Lit Crit Mag Eds: challenges and opportunities for literary magazines

No, I haven’t become a babbling heap, or found transcendent ecstasy by finishing the Times crossword – Lit Crit Mag Eds was the title of a fascinating session with editors of literary magazines including Fergus Barrowman (Sport),  Ben Naparstek (The Monthly) and John Freeman (Granta). The session covered how each person got started, the challenges of the role, and the opportunities literary publications offer and the contrast between the New Zealand, Australian and the United States situations made for an engaging discussion.

The Monthly launched in 2005, with the aim of being an Australian New Yorker. Naparstek became editor last year. John Freeman, who often apparently beats Naparstek to interviews,  was a freelancer before becoming US editor for Granta. New Zealand Sport was launched by Fergus Barrowman, and others, in 1988, and he remains his “own interfering proprietor”.

Freeman outline the tortured method used to distribute Granta: The print issues go to a warehouse in London, transit through Ireland, take the Belgian postal system to Pennsylvania, and I think he said a train to Jacksons, Mississippi before hitting bookstores. If copies are not sold, it all comes back. Magazines are going in two directions, he said. The non-profit model where they can raise money as charities, or patronage.

Naparstek said he thought it was an achievement to have The Monthly printed in Sydney when he was based in Melbourne.

Both overseas magazines have wealthy but at least slightly hands-off proprietors; Fergus Barrowman said he had “fierce internal arguments” about editorial decisions. He also said that Sport has always broken even on above the line costs – writers fees, printing and postage – and occasional wine for parties. That’s quite impressive when you realise how much work the overseas publications commission – up to 60,000 words, 12 times a year.

Whilst John Freeman lamented the lack of belief in fiction as “depressing”, it was encouraging to hear all three panellists talk positively about the future.

Freeman said Granta were experimenting – ebooks on Amazon, iPhone app, using filmmakers, websites, and more. “It has to be three dimensional and multimedia” and “digital publishing makes it easier to get shipped to Mississippi”.

Naparstek said The Monthly was about to launch an iPad app,  and already collaborated with SlowTV – an internet channel which films major talks at writers events, festivals and launches. Using new media was to complement print media, he said.

Barrowman had a bob each way when he said he was a complete believer in everything new, and everything old. Sport will remain a beautiful object, and permanancy is important. The New Zealand Electronic Text Cente convert Sport into text a year later, so back issues are available online.

Great session, ably chaired by Guy Somerset.

One thought on “Lit Crit Mag Eds: challenges and opportunities for literary magazines

  1. Roberta Smith 15 May 2010 / 5:28 pm

    I liked best Ben Naparstek’s observation that it was important to wrong foot magazine readers – to surprise them so that they were never entirely sure what was coming their way when they picked up a magazine. This is so not true of women’s magazines in general. They tend to subscribe to the security blanket style of journalism and any changes need to be made at the speed of the change in the seasons.

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