This may not be the kind of opinion one says out loud, but publishing is a clubby business. And like any other business, talent and hard work are tantamount, but your network is what breaks down all the doors. Years ago, when I was much younger and more ambitious, I’d attend book launches, literary magazine events, and parties in the hopes of meeting people who, as one of my friends phrased it, were “good to know.”
These were the kind of people who ensured that your story submission climbed higher up the stack; they brokered important introductions and vouched for your work. They bragged about living in Brooklyn even though they whitewashed the borough where I grew up with their faux grit, expensive eyewear, F-train polemics, and dog-eared copies of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Corrections, Infinite Jest — anything written by a Jonathan or a Dave.
Even MFA programs promised connections while you honed your craft — upon graduating from a two-year program, you’d no longer be that nameless person clutching a manuscript; you’d meet people who could make the path to publishing a little easier. The “good to know” crowd was composed of literary journal publishers, associate editors at major publishing houses, agents, and authors who’d been published and nominated for fancy writing prizes doled out to newborns. They were the kind of people who’d lean in and say, “You can tell me,” but better not to tell them anything. Better not to trust the “good to know” people at all. Remember, above all, writers are thieves; your words are theirs for the taking, vulnerable to larceny.
Back in 2002, the number of outlets where you could submit your work for publication was small. Submittable didn’t exist — you had to mail off your story, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a modicum of hope. Printed paper gave your writing legitimacy; publishing your work online didn’t have the weight and importance that it does today. With so many submissions and so few outlets, however, gaining placement in a magazine’s table of contents held its own mythology. Who didn’t want to see their name bold-faced in Ploughshares, Granta, The Paris Review, or the grand dame — the New Yorker (although everyone secretly agreed that the fiction wasn’t as good as it used to be)? Real estate was tight in those days, and if you weren’t a “name” who secured patronage or subscriptions or one of the select new voices, you had a better chance at winning a Pick 5 than seeing your work in a literary journal.
Frustrated with the lack of democratization and the way in which magazine editors took themselves entirely too seriously, I contacted a web designer and programmer and friends who were willing to give me their previously published work, and I bought a domain name. In 2002, small.spiral.notebook — a magazine for outsiders who loved to write — was born.
From the sky-blue landing page to the list of contributors, we were markedly different than anything that was out at the time. Small.spiral.notebook was one of the few burgeoning, formidable outlets (for example, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, 3 A.M. Magazine, The Drunken Boat, Orchid, storysouth, webdelsol, to name a few) not tied to a university or a famous group of writers. We were the indies of literary magazines, not beholden to a board or an adviser. We published what we wanted, when we wanted. Strange, experimental fiction? Sure. Poetry that broke the rules of rhyme and meter? Absolutely. Confessional essays that weren’t safe? Bring it on. While traditional magazines still published solid work—the kind recognized by Best American and the other fancy prizes—the indies blew open the musty attic doors. We swept out the dust moats and ushered in a dose of direly needed fresh air. We weren’t soliciting famous writers’ B work, because they wouldn’t deign to publish online back then, but we were publishing new and diverse voices: people who were intimidated by the old guard; those who couldn’t afford MFA programs or weren’t entrenched in a lit community. We catered to anyone who had a computer and an internet connection. Ours was a labor of misfit love.
At first, small.spiral.notebook cost me only in time and a small amount of money in hosting and design fees. I promoted the journal through my blog and shared links to issues with bloggers and writers I knew and admired. For two years, I published monthly issues, and I was proud of the work we put out into the world and the people who were grateful for it. Tom Sheehan, a retiree who writes beautiful poetry, still sends me emails about how much he loved the magazine. I published sharp, wry essays from high school graduates and college students. I didn’t care who you were or where you were from — I wanted only to read and share good work. I spent much of those first two years doing the bulk of the work on my own, with my head down. I read and edited submissions, programmed them into Moveable Type for publication, worked with my designer on site updates. Soon, I brought on volunteer staff to serve as editors, assistant editors, proofreaders, and slush readers. The little mag that could was gaining momentum.
In 2004, I explored the possibility of a print annual — a celebration of the best work from the online journal, something the contributors could hold in their hands as a memento. I would soon learn that mementos, beautiful ones, are expensive. Naturally, this was before print-on-demand, and we had to work with a small suite of printers who worked with the traditional pubs. The first print issue cost $5,000 for a few hundred copies. Layout, editing, soliciting cover art, paper quality, cover composition and quality (glossy cost most than matte), packaging, and delivery went into the enormous fees. I was privileged to have a full-time salaried job that paid for the bulk of the costs. But it felt special to hold your work in your hands and share that work with people who never dreamed they would be published online, much less in print. The online reviews were kind and favorable, and the journal gained further recognition and momentum.
Publishing a literary magazine is a true labor of love where few are paid for their hard work.
I invested a portion of my annual salary on site redesign, biannual print issues, a technology that converted print issues to online magazines (the irony of this doesn’t escape me), and trips to writing conferences like AWP to promote and sell the magazine. What started out as a small website started by one person dovetailed into a 10-person team and an investment of thousands of dollars a year. For a while, I didn’t mind lugging boxes of literary magazines and walking home from the post office with stacks of submissions. And I was rarely bothered by some of the editorial bickering and back-and-forth edits with writers, because I loved what I was doing, and I was proud of the inroads that my publication and others had made in terms of shifting perception of online literary magazines. Authors were submitting new, unpublished work. Best American, Pushcart, and other annual roundups included submissions from online publications. Social media became pervasive, and people began to see the power (and reach) of having your work online.
After five years, the work began to take its toll. I was amassing credit card debt. The magazine made it such that I had a nonexistent social life or one that was spent with publishers of other literary magazines — the antithesis of my intention when I went into starting small.spiral.notebook. I noticed that I was publishing more boldface names, interviewing the likes of Nicole Krauss and Aimee Bender, and over the course of a few months in 2007, I stepped back and felt I had lost my way. I was still proud of the magazine, but the indie fervor had flared out. I was becoming what I didn’t want to become: connected, established, and insular. In the spring of 2007, I quietly ceased publishing the journal; a few years later, I let go of the domain name. “We had a good run,” I’d say to anyone who’d ask. But sometimes it’s best to leave the party early than be the last one standing — especially if it’s a party you didn’t want to attend in the first place.
I recently dug out my few remaining copies of the journal and read through the pages. I remembered the arguments with printers, editors, and writers. I remembered the emails from people who’d never seen their work published and who circulated their published stories to their family members with joy and pride. I remembered the launch party I hosted at KGB BAR in New York and holding the glossy first issue in my hands. I remembered the fundraisers, the dragging of boxes, and standing for hours at a conference, meeting the writers whose work I had published. The work was hard and exhausting but filled with so much pride. And while many don’t remember small.spiral.notebook, I have to smile when I see the old indie guard kicking around, still working hard, publishing the best work.