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The Costs of Writing: Literary Magazines

The latest issue of The Alarmist magazine opens with a lengthy and rather gloomy introduction from editors Gary and Mansour titled 'Memoirs of a Dying Swan' which details the reasons why, after only five issues, there will be no more Alarmist. The bold, beautiful and brave magazine was the first print literary publication that I managed to get a story in ('Tyson/Dog' in issue two) so its a real shame to see it close its glossy doors. I always thought the bright, punky design of the mag would hold it in good stead for the future, especially since it boasted distribution all over the world.

But, like their signature origami swan, the model proved too delicate and fragile. In simple summary, the Alarmist fellas were putting more money and effort into creating the gorgeous magazine than the outcome justified. There just aren't enough people buying literary mags. They don't quite factor into the 'normal' reading structure of the lives of readers. As Gary and Mansour state, 'we and many other literary magazines receive over four times as many people submitting work to the magazine as purchasing it.' And, no doubt, most of those purchasing it are likely to be writers and editors, not your regular run-of-the-joe Waterstones points card books-are-my-bag ladyblokes.

Why is this the case? There's no doubting that a lot more readers could be tempted to shell out for a lit mag if a) they knew it existed b) encountered it while browsing and c) they were a more 'regular' feature in the culture of reading more generally. Compared to books, lit mags don't get anywhere close to pride-of-place in either bookshops or, by the same extension, bookshelves at home. Also, they can be a bit awkwardly sized, they don't feel as bulky to justify the £7+ price tag (compared to a fat bestseller that'll last a good couple of weeks rather than hours), and are more of risk in terms of entertainment value.

There are also a heck of a lot of them: a niche market becoming ever more crowded. Last month, inspired by Structo Magazine's innovative submission rules which asked for proof of lit mag purchases, I set aside some money to buy myself a stack. I had a long, long list written down but the sub-total soon got too expensive. I ended up with this modest but healthy stash:

Bare Fiction, Popshot, Firewords, Structo, Foxhole and The Alarmist, and there are many, many more besides these. All lovely publications, beautifully designed and featuring a whole load of exciting and interesting new stories and poems. I will probably pick up individual issues of them all again in the future, but with there being such a proliferation of quirky, beautiful lit mags I feel less inclined to subscribe to any of them, and its too expensive to fork out for multiple subscriptions

This is partly to do with my own personal reading habits. I don't get a lot of time for reading so I'm quite careful about the books i have on the go. I don't like having my reading dictated to me (so to speak) so I don't join book clubs and I don't subscribe to mags. I used to have a monthly subscription to Interzone but after stacking up too many unread issues I abandoned it.

But also, the quality of the pieces within a given magazine does vary. Some are undeniably fantastic but a lot just don't do it for me at all. I suppose that is just the nature of the beast: editing a lit mag is a very subjective experience and the tastes of an editor are not always going to chime with the tastes of a reader. This is the risk involved with buying a lit mag; its fairly likely that you're not going to like all the pieces in there. Part of the reason i stopped subscribing to Interzone was because I couldn't bear reading yet another story about future china populated with robot geishas and samurai hackers. The material became repetitve and dull and i lost interest.

As a writer, I still see lit mags as a key market for my short stories and I will continue to fling my words out to as many different ones as possible. From a writer's point of view, having such a wide range of magazines to submit to is wonderful and can only help our chances of acceptance. But does it help our chances of our words actually being read? Perhaps not. But then again, perhaps that doesn't matter as much as we might initially think.

What you do get from being in a lit mag is direct access to some fantastic editors, illustrators, designers and other writers who can fast become allies in an increasingly complex and frenetic environment. Once a story is in a lit mag, unexpectedly good things can happen. You might read at that magazine's launch night and encounter more new allies in the audience. My story 'Broadcast of the Foxes', which was published by Structo in their 13th issue, is being nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the same magazine. Lit mags in your writing CV can only be an added boon.

So how can we stop them dying? They need to be much more front and centre, they need to be the places readers go to to discover up-and-coming talents. They need to be stocked in bookshops. Here in Manchester, arguably the UK capital for spoken word, I can't think of one bookshop that stocks a broad range of literary mags. Not one. There is clearly good reason for this, but perhaps bookshops need to reimagine ways in which they might better support the lit mag industry. Can a lit mag be a near-till impulse buy? Can the shops host launch events? Advertise in the mag itself?

I'm not knowledgable enough to suggest realistic or well-informed answers. But I can see the real and often surprising value of lit mags from the perspective of a writer, and I would urge readers to add lit mags into their shopping lists, even if you have to seek them out online. I just hope lit mags can find new and innovative ways to thrive alongside each other, instead of crowding themselves out of profits towards a graceful swan dive to an untimely death.

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