Why Do People Run Literary Magazines?

In a writing landscape where time is money, why take the time to run a magazine?

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
Virginia Woolf

When you’re a writer and you’re trying to make the most of your time, where do you find the spare minutes to be part of a literary journal’s editorial team?

A lot of people can’t. It’s hard to make time for something that doesn’t earn you money or directly advance your writing career.

I’ve read many articles marveling at literary journals’ lack of profitability. I’ve talked to professors who have called them a low form of publishing. I’ll be frank, even with a dozen literary journal publications, I haven’t been accepted to any of my choice MFA programs yet.

Subsequently, I do understand why people ask questions.

Why bother submitting to literary journals?

Why bother putting all the time in to run literary journals?

Is volunteering for a journal even worth it?

If you’re asking yourself these questions, you’ve got to look at your situation.

Having publications on your resume does count for something.

They may not get you into a top-ranked MFA on your first try, but they certainly don’t hurt you in any way, shape, or form.

They might give you a solid edge if you’re looking to get writer or editor in your next job title. The more you’re trying to establish yourself as a writer, the more opportunities you give yourself to flourish.

Publications in small journals still do show that you’re skilled and professional enough to be published.

It counts in the long run. This is one small slice of why we need journals; it helps writers get respected for the works they’re creating.

However, there’s little to no money to be found in them.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

This is true for both people submitting to journals as well as for people running journals.

It’s a double-edged sword for both sides of the equation.

You might think when you see prizes for several hundred dollars that you’ll be able to subsidize your income a little bit with creative writing contests and literary journals in paying markets.

It’s certainly possible for you to make some money this way, but it probably won’t be a life-changing amount.

On the publishing side, I’ve been paid $5 for one poem once. I bought a sandwich with that $5 and it was fantastic knowing I bought it with money made off poetry.

Many literary journals disappear due to the cost of time and money.

If you’re wondering why your old favorite literary journal is no more, the cost of running a journal is more than just routine expenses. It’s also the cost of the time the editors put into running it.

On the publisher side, since I am an editor with Reality Break Press, I can say that the finances on the opposite side aren’t much better.

Bigger journals like Imagine have massive teams, physical offices, and there is obviously money to be found by working at a journal like this. Kudos to them!

Sadly, most people are volunteering for journals, not really working for them.

I’m going to give you a little breakdown of Reality Break Press’ finances.

  • Annual web hosting: $35
  • Annual domain name cost: $13
  • Monthly Submittable fee: $20
  • Cost of each copy for contributors: $2-$3 each for the book, $4-$15 for shipping said books

If we have submissions open for three months of the year, that’s $60 for Submittable, and with the simple cost of having a website, that’s $108 right there.

Sending out contributor copies varies wildly due to shipping costs, especially to the amazing international writers we’ve published, but that generally ends up costing between $200 and $300 per issue. We’re in the process of doing this for our inaugural issue, so I don’t have a hard number for you just yet.

Sending out contributor copies is a costly expense for a brand new journal. We dream of actually becoming profitable someday with a keen advertising strategy so that we can pay writers for their work, but at this point, we’re still in the red and that’s a far off plan.

Regardless, money is not the reason why you get involved with the operation of a literary magazine or journal.

Small journals are still wonderful places to contribute your time to.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Writers turn dreams into print.”
― James A. Michener

It might not be as big as Imagine, The Paris Review, or The New Yorker, but small journals still publish wonderful literature.

If you’re going to volunteer for any journal, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have a star-studded history.

Every literary journal started out as a small operation in their first chapter.

Subsequently, if you are looking for involvement opportunities, don’t be deterred when you see that most journals run on a volunteer basis.

On the publishing side, I’m like most people running a literary journal; I’m squirreling away some cash from our day jobs as editors to try and get an idea off the ground.

Most people who “work” for literary journals are doing it for free as a labor of love. But that’s precisely why we do it; it’s a labor of love.

Here’s the secret. Working for a literary journal is fun.

Plain and simple. You get to read the kind of short stories and poetry.

You can immerse yourself in your favorite genres.

Bigger journals like Imagine have big teams, physical offices, and there is obviously money to be found by working at a journal like this. Kudos to them!

Yet most people who “work” for literary journals are doing it for free as a labor of love.

But that’s precisely why we do it; it’s a labor of love. You volunteer your time because you love reading and writing.

You work for a journal because you want to make a contribution to sharing and celebrating literature.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Writers build castles in the air, the reader lives inside, and the publisher inns the rent.”
Maxim Gorki

You put your time into a journal without expecting to make a dime in return.

You do it because you love reading, you love literature, and you want to help your fellow writers get their voices out there.

This was one of the big questions we asked ourselves when we first toyed with the idea of starting a literary journal. This was way back in 2016 when the idea was naught but a seed at the bottom of the world tree of life ideas.

If you want to push your idea forward, you’ve got to do it for the sake of the idea.

It can’t be money.

Your motivation needs to be literature.

Writer and poet from Neptune. Instructional designer in NYC. Grad student at @NYUTandon studying Integrated Digital Media.

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