As they say, art imitates life, and as I’m writing my conclusion for this blog, I’m also finishing up the last of my work for my editorial internship with The Coffin Factory. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience which has taught me a deal about the multifaceted literary industry as a hole, and about its relationship with its anchoring city— New York.
Equally as fitting, The Coffin Factory is slated to host an event titled, “Who Gives A Sh*t About Literary Magazines?” next month, which will feature panelists from three of the biggest names in lit mags. Editors Randy Rosenthal and Laura Isaacman will be joined Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, and John Freeman, editor of Granta to “discuss the importance of literary magazines in contemporary culture.” The event, which will be held at BookCourt at 7:00 pm on September 17th will certainly provide some interesting insight as to why lit mags are still relevant, and how their mission to support reading culture can be perpetuated.
I suppose that between these three major players in the lit industry, they’re going to come up with a much better solution as to why the lit mag is still relevant. But after producing an overview of the lit mag’s history and current status in New York today, as well as looking specifically to The Coffin Factory and Electric Literature, I can’t help but feel like it’s a timeless question that can never truly be answered. Isn’t it a little presumptuous of us to think that only the people producing the lit mags today are the real heroes? Can’t it be said that the founders of magazines such as The Paris Review and Granta were also asking the same questions and struggling with the same issues of publishing and readership? But isn’t it also this fear of extinction that serves as a driving factor?
Surely we cannot deny the unique challenges that are facing lit mags today in the age of the digital shift. However, after looking at both Electric Literature, a now completely digital magazine, and The Coffin Factory, a new print mag with strong digitals ties, it seems like it’s all a matter of staying ahead of the curves and keeping up with the trends. So far, both magazines have successfully done this and will continue to skillfully adapt to the changing climates in the literary industry.
And in New York City, no matter what you’re producing, it really all boils down to who you know. If there’s one thing that this Cultural Capital class has proven, success depends on networking. From calling in favors to making recommendations, networking in New York gets you places, and both Electric Literature and The Coffin Factory have actively facilitated all sorts of relationships, most obviously through their events, integrating work and play to make social life and cultural production mutually beneficial.
With all sectors of cultures, there are fads and trends. Literature has always been a constant, but it is a mode of literature that sees peaks and valleys in popularity. In New York, there is a continuous cycle of successes and failures. So, in initially questioning the future lit mag, I should have been asking about the future of certain lit mags. The saturation of the market is finite, but it always has been. It’s a matter of producing fantastic content with a mix of well-known writers as well as promising amateurs to make magazine that’s highly readable. Then, there’s the matter of cultivating a brand, creating a market strategy, and curating an online presence, spreading the mission and voice of the magazine into zones far beyond the publication itself.
There will always be countless people clamoring to produce something meaningful and worthwhile, but it comes down to the people who actually do just that. New York City is the microcosmic example of this. One moves to New York to take their work a step forward in the right direction, so it makes it that much more difficult to be noticed. But once a project starts to take off, it’s always about keeping with that momentum, constantly adapting to the changes of the industry, and continuously networking with likeminded, ambitious people. Writing off the number of literaty magazines that are popping up all over the place is unproductive. This precarious tipping of the scales is necessary— It’s merely a matter of time before something fantastic comes along, and others will naturally fade out in the process. It’s sadly survival of the fittest, even in the world of book-lovers like myself, but I don’t see neither The Coffin Factory nor Electric Literature dying out any time soon.
Jonathan Franzen reviews Adam Levin’s story collection “Hot Pink.” What the what, indeed.
I got my first copy of Electric Literature in the mail. This will be totally fun to read in public. Just hold the thing right in front of my face. Oh yeah.
(On a related note, I had a friend in college who told me she liked to read the book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence in public places because she loved the looks she would get. She was a terrible person.)
If you haven’t already found about Recommended Reading, then you definitely need to. I suppose you first need to know about Electric Literature. They’re a web journal that highlights amazing authors that everyone should read. I love their work and follow them everywhere I can. Definitely check them out!
Here’s a dirty secret: I like books.
A wide selection certainly has its benefits, but, in this saturated market, navigating through content is a daunting, disorienting task. In an age of distraction, Recommended Reading will help you discover writing that’s worth slowing down and spending some time with. We’ll publish one story every week, each chosen by an extraordinary author or editor, and deliver it directly to you. And in doing so, we’ll help give great writers, literary magazines, and independent presses the recognition (and readership) they deserve. This week, we have a story by Ben Marcus, chosen by Electric Literature.
We highly recommend it.
A major factor which marks my sector of literary magazines is the shift from the print to the digital medium. There has been an interesting trend in watching the precautions and adaptations that various publications have adopted in order to try and blanket potential readership in both arenas. While some, like The Coffin Factory (as discussed in my previous case study) has focused on and even celebrated their dedication to print, they’ve still gone great lengths to cultivate an internet presence through blogging and various social media.
Electric Literature, however, has leaped headfirst into the digital realm. Launched in 2009 by founders Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, Electric Literature was praised for becoming the first fiction magazine to be available for the iPad and iPhone; its aim to transplant the value of contemporary fiction into the new digital age of personal electronic devices was seen as a hopeful step in the right direction.
On the publication’s “About” page, they state,
Electric Literature’s mission is to guide writers and readers through a rapidly evolving publishing landscape. By embracing new technologies and mixed media, collaborating with other publishers, and engaging the literary community online and in-person, Electric Literature aims to support writers while broadening the audience of literary fiction, and ensure that literature remains a vibrant presence in popular culture.
In addition to its availability on e-readers and Apple products, the magazine also released six print editions. The magazines, compiled and sold quarterly, feature what The New York Times deems to be “some of the country’s best writers,” such as Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, Jim Shepherd, Lydia Davis, and Joy Williams. Along with its striking coverwork by various artists, the magazine was able to generate a fantastic amount of publicity over the last three years.
Now, after experiencing great success with it combination of print and digital publication, as well as a widely-read literature blog called The Outlet, Electric Literature has decided to make a massive departure; after six issues, Electric Lit has completely phased out their print component in exchange for Recommended Reading.
Recommended Reading is an incredibly brave jump which was backed by hundreds of supporters. In the spring of 2012, a Kickstarter page promoted the “free, weekly, digital magazine, that introduces you to new fiction while supporting indie publishers.” With an initial goal of $10,000, the donations quickly surpassed and almost doubled the original marker.
Electric Literature purposely emphasized the impersonality of new algorithms and programs on sites like Amazon, designed to artificially pass on recommendations merely through formulaic computations. Recommended Reading serves as a real-life replacement for this process, honing on focus on the important up-and-coming writers, as well as shining the spotlight on old stories previously published elsewhere. It’s an ingenuous formula— by signing up for free, subscribers receive a weekly dose of new fiction as well as a promotional spot for an independent publishing house, fellow lit mag, or new writer.
Therefore, the magazine operates largely on donations. They present these opportunities to their potential supporters in a very smart way, very basically illustrating that writers deserve x amount of dollars for their work to be published, Recommended Reading wants to help them beyond publishing them, and they need the readers’ financial contributions in order to do so.
As they say on their donation page, “Electric Literature is an independent publisher working to ensure literary fiction remains a vibrant part of popular culture. We pay writers and are committed to offering this [Recommended Reading] online version for free.” Furthermore, Recommended Reading was able to gain sponsorship by Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, enabling them to accept donations which are tax deductible. Recommended Reading and Electric Literature as a whole both do well to put the agency into the readers’ hands in a very positive way in that their payments are directly benefitting the artist and not the middleman (in this case, the publisher).
The entity of Recommended Reading and the boundaries of the group Electric Literature now greatly transcend the realm of a limited print literary magazine. They have a massive social media following of people who wish to partake in their contribution to literary culture — it has become not so much a magazine at all, but a service, a blog, a vehicle for conversation and sharing, and an institution that directly benefits working writers and artists.
It is interesting, then, to consider this highly millennial literary magazine within the context of its home, New York City. As I previously mentioned in my case study on The Coffin Factory, a major factor in building up a publication or, in this case of Electric Literature, a brand is to host events. While coming up with the funds to begin Recommended Reading, the editors offered an incentive: supporters who donated a certain amount of money would be allotted a corresponding amount of tickets to the exclusive Recommended Reading launch party.
Looking back, I believe that it was vital for this new, inclusive approach to happen within their strategy, elevating the event to a higher level made it become more desirable and a part of the New York City cultural scene that is generally reserved for high-end art collectors and galleries. We’ve discussed in various situations how the element of nightlife in New York plays such an important role in cultural development. We’ve also been encouraged to think of the word “culture” in the most literal sense, in that it’s something that grows organically. When a literary publication hosts a V.I.P. event with a costly donation (read: admission) fee at a swanky lounge in SoHo, it becomes more than a launch party.
The event transforms into a coveted social gathering where anyone who’s anyone in the particular industry is there to represent their own brand, outwardly express their support for the publication, and also, most importantly, to network with the other big names in the industry. The nightlife in New York is something more commonly associated with celebrities and superstars in the global commercial entertainment industry. By utilizing this vehicle, Recommended Reading transposes some of this glamor and allure onto their own brand, making it fresh, and very much of an important part of the trendy NYC scene rather than limiting the scope to cozy bookstores and publishing house offices.
Furthermore, just as The Coffin Factory benefitted greatly from the networks built up within the many colleges, universities, MFA programs, and writers’ groups and workshops, Electric Literature so too draws on the contacts made from various programs and events within the scholarly literary communities. Teachers and students alike in the undergrad and grad programs are constantly trying to get published— by building up their brand and promoting their various media outlets, Electric Lit is a sought-after opportunity within New York, where a vast majority of aspiring writers are located.
So, as with almost any other form of cultural production, success largely develops from networking. Because Electric Lit became well-known for producing a modern and innovative lit mag that could be read on modern e-readers, they generated buzz. Then, with their fresh stance on fiction, their dedication to blogging and covering other literary events and magazines, they made connections and gained readers. Finally, with the advent of Recommended Reading, they made a drastic and noticeable move, cutting out print all together. By drawing on the wealth of resources within the New York literary scene, they opened up various lanes in which they could derive funding without having to rely directly on advertisers. All other publishing houses and writers naturally want to network and connect with the staff not only to support Electric Lit’s cause, but to make friends and cultivate relationships with literary agents and editors at parties. People from every step of the writing process in New York from editing to writing to publishing has turned their heads to direct their attention at Electric Literature and the bold moves of Recommended Reading; Electric Lit knows that they’re in the NYC literary limelight, and they’re definitely taking everything in.
Narratives in a Digital Age
From “Curating short fiction: Recommended Reading,” posted on LAT’s Jacketcopy” blog, Carolyn Kellogg writes:
“It’s a project that will publish one fiction story per week, with selections being made by a variety of readers who are in the know: an independent press, a writer, the kind folks at Electric Literature, and another literary journal. That’s one month, then the cycle starts again.”