Running a Literary Journal
Part 1: Choices

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Taking a cue from one of the more oft-repeated bits of writing advice—write what you know—this will be the first in a series of articles on starting and running an independent literary journal.

If you’ve spent any time at all online or in the writing section of your favorite bookstore, you know there’s no shortage of advice available for prospective writers. This series is aimed at prospective editors, who don’t have nearly as much advice to wallow in. Specifically, it’s aimed at those of you who want to found your own unaffiliated journal, since that’s where our expertise lies. In it, I and my co-editors will share what we’ve learned over the past decade as editors of Toasted Cheese.

In this first installment, I discuss some questions you should try to answer prior to putting out your first issue.

Why do you want to start a literary journal?

In journalism, the question of ‘why’ is traditionally left to the end of the article. However, when contemplating starting an independent literary journal, I think this is the question you should start by asking yourself.

In a nutshell, the only reason to take on this job is because you love it—and are good at it.

You won’t become rich editing an independent journal. (In fact, you’ll probably lose money.) You won’t become famous. Editors, no matter how good or how prestigious a publisher or publication they work for, maintain fairly low profiles. Accolades come mostly secondhand via the writers and pieces you publish.

At a bare minimum, you should have an interest in the kind of work you’ll be publishing (Do you read other literary journals? If you don’t, why do you want to start one?) and some skill at assessing quality. Are you able to identify a good piece of writing from one that is not so good—and explain the difference? Are you able to give constructive criticism?

An editor is part curator, part coach. These days, any writer can slap a piece of writing up on their blog. They continue to submit to journals because of the value added by the editorial process. As an editor, you’ll need to be selective and constructive, to choose pieces that are suitable—in quality and style—for the journal and to work with writers to polish those pieces as necessary.

As an editor of an independent publication, “editor” won’t just be a title on a masthead—you’ll actually be editing. And that can mean everything from reading slush to making decisions about what pieces work together or best fit the journal’s aesthetic to copy-editing to substantive editing to decisions about design and layout. You’ll inevitably end up doing things that editors at major publications would consider “not my job,” like taking care of correspondence or maintaining your journal’s social media presence.

But, of course, getting to wear all those different hats is part of the fun of it.

How are you going to manage the commitment?

Once you’ve expressed your desire to work long hours for no pay (yay!), the next thing you need think about is how you’re going to fit that commitment into your life.

Think of running a literary journal as a volunteer job, not a hobby. With a volunteer job other people are counting on you. In this case, the “other people” are all the writers who submit to your publication. If you say writers can expect to hear back in X days, they will expect to hear back in X days. If you say you’ll publish in month Y, writers will expect to see an issue in month Y.

While you might start your journal when you have lots of free time to devote to it, keep in mind, if it lasts, your circumstances will change. Work and school, relationships and family, illnesses and injuries, your own writing projects, even your hobbies—all of these things will compete with your journal for your attention. If you want your journal to weather these changes, be realistic about how much time and money you’ll be able to commit to it—not just right now, but in the future.

There are many ways of keeping the workload manageable, for example, publishing less frequently, limiting the types of work you accept, and taking on more staff.

One big decision you’ll have to make early on is whether or not to pay contributors. If you do, and this money is coming out of your own pocket, how long can you keep it up? What might be manageable when you start your journal may not be a year or five into the future.

Non-paying markets don’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from, but will tend to receive fewer submissions than paying ones. While this can be a drawback in terms of missing out on submissions from more established writers, it can also be a benefit in terms of a more reasonable time commitment.

Who will be on your journal’s staff?

Of course, how much time and money you have to commit to your journal will depend on how many people are involved in its operation. Will it just be you, Jack– or Jill-of-all-trades, or will it be a team effort?

Having a group of people involved is generally a good thing, as the workload can be shared and one person’s crisis doesn’t equal a crisis for the journal since the others can cover as needed.

If you’re assembling a group, it will be advantageous to have people on staff who can handle the technical (coding, design, layout, etc.) and marketing aspects of publishing, as well those with a talent for editing. While it’s great if people can do double duty, your web guru and publicist don’t necessarily also have to be editors.

It’s not important that everyone involved contribute the same amount. What is important is if someone says they will be responsible for a particular task they do it without having to be reminded—and that they don’t flake out on you. You should feel confident that if extenuating circumstances arise for someone or if they no longer want to be involved with the journal, they’ll inform the rest of the staff so alternate arrangements can be made. In other words, you want your staff to be reliable and considerate.

The drawback to a group endeavor is that levels of commitment will vary. With any volunteer activity, people will often express enthusiastic interest in being involved or even participate for a brief time and then—without notice—disappear. If someone you don’t know expresses interest in getting involved, get to know them before inviting them to join your staff. At TC, for example, we have an expectation that new editors will have been hosts or regulars at the forums first. Choose people you know you can count on.

What type of content are you going to publish?

It’s a good idea to establish your core staff first, because their reading interests will determine the direction your journal is going to go content-wise. There’s no sense focusing on content your editorial staff won’t enjoy reading. If your staff’s usual reading choice leans to science fiction, they’ll quickly tire of a steady diet of sonnets (regardless how good).

First, think about what genres you want to include. Will you be publishing poetry, fiction, essays, creative nonfiction, articles? What about reviews, translations, interviews? Will your issues include art?

Once you’ve decided on the general scope of your journal, narrow it down. Fiction, for example, is a big category. If you’re going to publish fiction, what kind of fiction? Will yours be a genre magazine, dedicated to a specific kind of fiction like fantasy or mystery? If it’s a popular genre or there’s a niche waiting to be filled, you can restrict submissions to a specific sub-genre, as with Shock Totem (dark fantasy and horror), 14 by 14 (sonnets), or Brevity (essays under 750 words).

Another way of narrowing the scope of submissions is geographically. For example, Zyzzyva is only open to writers from the west coast and The New Quarterly only publishes writers living in Canada or Canadians abroad.

While it might be tempting to say you’re open to “anything,” there are two major drawbacks to that approach. First, your staff is likely to be overwhelmed with the quantity and variety of submissions. And second, “anything goes” will make it difficult for your journal to develop a cohesive aesthetic, which in turn will be confusing to potential submitters who are trying to determine whether their work would be a good fit.

Where will your journal’s home base be located?

Once you’ve assembled your staff and decided what kind of material you want to publish, you need to decide where you’re going to publish. That is, will you be publishing a print journal or an online one? In neither case do you need to have a physical headquarters, but keep in mind, for some purposes you will need to provide a mailing address.

Despite the “print is dead” refrain, print journals still do have a certain cachet with writers, but print brings with it various logistical considerations. Unless you take a do-it-yourself approach and produce a zine, i.e. handmade magazine, you’ll likely need to invest in desktop publishing software and have someone on staff who knows—or is willing and able to learn—how to use it.

A traditional print-run will require some up-front funding, a physical location to store boxes of journals, and a plan for mailing them out. Print-on-demand may solve these issues, but you’ll still need to decide what service to use and make decisions with respect to the size, quality, and format of the journal. Furthermore, deciding to go the print route doesn’t mean you can forget about having a web presence. Your print journal should still have a website with, at a minimum, some background on the journal, submission guidelines for writers, and information on where readers can purchase copies.

Compared to print, online journals are relatively easy to set up and low cost to produce. If you decide to take the online route, your first major decision will be whether to purchase your own domain or start out on a free hosted site, such as WordPress.com or Blogger.

If you choose to obtain your own domain, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to build your website. Many online journals have shifted from traditional websites (which require the person updating to have some knowledge of HTML, CSS, etc.) to content management systems like WordPress, which make it easy for anyone to update. The drawback to using a popular CMS is that your journal will tend to look like all the other websites using the same software unless you use a custom theme.

While many journals do start out at hosted sites, if you have a bit of money to spend, securing a domain for your journal is a good idea, even if all you do with it for now is set up a redirect to your hosted site. Think of this domain as your journal’s virtual headquarters—especially important if it doesn’t have a physical one.

When (how often) will you publish?

Finally, before you open your literal or metaphorical doors to that first wave of submissions, you’ll need to decide on a publishing schedule.

Both print and online journals can be published in issues. The usual commitment for a volunteer-run journal is anywhere from one to six issues per year. More often, and the time and financial commitment will likely be too onerous for the average volunteer; less often, and people will begin to wonder if your journal is still operational.

An advantage to publishing in issues is that you and your staff get some predictable downtime each cycle. This can be good for the longevity of your journal, as there will less chance that people will burn out. Another benefit is the anticipation and excitement associated with the release of each new issue. Many journals, especially print ones, throw launch parties to celebrate.

Of course, online journals aren’t limited to publishing in issues. Online, you don’t need to wait until you have a batch of material to publish; you can publish individual pieces on a more frequent basis—once a week, every weekday, even daily.

There’s something to be said for taking advantage of the medium, but be realistic as to what you can manage long-term. As many bloggers have found, once the initial thrill wears off, daily publishing can be a grind. A very frequent schedule might not be the best idea if it’s just you running your journal. Do you really want to work on it every day? What happens when you get sick? Go on vacation? On the other hand, a frequent publishing schedule can be a great way to build readership if there are enough people involved with your journal that you can take turns spelling each other off.

In Conclusion (for now…)

If you like to read, write, and edit, running your own literary journal can be an extremely satisfying endeavor. However, it’s also a lot of work, and as soon as you put out that first call for submissions, writers will be counting on you to follow through on the promises you make. Think about whether you really want that responsibility before you leap into publishing.

In future installments of this series, I’ll explore each of the areas touched on in this article in more depth.

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