Dispatches | July 06, 2010

We’ve enjoyed the long weekend: any excuse for a three-day weekend that includes barbecue, fireworks, baseball, and parades is okay with us. So, when I returned to the TMR office today, there was a large pile of unread emails in my Inbox, including a lengthy thread from literary journal editors about this annoucement via GalleyCat. For those of you inclined to click the links later rather than sooner, here’s the gist from the press release:

“Between August 1 and November 30, 2010, Tin House Books will accept unsolicited manuscripts with one special condition–the submission must include a receipt that proves the author has purchased a book at a bookstore. The same rule applies for unsolicited work submitted to Tin House magazine between September 1 and December 30, 2010. There are a few additional rules to keep in mind when submitting. Tin House Books does not permit electronic submissions. However, the magazine does permit manuscripts by mail or digitally (as well as scanned bookstore receipts). Any manuscript breaking these rules will be returned unread.”

Visit Tin House here to see for yourself.

For me, this doesn’t pass the Blink test: something about this, instinctively, is wrong.  Forcing someone to buy a product in order for the opportunity to be a part of your magazine doesn’t sit right with me.  It sounds an awful lot like totalitarian democracy.

The relationship between the literary magazine and its audience has grown increasingly combative over the years (over the years – yeesh, I’ve been in this for less than a decade!) and, more than dollars and cents, this poor and deteriorating communication seems to be at the heart of this controversy. Literary magazines are feeling increased pressure to remain fiscally sound, if not profitable, as seen by the recent pressures on TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, New England Review, just to name a few, and are looking for ways to monetize just about any aspect of their organization, not out of greed, but out of the increasingly desperate need to remain alive.  Readers and submitters sense not only are the major venues and financial support vanishing as the slicks stop printing fiction, but that magazines that do publish fiction are increasingly chosen because of agents and a writer’s “platform” in cooperation with the literati’s self-fulfilling prophecy of annointing the 20-Under-40 (and so forth).  Further, readers and submitters believe that the literary magazines are closed to them: the quality of the work is poor and the editors are only publishing their friends based on who they went to graduate school with or who can do them a favor (“Publish my poem and I’ll publish yours!”).

So, literary magazines believe readers and submitters aren’t financially supporting their journals; readers and submitters believe literary magazines are a clandestine society off-shoring their money woes onto the backs of others.

Frankly, I think both parties have valid complaints.

In their defense, Tin House is not requiring the submitters to buy a copy of Tin House or a Tin House book.  In fact, the news release doesn’t even say it has to be a new book: one could, conceivable, go to the nearest used bookstore and buy a twenty-five cent copy of Bleak House and mail the receipt in with your story.  Considering that as a writer, your submission needs to factor in the costs of its printing, the envelope,  SASE, stamps, gas and/or bike energy to get to the post office, perhaps twenty five cents isn’t that big of a deal.  Tin House directly gains nothing.  Plus, Dickens is awesome.

Literary magazines have a challenge: we don’t know what our readers want.  To say that a reader wants “good” literature is pretty vague: what makes good or great work is subjective.  If we knew exactly what that was, we wouldn’t be presenting art, but selling a product, and we would have test groups and marketing plans telling us what you (who would no longer be a reader, but a “consumer”) demand of us.  Art isn’t like that.  And this is, of course, a good thing.

It’s also problematic when it comes to the fiscal side of publishing a journal: if we don’t know what you want, and don’t know what we have (because we rely on submissions we haven’t seen yet), how do we appropriately plan on meeting our budget and not go under?  We come up with innovative ways to put money into our magazine, and if not into our magazine, then into our industry.  Sometimes, this works.  Sometimes, this doesn’t.  Most of us enter into literary publishing not because there is a pot of gold at the end, but because we believe that presenting the world with the best work we can find, and getting an audience for those writers, is a worthy endeavor.  We want to support our authors as best we can.  And those authors are, of course, our submitters.  And those authors often publish books that can be purchased in bookstores.

Ultimately, to me, what is most troubling here is the lack of choice.  The submitter must buy a book.  The submitter has limited options: reading online, going to the library, ordering from Amazon, etc., are all unacceptable.  One of our staffers compared it to going to Six Flags and getting a reduced admission price because you bring a can of Coca-Cola; another said it was like getting a free coffee from Starbucks because you have a Starbucks bag.  But, if you don’t have a Coke or a bag, you can still get into Six Flags or buy a mocha-frappa-whatever at Starbucks.  Tin House isn’t giving you this option.

Thoughts on this?  Drop us a line and tell us what you think.

You don’t need a bookstore receipt to send your work to The Missouri Review.  So, go ahead!  No ticket!  After all, we don’t want this to happen to anyone.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.