Friday, September 14, 2007

Thursday Evening at Housing Works Bookstore Café: “Literary Magazines Go Electronic”

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, September 14, 2007:

Thursday Evening at Housing Works Bookstore Café: “Literary Magazines Go Electronic”

Last evening at the cozy Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho, I was one of about two dozen people in a mostly older crowd in the audience for the initial panel in the National Book Critics Circle series, "The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century." This panel was "Literary Magazines Go Electronic: Where's the Print Edition in the Library?"

First a staff member explained that Housing Works is a community-based, not-for-profit corporation providing housing, health care, advocacy, job training, and vital supportive services to homeless New Yorkers living with HIV and AIDS, and she discussed the workings and activities of the Used Bookstore Cafe; for me, it's always been a wonderful place to visit.

Then the panel's moderator, Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal, an NBCC board member, was introduced.

Barbara, who got to stand at a podium with two rather rickety-looking raised platforms on either side of her, asked the panelists to take their seats and then introduced them. From the audience's left to right, they were:

Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space;

Karen Gisonny, Helen Bernstein Librarian for Periodicals and Journals at the New York Public Library;

Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses;

D.T. Max, author and former New York Observer book columnist;

Kevin Prufer, poet, NBCC board member, and editor of the literary magazine Pleiades;

Scott McLemee, columnist at Inside Higher Ed columnist and award-winning critic; and

Susan Thomas, Assistant Professor/Evening and Weekend Librarian, Philip Randolph Memorial Library, Borough of Manhattan Community College (where I'd be teaching this morning if not for the Rosh Hashanah holiday).

Barbara began the discussion by going to Kevin's article in which he described how he'd hoped to spend an afternoon at the University of Central Missouri's library catching up on his reading of literary magazines such as Virginia Quarterly Review, only to find that the library had canceled all print subscriptions and he was directed to get the journals on the online database. Barbara noted that this will be the "flip year" for many academic libraries – the year the majority of their holdings will become electronic rather than print-based. Serials (periodicals) are, of course, much more likely to be in digital form than books.

Barbara's first question for the panel was whether the electronic reading experience is measurably different than the print reading experience. Kevin said the obvious difference in terms of literary magazines is that they are edited lovingly and carefully, not just the content of the texts (stories, poems, essays) but also the layout: both the look of each page and how the contents are placed so that reading the journal from poem to story to poem, etc., is a continuous aesthetic experience – that is lost when the material is transferred to digital form.

A second issue is that the majority of book reviews of small press books, particularly poetry, appear in literary magazines, and readers will look through the latest issues to see what books are being published – something they're far less likely to do when the current reviews are available only electronically.

A third issue, Kevin continued, is that some writers refuse to give electronic rights to their works, so that a magazine's story by such a writer (Brigid Hughes gave Nadine Gorimer as an example) will not appear in the digital version, only in the print one.

Karen noted that people love to browse through new issues cover to cover, looking the ads and graphics that are lost electronically.

Jeffrey said online reading is simply harder; in addition, literary magazines – unlike research-centered academic journals – are a "curatorial experience." The only advantage electronic forms may have is in presenting the moving image, joking that can be gotten from print only accidentally when a reader is drunk.

Scott, who said that for the last two years he's written exclusively for online publications, said that while we may revere old literary magazines like Partisan Review, often the print artifact of journals isn't really necessary. An advantage to electronic text is that it is much less expensive since the cost of storage and upkeep is negligible if it even exists. Distribution is not a problem as it is with print publications. The old quarterlies relied on more expensive library subscriptions (sometimes several times the price of individual subscriptions), but in an age of shrinking library and academic budgets, when storage and shelf space is finite, electronic forms have a crucial advantage.

Jeffrey noted that literary magazines often have distribution problems, and just a few weeks ago, the leading distributor of literary magazines went out of business. Newsstand distribution has never been a revenue-generating business for periodicals, which are out of date after 90 days at retail outlets (some, like the weekly People, go out of date sooner than that) – at which point their covers are ripped off, sent back to the publishers for credit and the rest of the magazines are thrown away.

Susan noted that older journals like Kenyon Review and Antioch Review were the most likely to be available on online databases and therefore most likely to be cut from libraries. Newer journals, such as A Public Space, not so readily available online, were more likely to be ordered in print form. At BMCC, one goal is to promote reading among our students, and having journals around – Susan mentioned the new Bronx Biannual – encouraged that. But budgets are being slashed and so academic libraries are less likely to order newer literary magazines, whose extras like DVDs, CDs and flipbooks (easily found in bookstores like St. Marks) are just not in the electronic versions if they even exist.

Jeffrey remarked that people are trained to read on pages and said the "virtual page" was different. J-Store, which electronically delivers electronic journals with the scanned print pages in their original form, is branching out from scientific and academic journals into literary magazines. But J-Store is primarily an archival enterprise, with something like a three-year window for publications, so that current issues of literary magazines would not be available that way. Karen said that J-Store was good but limited, and there are really no others doing the same thing.

Brigid distinguished between magazines on online databases and the websites of magazines like A Public Space, which can supplement the print issues with all kinds of extra features, like an interview with an author whose poems are in the print version. But when she goes to universities with MFA programs, their staff and students want the current print editions in their libraries and never ask for the electronic version.

Kevin said that after his experience at the University of Central Missouri library, he emailed a number of people for their opinions. Other small state university library staff members also noted that they carried far more electronic versions of periodicals than dead-trees ones, but editors at places like Kenyon Review worried about the loss of income from $24-a-year library subscriptions. Some magazines, like Boulevard, actually charge libraries less than they do individuals because libraries provide vast exposure.

Barbara said that at Library Journal, they thought the print and web versions of the magazine were designed to do very different things, some of which are only feasible online. Brigid said online editions were a necessity now for literary magazines, and editors in their twenties were much more comfortable with using their website versions. It is older writers and editors having trouble making the transition.

Jeffrey noted that online versions of litmags can link to other pieces by the same contributor or to their books for sale or supplement the print edition in numerous ways. Karin said that the New York Public Library is still subscribing to print issues and that many people prefer to look at text in things they can hold in their hands.

Jeffrey said that CLMP now has far more literary magazines in its database than when they began compiling it in the 1980s, that new litmags are being created all the time.

Then he brought up the issue of blogs. So much literary discussion, as well as discourse in other fields, today takes place on blogs, yet who is archiving the contents of blogs to make them available to scholars half a century from now who will undoubtedly want to look at blogs to understand the present literary scene? Karen admitted that the New York Public Library is doing nothing with blogs except reading them (mostly discussions on library blogs), that someone may need to scan them to preserve their contents.

Scott pointed to a recent study about the need to archive blogs. One problem noted is that there is such an explosion of blogs, it is hard to figure out just which blogs should be archived. Who would make these decisions? It also would be very expensive to archive blogs and probably would require some not-for-profit organization like J-Store. In addition, there are numerous intellectual property issues raised by blog archival.

Scott noted this transition to digital text is much harder for older people, that younger people are much more comfortable with screen-reading and manipulating the texts; for example, college students may download complex texts and then add notes or commentary, while older people view screen-reading as a more passive activity.

D.T. Max said that books are not good online, that there's no market for electronic books yet despite years after their introduction. In the mid-1990s he wrote an article for The Atlantic on the fate of reading in an electronic age (which, ironically, is not available online); at that point people believed the transition away from printed text would happen much faster than it actually has.

D.T. went on to say that his own book about a family with a fatal insomnia disorder is part-science and part-story. Some readers more interested in more information about prion diseases and other technical material mentioned in the book might benefit from hyperlinks that could be available if the book were online; yet those readers more interested in the narrative about the family would not.

Reading novels online, D.T. said, was just "not fun." The aesthetic experience is lost. He also wondered about the financial benefits for writers to having their work online. D.T. emphasized, though, that change is coming and this will also change the way in which writers write and what they write about. No area more than literature is more sensitive in changes in form. D.T. doesn't compose by hand anymore. Jeffrey noted that even the change from pencil to pen can change what people write. How will the transformation of text change literature?

Jeffrey said that whenever there is a middle person, like a distributor, it means less money for the creators and first publishers. J-Store is a not-for-profit outfit, and importantly, they not only scan and make available pages for electronic distribution but carefully preserve in a library the actual physical pages of each journal; this is another important part of their mission.

Jeffrey thinks things will be different in just a few years. Very thin electronic "papers" will exist and store and display text so that people are reading books and journals they can hold in their hands, something very close to what we now think of as physical pages. We should not assume that digital reading means online reading. Twenty years from now, most material will probably be read in electronic form. Just as there is moveable type, there will be "moveable print." How this will change reading is something worth considering.

Kevin said that while he's not a technophobe by any means, he still composed poetry by hand and that perhaps things will change less than we now think, just as D.T's article from a decade ago featured prognostications about electronic text which have not yet been realized.

Susan said that for her, it can be a relief not to have to read onscreen; for that reason alone, print culture should be preserved. She finds it dehumanizing when libraries require patrons to access certain material at terminals rather than giving them access to the physical objects of books and periodicals.

Jeffrey said that printed text slows us down in our reading, and with literature, especially with poetry, that can be a good thing, as literature is often savored rather than consumed in a utilitarian way as information is.

D.T. said books will eventually migrate to electronic forms. Books are esteemed as the emperors of information, the top form, above periodicals. But, D.T. said, look around at the books on the shelves here; they're not interacting with each other, the way species on remote islands in the Galapagos couldn't intermingle and so produced forms found nowhere else on earth. Electronic books would have malleable text and therefore would become more accurate and probably would be cited more. He noted that when newspaper reporters wanted to reference a book for an article they are writing, they traditionally call the author for a quotation or ask her what her book means rather than reading the book themselves; that may change when the book is available digitally.

Scott said that the tendency to skim more online or to skip around more may be beneficial, noting that many 450-page books contain only 150 worthwhile pages. The current organic structure of books will almost disappear, though. Oddly, he said, when he writes for online publications, he does so by hand.

Echoing a recent statement by Steve Wasserman, Scott said that while online publications have the ability to contain material of any length, in reality people get more impatient and don't read long stuff [my interpolation: like this blog entry?] online. It's only in print periodicals like Bookforum that Scott can publish articles of 4000 words. With the advent of all electronic text, 2000-word articles will have to merit it.

There was a discussion of paper submissions versus electronic submissions to periodicals; Jeffrey noted that most litmags now took material online, and Brigid say that she did but they ended up printing out most submissions for easier reading.

Barbara asked what can be done to prevent the disappearance of literary magazines from library shelves. Should there be sit-ins or read-ins like NBCC's effort in Atlanta to protest the dismissal of the book review editor at the Journal Constitution? Susan said that in the case of academic libraries, readers who wanted print copies should go over the head of the library directors to higher-ups who control the budgets.

Finally, Kevin noted that the University of Central Missouri library, whose lack of print journals spurred this conversation, has actually decided to go back to subscribing to the physical issues of many magazines.

I got to ask one of the few questions, addressing my query to Jeffrey. I said the titles of literary magazines I'd heard during the panel discussion were all established names that nearly everyone has heard of. Yet there are hundreds of literary magazines put out by individuals and groups all over the U.S., most getting little distribution and no library coverage whatsoever. When I was starting out publishing my stories, the only place I could find many of the little magazines that I submitted to and got published by was in the small private library of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, the predecessor organization of Jeffrey's Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. I spent hours there, yet had I been anywhere but New York, I would not be able to find these litmags unless I ordered copies individually. Was this discussion relevant to the vast majority of small literary periodicals?

Jeffrey said first that he was happy to announce that the CCLM/CLMP library had now been given to the New York Public Library and was in the care of Karen and her colleagues and more readily available to the public. He also said that people who wanted to see literary magazines that might be more obscure should come to the Housing Works Used Bookstore Café during June because CLMP sends over many recent issues, all of which are available for just two dollars each. Karen noted that the NYPL has about a thousand different literary magazines available in print.

After a few more questions, Barbara thanked the panelists for their thoughtful comments, the audience for its attention, and especially John Freeman and Jane Ciabattari for their work on making the evening possible.

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