. Public Radio.
Sheer, Kodi. “Gross Anatomy.” The Iowa Review 39.3 (2009-10): 139-49.
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