Do lit mags have the same chance for survival as popular titles?

By Harriet Staff

On Bookslut, Steve Black and Daniel Nester follow up on Black's 2010 study of the longevity of literary magazines called Serials Review. The study sought to examine the common assumption that literary magazines come and go in the night (or in at least only a couple of issues). Black took his data from Library Journal reviews, comparing 2,000 periodicals mentioned between 1980-1995 and sorting them into different categories, affiliated, non-affiliated, book reviews, and “little.” His surprising results showed that of the serials analyzed, literary magazines on the whole were at no greater risk for failure than your average special interest magazine.

Out of the study’s 502 literary magazines, those affiliated with colleges survived longer -- that is, published issues longer than five years -- on average (90%) than popular magazines (74%). That’s on par with scholarly journals in the social sciences (89%). Independent lit mags failed at a faster rate than popular magazines, but only by a few percentage points (68% versus 71% overall). “Little” magazines -- local interest or underground journals, many of them staple-bound or mimeographed zines -- did about as well as popular magazines for the first five years (73% compared to 74%), but did less well over the long haul (22% compared to 43%).

When Black and Nester took the data to the streets to make their case, however, they quickly ran into skepticism not just about the quality of their data but about the danger of assigning cultural value to a publication based on how long it runs. They point to a few examples of short-lived publications that perfectly encapsulated a particular moment in culture whose effect may have been diluted with longer exposure, and some that were only intended as one-offs or limited series in the first place.

One limitation, something everyone interviewed for this story was quick to point out, is that these data probably under-represent titles that fail within an issue or two, since the study is based on the magazines Library Journal chose as worthy of being reviewed over this 15-year period. Of the 2,000-plus magazines covered by the study, 136 failed within one year, including 42 lit mags.

Many micropress-run journals would fall under the Library Journal’s radar entirely, Robert Lee Brewer, Senior Content Editor at Writer’s Digest and editor of Writer’s Market and Poet’s Market, observes from his office in Duluth, Georgia. “Many literary journals that start up and break down within two years are started at home.” Even then, Brewer says, the data would miss many “ghost journals,” ones meant for local consumption by hobbyists or a group of friends, which has only increased online. On the other end of the spectrum, university-sponsored journals started since 1995 have probably fared even better than the average consumer magazine, Brewer points out, especially if it is part of a strong writing program.

While they may not have busted every myth, one that they can confidently stand behind is that there is no such thing as a "natural lifespan" for literary journals. Aside from journals with academic affiliations which are given a bit more time and support to get off the ground, Black and Nester haven't identified any standard "make-or-break" point-- aside from the standard 4% or so that fail each year on average.