Re: “Afterword: Michael Lista, On Poetry: Why Literary Magazines Should Fold”, by Michael Lista, Special to the National Post, March 26, 2011
On March 26 2011, the National Post published an article entitled “Afterword: Michael Lista, On Poetry: Why Literary Magazines Should Fold”. In it, Lista shows us he’s done a little research about the Canadian Periodical Fund, a program which replaced the Publishing Assistance Program and the Canadian Magazine Fund (CPF) last year, redirecting funds to magazines with a circulation of more than 5,000. Most literary magazines in the country are low circulation and fall into the less than 5,000 circulation category. The article covers some facts about the CPF and the negative impact it could have on literary magazines over the next few years, and it takes care to complement those who create literary mags, characterizing them as ‘brave staff who work tirelessly and often thanklessly at their tasks’. But then Michael Lista’s article takes a turn for the unlikely. Lista’s daydreams stipulating a positive impact on Canadian literature have little basis within the realities of the literary magazine community, and each of point he makes attempting to prove a positive impact are ill-informed.
Sadly, with low circulation, small literary magazines as they are called are the magazines most, not the least, in need of government assistance compared with higher circ peer publications. Additionally, the role literary magazines fulfill in encouraging and cultivating the work of emerging writers is fundamentally important to the development of Canadian writing. If the new CPF contributes to the demise of some literary magazines, this will affect the quality of writing in the long term for those magazines that will still be supported, since a healthy proportion of articles are written by freelance writers whose primary passion is to write literary work but who pay their bills through journalism. It will negatively affect surviving lit mags, badly damage the Canadian book publishing industry, and slow down the development of Canadian literature on the whole.
First of all, why do these magazines require government support? This is because due to their smaller circulation, advertisers are not attracted. Advertising is the chief component of the success of the commercial magazine industry; that’s why even some large and long-established magazines folded during the recession when companies had to become conservative and advertise less. However, in the past the government has recognized the importance of literary magazines to the development of Canadian literature, and grants were put in place to support non-profit literary magazines. Still, they’re not flagrantly your throwing tax dollars at lit mags. Granting organizations like the Canada Council along with provincial and municipal organizations must be conservative with the money they’re given so that they can support a greater number of magazines, so many magazines’ operating grants tend to cover the bare minimum of what is required for operation.
Lista imagines that if a number of literary magazines fold, their total audience will be divided those magazines that are left, resulting in a larger audience for them. This may appear to make sense from the outside, but for those of us working (or more often, volunteering) at literary magazines, the flaw in his reasoning is immediately apparent. Within the funding schematic described above, what these magazines lack most tends to be marketing dollars. The printing bill is covered first as a priority and all else, including marketing and circulation costs, must be covered by what remains. Marketing is very expensive, meaning newspaper ads, radio, and television commercials more than a little out of reach. For this reason, beyond making the most of grassroots and social media, a common practice of literary magazines of any circulation size are ad swaps, so that someone who picks up one literary magazine can find out about other literary magazines they might enjoy. One magazine trades an ad with another magazine at no cost. Considering that, one could say that each magazine is an advertisement for all Canadian literary magazines. With fewer magazines, there is less advertising for every magazine, and that advertising will be found in fewer locations. Additionally, with fewer magazines, there will be fewer paying dues to magazine publishing associations like Magazines Canada, meaning fewer dollars with which Magazines Canada can offer the great marketing and professional development programs they offer their members. For these reasons, if some magazines die, those who survive are going to end up with smaller, not larger audiences.
This cooperative feature of the literary community leads into a rebuttal of Lista’s next point. He supposes that with fewer magazines, there will be better editors, as though all current literary magazine editors will then compete to get to work at the remaining magazines. It’s true that in the larger magazine industry, when a magazine needs an editor, job calls go out via shared channels such as Magazines Canada, which is the national magazine publisher’s association. Not so with the community of literary magazines. Literary magazines are an incredible labour of love; there is little, if any, compensation at many of them. You could advertise country-wide for a job as literary magazine editor, but who could afford to relocate in order to work for a magazine that cannot cover relocation cost, let alone salary? More often, while other staff positions experience high turnover, at the helm of each one of these magazines there is a Managing Editor or equivalent who either founded the magazine or came into it with reverence for mentors who did. That editor may manage to make a pithy living from publishing the magazine, and some magazines are associated with universities that help subsidize their activities which could include staff salaries. But many editors, if not most, do it free because they believe so strongly in it, and doing whatever else they need to in order to pay their bills, whether freelance writing or translating, instructing at the local college or university, or working odd jobs to make ends meet. It’s also difficult to get low paid or volunteer staff to do difficult and time-consuming activities that don’t fit reasonably and comfortably in the margins on their lives, so that many Managing Editors and Board members (the lines between those roles are often blurred at literary magazines) must fill any unfilled positions themselves, including marketing, circulation, digital presence management, fundraising, special events management, accounting, etc. That sort of commitment begets steadfast individuals used to putting their own time and energy needs aside for their magazine’s benefit, and given this sacrifice of themselves, such editors would be loathe not to make that sacrifice count and tend to hang on tenaciously to their positions for years, sometimes even for the life of a magazine. If there are fewer magazines, that won’t mean that the country’s best editors from all literary magazines will now get to work at those magazines. Instead, editors running the magazines that survive are most likely going to stay where they are whether or not they are relatively good or bad editors compared with others. Editors of magazines that fold due to funding cuts will likely have to find another occupation, and will probably not be very employable if they want to try and work for a commercial magazine, since many lack the formal, industry-related education of those working in that very competitive industry currently.
Lista also figures that of all the best writers would be published in the remaining literary magazines if some mags folded. This is a little bit true technically, but mostly false, and it won’t be good for emerging writers especially. More successful magazines tend to be so because they publish fewer emerging writers and more established writers. With more well-known names on their covers, those magazines sell more copies, meaning they have a little more money for advertising and for paying their writers. By publishing more recognizable names, they can afford to pay their contributors more, and established writers are savvy about who’s paying what and are more likely to send their best work to the magazines offering higher compensation (not that it ever gets very high in this industry). Their relative financial solvency isn’t simply because of higher sales figures however; studies show magazines of any size or success level only tend to be able to subsidize about 15% of their total operating budget with magazine sales. So those magazines publishing more popular writers and lyric narrative writing are getting the remaining 85% of their operating money elsewhere, and it’s suspected by more than just myself that their cash comes mainly from grantors whose peer assessment panels choose to give the greatest amount of their money to magazines with this popular (and safe) publishing mandate of publishing mainly established. In these ways, the literary magazines most likely to remain in business could be seen by some to be publishing the ‘best’ work available; but aside from subjectivity of quality and talent that counters this idea of ‘best’ in the first place (we’ll get to that soon), emerging writers need venues to have their work vetted by others and their best work encouraged by others’ choice in publishing it. After all, how did these established writers become established? They established themselves by publishing in the littlest mags first. Magazines with lower print run and lower sales figures tend to be so because they publish more emerging writers, and it’s not simply because they can’t afford to pay the more established writers, but because as writers themselves, they realize the value of cultivating writers early in their careers. Without the encouragement that comes from early publishing success, many writers would not continue writing; without the choices made by editors at small magazines, they might not catch on about which writing they do is of higher quality than other writing in order to help them determine their path forward as writers. In other words, literary magazines of all sizes have a symbiotic relationship, they’re co-dependent. Without the smallest of these small literary magazines, we wouldn’t have the writers that are getting published in the larger literary magazines. Moreover, fewer lit mags will mean fewer published writers of literature, period. Less may be more when it comes to hairspray, but not so where the number of literary magazines is concerned.
‘Best’ writers is a funny term anyway. Literature is so subjective; the tastes of editors vary across the country as they do for any reader, and the editorial bent or mandate at each magazine varies too. Publishing more original, innovative, or even experimental writing means lower sales, since this work can be a little more academic or difficult to consume compared with lyric narrative writing. The latter is a favorite genre of Canadian publishers like McClelland and Stewart along with some of the bigger small presses; being narrative, it’s a little more like fiction, and easier to consume recreationally, meaning it’s easier to amass a larger audience. But, as is suggested by the example of popular radio versus the better and more authentic independent music you can hear on public and campus stations), mainstream is not necessarily better. You hear too many of the same songs repackaged, and clichés begin to stick out like sore thumbs. (Did that one for you?). For this reason, the littlest magazines tend to offer the bravest content, and writers being truly original, attempting experiment, and taking the risk of innovating is essential to the forward progression of literature in this and any country. Without innovation in technology, we wouldn’t be able to read this article on Smartphones, iPads, or computers. If the tech industry relied on grants, and if only the most monetarily-sound technology companies of the 80s received support, we’d still be listening to cassette tapes. Moves by the Canadian government to reduce funding to the smallest of small literary magazines could result in Canadian literature getting stuck in a literary 80’s. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and elsewhere, literature will progress, adopting new writing technologies, and our narrative lyrics will begin to seem antiquated to the point of Victorian, making it hard for Canadian literature to compete. As an editor at a small magazine offering innovative content, I’m aware of the relatively small yet very loyal and avid global readership for this type of work. If the excited reaction of this audience to our publication is trustworthy, Canadian writers who experiment really are working beyond those of many other countries, pushing boundaries that others are only arriving at the borders of. Eventually, as was the case for technology, new Canadian writing could easily be what leads the way, but not if we stem its flow by putting up the one obstacle writers can’t creatively write themselves across if grants dry up -- that of preclusive financial hardship.
Add to this the detrimental effect that diminishing numbers of literary magazines will have on the small press publishing industry in Canada. It’s an industry that also struggles with financial issues; with the recession, fewer people are buying books, and thanks to other types of media with more marketing dollars competing for people’s attention, everyone knows there are fewer readers. Digital publishing is huge, but for all the hype, sales figures show it is just getting started compared with print sales and is not yet much of an additional to revenue. So these presses have their challenges, and they’ve got to publish the very best writers, continually impressing their audience in order to keep customers and build their customer base. Writers who publish in small magazines build up their skills and publication credits, and they go on to publish books with smaller publishers; those whose books sell well may move to larger publishers later on. Without the lower rungs on the ladder, it’s awfully hard to climb to the top. Additionally, lit mags are the primary source of book reviews and of advertising for small press literary titles, and reviews and advertising are essential for communicating to literary audiences why they should be consuming a particular title or author. Having fewer literary magazines in Canada will carry a very negative impact for Canada’s entire publishing industry, both in quality and variety of writing available to be published, and in the additional challenges it will pose to reaching the book buying audience.
Looking at the facts, despite Lista’s attempts at an optimistic rhetoric about magazine funding cuts benefiting Canadian literature, if we can call his rhetoric optimistic (I can’t), less literary magazines won’t be good for anyone. It will mean both fewer writers and fewer readers all around. One could probably close their eyes and come to the conclusion offered by that easy math without rebuttals from myself and others anyway. The death of lit mags could be good news for those outside the industry however, like people who just can’t wait for Sun Media’s new television station to launch, and probably sometime after that, Fox TV Canada, since holding back approval will seem pointless to the CRTC once Sun Media TV sets the bar low enough. Fewer magazines will mean less guilt about what you could have been reading to enrich yourself instead of watching the tube. After all, Stephen Harper said average Canadians don’t care about the arts, and literature falls under the arts category of course; Margaret Atwood rightly countered that average Canadians do care about the arts; they’re the ones out there creating it. But to both I say, with just one life to live, who wants to be average? So long as literature exists that stimulates our imaginations and improves our cognitive abilities, rather than deteriorating our minds and diminishing our attention spans, those Canadians who choose to read it could have a better chance at leading a more inspired, above-average life. Even if you’re not a big reader, isn’t it comforting to know literature exists if you ever wanted to turn off the TV and read it? I won’t have time in my life to read all the world’s books either, but I’m sure glad there are libraries.
filling Station Magazine