Writer Wednesday: Ask Not What Lit Mags Can Do For You

Occasionally, we at Writer’s Relief get a grouchy email that sounds something like this:

“Why should I bother submitting my work to a literary journal that is not going to pay me? What’s in it for me? If a literary journal won’t bring in the big bucks, I'm not going to submit. And I'm also not going to subscribe!"

We understand the frustration here—we really do. And it’s our very strong suspicion that in a perfect world, literary journal editors would absolutely LOVE to pay their writers gobs of glorious money for the privilege of publishing their work, because in a perfect world said literary journals would have gobs of glorious subscribers and more financial support than they know what to do with.

But many lit mags don’t have a subscriber base that offers financial stability, because they’re not publishing “commercial” work that attracts big audiences. Many lit mags rely on arts grants or support from colleges and universities. Some editors have tried to defray costs by selling ad space, but others want their journals to remain ad-free in order to preserve a strict focus on the literature itself. Still others just don’t like the idea of selling ads.

While there are literary journals out there that are turning a profit and paying their writers, the fact remains that most literary journals have a hard time making ends meet. They don't pay money because they don't make money.

But that doesn't mean aspiring writers should give them the brush-off.

Even though a writer might not get rich by publishing in literary journals, there are plenty of reasons to regard lit mags as valuable resources in a writer’s career. And we’re not just talking about poets and short story writers; book authors can benefit from publishing in lit mags too.

What Can Literary Magazines and Journals Do For You?

• Literary agents and editors are always on the lookout for exciting new voices, and they often discover them in literary magazines. Just like supermodel Claudia Schiffer being discovered in a Dusseldorf nightclub, many writers are “discovered” in literary journals. We've seen our clients receive offers from literary agents because of literary journal publications.

• Because most lit mag editors aren’t in it for the money, they’re willing to take a risk on pieces that might not find a home in mainstream, commercial publishing—great news for new, experimental, or marginalized writers.

• If you’ve got a special interest, there’s probably a lit mag out there for you. And being published in that journal may help you connect with readers and publishing industry types who have similar interests. (Oh—and publishing in your niche market will also help you establish yourself as an expert or leading voice for that niche.)

• Literary journals are publishing work from writers of all levels, from Pulitzer winners to people who have never been published before. This makes for a diverse and thriving community for writers.

• You don’t need a literary agent to submit to lit mags. The doors are open to everybody. Feel free to submit widely (and wisely).

• Literary journals exist in print and online. And that helps you get the best of both worlds. These days, it’s not a question of print or digital. Having your work published in both mediums is important to building a platform/reputation.

• Short story and essay collections can be a hard sell for mainstream publishers. Your publication credits indicate that there’s an audience for your work. Literary agents and editors like to see that.

• The same goes for book projects. You may have an easier time drumming up interest in your book if an excerpt or two was well-received in a literary journal. Publishing in literary journals and magazines builds up your bio. It shows that your work has found a receptive audience.

• Literary magazines nominate for industry awards like the coveted Pushcart Prize. And if you get nominated, you look awesome. Nuff said.

Ask Not What Literary Journals Can Do For You…

Since the recession began, we’ve seen many literary journals close their doors or go on an indefinite hiatus. Some have managed to stay afloat by scrapping their print editions and switching to an online-only form. Others are gone. And as always, some new journals are struggling to get their feet under them.

Now that you know what literary journals do for writers, the question becomes, what can writers do for journals?

So here’s our challenge to you.

We are running a Lit Mag Love contest on our blog right now. Stop over and visit. If you commit to subscribing to two literary journals, you can enter our contest to win vouchers for even more subscriptions of your choice. See our page for details. And be sure to tweet, post, and share this with your writer friends.

Together, we can support the literary journals that support writers. By subscribing to and supporting your favorite lit mags, you help ensure that there will be viable markets for undiscovered and emerging writers. Plus, maybe in our glorious hypothetical future, lit mags will have so many enthusiastic subscribers that their writers will actually get paid!

“Literary magazines and presses accomplish the backstage work of American literature: discovering new writers; supporting mid-career writers; [and] publishing the creative voices of communities underrepresented in the mainstream commercial culture.”

—The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses

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