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U.S. literary journals thrive with low overhead and dedicated audiences

A couple of weeks ago poet Michael Lista got the attention of the publishing Twitterverse with his National Post essay “Why literary magazines should fold.”

Now, we don’t need another American TV sitcom to point out the differences between our two cultures, but here’s an interesting article about the financial health of U.S. West Coast literary journals. Turns out, boutique publishers like The Threepenny Review, Zoetrope, and McSweeney’s Quarterly are doing just fine these days, but not for the reasons you might think. According to The New York Times:

If literary journals “are poised to do well,” as Laura Cogan, editor of San Francisco-based ZYZZYVA, said, it may be because they share qualities with many successful online ventures: skeletal staffs, low overhead and specialized audiences.

The article suggests journals associated with academic institutions have financially suffered the most over the last couple of years. Not that the successful print publishers are sitting around counting their money bags — they’ve been investing in the online side of their businesses by overhauling websites and promoting online subscriptions. McSweeney’s even hired a digital media director.

But, as the article concludes — and here’s where Canadians can nod in agreement — if these publishers are doing well, it is relative to their notions of success:

“No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction,” Stephen Elliott, a writer and founder of The Rumpus, said. “It doesn’t matter that there are exceptions. The rule stands.”

  • Paul

    “No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction”

    I don’t know what his definition of a good living is, but the writers and publishers in Canada that are winning major cash awards, selling lots of books, and getting grants from federal and provincial funding bodies seem to be doing reasonably well. There are many who are only making marginal livings, of course (if that), but that’s true of every type of writing and publishing – and of most small businesses too.

  • Joe Clark

    Generally we link to the articles we quote.

  • Sue Carter Flinn

    The link was broken – thanks for letting us know.

  • Becky T.

    I wonder if the success of lit mags in America might also have to do with the astonishing amount of MFA programs here, more than anywhere else in the world. These students and professors are the people who by and large produce, read, and support literary magazines, and no other country competes on that front.

    Great article, by the way.
    My website is dedicated to the review of lit mags, so please do check it out if you’re interested. (We also interview editors and offer publishing tips to writers.)

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