Literary Magazines in Bookstores:

What’s so Independent about
the Bottom Line?

By Jessica Powers

For several hundred years, market forces have been the bane of art. That’s still true today for literary magazines, which must sell in order for bookstores to make them available to the public. The bottom line, for bookstores, is the bottom line. If it doesn’t sell, they won’t carry it. If they don’t carry it, it won’t sell, at least, not in bookstores.

But, you might ask, what about the independent bookseller, the ones who claim, “Independent bookstores for independent minds”? Wouldn’t they want to provide independently produced magazines for a customer base that might just want something a little different?

Not necessarily.

“Literary magazines may be a very small thing in the scheme of things but it’s still money, and I don’t know a single independent bookstore that is cash rich right now,” says Michael Bernard, owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California. “Generally speaking,” he adds, “my customers respond to literary magazines with absolute indifference.”

“I get magazines from my distributors and if a magazine doesn’t sell, they don’t even send it,” says Julia Payne, the magazine buyer for Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, New York. In other words, for some booksellers, distributors are the keepers of the gate.

But whether it sells or not is one question. Whether booksellers are even aware of what’s out there to consider is yet another. As I called different independent bookstores around the nation, I found a lack of knowledge about literary magazines in general. “Please define the difference between a literary magazine and a regular magazine,” one magazine buyer asked me. Another buyer repeated my question, “What literary magazines do we carry?” then stated, “Um…I’ll have to go check the shelf. Can you hold on?” Yet another said, “We don’t carry magazines period. But we do have a few literary journals.”

Why stock Lit Mags?

So, what exactly is a literary journal/magazine? And why should booksellers carry more of them, even if they don’t sell as well as books?

Linda Swanson-Davies, an editor at Glimmer Train, suggests one possible definition: “A literary magazine publishes finely written work which—hopefully—will have long-term meaning and value to readers.”

Norm Davis, poetry editor at HazMat Review, provides another dimension to Swanson-Davies definition: that is, he says, a literary magazine should reject the elitism spawned by so many university literary journals. “One of the ‘Truths’ that these magazines hold to be ‘self evident’ is the belief (or might we say the ‘Faith’?) that ‘Art’ is not the private property of a handful of franchised individuals, and that the potential for beauty lies in the hearts of millions of monkeys if you provide them with millions of typewriters,” he states. “The ‘Literary Magazine,’ along with the ‘open mics’ that gave birth to the sunburst of these publications, are the final bastions of defense for our so called First Amendment rights.”

But elitism is not the only enemy of the artist. Our market forces birth large corporate publishing entities, whose primary interest in the bottom line leads to bad art. “Good writing is coming out in the small presses,” says Christopher Harter, editor of Bathtub Gin. “It’s not in the major publishing houses. That’s not their interest anymore. They want health, celebrity bios. If you’re interested in poetry and writing, it’s in the literary magazines, not your major publications.”

Not only can readers find good fiction and poetry—the latest and greatest—in literary magazines, but readers in fact want to find it there. “Everybody assumes that nobody has time, nobody’s reading,” says W. Scott Olsen, editor of Ascent Magazine. “I was much persuaded by an article in the Columbia Review recently that asked, ‘Whatever happened to the long story?’  What the Columbia Review found is that it still exists at [magazines like] The New Yorker and Harper’s, but it’s also showing up in Maxim, Men’s Journal. If you can think of any stereotypical group that doesn’t have time to read long pieces, it would be the Maxim reader. But the Maxim editors are saying, ‘No, they do have time.’”

Attracting customers to the bookstore

So maybe they’re not buying, but they are reading. And it seems that bookstores would want to attract readers who might browse a magazine but end up buying something else, like a book. The question that booksellers should consider may not be what customers buy but what attracts them to the store and what builds a loyal customer base.

John Supanich, the magazine buyer for Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, argues that independent bookstores are the perfect vehicle for independent literary magazines. “I can’t fathom why stores that have the option [to carry literary magazines] wouldn’t,” he says. “Maybe people [who are publishing literary magazines] don’t come to them because they don’t do it. As far as community, that’s what makes this store such a part of Berkeley. With independent published books, local authors, locally published magazines—that’s the whole purpose of branding yourself as an independent, that’s why we’re out here. It builds community ties.”

As an example, he mentions a young woman who started publishing a theme when she was fifteen. “Now she’s publishing a college magazine and she brought it in to Cody’s because we already have a relationship. The one literary journal that gets big press now is McSweeney’s and we carried that from the first issue, before it was a huge cultural thing. That was big for us—that before it became big everywhere, we had it.”

Cody’s carries an entire rack of independent magazines. Supanich says customers can’t enter his store looking for Time Magazine without running into a locally produced, Bay-area literary magazine. “It’s a question of devoting the time and energy to create the kind of environment where people can bring things in,” he says. “We have a standard consignment form for that and over the course of time, we’ve developed a system that works. You have to do something outside the normal process of business to do this.” 

What Supanich says is true. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find an independent bookseller who didn’t understand the value of building community ties. Nevertheless, space and cash are still an issue. The magazines that bookstores are more likely to carry are the ones that sell and in order to do that, suggests Michael Bernard of Rakestraw, they have to market, market, market. Ah, yes. Capitalism at work. No matter how excellent the art, promotion is still a key word in the industry.

“When you have magazines that do consistently sell, you find that they also work like crazy to make themselves known—magazines like The Brick, McSweeney’s, Open City, Granta, The Paris Review,” he says. “And those magazines consistently, year in year out, perform. They get top-notch talent and they promote the living daylights out of themselves. That means promoting to bookstores as well. Many of the smaller magazines have big ideas or neat ideas, but a quarter later, they’re not putting out their next issue.”

What Bernard points out is critical. Whether sold in bookstores, carried in libraries, passed out on street corners, or sent through the mail to subscribers, consistency, professionalism, and an excellent product—these are the hallmarks of successful literary magazines, end of story.