Thursday, June 24, 2010

Butter Your Own Bread

There's another thing that bugs me about journals earmarking writers as their primary sources of subscription: writers generally mean it when they say they can't afford something. It's important to listen to them if you're really thinking of them as your primary market.

After the Ted Genoways article hit, VQR's editors took to the blog to back him up, asking fiction writers, "Why don’t you subscribe to just one or two magazines? Is $50 too high a price for the future of literary fiction?"

First, multiply this request times five or ten or twenty; writers are not being asked to subscribe to just one or two magazines. They're being asked, one, to subscribe to VQR, which at $32/year eats up the better part of that $50, and two, to subscribe to a slew of magazines that would otherwise fail, that need them, a list that VQR rattles off like flavors of ramen: TriQuarterly, New England Review, Southern Review--and those that could have been saved, Ontario Review, Chelsea, DoubleTake, Grand Street, Other Voices, Partisan Review, Story. They follow this up with a guesstimate of just how many magazines could be saved by the intervention of writers' pocketbooks: "We dare say that half of the top fiction venues of the last decade—and indeed some of the great American fiction venues of all time—are in danger of folding or have already folded for lack of readership."

If only writers would subscribe to one or two. If only they'd subscribed to seven or ten. If only they'd shell out some cash to help out half of the top fiction venues of the last decade.

Writers are not obligated to support magazines so that their hopes of publishing may live on. I myself think VQR is a fine magazine to support. So is TriQuarterly, and I'm sure the others mentioned are too. But editors need to do some better math before they make these arguments. How much should each writer spend? Should all writers be spending at this price tier, or are there different levels for single moms in college and tenured writing professors? How much does this all add up to? Divide it out now--how many writers does each struggling magazine/small press get? How much money is there in a household? In the world? How much of a writer's personal or family budget should go to literary journals and how much to a new computer, to renting movies, to eating out? Which of these things is most frivolous?

Viewing a writer as a lone entity responsible for nothing but his or her own livelihood is a serious mistake. Read the comments for this entry at VQR. Or for the original post at Mother Jones. Writers are saying I'm sorry, but I can't pay an extra $50 for the sake of literature. They're saying I'm sorry, I make $12,000 a year and $5000 of that is tuition, but it's not that I don't like you. They're saying I'm sorry, I have a family and work for AmeriCorps for $10 an hour, but it's not that I don't like you. They're saying I'm sorry, it's not that I don't like you; I have the money, but I spend it on other literary journals I like better. Many writers are supporting literature by buying books, by buying anthologies, and by buying journals too--just not all the ones asking for money, and not through subscription. They are also, it should be noted, supporting literature by continuing to write and submit. Mike's said it all on the value of the slush below--writers are making the ground-level contribution toward ensuring that any quantity of good and great literature continues to exist. It is no one's responsibility to make sure that the same venues for that literature exist, now and forever. We have passion, and we have the Internet. Things will continue to get published and read.

Yet the comment threads are torn on these issues, too. More often than not it seems that those who see it the editors' way are skeptical that the writers who have it tough actually have it that tough:

To Travis, who listed the salaries and then said that if he were making $150K a year teaching fiction he wouldn’t care if anyone read his stuff — wow. That’s not exactly the point now, is it? First, let’s not begrudge someone for making a good living at something they’re good at. Secondly, “the point” is there are too many submissions and the readers have vanished. If you’re a writer, is $50 a year really too much to spend on literary magazines? We buy coffee daily at $5 a cup, or pay $50 a month for bad cable TV, or $20 for a round of beers on a Friday night ….. but we have a fit when someone suggests paying to read good writing?!?!?! My head is about to explode.


Genoways is right. The least we can do —- the very, very least —- is to support the lit journal community that all of us submit work to on a regular basis. If you think getting a piece of work accepted now is hard, just think how much harder it will be when all these journals shut down. Butter your own bread, folks. Or at least use that cable TV money to buy books and literary journals; you have a hundred TV channels to watch and nothing is ever on anyway. Invest in your future; read a lit journal instead.

It's rarely the case that writers are squandering their money in such easy ways. Mike and I don't pay for cable, have a strictly limited food and beverage budget, and we consider a trip to Starbucks a once-a-year, clip-a-coupon date. Most writers I know don't pay for these things either, or they sacrifice two for the one, and more often than not the only purchase they truly allow themselves is a modest amount of books. It's the one purchase that seems to alleviate the near-constant sense of fiscal panic and self-denial that struggling writers feel. Especially given that books and journals are still comparatively very cheap. $10 for a Indiana Review or a NoColony or a Keyhole or aPuerto del Sol is a great deal. $14 for a VQR or $17 for a Tin House is also a great deal.

It's simply wrong to say that writers aren't reading. They aren't subscribing--not like they used to. And it's not because they're lazy, or selfish, or stingy, but because there's a finite amount of money and a ever-growing amount of choice. Such a circumstance demands spending money conservatively. For my money, the subscription model is outdated and makes sense only if you really like the publication, if it's really earned your trust, and if it shows itself relentlessly committed to keeping the same standards of quality and innovation. Otherwise, I say buy the individual issues that market themselves best to what you want to read. Many magazines make this way too difficult; concerned as they are with the mantra of subscription, they bury their links and pricing information for single issues. When I was looking for single issue prices for the list of mags above, half of them made it very easy and half of them made it unreasonably hard. Why would publishers place less emphasis on their individual issues than their general operation? Individual issues have better potential to attract readers. For instance, Mike and I bought the Fantastic Women issue of Tin House a few months back. It is an incredible issue; I'd recommend it to anybody, but I'm there for those writers; I wouldn't necessarily take it as an indication that I should subscribe to the whole magazine. However, that single issue bought the entire operation some trust from me, and next time I'm looking for a specific something, I'm more likely to go there first. It's no mark against Tin House; a magazine doesn't owe me an issue that makes my jaw drop every time. But I reserve the right, in this economy, to make smart decisions and to only pay for what I can't live without. I'm a writer, and a reader, so there's a lot that fits that category. Might as well spread the wealth around.

As a final confession, and to be perhaps more open about where I'm coming from, I had a subscription to The New Yorker for one year. I papered my apartment walls with the covers, and I have never renewed.

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