In the last few days I've been thinking again about publication. Unlike my last meditation on posting poems to a blog site, my most-read post to-date, I've been thinking about how hard we all work (and how much money we all spend) trying to get our poems published in elite literary journals, like Poetry and the likes. I must admit to submitting every single poem I've written to Poetry in the hopes of publication (their online submission manager is FREE!!!!). And I've submitted nearly every poem I've written to Rattle (they take email submissions, and they are FREE!!!!). But of the poems I've had accepted for publication in the last two years, the ones that have gotten the most readers have appeared online.
I do not want to knock the literary journal, that ambitious little creature surviving off of grants, institutional support, and buckets of blood, sweat, and tears from their editors. Writers in academia require the juried selection of their work by their peers in order to secure tenure and to give evidence of their mastery of craft. This selection process is long, painful, and subjective-- I've learned as much working with a journal-- and when a publication boasts a 1% acceptance rate, that means 99% of submissions receive a generic note apologizing for not being able to publish it, encouraging the writer to submit again and granting best wishes for placing their work elsewhere. What an honor and privilege to be among the 1%!
Besides building one's CV for tenure, publication in the big guns builds a writer's reputation in the literary world. Work is exposed to the broader literary community (supposedly). Submitting to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the literary journal is worthwhile and encouraged, so long as those grandparents of literary publishers are still being read.
As more and more opportunities to access literature open up online and in digital print readers, writers and publishers of writers need to reevaluate the way we spread the word, so to speak. I don't think it is any surprise that print media subscriptions are slip sliding away. In light of this fact, in order to stay current and accessible, journals need to begin exploring alternative means of delivery and additional ways to lure subscribers and readers to their material.
There are some very worthy examples of journals that have embraced the digital age and are broadening readership by doing so. One such journal here in Ohio is the Kenyon Review. A quick peek at their homepage shows a full acceptance of the changing of the times-- they are blogging, posting excerpts, offering eBook editions, sharing interviews, and airing podcasts. Compare this to journals that may have a website with subscription and submission information, but tracking down any actual writing in that journal requires ordering a back issue.
The sad fact is there are hundreds of literary journals and a handful of faithful print subscribers. Journals like Kenyon Review, Rattle, Poetry, and others are making the wise move to providing alternative access and bridging the gap between the print version and the online version. Given the choice between having a poem of mine appear in a journal with hundreds of other poets who will all mostly scan through until they find the page their poem appears on and then look to see if they recognize any of the poets in the table of contents, and publishing a poem online, where I can link to it on my blog, share it on Facebook and Twitter, email it to friends and family, all without any cost to me... I'd rather go online.
As an administrator at a university rather than a faculty member at a university, my primary interest isn't in building my CV, although being able to wave the flag of a hot journal in my list of acknowledgments down the road would certainly be nice. My primary interest is in readers. I'd like to be able to share what I've written with friends and family while still adding to a list of publications, which will serve its purpose toward book publication, someday.
The print journals that make the leap into hybrid forms of publication and alternative delivery are the ones that I expect to survive and thrive. The online journals that are popping up and delivering the same level of editorial selection as the highly regarded print journals will continue to grow and gain respect. The journals that resist technology are likely to fade into the past along with the land-line telephone and the typewriter-- two devices that served their purpose for a time and still exist today but are becoming endangered species, dangerously close to extinction. Except, of course, in academia.