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For the Love of Lit Mags

If you were to ask me to pinpoint when exactly my career in publishing and writing started, I would immediately think of a very specific room of my high school. Every day at lunch, that English classroom would turn into a small publishing house where my peers and I would read poems and short stories written by our peers and brainstorm how to collect those works into one book. I would play around with page layouts in InDesign and look at art submissions and fundraise so that we could successfully get our materials to the printer at the end of the year. Each lunchtime, I felt like I had found my calling because I was a part of my high school’s literary magazine.

While you may be most familiar with the big names like The Paris Review and Tin House, literary magazines exist everywhere, in every form and format. Especially for the myriad small publications, producing a lit mag is a labor of love. Often these publications work with shoestring budgets, limited distribution channels, and staffs that can range anywhere from one to fifty, with some members being scattered across the globe. Because of this, very few literary magazines can support fulltime employees, making my experience with literary magazines in high school a pretty accurate experience of literary magazines in the real world: in many ways, they are an extracurricular activity.

With little to no pay and sometimes big demands on one’s time and attention, why do young people participate in the literary magazine community? Can working on a lit mag further one’s career? Or is the motivation just in the passion for the work itself? I talked to five young people in the literary (and art) magazine world to get their takes.

Getting Started

Molly Waite started her literary magazine journey in a fashion similar to mine. Cutting her teeth on the staff of fishladder at Grand Valley State University as Nonfiction Editor, Molly now serves as Editorial Assistant for Slush Pile Magazine, where she reads, critiques, and copy edits pieces for the publication. Poet Mike Lala is also getting his feet wet through a university, serving as the Poetry Editor of Washington Square through his graduate program at NYU: “Before [this], I ran a reading series, which is not entirely unlike editing a journal, but in any case this is my first time working on a literary periodical.”

For others, a desire to participate in publishing or the literary community was an accidental point of entry. Elisabeth Watson, the Editor-in-Chief of Issue 14 of Gathering of the Tribes, was just a regular attendee of the organization’s readings and music performances in Alphabet City before the founder, Steve Cannon, took a liking to her poetry. “He liked my taste in poetry, found out I had a passion for translated literature in particular, and that I worked in publishing,” she says. “There is a completely new editorial staff for each (theoretically) annual issue. Steve originally asked me to come on as lead Poetry Editor for Issue 14, and then as Managing Editor/Editor in Chief.”

Similarly, Evan Allgood, Editor of online lit mag Trop, got his start through a contact who invited him on board. “I made a friend named Tom Dibblee while getting my MFA down in Milledgeville, Georgia. A few years ago Tom decided to start an online literary magazine and asked if I wanted to contribute. I wound up doing a lot more for the site than either of us had anticipated, I think.”

Justin Bacolo, Creative Director of Lovers & Other Strangers, found himself creating his own lit mag, based off his unique background in the arts. “Somehow, Lovers & Other Strangers keeps getting lumped into the literary magazine category, but I like to think of it as an Art/Lit magazine,” he explains. “I graduated from the Hallmark Institute of Photography in 2004 and have been collecting found photographs since 2010. I originally envisioned Lovers & Other Strangers as an interactive multimedia exhibition, where the audience was free, as well as encouraged to, create mini-narratives for the images in the collection. Fast forward 4 years, and the magazine aspect of the project has been the first part of that to come together.”

Lit Mags as an Extracurriclar

While all of them began working on literary magazines in different ways, all of them maintain other jobs to pay the bills. From managing a prominent comic book store in NYC to working in the publishing industry, there is a certain acceptance that working on a lit mag is not going to be the source of fame and fortune. Still, it doesn’t mean that experience from working on a lit mag can’t support career ambitions. “I see my work in the literary magazine community as complimentary to my career goals,” says Molly. “I am currently applying to an English Language and Linguistics program for my Master’s degree and feel that being actively involved in the literary community as an editor only deepens my understanding of language and how we use it.” Elisabeth agrees, “I absolutely took on this job with my career in mind. The idea of getting to reach out to translators and poets I admire and offering to publish their work–and make long-term contacts–was hugely attractive, as was the managerial portion.”

Still, helping run a publication in one’s spare time can be exhausting, and the weekly time commitment ranges from a couple of hours a week to over twenty. Elisabeth warns, “I discovered that, for myself, having a volunteer gig that overlapped so closely with the kind of stuff I do for my day job was too draining. When I was writing and editing all day at work, the eye I brought home to evening editorial work for Tribes was often too tired to be at its best.” As the driving force behind Lovers & Other Strangers, Justin also feels the burn: “It’s a second job really, all my free time (and money) goes into Lovers. Whether it’s scouring flea markets and yard sales for new images or I’m laying out pages as new stories come in. There’s always something to do and an approaching deadline. We just sort’ve jumped into it and we’re learning as we go.”

For those who aspire to write creatively full time, working a lit mag can be both complimentary and distracting. “I don’t see this as a career–my career is in writing, not editing–and in any case I have a day job to pay the bills after I write, so I don’t have the kind of time I’d like to dedicate to editorial work,” Mike admits. “But in some ways it feeds into the ‘career’ of the poet.”

More Than Money

“Working on the magazine–reading, writing, editing, meeting and interacting with authors and publicists, etc.–has been good for my writing (among other things), and I don’t consider my writing just a hobby,” Evan muses. “But I don’t see myself ever paying the rent by editing a literary magazine. At Trop we have a running joke about Watching the Cash Roll In; it’s what we ironically titled our first anthology.”

Whether or not lit mags play a part in one’s career, it is still a passion project. “I would describe the literary magazine community as enthusiastic,” says Molly. “The market isn’t great right now, but everyone I’ve worked with refuses to let that get in the way of publishing the brilliant writing being sent to us. We all seem to be part of this community because we are starry-eyed and must contribute in any way we can.”

Evan echoed this sentiment: “I don’t know that the world needs any more literary magazines, but new ones crop up all the time (including Trop). It’s like instead of being discouraged by Reading’s weekly obituaries, all these nerds get defiant and say, “We’ll see about that!” and start their own magazines.”

The intrinsic value can far outweigh the monetary value. “I mean it’s heart wrenching when you have to dip into your savings to pay for the next issue,” says Justin, “but it’s incredibly rewarding when you’re tabling at a zine fest or someone comes up to the counter with a copy of the newest issue telling you how much they like it. It’s a labor of love. It gives as much as it takes”

Advice from the Trenches

So how does one get started in lit mags? For Elisabeth, being upfront about the demands of the job is key. “Be painfully clear about expectations and limitations up front. Get them in writing, not because you need a contract or anything like that, but because all of our memories can be slippery. Talk about how many hours; talk about for what span of time; talk about what you do NOT want to work on; talk about what factors might need to cause you to walk away from the commitment (a change of dayjob, for example).”

For Justin, it’s always better to take on projects as a team: “I would recommend anyone thinking about publishing anything to have as many people on board as early as possible. Doing everything on your own is too overwhelming. A business plan works wonders. It can get your back on track when you’re starting to lose focus.

But across the board, everyone advocated simply finding a publication you love and asking if there are opportunities available. “My advice would be to seek out the editor of a journal you enjoy reading and ask if you can get involved,” says Mike. “A lot of editors need readers for submissions, and sometimes designers or people who can help with publicity and media.”

One Comment

  1. Carmen Henriquez says:

    Thank you! I found this article insightful.

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