Today's Guest Poster is Dave Bonta. You can learn more about Dave at the end of this post.
Two years ago, when some friends and I started a new blog called qarrtsiluni, we weren't really thinking of publishing an online literary magazine. The idea was simply to create a place to share our best work, more selective than a typical group blog or an aggregator for a blog network -- two other ideas on the table at the time.
As valuable as the discipline of blogging can be, the never-revise, never-look-back mentality sometimes prevents us from writing as well as we should. We thought it would be fun if we invited a bunch of writers and artists to contribute work on a single topic or in a single style for a couple months at a time, and found volunteers to act as temporary editors, make all the hard decisions, and help with revisions if necessary.
It turned out, of course, that some of the conventions of literary magazine publishing were worth adopting. After some ten months of confusion occasionally bordering on chaos, two of us stepped forward to act as managing editors and began to formulate a more coherent vision and set of procedures. (You can read the results on our About and How to Contribute pages.)
We began to talk about "issues" rather than "theme-periods." We built an email notification list, began to solicit submissions from writers we knew, and got qarrtsiluni listed on Duotrope's Digest. And at some point during a site re-design in spring 2006, my co-editor Beth Adams slipped in a new tagline: online literary magazine.
At first, I was a little taken aback. Aren't blogs and magazines two different things? But then a well-known editor of an established literary magazine took us to task on her personal blog for that very thing, accusing us of claiming to be something we weren't, and it got me thinking a bit more critically about the lit mag genre.
Why do most online literary magazines continue to publish issues all at once, just like their print counterparts? Does anyone ever sit down and read those massive content dumps from cover to virtual cover? Reading text online can be a real strain on the eyes after more than a couple of pages. And online journals in most other disciplines publish new material whenever it's ready for publication, so why don't literary magazines?
I noticed a couple other odd things about the genre. For one, online literary magazines almost never have an RSS feed. Don't they want readers? For another, they rarely seem to link to their authors' websites or blogs, let alone to the books and magazines referenced in author bios. From a blogger's perspective, this seems like a serious dereliction of duty. Their link pages, if they exist, are often surprisingly provincial, ignoring the reality that online material is equally accessible everywhere there's fast and unfettered internet service.
Again, the shape and style of online magazines seems to be hampered by the editors' slavish imitation of print models with a postal delivery system. And what about those virtual covers I mentioned? They're often very well designed, but let's face it: online attention spans are short. Why should I have to click through two, three, or even four pages of front-matter and hunt around for navigation cues just to sample a magazine's latest content?
It's wonderful to commission photos or artwork in response to literary texts -- we do that all the time at qarrtsiluni -- but they don't have to play a merely decorative role as cover illustrations. One of the best arguments for publishing on the web, in fact, is the ease with which expensive-to-print color images can be shared (not to mention audio and video, which print publications can't do at all). And if you want to get people to really focus on potentially difficult text, it never hurts to break it up with pictures.
Like most literary magazine publishers, we have very little money. We're not associated with any academic institution. The ready availability of blog platforms has enabled us to do something we probably never would've considered otherwise. And in the process of adapting a blog to our purposes, we've decided that our approach has several important advantages for online literary publishing, some of which I've already alluded to:
1. Ease of publication. Blogs were designed to make periodical publication fast and intuitive, and remove the necessity of FTPing every little change to the server. Why wouldn't a new online literary magazine want to take advantage of weblog software?
2. Built-in RSS subscription options. One could argue that using a feed reader is still a little geeky, and a lot of folks online don't do it. But everyone uses email, and Feedblitz and Feedburner both provide free, customizable subscribe-by-email options.
3. Interactivity. Writing is a lonely business, and we have yet to hear from an author who doesn't appreciate reading comments on his or her work. I think the presence of comments also makes literary works seem a little more approachable, and that's important for qarrtsiluni because we are really trying to reach beyond the traditional lit-mag audience. But for magazines with reviews, the comments function of a blog platform should be especially attractive.
I'm sure if we ever start a cultural commentary section at qarrtsiluni, exchanges between readers and reviewers will take center stage. And there are blog templates and plug-ins specifically designed for an active user community that would be ideal for such a venture.
4. Familiarity. Like it or not, people who spend any amount of time online have grown accustomed to dynamic websites with content regularly updated from the top -- i.e., blogs. Pages with background on the magazine and on the current issue can easily be linked to from a top navigation bar or sidebar. Having content front and center snags readers, and whether or not they subscribe, knowing that a site will be regularly updated gives them a reason to come back.
5. Freshness. Because of the ease of publication mentioned above, we're sometimes able to publish pieces as soon as a week after they were submitted. We never make contributors wait months simply for a reply, and our continuous publication pattern allows them to create works in response to other works that already appeared earlier in the issue, if they want to, and still get them in before the deadline. First at Typepad and then at Wordpress, we've found that the "categories" feature -- analogous to "topics" in Blogger -- works quite well for organizing content into periodic issues.
There are a few other advantages I could mention, but these are the major ones. I don’t mean to suggest that qarrtsiluni does everything right, or that there aren't other valid ways of publishing literature online. For more encyclopedic types of literary anthologies, wikis might be more appropriate, while social network platforms such as Ning or Elgg could be ideal for highly collaborative or experimental projects.
I strongly encourage anyone thinking of starting a regular online literary magazine not to dismiss the weblog option out-of-hand. Though blogs, like television, seem to have become associated with shallowness and ephemerality in the public mind, they're still a great medium with enormous potential for literary and artistic expression.
About the guest blogger, Dave Bonta:
Dave Bonta is a 41-year-old writer and amateur photographer living in Plummer’s Hollow, Pennsylvania, USA. He blogs at Via Negativa. His other projects on the web include the literary blogzine qarrtsiluni, which he helps edit, and the Festival of the Trees, a blog carnival he co-founded. Dave has two collections of poetry online, Shadow Cabinet and Spoil.