Now You Read It, Now You Don’t:

A Cautionary Look at
Online Literary Magazines

By Jessica Powers

 

So the really short version is this:

Matt DiGangi, editor of the online journal Thieves Jargon, emailed Blake Butler, editor of HTML Giant, asking him to link to Thieves Jargon. Butler doesn’t check his public email address very often. Maybe he should, but that’s another story. DiGangi emailed again, wondering if Butler was mad because some people had publicly criticized one of Butler’s stories published on Thieves Jargon.

“I responded by saying that no, that wasn’t why, but thanks for asking, which then garnered a very stupid back and forth about the ‘responsibility of linking and back rubbing,’” says Butler.

Butler wrote a long post about how to get linked on HTML Giant. His comments made DiGangi mad. We know this because DiGangi left a very public message on HTML Giant, saying he had removed Blake’s story from Thieves Jargon: “Hi Blake, Thanks, again, for being honest. That’s why HTML Giant is awesome. I like being a stick in the mud as well, which is why I just removed your story and bio from the Thieves Jargon archive. See you in Valhalla. –Matt”

Butler had been unpublished.  

DiGangi describes the incident as the kind of thing that happens when “two proud people with big egos get into a silly argument.” Nevertheless, he justifies the decision he made, adding, “I regularly remove pieces that are a few years old if I feel like they haven’t held up or aged well, especially if it’s an author I haven’t heard from since their piece was published. This isn’t print, so our archive doesn’t have to remain static; it continues to be an evolving thing.”

He says he would probably do it again. “Balance a mean streak with thoughts about marketing, team loyalty, and quality . . . Most likely I would do it again.”

 

What a Writer Can and Cannot Control

Getting unpublished is impossible in the print world. Once that sucker has hit the newsstands, you’re golden. But, horror stories aside, even in the world of online publishing, getting unpublished is probably rare.

“The only way it’s really possible is when the ‘ezine’ is the pet project of a single editor-publisher who has – and exerts – total control,” says Justin Taylor, editor of The Apocalypse Reader and a regular contributor to HTML Giant. “The odds are that as a site establishes itself and gains a public profile, it’s going to have to expand its staff and develop some standards, just to keep up with their submissions and to produce a product good enough to sustain the interest of its readership. Just ‘growing up,’ basically. Deliberately unpublishing an author for any reason (other than, say, plagiarism, or, in the case of non-fiction, egregious lying) is just a sign of immaturity.”

Nevertheless, writers who choose to publish their work online face a host of potential pitfalls. The benefits far outweigh the risks, but the risks are there and writers should be aware of them.

For example, just like print magazines, online magazines come and go. But where print magazines have copies archived in libraries, online magazines don’t have an easy retrieval system. Your story could be published (and listed on your c.v.) and then, poof!, gone.

“Technically, it is not so easy to rewrite (or eradicate) publication history,” says Thom Didato, editor of the online literary magazine Fail Better. “First off, one can usually access any previously published webpage using the internet ‘go back machine.’ Yes, a publisher can remove a story or poem to prevent it from appearing in future Google searches but once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

Didato has a point – the Internet Archive is a great place to find websites or webpages that have disappeared. But the Internet Archive doesn’t necessarily contain everything; and websites aren’t always easy to find, or accessible, even when they’re there. Strange Fruit was a happening online publication a few years ago. Now, the website is gone, replaced by some mumbo-jumbo about free stuff for educators. If you search for the magazine on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine using keywords, “Strange Fruit,” you’ll get a Data Retrieval Error message. You must know the correct web address, www.thestrangefruit.com, to find it. Knowing how to use the Wayback Machine may help writers, but editors won’t always be so patient in their search for your work that is no longer easily accessible.

Some online publications are members of the international LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) system, which takes continual snapshots of select publications, then saves them in their digital archive. “Thus, should said publication ever go the way of the dodo, or lose their server and disappear off the web, the actual publication never disappears,” says Didato.

LOCKSS is a great idea, and it goes a long way to preserving important literary publications, but it’s not that accessible to the average, everyday user. Further, looking through the list of participating publishers suggests that LOCKSS has a long way to go before it can be seen as a comprehensive storage system.

Luckily, many publications that go out of business keep their web pages and archives active. That’s what Tamara Kaye Sellman, publisher of the now defunct online magazines Margin and Periphery Online, did. She advises writers to understand what an editor or publisher plans to do with their work before it’s published.

“Some places will keep it archived forever,” she says. “Others will take it down at your request, after a reasonable time. Some people will keep it up for three months and it’s gone. For some people, that’s enough. You need to figure out what the extent of the publication is going to be, if the work is on a website.”

 


I would never – ever – dream of asking editors to take my work down,” says Taylor. “I was who I was, I wrote what I wrote, and those people were interested in what I showed them at the time. The fact that I’ve moved on doesn’t change the fundamental kindness or integrity of what they did for me."

 

It’s comforting to know that many websites can be retrieved in one place or another. But even if something is retrievable using the Internet Archive, that doesn’t help writers who want to be able to quickly and simply point editors to other published works online. Tech-savvy writers can circumvent the frustration of finding their work no longer easy to access by taking a few steps when it’s first published.

“Once you have a page up on the web, copy the source code into a file that you keep on your computer,” says Sellman. “You can always keep that as a private webpage so you can send editors clips, to show as proof. But then I would also recommend that you get permission to do that. I can’t imagine a publisher saying that would be unacceptable – I think they understand that writers have to build their own clip files, and that’s one of the only ways to do it if you’ve been published electronically. Publishers want the marketability of online content, but so do writers. This is part of their marketing profile as well.”

A marketing profile, of course, is one of the benefits to getting your work published online. The web provides writers with pure and simple exposure. But that’s one of the problems, too. What if something gets published – and then you wish it hadn’t? Of course, that can happen in print as well, but sometimes it’s easier to keep print publications out of certain people’s hands. The internet is accessible to all.

Sellman and Didato have both removed work at the author’s request. Other editors feel they should stand by the work they’ve published, even if a writer is now embarrassed by their piece.

“I would never – ever – dream of asking editors to take my work down,” says Taylor. “I was who I was, I wrote what I wrote, and those people were interested in what I showed them at the time. The fact that I’ve moved on doesn’t change the fundamental kindness or integrity of what they did for me. That’s the whole point of art: you make it, and then it exists. That’s the built-in fail-safe against the artist changing his mind and going back to ruin something he got right the first time, or converting to Christianity and then trying to eradicate all the excellent heresies he produced when he was a pagan. You can recant it, you can disown it, but you can’t will it out of existence. And that’s the way it should be.”

What if something gets published – then gets published again, and again, and again, without your permission? Or gets stolen and turned in by somebody else as their own work?

“One site has reprinted several AGNI Online stories and offers them for download to people’s PDAs and cell phones,” says William Pierce, senior editor of AGNI. “Kind of outrageous – they never asked anyone. But copyright reverts to the author as soon as we publish something, and in every case so far, our writers have asked us not to intervene, saying they’re glad to have their work more widely available. As long as the downloads are free and the writers’ names are attached to the work, there’s no victim.”

But, of course, sometimes there are victims. “A man who ran a movie studio for many years recently described to me the treatments he’d had stolen from him and made into movies,” Pierce says. “Even someone in his position [was vulnerable.]”

Instead of blaming the online medium, remember that plagiarism isn’t something you can control, regardless of where or how your work is published. “One can just as easily scan a document these days in a matter of seconds/minutes,” Didato points out. “If anything, it is easier to track intellectual property and plagiarism violations now because of the online medium.”

“Presumably, a writer with stealable ideas can generate more and better,” Pierce says.

 


A good editor . . . has “integrity, vision, some sheer cussedness, and a whole lot of love. It also helps to be incredibly intelligent, well-read, sociable, and sexually attractive."

 

Editorial Responsibility

Editors who choose to create an online publication have all the same responsibilities that editors of print publications have – but sometimes they forget that.

“Online magazines aren’t very good at sending out contracts,” says Sellman. “Editors need to understand that they’re taking someone’s intellectual property and doing something with it, and they need to communicate with the writer. As a writer, try to get something in email from the editor. You need to be vigilant about the rights that are offered, and what rights you have. Most editors are pretty flexible. If you discuss it ahead of time, it shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

In an era when publishing is so easy – and cheap – to do (or, as in Blake Butler’s experience, to undo), editors should stand by the work they publish. “What I am concerned about is the arbitrary ability of bored dudes who run literary journals,” Butler says. “If there is any responsibility a publisher has, it is to preserve the aura of a work. Luckily, in my case, [when my work was removed from Thieves
Jargon
], I think the aura got better. But I would put serious thought in if I were an author, as to the value of putting words in the hands of someone who may eradicate them at will.”

Writing on HTML Giant after the Thieves Jargon controversy, Taylor characterized the incident as revealing an “unquestioned assumption that the purpose of publishing writing is to generate for the author a kind of ‘capital’ or ‘currency,’ which is then in some psychic sense ‘owed’ to the editor, who seems to see him/herself as a sort of issuing bank.” Although he admits that there is some truth to the idea that writers gain an intangible “currency” out of being published, he suggests that editors who use this to gain leverage in the relationship are bad editors.

Pierce argues that we can’t regulate online publishing any more than print publications.

That would be as anti-literary as censoring print,” he says. “Each magazine needs to know what it wants from the Web. Some live there because publishing on the Web is much cheaper, others because the editors believe in cyberspace in an almost Messianic way. (Maybe for some of them crosslinking is an ethical imperative, the ‘net’ of the internet). The CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) is needed as, among other things, a forum for editors to discuss norms – those editors who want to know how their peers are approaching each new problem.”

Writers should know that running into a bad editor can happen anywhere, in print or online. So how do they recognize a good editor? That’s hard to define, but surely fits the immortal “I know it when I see it” standard.

Taylor has a slightly longer definition. A good editor, he says, has “integrity, vision, some sheer cussedness, and a whole lot of love. It also helps to be incredibly intelligent, well-read, sociable, and sexually attractive. But if you have the first set, you can come up short on the second and still be okay. In fact, it may be that nobody even notices what’s missing.”

 

Writing for the Web

There are a lot of good reasons to write for publications online. Though writers probably don’t want to get sucked into specifically “writing for the web,” they should consider which pieces are most appropriate for online publications.

AGNI publishes both a print version of the literary magazine and an online version that contains different content. “The print magazine, which weighs in as a substantial book, implies a gravitas and (however vainly) a permanence that suits some kinds of writing better,” says Pierce. “Longer pieces, especially, and work whose rhythms are dense belong more naturally in print. If we need to hover, reread, revisit, rethink, then the story or poem or essay does better in portable form. If it can be swallowed at one go, if it wants to be read quickly and at once or needs the immediacy of publication the day before yesterday, then it should be online, where real quirkiness of tone also plays well. I’m tempted to say the internet is a big stage and the magazine intimate theater, that the Web rewards makeup and large gestures, and print demands a different kind of subtlety, like film. It’s odd that they would map that way, the newer literary medium corresponding to the older dramatic form.”

Further, writers should also let go of the assumption that print publications are “better” or give a writer more “credibility.”

“More and more, work published online is eligible for the prize anthologies and is winning recognition that used to be reserved for print publication,” says Pierce. Instead of worrying about this, writers should consider what their goals are with a particular piece. “Do you want readers tomorrow in India and Australia? Do you want to gradually build an encompassing tone that, for a time, pushes out and denies the present? Those, and many other considerations too, might determine where you want a piece to appear. The Web is better for some things, print better for others.”

In the final analysis, whether a publication is online or print shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether writers consider publishing their work there. Says Pierce, “It’s more important to see what a magazine does with itself, what the editors choose and how they present new work, than to let the medium trump.”

###

Jessica Powers is the author of The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), a novel about race, religion, and violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border. She runs a small literary press, Catalyst Book Press (catalystbookpress.com), and is editor of the literary ezine, The Fertile Source (fertilesource.com). You can read her blog at jlpowers.net.

Posted February 24, 2009