So you’re a new writer who just finished a short story or poem poised to knock western civilization onto its butt. Trouble is, you’re uncertain what to do with it. In your innocence you go to an online discussion board and ask, Where’s the best place for a new writer to get published, in print or online magazines?
Suddenly—hell’s bells, fireworks and exploding egos. Without knowing it, the new writer has wandering into one of the most argued-about issues in modern literature. Forget debates on first-person present tense narratives or the latest round in the Oprah-Franzen fight. If you really want to start a screaming match simply ask if online magazines are the equal of print publications.
I began thinking on this subject after receiving an e-mail from Maryanne Stahl, an author I published in the fall 2001 issue of storySouth. According to Maryanne, the editor of an upcoming anthology (to be published by Crown/Random House) saw her story in storySouth and liked it so much that this editor contacted Maryanne and asked her to submit some work to the anthology.
This tickled the crap out of me and I couldn’t wait to share this news with writers I knew. I mean, getting exposure for deserving writers should be the goal of any literary magazine. I also saw this as proof that e-mags and web publications are coming into their own in terms of respect and attention.
Of course, my excitement soon ran afoul of the same old literary biases. When I asked Maryanne if I could share this good news with people, she replied with a humorous note from her literary agent. This agent, it seems, was excited about the anthology but felt that Maryanne should avoid doing “any online work, which frankly (in editors’ minds) is more ephemeral and less helpful to your career.” Of course, Maryanne set her agent straight about this subject (by pointing out that the ephemeral online stuff in storySouth got her noticed by the anthology editor in the first place) but she—and I—both lamented the biases that lead people to think online publishing just isn’t worth the effort.
All of which brings up the original question: Which is better for new writers, print or online publications?
Perhaps this isn’t the right question. After all, most people would agree that the best place to be published is in one of the top-tier print magazines (such as the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly), followed by publication in the more prestigious literary magazines (including the Southern Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and a big handful of other well-known places).
The trick, though, is that these publications are rather hard to break into for new writers. Unless the new writer is incredibly lucky or has excellent connections, they will not get published in these magazines. Even Faulkner couldn’t get published in the New Yorker (despite trying for most of his life).
No, ‘the best place to be published’ isn’t the right question at all. Perhaps the proper question to ask is which offers more exposure to new writers—online or print pubs.
For most new writers, the places that offer the best chances for print publication would be the so-called second-tier, or mid-list, literary magazines. These magazines tend to have circulations between 500 to 2000 copies per issue and are staffed by editors who are willing to search for and publish unknown writers. Many writers have gotten their start in these magazines, which includes such journals as the Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, Carolina Quarterly, and others.
To me, the proper question a new writer should ask is: Which gives new writers more exposure, second-tier print magazines or online magazines?
Due to a quirk of my publishing history, I have some insight into this question. In the first half of 2000, I was published in two magazines—one, the Beloit Fiction Journal, was a print magazine; the other, the Mississippi Review, was an online journal.
I was ecstatic about the pubs. Even though the Mississippi Review pub was just in their online journal, I felt that that it was a quality place and had a good reputation. The Beloit Fiction Journal, while not as well known, also had a good reputation and gave me the opportunity to actually hold my story in old fashion dead-tree paper style.
However, in the year and a half since those publications, I have detected major differences in how much exposure my two stories received through these two mediums.
A well-known New York fiction agent saw my story in the Beloit Fiction Journal and contacted me about possible representation. The fact that he didn’t want to represent yet another short story collection—all that I had available at the time—did not negate the fact that the publication did get me his notice. However, that was it. I never heard of another person reading my story in the magazine.
The Mississippi Review publication was totally different, resulting in more than two dozen people e-mailing me about the story. Some have been editors asking me to submit to their publications; others have been people who just liked the story.
Perhaps people could say that the reputation of the Mississippi Review caused this difference. However, I don’t think the reputation of their online edition is that much better than the Beloit Fiction Journal. The hard truth is that the Beloit Fiction Journal is limited in how much exposure it can give a new writer. While the prestige of a paper publication is nice, my story will always be trapped in those 1000 copies of the issue that have been printed, distributed, and stuck away on bookshelves or in trashcans. If you didn’t get a copy when it came out, too bad. You’ll never have another chance to read my story (unless you go to my website where I posted the story myself, but that’s another issue altogether).
While I appreciate the Beloit editors giving me a chance to find an audience, I believe that my story received very little exposure there relative to my online publication in the Mississippi Review. Most literary magazines just can’t compete against the reach and long-term exposure of online magazines. Want to read a back issue of storySouth—no problem, just go to our back issues page. Want to read a back issue of the New England Review—best of luck finding a copy.
In fact, I suspect this is why many mid-list literary magazines are in trouble. Some are switching to dual online and print publications. Those that can’t, or are unwilling, such as the respected journal Crazyhorse, simply cease publication. I suspect that many others will follow their example.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all online magazines are the same. Some are simply slapped together in back alley high school web clinics and will do nothing to give a new writer exposure. The trick is to look for online journals that have already published great stories or poems, look professional, and have dedicated editors.
This is an excellent time to be a new writer. Online publications, such as storySouth and those found on and through webdelsol, offer more exposure for new writers than can be gained through most traditional literary magazines. There are also new experiments in online publishing that hold lots of potential for the future—just check out the groundbreaking work the editors of Fiction Warehouse are doing.
In short, the best way for new writers to get exposure is to be published in the New Yorker. However, if a writer doesn’t win that lottery drawing, they should focus on the better online publications. In this interconnected world, where people don’t desire to waste time researching literary magazines in the library stacks, online magazines offer new writers the best change for exposure.
As the case of Maryanne Stahl proves, great writing always attracts attention if someone can find said writing. Online publications are the best way to ensure that great writings from new writers can be, and always will be, found.