Author Beware: New Lit Mags
Join a writers’ forum and it won’t take more than a week or two before it happens: the post about how so-and-so has just launched their new online lit mag and they are actively looking for submissions for whatever genre and length. “Check out our official submissions guidelines for more info” they’ll say, at which point, you follow the link and see if any of your pieces fit the bill. It’s all the same stuff you’ve seen a million times: simultaneous submissions discouraged, the magazine gets first publication rights, let them know if your story gets picked up elsewhere, etc. It almost reads like a form letter you’ve seen it so many times, and perhaps it’s because these new online lit mags are a dime a dozen. The one you’re scoping out today isn’t that different from the one that will crop up next week, and it makes me wonder why so many aspiring authors get caught up in the honeymoon phase of these start-up mags.
Why Do We Fall For It?
Flashback to your teenage years—that era of high school in which social pressure and a yearning to grow up too fast dictated you indulge in moments of non-sobriety. You’d approach an oversized trash barrel containing the keg and watery ice, not really caring what was on tap. Whether it was Bud or Miller Light or Keystone didn’t matter because you had no standards, no refinement of the palate. It was easy, accessible, and it got the job done.
For a lot of new writers, a publication is a publication, and a brand new lit mag is the pony keg of the party. It’s an easy credential. In an industry where the adage of “publish and publish often” is repeated ad nauseam, here we have a virgin circular begging to be thrown a bone. Meanwhile, PANK and The Paris Review continue to swat away your advances. Ploughshares can’t even be bothered to send you a rejection. Perhaps this is why so many authors decide the new lit mag is the way to go: they’re sick of rejection, or maybe they’re still searching for that first acceptance. Whatever the reason, you send in your story knowing that even though this new mag isn’t your first choice, at least you’ll see your work in print. You can add another endorsement to the resume, albeit a small one that might not even exist in a year. It’s too easy to pass up. It gets the job done.
So how can publication be a bad idea? Let’s count the red flags.
They Pay in “Notoriety”
You’ve probably seen this little gem more times than you can remember. At the bottom of the mag’s submission guidelines, they say something along the lines of: “Unfortunately, we can only afford to pay in notoriety at this time.”
My response to that is: What notoriety? Isn’t this a brand new lit mag? What notoriety can they possibly have if they’re brand new? Are they referring to the fifty or so “likes” and followers they picked up over the weekend (most of which are writers looking to get their names in print)?
“Notoriety,” unfortunately, is a term that gets thrown around all too loosely in the publishing world. It’s also something that anyone can claim to have when they really don’t. Let’s look at Monkeybicycle for a moment: over 2,000 “likes” on Facebook and over 5,000 followers on Twitter. If you publish with them, you can be assured that a sizeable audience is going to see your story. They’re established and they’ve got the numbers to back it. I’m okay with them playing the “notoriety” card if they want. They’ve earned it.
The new lit mag, on the other hand, uses the term “notoriety” more in the vein of a lofty prediction. They don’t have the numbers. They don’t have a history in publishing. They’re counting on the author(s) to provide them with the notoriety they claim to provide. If you decide to publish with a brand new outfit, do so with the understanding that you’re being utilized to expand their audience—not the other way around.
Lit Mag Tip: Pay something. Anything. Even if it’s as little as $5 per story on a temporary/promotional basis. This would automatically put you head and shoulders about the “notoriety-only” outfits. Also, maybe you didn’t know this, but authors love getting paid for their work.
A New Lit Mag Usually Means No Experience
I’ve seen new lit mags crop up that are run by people who’ve earned their stripes in the industry, either by publishing a novel(s) or branching off from a publication in pursuit of their own vision. They’ll usually detail their experience in the “About Us” section of their site, listing their accomplishments and mission statement so that you, the author, can feel comfortable hopping into bed with this person. This section does not refer to that demographic.
I’m talking about the never-done-this-before not-one-sliver-of-experience outfit. This goes out to the “I’m still learning Wordpress” crowd. Here’s the reality: anyone can register a domain and designate it as a lit mag. Anyone. As you’re reading this, keep in mind that your siblings, your parents and grandparents—they could start a lit mag and open it for submissions. They don’t need any experience or background in publishing. No credentials. A few mouse clicks and keystrokes is all that separates them from the endeavor. As an author, that should make you wary, but all too often I see a vehement rush of authors tossing away their work like old Halloween candy upon reading the words “now open for submissions.”
If you’re a writer, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you take a little bit of pride in your work. The story is your baby, so it confuses me when authors hand over custody to the first willing party. If you’re hiring someone to paint your house, do you go with the person who just started painting houses that week? Or is it a better idea to shop around for someone who’s got some experience in the field?
The point here is that “new” doesn’t equate to good or better or even acceptable. It usually means: “we’re still figuring things out” and “expect missteps.” A large percentage of new businesses fail within the first year, and lit mags are no different. There are tons of them that have shut down their doors for a myriad of reasons, so be careful of whom you give possession of your story to. As an author, learn to equate the word “new” with “high risk.” That’s usually what it is.
Lit Mag Tip: If you’re going to start up a lit mag, please, for the love of God, try to bring a credential or two to the table. Have some kind of a resume that shows us you published something or edited something. Don’t make your authors feel like guinea pigs in your little experiment.
This Publication Might Not Even Count
Roxane Gay, whom I deeply respect, wrote something in a recent article of PANK that caught my eye:
We love cover letters but they have no bearing on the editorial process. Why? Because we don’t give a good goddamn where a writer has been published and we don’t care about your being a finalist in that one contest and honestly we don’t recognize 60% of the magazine names writers list so your saying you’ve been published in Fraggle Rock Review means very little. (By the way, congratulations on all of that.)
Consider that excerpt a moment. Is Roxane coming off bitchy? Or is she telling it like it is? Because if some author jumps into the whoring thread to brag about how he just got published in Barbie Queef Quarterly, and I have no idea what that is, it doesn’t register quite as high as The Missouri Review or The Atlantic. To extrapolate on what Roxane said, a brand new or barely established lit mag carries very little weight…so little it might not even count.
Remember that before you toss your work to a lit mag that is just breaking into the fold, that even though your work is technically available for public consumption (published), to industry professionals like Roxane it “means very little.” I don’t take that as her trying to be a dreamkiller or anything, but that’s the harsh reality of the game. There are so many damn start-ups making their debuts on the daily, to be “published” on one doesn’t exactly beef up an author’s resume. Focus your efforts on the ones that will actually count.
Lit Mag Tip: Accept the fact that just because you’re in a position to publish people doesn’t immediately give you sway in this industry. You have to earn it. You have to regularly put out exceptional content on a consistent basis for many years before you can even begin to touch the competition.
I’ve already accepted the fact that anyone at the helm of a new lit mag is probably going to be pissed off by this column. I’m okay with that. The column isn’t about you, it’s about authors not pissing away their work and being made aware of the red flags. If you don’t like being called out on having no notoriety or experience, that’s your cue to go out and earn it.
Too many authors, myself included, have practically gifted away their work simply because it looked too easy to pass up. They compromised because it had been too long since they had something new to plug on Facebook and Twitter. Stop doing that and aim higher. Turn away from the keg beer and seek out a better experience in publishing. If you want your resume to count, you’re going to have to tackle the noteworthy venues of the industry.
For any of you running lit mags, feel free to state your counterpoints in the comments section. Authors, go ahead and chime in with any experiences (good or bad) that you may have had. We want to hear from you on what makes for a successful or trainwreck of a lit mag.
Image via Every Writer's Resource
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