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Interview with William Pierce

  • Subtitle: Senior Editor, AGNI Magazine
  • Image: Image
  • Published Date: Fall 2006

NewPages: A couple of years ago, I was at Book Expo America and I heard that over 100,000 books had been published that year alone. In a day and age when so many books are being published, why literary magazines? What can they offer that books can’t?

Pierce: Ironically, this is an era in which books are not prominent in the culture. But they remain of utmost importance to a diverse subset of the population—and no doubt will rise again. I don’t know if the physical book will ever dominate as it once did. But the book in the wider sense, the edited thing that is put together and stays together—we’re living through a momentary, experimental time when technology has made us particularly hungry for new forms, but nothing can displace our need for objects consciously built, for words, images, and characters chosen and assembled into works of art. The problem with a world that publishes 100,000 books is the same as the problem with a world that has an infinite number of websites. You need some help negotiating the variety.

What the best literary magazines do—and I’m not talking about a specific set of magazines, but the ones with a strong sense of what defines them—is decide what is important (by fiat, yes, but that’s part of what attracts each magazine’s circle of readers) and gather compelling work that fits that mold. The aim can transcend thematic and formal questions, so by “mold” I don’t mean a pre-defined set of expectations, but an attitude toward the medium. To us, for instance, evoking what it feels like to be human often requires going beyond the conventions of literary realism.

To back up, though, and try to speak more pithily, the great opportunity of variety is only realized when you know how to negotiate the variety. Lit mag editors’ vocation is to figure out what is happening in the culture, in literary culture, and to assemble collections of what they consider to be the most interesting and important parts of that energy. If you go into a bookstore with no sense of what’s available, the 100,000 books clamor and cry. A few magazines, like The London Review of Books, guide you into the landscape, but they are secondary guides, without primary access to what’s best. They recommend, describe, summarize, contextualize. But when you pick up a literary magazine, you get a slice of what’s happening now—work chosen according to each magazine’s lights, and winnowed from a huge number of submissions. For some people, it’s enough to look for the writers who’ve won prizes, but others don’t trust the narrow-angle lens of the prizes and want a broader view. At , we publish about eighty writers a year, and online, at least another eighty that don’t appear in the print version.

NP: It almost sounds like part of the mission of literary magazines is to introduce readers to writers so that they can then go out and read their books.

Pierce: Certainly—for those of our writers who’ve published books. But many can be found only in literary magazines so far. I’d say part of our goal is to introduce readers to writers so that the writers can then go out and publish top-quality books.

But we’re not just here to serve writers. We believe in reading, in what our founder, after Nabokov, would call “aesthetic bliss.” It’s easy to find new writers—they’re everywhere—but finding exciting and thought-provoking new writers is not easy, and whether readers know it or not, whether they understand the way careers rely on magazine publication, whether they know how faithfully agents and editors troll the small magazines for new talent, those readers rely on lit mags for the quality of almost every new book they encounter.

Every literary magazine is different, though, and just as moviegoers come to know which reviewers they trust, readers interested in literary magazines need to sample and taste until they find a few that consistently give them what they turn to literature for.

NP: Who is the audience for literary magazines these days?

Pierce: The stereotype is that lit mags are read by no one, and bought only by writers who want to appear in them. Dana Gioia [director of the National Endowment for the Arts] seems to accept the stereotype, and he’s been working to minimize the federal grant money supporting them. But in my experience, submitters are not the only, or even the main, audience for literary magazines. Many people first subscribe because they write and want to learn more about a possible market for their work, but those who renew and become our long-time readers, our loyal base, do not tend to submit to the magazine. Whether or not they call themselves writers, they are devoted lovers of literature, who live in every state and in many foreign countries.

 


I wouldn’t use the size of the audience or the number of subscribers to measure a magazine’s success. Long-term influence on careers, on what’s published and read, on individual writers’ incentive to go on writing: those count for more.


 

As the NEA’s “Reading at Risk” survey shows, literary readers are the same people who keep the country’s other cultural flames burning: they are the ones who attend symphony performances, visit art museums, and go to plays. Some are loyal to the culture of the region where the magazine is published and want a connection to the local literary-arts scene—but AGNI, in specific, has only a slight regional focus and fewer than one in seven of our subscribers lives in Massachusetts. We don’t attract the very young—few of our subscribers are still in college or grad school—but otherwise our readers span generations and are almost evenly split by gender. An important few (for our contributors’ sake) are editors and agents. But we get submissions from only ten to fifteen percent of our subscribers in a given year.

NP: Now, although I worked as the publicist and marketer for a literary press, I confess that marketing literary magazines remains an utter mystery. It has to be completely different from the process of marketing books. How do you market literary magazines?

Pierce: Very good question. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, literary magazines tended to ignore marketing—in any case, they weren’t very good at it. Then in the early 1990s the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation gave marketing grants to sixteen literary magazines to help them develop the skills and systems needed for successful direct-mailing. The benefits from those grants have lasted, and the editors who received them, people like Don Lee at Ploughshares, have spread their knowledge and helped bring marketing savvy to the rest of us. One trick is to find advertising venues—in print and online—that bring in subscribers and not just more submissions. We rely on getting both.

Another point: it’s essential to have a vibrant presence on the Web. This is probably the first thing today, more important even than direct mail. We have over 17,000 visitors to AGNI Online each month, and the website has become an important, steady source of new subscriptions from people we probably couldn’t have reached before the internet came along.

NP: Is a presence in bookstores helpful, marketing-wise? Is it difficult to get into bookstores?

Pierce: We are distributed to hundreds of around the country, by three national distributors. But yes, it’s very difficult. You’re tucked away on a small literary shelf. Spine out, not face out, so people have to be looking for literary magazines, first of all, and they have to be looking for your lit magazine. Missouri Review paid for pocket space at Barnes & Noble recently—but you know that if they’re shown face out, they’re paying for it, and most literary magazines can’t afford that.

Since I started at AGNI in March 2004, our subscriber base has nearly tripled, yet the number of copies going to bookstores has gone down a little. The bookstore angle is fickle, as you suggested, and it’s a money pit too—but a magazine needs distribution to remain visible.

NP: Besides NewPages, who reviews literary magazines? What are some of the best places?

Pierce: There’s a place called Literary Magazine Review. I haven’t seen it recently, so I’m not sure if it still exists. Other than that, just a blogger here and there, reviewing cogently and thoughtfully in many cases, but not systematically.

What happens that’s important for literary magazines is that prizes pay attention to them. The Pushcart Prize, Best American Stories, Best American Essays, O. Henry. Many of the prize volumes also include work from commercial glossies that publish fiction, magazines that general readers know, like Harper’s and The New Yorker. The publicity begets more publicity. Literary magazines whose contributors are chosen for prize volumes have an easier time attracting notice and subscribers. But there’s another kind of buzz, too, more subterranean—the kind that led The New York Times to profile n+1 and The Believer when they were still new and hadn’t, as far as I know, gotten work into the prize volumes yet.

Considering our mission to advance contributors’ careers, the prize volumes are very helpful. They reprint, I won’t say the best of, but a very good subset of, what appears in literary magazines, and writers who win those prizes are more likely to get literary agents and book contracts. That kind of notice sometimes follows publication in the literary magazines themselves—agents contact us after each issue and ask to get in touch with this or that writer—but the prize volumes add cachet. They also add weight to a magazine’s marketing efforts.

NP: Are blogs useful for marketing literary magazines? If so, how do you go about doing that? Is it a random form of marketing or can you target blogs?

Pierce: We’re about to launch a site redesign that includes a new blog by our editor, Sven Birkerts. I think the blog format freshens a site and brings attention. But about the established literary blogs. If there’s a lot of talk on the blogs when a new issue comes out, that’s wonderful of course. But should a literary magazine even want to guide that conversation? We should comp the most prominent bloggers, I suppose—we don’t at this point—but that’s about as far as we’d want to go. Attention should come because we’re publishing unusual, first-rate work, not because we’ve established contact with bloggers who can pump us up. On the other hand, we’re grateful that many of our long-time subscribers become open advocates who speak and write about their love for the magazine. So, if a blogger reads AGNI, has known and subscribed to the magazine for a while, we’re grateful for the extra notice. There are companies outside of the literary world who have publicists making sure that each relevant blogger is stroked. Literary magazines are poor enough that we can afford to be idealistic, so we try to stay as idealistic as possible.

NP: How do you feel about advertisements in literary magazines? Do they somehow sully the artistic process or are they a necessary evil?

Pierce: I don’t think they sully the artistic process if there’s no editorial control ceded. Nonprofits can only accept advertisements from businesses related to their missions anyway—so AGNI can’t run ads for, say, Chivas Regal. But we can run ads for the Bennington Writing Seminars, or Sarabande Books, Curbstone Press, New England College. To me, it makes sense that a small press would want to advertise in AGNI. Our audience is their audience. When work is accepted for a particular print issue and we learn that the writer has a new book out, we contact the publisher and ask if they’d like to advertise. I can imagine corruptions of that system. Quid pro quos. But there’s very little money in it—we’re lucky to get two, maybe three, writers in a particular issue whose publishers decide to advertise. These side sources of revenue are important for magazines, but each one, taken by itself, has a relatively small affect. They all add up to make this unviable business viable.

I agree with Jeff Lependorf, the executive director of CLMP, when he says that literary magazines are not failed businesses. They are charities carrying out an important mission for our culture. Put aside the fact that airlines are subsidized even when they’re called profitable, that orange growers and baseball teams are subsidized. AGNI is closer to a hospital or cultural organization than to McDonald’s.

One of the most important aims of AGNI is to boost the readership for writers we consider important, but I wouldn’t use the size of the audience or the number of subscribers to measure a magazine’s success. Long-term influence on careers, on what’s published and read, on individual writers’ incentive to go on writing: those count for more. So we look not only for readers, but readers drawn to the work we discover and champion—those interested in AGNI’s vision, which develops issue by issue. That means, to return to advertising, our community is likely to be interested in our contributors’ books (we want them to have access to those books, and to others like them!) and is unlikely, in any case, to be put off by literary advertising.

NP: Is place or community as important for literary magazines as it is for small presses?

Pierce: There are lots of different answers to that one, lots of different angles. In some ways location is very important. If we wanted to publish the best rural work from the American West—and by the way, we’re totally open to work from the American West—but if a magazine wants to have that as its focus, then it damn well better be in the rural American West. They’d be out of touch otherwise. We can publish work from the American West that strikes us, that speaks to us, but that doesn’t mean that we’re publishing work true to the core of that region or precisely relevant to what’s going on there now. To learn more, we’d turn to a really good magazine editor from that area and trust her to show us. (As we’re doing in the fall issue, for instance, with our special section on British Isles poetry, chosen by the editors of Poetry London.)

Location is also incidental in some ways. We’re in Boston, yet only one in seven of our subscribers is from Massachusetts. I would venture to say that the same percentage come from states that border on the Pacific. In that sense, with technology the way it is, location doesn’t have to matter—unless a journal’s mission is tied to a region.

 


Every literary magazine is different, though, and just as moviegoers come to know which reviewers they trust, readers interested in literary magazines need to sample and taste until they find a few that consistently give them what they turn to literature for.


 

That said, if a magazine isn’t at the center of a vibrant literary community, its energies can drain away quickly. There’s tremendous geographic diversity among the writers we publish—but most of our editors live in Boston, and other Boston writers and readers have longtime personal relationship with the magazine—as subscribers, donors, contributors in some cases, and as the audience for our readings and seminars. They inspire, advise, and change us. So there’s no question that AGNI is a product of Boston. It’s been here for 20 of its 34 years. And the energies that keep the magazine alive emanate from this city’s cultural life: the fact that Boston University continues to support us, that the Massachusetts Cultural Council gives us vital annual funding . . . and that when AGNI runs into trouble of any kind, Boston’s literary community rallies. More than 125 people—individuals—donate money to the magazine, and of those, half come from the Boston area. They don’t give to AGNI thinking that we’re a regional magazine—but they rightly see it as a proud Boston institution publishing the very highest quality work from around the world. And they want it to thrive.

NP: Sounds like location is in some respects the heart and soul of AGNI.

Pierce: True. It’s funny—I would not say, in any sense, that AGNI has a New England sensibility narrowly defined. But it has a cosmopolitan perspective that is based in, and partly grows from, Boston’s stance in the world. When I think of “New England,” I think of Ethan Frome or John Marquand, and that old New England is something we’re attracted to, but it’s not the soul of the magazine.

NP: How does your relationship to the university work?

Pierce: Boston University increasingly considers itself a university synonymous with its city, a city-university. And we are one of its public arms. We hold many events, and when the Boston Globe or the Phoenix publishes a story about literary magazines, AGNI is always prominent in it. You can hardly talk about the literary life of Boston without talking about AGNI—and others like Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Salamander, QuickFiction, and Post Road.

NP: If you were going to give one piece of advice to individuals who want to start their own literary magazine, what would it be?

Pierce: I’d say volunteer at another magazine first. And define your aims very specifically. Don’t set out just to publish the best contemporary fiction. Everyone wants to do that. Burrow deeper into your own sensibility, and define your mission from there. At AGNI, for instance, we turn down top-rate stories that we know, and are glad to know, another literary magazine will publish—straight realist stories with none of the twist of idiosyncrasy that we look for. We like experiment, but not work that’s willfully experimental. Rick Moody once said, “Style is what happens when you strip away all affectation and realize that you’re still eccentric.” That’s the kind of eccentricity we look for—the human being stripped bare.

NP: What literary magazines are you currently reading—or what literary magazines are your current favorites?

My current and longtime favorite is Conjunctions. I’ve subscribed to and read that magazine for almost fifteen years. They were the first to publish David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann, and they’re connected to some of the most important writers living, like William Gass. I think that does very good work, and I read that. There’s Mississippi Review. And then of course, the Boston magazines. We are friends with a lot of them—Salamander, Post Road, Ploughshares, Night Train—and we read them to know what our community is up to.

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