The Millions Interview

Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part 2

Next up in our series of interviews with lit-mag editors is Yasmine Alwan, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Tantalum. Yasmine, an old colleague of mine from NYU, is herself a talented fabulist whose work has appeared in such well-regarded publications as NOON. After earning her M.F.A., Yasmine started Tantalum with her pal Cynthia Nelson. The first issue, with a handsome letter-pressed cover from Red Hook's Ugly Duckling Presse, features experimental prose with an emphasis on language, in the great tradition of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. Contributors include Leslie Scalapino, Sara Marcus, and Martha Ronk.The Millions: What possessed you to start your own literary magazine? How did the first issue come together?Yasmine Alwan: The why right now is entirely personal. I had never thought to start a magazine - in fact I thought quite the opposite, "why should I when there are so many out there" - when a professor of mine, Lytle Shaw, talked about what it had meant for him to start a magazine (which was Shark) and how it had opened a new [...] space to write into, from, toward (these are my words; he had much better ones). Also, I remember once Robert Fitterman answering a question about the danger of a small or "exclusive" readership, and he said something to the effect of how he wasn't necessarily worried about his readership, because he felt like it was always being "made" by his work and surrounding people's work. That struck me as a profound point, relievedly moving against what I hear some writers talking about, worrying about their work complying to market dictates and wanting market attentions. [...] The idea of making an audience or rather a community to write to and with was striking, thrilling.TM: How does Tantalum distinguish itself in a crowded marketplace?YA: There's such a multiplicity of prose writing out there and what can occur in the name of prose seems to me to be limitless. "Fiction," even, is a word that makes me feel restless because it is burdened by familiar codes of representation of reality, time, character etc. It seems to me that I can turn in many directions and get a confirmation on my expectations, but that is exactly what I don't want in terms of prose - that satisfaction upon "delivery" of the familiar. I would rather read something that asks me to take it apart or for which I have to take myself apart a little bit. You could also say I am engaged by prose that is highly sensitive to language or organized around it, although the fictions in Tantalum are driven by a wider range of engagements (image, sound, concepts, appropriations, character, metafictional thoughts, etc.). When soliciting, we tried to leave the map open.TM: How do you support the endeavor, economically?YA: I just paid for it myself. I hope to gain access to grant money for the next round. [...] Although my starting Tantalum right now is just idiosyncratic timing, there is a wide upwelling of DIY publishing happening these days. I think it born out of the shifts in megapublishing and the ways in which some people are shrugging off the expectation of publishing via traditional means. It's really quite exciting.(Our literary magazine roundtable concludes on Friday, with an interview with one of the editors of [sic]. We encourage our readers to leave comments below on the state of the literary magazine. Do you read lit-mags? Why or why not? What do you look for in a litmag? What are your favorites? And so on...)Parts 1 & 3
The Millions Interview

Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part I

Aside from the money, the fame, and the groupies, publishing a literary magazine these days can be a thankless task. There are hundreds - maybe thousands - of good writers out there, but there are almost as many publications, and few of them pay professional rates. Print is expensive, and it can be difficult to develop a following outside the circle of writers who want to be published in your pages. Money is tight and hours long, as submissions flow in like water. Developing a distinctive and relevant sensibility is crucial.This week, The Millions interviews the editors of three quite unique new literary magazines: Canteen, [sic], and Tantalum. We also invite our readers to offer their comments on the state of the lit-mag union: How often do you read literary journals? What do you look for? What are the standout publications? What would it take to get you to subscribe?First up is Sean Finney, editor of the full-color, bicoastal literary feast Canteen. The first issue, featuring work by Andrew Sean Greer, Julie Orringer, David Shulman, and (full disclosure) yours truly, debuts this spring.The Millions: How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded marketplace?Sean Finney: There are, despite what many say, no shortage of good stories, poems, and articles. Each year there are more and each year it becomes easier to access them. Supply outpaces demand; thus indifference. But demand is growing for [publications] who sell not the literary and artistic product, but artistic participation. Create an M.F.A.-conferring magazine and it would sell. Canteen can't do that, so we try to lift the curtain on process in kinky ways that get [writers] excited. We also hope the vehicle itself is distinguished: a carefully designed print magazine with quality paper, binding, printing, and samples of artistic product too. Process has to get you somewhere, after all.TM: What are your wildest dreams for your publication? What do you need to realize them?SF: Raging parties with famous writers and libidinous sophisticates who buy tons of copies and make everyone at Canteen really popular. To achieve this we probably need a really hot band, preferably one you can talk over.TM: How did your first issue come together?SF: There's a now very popular and well reviewed San Francisco restaurant called Canteen. My friend Dennis Leary is the chef and owner who knew he had the skills to create a foodie pilgrimage, but he didn't dedicate the temple just to repast, so we created a high-powered literary salon over dinner and brief "intercourse" readings. The press liked it too. Stephen Pierson, our publisher, saw the germ of a magazine in the dinners. And here we are, named after a San Francisco restaurant and published in New York.TM: How do you support the endeavor economically?SF: We currently support the endeavor entirely through vice, the game of poker in particular. Our publisher is a fulltime online shark.TM: What responsibilities, if any, do the writing community and the publishing industry have toward little magazines?SF: The same responsibility that successful technologists and investors have towards high-tech incubators. That's an argument. But are little magazines investments for anyone in the established industry, or just responsibilities? Aren't they supposed to do the work of agents for free?Parts 2 & 3
The Future of the Book, The Millions Interview

Richard Nash of Soft Skull on Google Print

I've been writing a lot about Google Print lately. We know that the major publishers are not happy about Google's book-related efforts, but I wanted to know what small publishers thought about the chance to put their books online via Google. I decided to get in touch with Richard Nash, publisher of Brooklyn's Soft Skull Press. Overall he is pretty happy with the program, and while the revenue generated from the program is, at this point, nonexistent, Google Print seems to be a good tool for publicizing his books. I reached him via a-mail this weekend and asked him about his experience with Google Print:The Millions: Did you approach Google or did they approach you or did your books just show up in their index one day?Richard Nash: I approached them. For the program called Google Print for Publishers, it's all opt-in, so nothing will accidentally show up.TM: Did you have any reservations about participating?RN: None.TM: Did any of your authors have any reservations about participating?RN: I avoid author approval clauses on text-only electronic rights...author approval you get with foreign, mostly, but book club, anthology, photocopying etc, getting author approval would be really time-consuming and onerous. I'd be happy to pull any book the author might not want up, even though contractually I wouldn't be obliged to. But I'd certainly do my best to make the case for why it should stay and I'd be happy to do that--I think of myself as needing to be an educator for our authors, whether it's co-op, or reviews, or distribution, or Google Print for Publishers.TM: According to Google Print, publishers share revenue from the ads displayed next to the book pages, are you seeing any money from this? If so how much?RN: So far $6.74! And about 20,000 page impressions. But I've been in it for a year, and it's ramping up very fast. I'd also say that non-fiction accounts for about 90% of the action.TM: Google Print also includes links to your Web site and other online booksellers for each book. Are you seeing any increased traffic from this? Is that traffic turning into sales?RN: Difficult to know, in that we've been seeing substantial increases in traffic to our site over the last four months anyway. In October, Google generated 15000 hits to our site; last December it was 7000. Sales, I would have no way of establishing though. Our online sales are not a huge component of our overall sales...we don't really discount on our site.TM: Are there any other small publishers that you've talked to about this?RN: Not really, though I think absolutely everyone should do it. I've not yet heard a good reason not to, for anyone. I'd be a real advocate for it.TM: Anything else you want to add about your Google Print experience?RN: Oh well it would be nice to see more money faster, but certainly within a year I think it should reach Amazon.com referral fee level (of about $400 or so) and then keep ramping up. I'll basically go into any program that will have me for free and that is not high maintenance.