Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Small Press Part One: The Varieties and the Responsibilities

In our discussion of small presses and literary magazines, I think it is appropriate to discuss a few of the varieties. There are as many flavors of small presses and magazines as there are people and organizations.

Literature in the larger circulations have a big impact. Consider this: J.D. Salinger got his start in Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker, the last time Kurt Vonnegut Jr. appeared in Playboy was early 2008, shortly after he died, and let us not forget Ray Bradbury's “The Fireman” which later became Fahrenheit 451 also appeared in Playboy. Harper's, The New Yorker, and Playboy are huge publications. They have money, they have advertisers, they have great content. Playboy even has girls. The point being, these are not small presses, nor are they strictly literary magazines. They are widely distributed, widely read and highly recognizable publications. And, I think they're all great. As we begin our discussion, we first need to set a few parameters. These magazines, which we are all familiar with, are now our definition of the large press. These publications need to drive business in order to survive. Their advertisers as well as their distribution network need the sales of units and subscriptions to keep going. Thankfully so, right? Can you imagine The New Yorker without ads? Each issue would cost $1,000.

The next type of magazine up for discussion is that of the academic journal. There are journals to cover everything from the old stuff archeologists dig up to the latest advancements in medicine. But since it's literature and writing we discuss here, let's focus on the literary journal. The academic journal is not independent at all. Although the staff of one of these journals may be free thinking and independently minded, these journals are ultimately the property of an educational institution. There are pitfalls to both readers and writers of these types of journals. Their main purpose is as a tool to teach students how to become magazine editors, whether it's content, layout or graphics. A reader of an academic journal only needs to read a few issues to see how the culture of that staff changes with each class, each editor in chief or each managing faculty member. For writers, a college or university journal can be a tough sale. There are normal concerns of representing good writers, and there are concerns of content left up to the institution's discretion. And above all else these journals are not for profit and ultimately they are for the experience of student editors and staff.

Before we get too far away it, I must say, I love college and university journals. I love them mostly because of they content and the layout which has such a youthful sensibility.

It is absurd to compare something like The New Yorker with an undergraduate school magazine, like say mine, The Metroshpere. They are both great publications, and they both have a niche. Most of all, they are press in America.

The next facet, of course, is the independent magazine. I say independent because these are publications that are not dependent on advertisers and the associated politics. For sake of argument here, I'd like to use Umbrella Factory Magazine. As many of you know, I am a proud worker of Umbrella Factory. We are independent in the essence of true independence. We have no advertisers, we have no association with a school or any other organization. We don't have any money either. We are who we are. To pull it together even more: we have one mission and that is to connect well developed readers to the best writing available. I say this because we really want readers, without readers we have no reason to put forth the effort in representing our writers.

I tend not to leave off with a sad note. Here it is. Most of these literary magazines, whether they are an institution's magazine or one from an independent press, the market is almost exclusively for writers. Writers are the readers, they are the contributors and they are the only ones to keep a magazine going. This is a sad prospect only because it is such a small market. My sincerest desire as a reader first, as a writer second and as an editor is that there are more readers available.

I don't know where the readers are. They are somewhere I suspect. We have libraries everywhere. We have bookstores. We now have the technology of the electronic readers. And yet, how many people really read a literary magazine? How many of your friends, for instance, can say: “I know this best selling author, I read a short story in Small Mag XYZ years ago. I knew this writer when they were still young.” A potent thought, isn't it?

Sometimes I think about it in grave ways. I figure reading is out and reality TV is in. Fuck being a free thinker, I want SOMA. Who needs to be pedestrian when we can have that huge car and why bother? I always felt that we should, as a modern people be more progressive with our thoughts, more thoughtful with our free time. But what do I know? When it comes down to it, who really cares, right?

Even on a day when I feel so grim, I realize how much more important the small press is. So what? Umbrella Factory, like so many others is only for writers. Writers are the readers and the promoters and as much as I wish for the vastest of markets, it just isn't the case. Please, please, please, try this on for size. The small press is free. It is free to think its own thoughts. It's free to represent any writer or any voice it wants to represent. When a magazine has no rules imposed by an institution or by a board of directors, or the whim of advertisers, that magazine can do anything. The beautiful thing about the internet is that any magazine can do it too. The advent of the internet has made the production and the distribution free or close to it. The poet Mathias Svalina of Octopus Books, said one of the most amazing things I've ever heard concerning the small press and technology. He said, anyone who can use a blog can develop their own magazine. How true.

We have so many wonderful rights in this country. I suppose when I get right to the point of it, our country and me, I am a devout patriot. How many other countries have the freedom of speech the way we do? And how many Americans are really exercising that right?

Next time: The Small Press part II

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