Testing the E-Credential
Do Online Publications "Count"?
by Jack Smith
As first published in Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, 27th Annual Edition, 2008.
Reproduced by permission of Writer’s Digest Books,
With special thanks to Lauren Mosco
Getting a story published in a reputable magazine or journal in today's highly competitive market is no easy matter, as writers who have been at it for a while can tell you. Getting a book contract is considerably harder, and the word is: Get a lot of stories published first, and get them published in good places. What exactly, though, is a good place? How about those innumerable online markets? Will your online publications count when you approach a book publisher? Or, assuming you want to teach creative writing at the college-level, will hiring committees look favorably upon them?
For writers, publication has usually been viewed as a validation of one's talent and ability, or as a gauge of the artistic merit of one's work. And for a number of editors at book presses—though not all—a strong bio serves an indispensable gate-keeping purpose as they wade through the huge slush pile. After all, who is likely to attract the attention of a busy editor, the writer with a strong publication record, or one with only a few publications—or even none?
Ed Wilson of Absey Press states, "If the author has no bio, I still look at the work, but the writing has to be great to be seriously considered." Mark Cull of Red Hen Press emphasizes getting published in the right places: "I would suggest to writers that they really think about where they get published and what their ultimate intention is. If we were given a new book submission and 75 percent of the publication history for it was with mid-list journals, online or in print, we are unlikely to give it the consideration the author would like." For Katie Dublinski, Editorial Manager of Graywolf, the bio is a gauge of the writer's success in marketing his or her work: "In general, what an author's list of journal/magazine publications signals to me is to what extent (and with what success) the author has been trying to get their work read by a broader audience before approaching a book publisher. This is especially important when considering a short story manuscript."
For these publishers, and others like them, a strong bio is step one in the editorial process. But where do online publications fit in? Which ones are likely to be viewed as quality publications—and which ones not? Adam Brooke Davis, Managing Editor of The Green Hills Literary Lantern, an online journal published at Truman State University, offers a useful checklist for evaluating any journal—either online or print. (Consider that the same criteria you use to choose a publisher for your story could also be applied by book editors judging your publishing credentials.)
-Does it have an editorial board consisting of well-published authors and/or academics?
-Has it been in publication for at least 10 years?
-If it's an online journal, did it begin as a print journal or does it have a print counterpart?
-Is it listed in the standard directories?
-Does its author-list include important names, those who regularly appear in first-tier journals?
-Is it linked to a college, university, or other reputable organization?
Of course, not every item on this list need apply. For instance, if the publication is linked to a college or university, with a notable editorial staff, it will not matter how new the publication is. Still, a fairly lengthy history of publication, where this exists, can serve as a record of the quality of the work being published. Even the editorial board, as Davis points out, is not an absolute must: an "estimable" journal might be edited entirely by one individual, as is the case with The Chariton Review, a magazine with a long history of excellence, edited entirely by Jim Barnes.
Book publishers weigh in
What do book publishers themselves have to say?
The bottom line: Online publishers must "publish," not "post," authors' work. They must exercise solid editorial standards. Jordan Jones, editor of Leaping Dog Press, states it well: "If an online venue accepts and posts all submissions, or most, or does so based on criteria that are lax, then it doesn't help to mention them." Jim Gilbert, editor of River City Publishing, emphasizes that the legitimate online publications are those that judge the author's work "critically" and with "competent editing." A good example of solid editorial standards at work occurred recently, he points out, in the flash fiction contest held by Square Books, with the winners published on the Square Books' MySpace page.
As with regular print magazines, name recognition and reputation certainly do matter. Publications such as Salon, Mississippi Review online, The Barcelona Review, and McSweeney's are high-profile magazines, and editors are likely to take notice. Yet the inner circle is gradually widening: Ben Furnish of BkMk Press mentions other, lesser-known ones that he is "taking serious notice of" these days—such publications as Drunken Boat, Pedestal, and Del Sol Review at Web del Sol. "I think that online publications have to earn their reputations just as traditionally printed journals do, based on the impressions that they make over time," Furnish says. Some online magazines earn their reputations much more quickly, of course, such as Narrative Magazine (launched in 2003), which features the work of such literary heavy-weights as Rick Bass, Anne Beattie, T. C. Boyle, E.L. Doctorow, Andre Dubus, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Smiley, Jean Stafford, and Tobias Wolff.
Third, writers would do well to demonstrate a good mix of both regular print and online publications. "A mix," says Katie Dublinski, "of reputable, high quality print and online publications would tell me that they are exploring all avenues, and that a variety of editors had responded positively to their work. If I were considering a submission by an author who had published a number of stories, but all in the same online journal that I'd never heard of, I'd be skeptical." Mark Cull seconds this idea: "If an author is published only in online journals, as an editor, I might not take them too seriously. The fact is, and I'm sure you can appreciate this, I don't have the time to invest in researching the details of a new author's publication history. If every journal they have been published in is "http://www . . . . . . . . . " I just might skip ahead to the next person in the stack."
A note of warning
And now for an interesting paradox: For book editors judging your bio, some of your online publication credits may not "count"; that is, the e-journals may seem too obscure, the editors are unknown, the authors being published are unknown, the publication isn't connected to a reputable institution, or the publication itself my not seem viable or worthy of an editor's attention; but make no mistake, these are, in fact, real publications, and you won't be able to re-market your published stories unless you seek a magazine or journal that takes reprints. As a writer, you should always be discriminating, because an online publication, no matter how shaky, is still a publication. Michael Czyzniejewski, editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review says, "We certainly acknowledge them as pubs in the publishing industry, and something that's appeared online is not eligible for publication in MAR; I would say 98 percent of my fellow editors agree. Hey, if a billion people can read it online, it's no longer exclusive to us. So it certainly 'counts' to us." The lesson here: be selective where you publish.
Academia weighs in
Some writers—particularly those who are academically trained—may wish to use their graduate degrees (and support their writing habits) by teaching creative writing at the college level. In this case, building a strong and reputable publishing history is even more important than it is when seeking a book publisher and so the question of the credibility of online publication again comes into play.
Judith Claire Mitchell, director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sums up the general resistance in academe to online publications: "What we tell our students when advising them about applying for teaching jobs is that our general sense, at this point in time, is that most online publications are deemed less prestigious than established print publications by most academic institutions and hiring committees (which almost always include literature professors and other scholars who know little about creative writing or online journals and tend to be slow to embrace less traditional standards). At the same time, we never disparage online journals; in fact, we express our hope that they will thrive and acquire the same importance as print publications. The more venues making good writing available, the better. We do, however, point out the realities of the current marketplace to our students who are just beginning to publish their work and who almost always are hoping to secure teaching jobs upon graduation."
Gary Fincke, who directs the creative writing program at Susquehenna University, states that at his institution online publications are, for the most part, of secondary status. "Online publication isn't ignored by us, but given that nearly every candidate has a number of print publication credits, they don't carry much weight in our decisions unless the online journal is one of the few that are genuinely respected," he says. "We'd rather see fewer publications in better journals than a long list of publications in obscure ones." It's the general obscurity as well as the lack of longevity of online pubs that concerns Claire Davis, Creative Writing chair at Lewis and Clark State College. "Okay, I have to admit, we tend to take the printed work much more seriously," Davis says. "There's just so much online out there, that it's hard to genuinely assess the quality of the zine. Additionally, because of the transitory nature of online work, it's hard to judge the merit of a particular zine, or its long-term effects in terms of literature. On the other hand, if we see someone published in The Georgia Review or Shenandoah, we're going to pay attention.”
Is this response to online pubs endemic to academic culture? No, this depends, according to Michael Czyzniejewski, on "who's on that committee. If they themselves have a lot of online pubs, or if they are aware of online pubs, even familiar with them specifically, then that's going to help. But for now, I'm thinking that print pubs will help you more. Will this change as time goes by? More and more every day, probably." Claudia Keelan, who directs the creative writing program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sees this change coming and urges students to prepare for it. "My advice to students is publish as much and in as many places as possible," she says. "Time is real, and the times are changing vis à vis publishing. The universities will eventually catch up. How they 'count' re: jobs is entirely up to the individual search committee, and I tend to think any person who has come into academe since the early 1980s is and must be conversant with the electronic medium.”
Writers weigh in
Overall, there's a general reluctance and guardedness out there, at present, with respect to online publications. But where do writers themselves stand? Author Ian MacMillan, who teaches at the University of Hawaii, states, "Most writers I know balk at the idea until they see good ones, and also until they find out that some of them pay (I assume because they can, having reduced the cost by going online). But my guess is that it'll take a decade or so before writers start to feel comfortable with it, because they all tend to see the object you pull out of an envelope and hold in your hand as the conclusion of the process. Something you can hand to someone else, and put on your shelf."
Judith Claire Mitchell, speaking of the MFA students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes essentially the same point: "There is a certain thrill to having a piece appear in a magazine with a long and impressive history, of feeling somehow affiliated with the writers who have previously appeared in, say, Ploughshares or The Paris Review. And a lot of writers still like the idea of paper, of bookstores, of something to hold in your hand. Obviously, this is changing, but as far as I can tell, it is changing slowly." One development that pleases writers who balk at online pubs is the online journal that has a print annual. Examples include X-Connect, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Night Train, which is currently moving in that direction. "This hybrid approach makes good sense to me," says MacMillan, "because those who like the annual will go to the online mag, and those familiar with the online mag might order the print annual. As for what it's going to be like in 30 years? It might be that online mags will outnumber print ones by 10 to one, and be the first choice for writers." If this is truly the case, writing and publishing will undergo a radical shift, ushering in a new age—but one which is, in fact, already emerging. It's this radical shift, this Copernican kind of revolution involving author, text, publisher, critic, the whole academic enterprise, and the reading public that Tom Jenks, co-editor of Narrative Magazine, traces to a new revolution in print media—namely, digital. This revolution has had a number of implications, and like any paradigm shift, the dust hasn't settled yet:
The question about the place or validity of literature online is a non-question. As early as 1995, the rising popularity—the sheer call on imagination and inspiration—of the Internet made it plain that writers would have to move online or be marginalized.
Today, major university libraries have moved more and more toward digital media, and, as you know, Google is working to make major university library collections available for online indexing. The conventional publishing industry is depressed by competition from other media; literary reading is declining dramatically, especially among readers aged 18 to 30. We're in the midst of a revolution in the written word, surpassing Gutenberg. The revolution has been going on for more than a decade and will likely proceed for another 20 years or so before we know exactly what the future of reading looks like.
The future of the written word is digital. Traditional, familiar forms will continue to exist popularly, but the means of their delivery to readers will evolve remarkably, with great opportunities for economies of scale in production and distribution. This is good news amid the general confusion about the direction of contemporary literary publishing.
The issue of prestige, or quality, of literature online is part of a larger issue involving the fall of the canon of western literature, the sometimes mistaken invocation of political correctness and diversity as defining of literary value, the decades-long increasingly abstract and theoretical approach to literature within the academy, the defection from fiction and literature by hard-pressed publishers pursuing more seemingly saleable material, the general loss of reliable literary commentary from developed reviewers and critics in all but a few major periodicals, the marketing-driven public fascination with the cult of personality and celebrity, the Internet-based sense of authorship by plurality in hypertext, and, finally, the resulting popular notion that whatever anyone says is good is as valid as what anyone else says is good.
Whatever status is enjoyed ultimately by online pubs—and however the many questions surrounding the medium are answered—for now, a central question persists: Should the medium itself—print or online—be connected to the question of quality? Says Ian MacMillan: "As for me, I see two editors, one of a print journal, and another of an online journal. Both are likely going to be picky, are going to use their space wisely, and are not going to jeopardize their own standards. The same goes for editors of online publishing houses." Ben Furnish adds, "Online publications are here to stay, and their medium in no way renders them inferior (or superior) per se."
While the question of quality is being debated, decided on, or simply bracketed in the turmoil created by so many online journals coming onto the literary scene, a number of literary bellwethers do point the way toward excellence in electronic publishing. One such leader in the field is Narrative Magazine. As Tom Jenks points out, "Narrative Magazine exists to demonstrate what literature can look like in the digital age, to offer continuity and excellence in a narrative tradition, and to encourage readers and writers in a non-commercial community created around good writing. We are very optimistic and excited about the years ahead and the opportunities and challenges offered by the vast changes taking place. The human spirit and imagination—and new stories—are, as ever, re-creating and reinterpreting the world."
For Some, the Writing is Paramount
For some book publishers, a writer's publication background itself—whether online or print—is much less important than the present work being submitted.
Chris Hebert, acquisitions editor at the University of Michigan Press: "In my own experience, I've taken on books by writers who have never published anywhere, online or otherwise, as well as some with very long track records. For me, and I think for a lot of editors, there's a certain thrill in discovering unknown writers. My only considerations are how much I like the book, and how well I think I can sell it."
Scott Schmidt of Salvo Press: "I don't worry about the writing history of my authors. I've had authors come to me with 30 books under their belt by major New York publishers, and the book they're asking me to review does not meet my standards. On the contrary, I've had authors with no publishing history whatsoever, with a book better than I've read in years and better than most published by those same New York publishers. Bottom line, I let the writing speak for itself. Send me a damn good book and I'll publish it."
Martin Shepard, co-publisher of Permanent Press: "An author's credentials mean absolutely nothing to us. We receive about 6,000 submissions a year and only select twelve books—a one-release-a-month schedule. Most of what we do is quality fiction. The writer's background and contacts might prove useful after we make a selection if it helps us promotion-wise. But it has no relevance at all when it comes to choosing what we want to publish."
JACK SMITH has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including The Southern Review, Happy, In Posse Review, Savoy, Southern Ocean Review, Roswell Literary Review, B&A: New Fiction, and X-Connect. He has stories forthcoming in North American Review and Texas Review. His reviews have been published in Missouri Review, Texas Review, Georgia Review, Pleaides, X-Connect, RE:AL, and Environment magazine. He has contributed seven stories to Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and has co-authored the nonfiction work Killing Me Softly (Monthly Review Press, 2002). He co-edits The Green Hills Literary Lantern, an online journal, published by Truman State University.