Lit Magazines: Where They’ve Been, Where They’re Going (Part 2 of 5)

by | Aug 20, 2015 | The Attic

If you love literary magazines, perhaps you’ve thought or even tried (maybe successfully) to start one of your own. Maybe you’ve got a list on your laptop of possible lit mag names, or have written down graffiti messages or phrases your friends say that make a lot more sense in context.

paper dreams frontThe classroom compendium Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine records the history of the American Lit Mag with essays and articles from the onset of print to the digital age. This roundtable discussion brings together a group of dedicated lit mag lovers–real writers and editors, some who have pieces in Paper Dreams, as well as others who have caught our eye with their devotion to language.

Richard Peabody, Travis Kurowski, Steve Himmer, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Kelly Forsythe, Jen Michalski, and Jessica Poli discuss what it’s like to start a literary magazine, and what kind of person you will need to be to make it successful in this second in a series of five posts. Read the first post of this conversation here.

Atticus Books: In Jill Allyn Rosser’s short essay, “Reasons for Creating a New Literary Magazine,” originally published in the Mississippi Review, she pokes fun at the oxymoronic nature of an editor—someone who is both egoistic (“You want to be the one who knows, who always knew and will always know”), and a humanitarian of sorts (“You want to hand some writer that heart-cartwheel of a moment of a first acceptance”). Is editing a lit mag a selfish endeavor? What about submitting to one?

Steve Himmer: I wouldn’t call editing or submitting “selfish.” Editing, especially when you aren’t getting paid for it, seems inherently generous to me. I spend hours and hours of my time when I could be writing, working for pay, or playing with my daughter reading submissions, offering editorial comments, soliciting and following up with authors and publishers, and doing all the other things to keep even a very modest webjournal running. I suppose it may be “selfish” in the sense that yes, I started doing it because there’s a type of story I wanted to read and I wasn’t finding them as often as I wanted to, so I thought I’d develop a platform to share more of them. Is that selfish?

As a writer, I do think it can be selfish—if all you’re doing is submitting, submitting, submitting and not part of a conversation either by spending your money or spreading the word about other writers whose work you enjoy, yes, I think you’re being selfish. But that’s your decision. I certainly wouldn’t decide whose story to publish based on which writers are more active “literary citizens.” I just try to do as much as I can personally because I’m the only one who answers to me.

Roxane Gay: Editing and submitting are no more selfish than anything else. There is egoism in every endeavor, isn’t there? We do things because we enjoy them. I’d also note that most editors and writers in the literary magazine world are working for free. I suspect that a love of writing transcends whatever ego may be involved.

Richard Peabody: WTF?  Let’s poke fun at Jill Allyn Rosser instead.

Travis Kurowski: I think Jill’s piece is hilarious (and I recommend reading all those lines in context).

Editing a literary magazine is not selfish in the least. There isn’t money to be made, and I doubt many editorships have led to tenure-track jobs. I’m honestly more worried about looking like an ass as an editor than as a writer. Something about the power structure, I think. But editing is certainly driven by a sense of self. Of purpose. Same as writing, as submitting, as much of what we do in life. Publishing a journal, sending out a poem to an editor, these things imply: what I do is of value.

Now selfish, that is–after you are done with a day’s work and feeding the kids or whatever–turning on the television at night and watching Orange is the New Black instead of opening up your laptop and reading those manuscripts that have been sitting in your email for a few days (weeks?). And we’re all human.

Dave Housley: I don’t think either one of those are selfish. I don’t think any of us make an editorial salary, right? Or, like, any money at all, really, off editing?

24:365 in case you needed some cuteness.

photo credit: Eunice via flickr

So creating something, or maintaining something that requires a great deal of attention, and doesn’t really pay any wage to speak of, that doesn’t sound like a selfish endeavor to me. Maybe selfish in the same way that getting a dog is selfish — you’re going to get a lot of stuff coming back to you, and most of it is probably going to make you feel pretty good, but you’re going to have to put so much back into that thing that I don’t think you can call the initial impulse selfish.

It’s an addiction. Poetry is a gateway drug to becoming an editor.


Atticus Books: What might be some of the “right” reasons for wanting to start a lit mag?

Steve Himmer: Noticing and being bothered by a silence in the cultural conversation, and wanting to hear other voices or other ways of “speaking” that aren’t finding their platform yet. Having a sense there are other kinds of stories or poems or whatever genre you’d like to see more of. Wanting to help good work by good writers find an audience to whatever degree you’re able. Just being in love with magazines and journals and wanting to develop your own, in that purest DIY ethos. There are lots of right reasons.

The only “wrong” reasons I can think of—other than to make money, which only a moron would do—are to rip people off or to self-promote and gain the debt of “favors” from other writers you can cash in on later.

Dave Housley: The impetus to start Barrelhouse was what Steve’s talking about above, a perceived lack of something in the cultural conversation. We were all hoping to find a place that was more fun, that recognized pop culture as a viable force in people’s lives. There are lots of those places now, but at the time, we weren’t seeing much, so we made a place.

I think almost any “reason” to start a literary magazine is a good one. It takes so much work, and it’s such a labor of love that I’m hard pressed to imagine somebody starting a lit mag for nefarious reasons. If it’s your get rich quick scheme, then you are the worst schemer ever. If you want to get a rush by lording editorial judgement over somebody, I think you’ll realize pretty quickly how shitty it feels to reject other people’s work.

Richard Peabody: It’s an addiction. Poetry is a gateway drug to becoming an editor. Then you keep assembling issues hoping to get it right. You keep doing it cuz you’re never completely satisfied, so you have to do it again. Blink and a decade has flown by.

Travis Kurowski: There aren’t answers. This is art. Whatever floats your boat? A need. And these change with the times, the culture, the technology. (I like Richard’s comparison with addiction.)

Atticus Books: When you do decide to start a literary magazine, how do you do it? What are some steps you think lots of new editors and founders might not take into consideration when they start out?

need cash

photo credit: Julian Tysoe via flickr

Jen Michalski: How long they have to commit to it, considering the average staff hangs around for about three years, maybe even less for university pubs. That it could well be an expensive hobby and if you already have one, say skiing or cycling or scuba diving, you may need to make hard choices. Because, I think, the ante has been upped–no longer do you need to only invest $20.00 for a host server. Even the smaller journals are doing video and trailers, they travel to AWP; they print journals and they print books; they publish the most innovative work out there, work that’s picked up in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry, Nonrequired Reading;  they hold contests and flash big prize money in writers’ faces. It’s no longer an easy (or naive) decision like it was for me, in “hey, I can learn some html in a weekend; I’m going to start a journal!”

Steve Himmer: I agree with Jen—be realistic about the amount of effort and time it will take, and about whether you’re willing to work that hard and in the long term. And if you’re going to publish in print, especially, be realistic about the numbers. Don’t just assume, as too many journals seem to be doing now, that “if you Kickstart it, they will come.” If you’re serious, you need to be willing to take the risk on your own shoulders. Or your own credit card as it may be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever ask for support, but I tend to agree with what I believe Roxane’s suggested elsewhere–that a journal should get itself to a point where asking for support financially makes sense based on a track record, and experience, not right out of the gate. If that means starting smaller, online only maybe, and developing new facets over time, great. There are plenty of “bigger” things I’d do with Necessary Fiction if I had the money and the time, but taking on too much at once is asking for trouble.

Richard Peabody: I can’t tell you how many panels I’ve been a part of or attended that addressed the basic issues–funding, distribution, social media. Nothing ever seems to really change. Every new generation of editors reinvents the wheel. The biggest shocker is always the cost of printing. Something that has gone up and up since we began in 1976, with no end in sight.

Jessica Poli: In some ways, it’s become deceivingly easy to create a magazine, and I’ve seen a lot of online mags fail (quickly) because of that. The fact is that there are tons of literary magazines on the web now, so to start a new one, I think that you need to be bringing something new to the table–whether that’s in content, design, or something else. And it’s been said by Steve and Jen already, but I think it’s worth repeating yet again: lit mags aren’t something that get thrown together quickly, and the time commitment never ends. How many online magazines publish two or three issues, and then seem to disappear? As an editor, there’s a definite need to be committed and passionate about what you’re doing.

More people care about a well-made cappuccino than your magical realism flash fiction, or whatever it is you’re trying to publish.

Dave Housley: I think you should have some kind of vision of what your magazine is about. What’s the hole you’re looking to plug? What’s the gap in the conversation? In the internet world of the 1990s, at least, this was called your “value proposition” (I don’t know if people are still using that term — it sounds very 90s start-up to me). If what you want to do is being done by a million other publications, then maybe you’re best off connecting with one of those existing outlets. Those opportunities are out there (as long as you’re not looking to get paid in anything other than a few beers here and there). If you do have a unique vision, then I think you’re into nuts and bolts, and money and time are the two things you’re going to need. Exactly how you produce this magazine is going to be tied directly to those things, so I’d take stock and then start planning from there.


photo credit: Shona via flickr

The other thing you’ll need is a shitload of positive energy. Or, at least, a shitload of energy. For a long time, nobody will care about this thing you’re doing. Maybe years. It will seem like your time might be better spent picking up trash on the side of the road, or learning to be a barista. Those jobs pay better, and more people care about a well-made cappuccino than your magical realism flash fiction, or whatever it is you’re trying to publish. If, during this time, you’re still excited by your initial vision, and you really love the work you’re putting out into the world, then stay with it, because that’s why you started in the first place.

Travis Kurowski: Money. Money and time. But, if in the meatspace, mostly money. I’d just send them over to read Roxane’s blunt piece about “Lessons I’ve Learned Starting a Micropress” over at HTMLGIANT, as there is a lot of crossover between literary magazines and indie presses: For example:

No matter how much money you think it’s going to cost, running a press will cost more, like, at least twice as much more and then a little more on top of that.

But Roxane goes into a lot of the good stuff, too, like working with designers. It’s a great read, with lots of solid information.

Oh, and have a purpose (as Dave says above). I constantly think about—and quote—what Jeffrey Lependorf said one time to a group of CLMP publishers at the beginning of a workshop about fundraising. Lependorf talked a bit about the deluge of information and text we are offered today, about how publishing is skyrocketing across digital and print platforms and that readers have more options now than ever. And then he looked at us and said, “The first thing you have to ask yourself is: Why do you want to make more things?” People are dying and schools are failing and children are starving and so forth every day. I think we should have a reason for adding a new magazine to the world and asking people to take time out of their day to read it, pay for it, maybe even support it.


Want to learn more about lit mags? Read Part 3.


Note: This interview, conducted by Abby Hess, first appeared on the Atticus Books blog on Sept. 12, 2013.

Featured image source: Every Writer’s


Panel Participants

Richard Peabody is the founder and editor of Gargoyle Magazine and publisher of Paycock Press. He has written over ten books of poetry and fiction and his 2012 book of poems,  Speed Enforced by Aircraft was nominated for a National Book Award. As well as editing (or co-editing) ten anthologies, Richard also teaches fiction at John Hopkins University. In 2013, he received the Above and Beyond Award from Beyond the Margins for his ongoing generosity to other writers and his important contributions to the world of literature.

Travis Kurowski is the editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. He teaches creative writing and publishing at York College of Pennsylvania. He is founding editor of Luna Park, soliciting editor for Opium Magazine, and Literary MagNet columnist for Poets & Writers. His writing has recently appeared in Little Star, Armchair/Shotgun, The Lumberyard, Mississippi Review, Hobart and > Kill Author.

Steve Himmer is the author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston and has a website at

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.

Dave Housley is the author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of short fiction. His work has been published in Columbia, Nerve, Sycamore Review, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse, a literary magazine that bridges the gap between serious art and pop culture.

Kelly Forsythe has poems published or forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, The Minnesota Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and American Poet. Her reviews can be found in the Los Angeles Review, NewCity and The Rumpus. In Fall 2011, she was introduced by Noelle Kocot as an Academy of American Poets “Emerging Poet.” She is the editor of the online literary magazine Phantom Limb, the poetry book reviews editor for Los Angeles Review, and works for Copper Canyon Press.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel The Tide King was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize). She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.

Jessica Poli is the editor of Birdfeast Magazine, Poetry Editor of Salt Hill Journal, and an MFA candidate at Syracuse University. She can be found at


About The Author

Atticus Books

Atticus Books is a fiery multimedia press based in Madison, N.J. We specialize in genre-busting literary fiction and compelling narratives that feature memorable main characters. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we receive no nourishment from Uncle Sam, nor do we eat small children for breakfast. We do nurture the creative minds and bruised egos of starving writers worldwide.