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Nimble innovators

Claiming the Australian publishing industry is in a time of change has become as hackneyed as the word ‘unputdownable’ on a book cover. Although change has become something of a mantra, to declare that the future of publishing is bleak is equivalent to standing in the middle of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and proclaiming that people don’t care about books. Festivals, book clubs, writing groups and salon-style events abound.

The recent sprouting of literary journals in Australia is proof of the scene’s fecundity. The past five years have witnessed the birth of Kill Your Darlings, Archer, Contrappasso, Higher Arc, Cuttings, Tincture, The Canary Press, Stilts, The Review of Australian Fiction, Ampersand and Seizure (of which I am editor and co-founder). There are others – this is not an exhaustive list. These new journals join the more established Overland, Island, Southerly, Westerly, The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review, Sleepers Almanac, Going Down Swinging and Meanjin.

There has been plenty of discussion about the purpose of these journals and the quality of their content; there has been less discussion of the ambitions, agendas and achievements of what seems to be a bumper period for Australian literary journals. One of the simple mistakes that reviews of these journals often make is to measure them against mainstream media. In some cases, there will be little difference between the work published in journals and that found in mainstream publications, such as newspapers and books. But much of the work found in these journals undergoes a very different process on the way to publication. Their resources differ from those of newspapers and trade book publishers and so, not surprisingly, the work they publish is often idiosyncratic, peculiar to the editor’s interests and taste, and dependent on the kinds of writing they commission and the submissions they receive.

New wave journal editors are young – often under 30 – tertiary-educated and live in major cities. They tend to be politically progressive. Usually they hold more than one job, since literary journals are not lucrative businesses. And, increasingly, the role of literary journal editor involves more than managing production and behind-the-scenes work with writers. As the number of literary journals has increased, so has the number and visibility of literary events. Editors are also acting as ambassadors, educators and advocates for writers and writing in Australia. This can take the form of classes – Kill Your Darlings and Seizure both run writing courses – events at literary festivals, or public talks and attention-seeking events.

Often this visibility comes in the form of launches. While the book launch used to be a staple in Australian publishing, it is now often the case that trade publishers are not prepared to spend money on these events. Andy Palmer, Publicity Director at Allen & Unwin, was quoted in a recent article by Miriam Cosic on the decline of book launches, saying that he thought they were not a good use of resources unless the author and the book were guaranteed significant mainstream media coverage. But for journals they are crucial, since they provide a place for the community to gather, to meet in person, when often writers and editors may only have communicated by email and phone. They can even function as fundraisers.

For Seizure’s ‘Music’ issue launch, we deputised Edward Deer, a Sydney singer-songwriter who lined up a showcase of local acts for a one-off gig. Musicians met with writers and exchanged work. We managed to find new audiences for both groups. The extension of the magazine’s networks and knowledge base had a lasting effect. In fact, each launch has brought together writers who, more often than not, had not met one another, and has allowed connections to be made with keen students and recent graduates who want to be involved in the magazine.

Such events are also vital for the Lifted Brow which, for the past few issues, has held launches in multiple cities. This is a journal that thrives on community. The most recent issue, themed ‘Sex’, has 56 contributors. The previous issue had 44. This outstrips the other journals, which tend to have around fifteen or twenty contributors per issue. With all of these writers, some illustrators and comic artists, a designer and four editors, the Lifted Brow is not so much a journal as a creative community that comes together under the leadership of editor Sam Cooney. Publishing a journal with such a large contributor base guarantees well-attended events. More people will be spruiking their work – and bringing along their relatives and friends. This lightens the promotions load for the journal’s staff. For most of its seven years in print, the Lifted Brow has published in a broadsheet-style format, which keeps production costs low and means that the page count can be increased without significant extra cost. There is an informality to this medium which couples nicely with their tongue-in-cheek tone and regular use of comic artists. The writing ranges from comedic essays through to reviews and short stories. Despite its girth, this is one of the most prolific of the new journals, generally releasing a new issue every two to three months.

Another way that new journals are both engaging with community and generating income is through crowd-funding sites such as Pozible. In the past eighteen months, Archer, Ampersand, Higher Arc, Seizure and the Lifted Brow have all run successful crowd-funding campaigns. Between them, they have raised around $70 000 to fund their projects. These campaigns prove that readers are prepared to pay for literary journals – to pay for content. They highlight the fact that traditional means of distribution or transmission are often insufficient to bring new writing to its intended audience.

The amount of time and effort invested in effective campaigns – which includes organising giveaways, encouraging social media engagement, and then distributing the rewards once the campaign is complete – means that the work involved is comparable to the work that other magazines do to ensure advertising revenue or funding from arts bodies. There is limited capacity for such campaigns, however, particularly when it comes to long-term sustainability. So far, none of these magazines has funded two consecutive issues through crowd-funding.

Contrappasso, edited by Matthew Asprey and Theodore Ell, released their first issue without external funding. They did so by taking advantage of short-run digital printing, controlling their costs by starting with a small print run. They organised their own distribution and held their first launch at Sappho bookshop in Glebe, Sydney. Their ‘Noir’ themed issue is a testament to the ability of literary journals to cater to niche subject matter and to establish personal networks. Their events in Sydney, which have had a particular focus on poetry, have been well patronised and their flexible publishing model – using print-on-demand systems, they can produce a single copy which bypasses the prohibitive expenses of shipping and warehousing – means that they can guarantee international distribution for each issue, which is particularly important in this case, given Contrapasso’s emphasis on publishing work in translation, as well as international poets and writers.

Also publishing original work in translation is another newcomer, Higher Arc. It is a journal engaged in a local scene of writers, artists and readers, and concerned with literary trends globally – Higher Arc has included work in translation and writing from overseas authors in each of its issues to date. Produced and printed in Melbourne, this is a publication that prizes the tradition of literary journals – the covers have all been pastiches of vintage magazine covers – and it seems determined to contribute to that tradition, to make connections with what has come before. The interiors break several entrenched rules of design, but it feels as though these transgressions are intentional and the result is that the layout is unconventional and fits with the content. The editorial committee of Higher Arc includes Mieke Chew and William Heyward, whose father, Michael Heyward, now publisher at Text, ran his own literary journal, Scripsi, some thirty years ago.

This experimental, ambitious, outward-looking, culturally engaged quality is very much a part of the contemporary journal scene and the source of much of its vitality. The cultural contribution of literary journals extends beyond simply acting as training grounds for aspiring writers. These publications are innovative and entrepreneurial; they are interested in art and design as well as literature; they are not merely contributing to the cultural discussion, in many cases they are generating that discussion and actively creating the literary culture.

This is true of Kill Your Darlings, which was founded by Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent – who have recently stepped back to the roles of Editor in Chief and Publishing Director respectively – and is now edited by Brigid Mullane. Both Kent and Starford have been significant contributors to Australian literary life – in their KYD capacities, but also as a novelist and editor respectively. Starford will also become a published author later this year when Allen & Unwin release her memoir. Their work on the journal is one facet of their continued engagement with and development of local literary culture. Kill Your Darlings also exists beyond the printed page. It has an active website, featuring its lively blog ‘Killings’. It runs writers’ workshops, offers internships for editors, and has a paid investigative journalism mentorship program.

It is not only the newer journals that are engaged in this active regeneration of the literary culture. Older publications are also adapting to the new cultural environment and renewing themselves. Meanjin is one of the oldest literary journals in Australia. This is perhaps why there was a frisson in the publishing community when Zora Sanders was appointed editor at the age of 25. Under Sanders’ editorship, however, the magazine continues to publish work that instigates Twitter conversations, is busily shared on Facebook, and is also part of the cultural conversation offline.  Overland, Southerly and Griffith Review, too, have all undergone significant rejuvenations in recent years. Griffith Review has started a novella award with significant prize money for the winner, for instance. On the digital front, Overland is now regularly publishing online editions with a view to exploring new media writing and content.

Island magazine, another venerable Australian publication, has also undergone a rebirth in the past year under the editorship of Matthew Lamb. At the time of the productivity commission into parallel importation restrictions on books in Australia, one of the important voices in the debate was Australia’s local printers. These businesses employ thousands of people – particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. Island has taken the question of printing locally very seriously; their journal is printed in the same state in which it is produced, Tasmania. Although the income from a literary journal is not enough to make or break a business, it is a reminder that journals contribute to a range of industries in Australia, not just to the ‘market’ of emerging writers.

So far I have mostly considered their print incarnations, but these journals are also working in the digital realm, and not simply by accruing followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook. While Australians are comfortable with reading, shopping and socialising online, the transition to paying for online content is still underway and the expectations of readers in a digital environment have not yet stabilised. The newer literary journals are well placed to experiment in this environment, since not only are many of their staff digital natives – and therefore experienced in web coding and social media – but given their generally small size and flattened hierarchies, it is much easier for them to develop an idea and implement it than might be the case if one is a trade publisher or a newspaper. Since the stakes are smaller, failures or experiments that are only partial successes can be turned into a form of low-risk market research, which feeds into future initiatives and projects.

In the latter part of the twenty-first century’s first decade, some trade publishers in Australia tried to be forward thinking by producing apps. To take just one example, Hachette created a True Blood app to promote Charlaine Harris’ series of vampire novels. It showed a cup of blood on the screen that drained when you angled the phone down. This was a significant marketing investment in a series that was already successful. Given the expense and the difficulty of upkeep, however, and since readers are generally happy to view tablet-optimised websites, trade publishers’ rush to build apps has slowed somewhat. It is the journals that have been far more dynamic when it comes to this sort of development. Meanjin’s app is a reproduction of content from their website; the Lifted Brow’s is similar. At Seizure, we released an app shortly after publishing our first print issue, but over time decided the expense and effort was not worth the views we received. Kill Your Darlings republish much of their print content online, though you need to be a subscriber to access the full suite of content, and this site also can be easily accessed on a range of devices.

One of the commonly held ideas in recent times has been that publishing needed to turn to the music industry for advice on how to survive the move to digital. The music business was forever changed by the introduction of the iTunes store and the shift from CDs to MP3s. Piracy began to affect music sales well in advance of publishing, since ebooks did not become ubiquitous until several years after the advent of Napster and other music piracy sites. Since the music industry had been dealing with the issues that publishing was facing, it was thought that there were lessons to be learned. In 2011, Murdoch Books even hired a former executive from Warner Music to head up their marketing with a view to exploiting his expertise in negotiating the transition to ebooks.

The music industry has not fully resolved how to deal with the shift, but it does suggest that there are still a few ways that money can be made when the product has become – effectively – free. Musicians often make greater profits from merchandising and touring than from sales of their recordings. As far as merchandising is concerned, Penguin has been exploiting this on a publisher level by selling branded mugs, pencil cases and luggage tags. But for the most part, authors are not in a position to sell products with their book covers or faces emblazoned on the front. While there are some opportunities for authors to make money from speaking events, many of the talks they give are free, since they are trying to encourage sales of their books rather than use the events as a source of income. If there is a fee, it can often barely cover the cost of transportation and preparation time.

In such an environment, the role of journals as facilitators, pioneers and promoters of new writing becomes even more important, because they are sites of entrepreneurial ambition and innovation; their central concern is with developing audiences, seeking out funding opportunities and new ways of operating. Aside from the fact that journals are nimble, given their commonly flat management structures, and given that most have no one but themselves to answer to (being, in effect, their own constituencies), they are well placed to imagine the future of literary culture, in terms of production and dissemination – as they are often in the process of creating it.

Since Seizure was founded, one of our central tenets has been experimentation. We have placed ourselves in a position to play with form, content and technology. Publishing a magazine for three years helped us build a community and gave us a presence in bookstores and in the review pages of newspapers, but it was a very labour-intensive process for what was a small volunteer team. We commissioned illustrations or had photo-shoots for each piece, in addition to our focus on editorial development. Having migrated our primary publishing activity to a website, we now have the flexibility to run multiple projects concurrently and test new ideas, jettisoning them if they are not successful. This ensures a more collaborative and community-focused platform where we have access to detailed reporting on what our audience responds to, as well as access to readers all around the world. As Seizure has grown, it has built a strong foundation to promote new writing to an audience that is genuinely engaged.

A question that is often asked of literary journals is: for whom do they exist? Are they a just a sort of reject shop for writers whose work would not be published anywhere else? Are they a way for government funding bodies to claim that they are supporting a greater number of writers, since the funding is divvied up into smaller rations and dispersed more widely than is the case with a grant to a single writer?

What is often not acknowledged is that these journals are training grounds for editors, as well as writers. In the past year, several publishers have made staff redundant, while there is increasing interest from recent graduates in joining the sector. University Masters of Publishing Courses and Graduate Certificates are full of students keen to work in the industry. Postgraduate study does not guarantee a job. So, armed with big ideas and youthful enthusiasm, graduates take it upon themselves to work on literary journals. Kill Your Darlings, Seizure and Ampersand, for example, are all run by graduates of such courses.

Ampersand, which proudly stamps itself as a ‘curiosity journal’, was founded while editor Alice Gage was completing a Masters in Publishing at the University of Sydney. Each issue has featured reproductions of contemporary art. For one issue, the journal staged a photography competition, with Bill Henson acting as judge, and printed the work of some of the winners. Aside from its idiosyncratic content – which ranges from poetry and comics to stories and non-fiction – Ampersand is produced in an unusual format: a postcard-sized book. This journal, with its concern for high-quality production, eclectic content and forging networks across art forms, is a prime example of the multiple functions that literary journals can perform: they can be a home for writing, a venue for experiment in form and content, and means of professional development for editors. As an entrepreneurial project, it is also an excellent example of a start-up business. It initially operated with some Australia Council funding, was briefly housed within another magazine, and then used crowd-funding to publish a recent issue. Its trajectory is an example of how a creative cultural organisation can function in 2014.

Also streaming out of university campuses, degrees in hand, are creative writing students. The most immediate option for finding an audience for their work is getting published in literary journals.  Short stories and essays are good training grounds for young writers (in age or experience) and having a range of literary journals means that writers are able to approach a publication they feel fits with their work. We are at a stage in publishing where, despite what some writers may believe, more work is being brought to market in Australia than ever before. Generally speaking, publishers are not cutting down on the number of titles that they release in a year – but they are keen to release the titles they do publish with a lower initial outlay, and this can mean cutting down on the time and work spent at a developmental level. Journals can provide valuable in-depth training for new writers, introducing them to the editorial process and encouraging them to consider their work critically, which is particularly important for ensuring a vibrant literary culture.

In some ways, it is far more stimulating to operate in a time of change than one of deeply entrenched means of production and firmly stratified distribution processes. Rather than worrying about whether something will interrupt the system, new journals are anticipating the need for flexibility and experimentation. They are re-developing and amending the way publishing operates. While trade publishers are often relatively large companies – answerable to head offices in the US or UK – literary journals can use their size to be nimble and responsive. They can start up and fold, regenerate and prune back. The recent changes at Kill Your Darlings and the Lifted Brow demonstrate that it is possible for relatively young journals to develop succession plans and undergo changes without falling apart. The experiments with apps and new websites, as well as crowd-funding and events, provide information and lessons from which the trade publishers could harvest new ways of producing, promoting and disseminating their titles.

As technology changes, the next generation of editors and writers will have different expectations of literary journals. No doubt the scene will look very different in the next decade. It is unlikely that all of the journals I have mentioned in this article will be around in ten years – in fact, their very impermanence can be a point of strength rather than a weakness since the ability to respond to an unfilled niche and then cease operating when the need has been met is uniquely possible with journals – but the writers and editors that they are fostering and developing will remain – with, one hopes, some of the vigour that they now exhibit still intact.

Literary Journal Websites

Kill Your Darlings
Archer
Contrappasso
Higher Arc
Cuttings
Tincture
The Canary Press
Stilts
The Review of Australian Fiction
Ampersand
Seizure
Overland
Island
Southerly
Westerly
The Lifted Brow
Griffith Review
Sleepers Almanac
Going Down Swinging
Meanjin