In November of 2009 I interviewed Sophie Cunningham for my blog (part one here, part two here), as I was interested both in her on-hold career as a novelist and the changes she had made since taking over the editorship at Meanjin. With her recent announcement that she will not be renewing her contract as editor, in order to concentrate on completing her third novel, speculation has been rife, as indeed it was when she was appointed in the role, about the future for Australia’s best known and most loved literary journal. Despite already having an online presence that dwarfs that of most other journals, rumours abound that the print version will soon be abandoned in favour of an entirely digital operation. Critics such as Peter Craven have expressed considerable alarm at this prospect.

If Meanjin is taken online, it will cease effectively to exist… No one who cares about the literary and intellectual history of this nation wants this to disappear into the evanescence of the Internet… They have to preserve Meanjin as a magazine a kid might pick up in a library or a punter might see in a bookshop. Anything else will be barbarism. (The Age, October 28)

Craven’s predictable knee-jerk reaction sides clearly with the notion that if fiction, poetry, essays and commentary are not available in print form, they are worthless. That anyone still holds such dated opinions in the second decade of the twenty-first century is staggering. Mr. Craven has clearly not spent much time in a library of late (at my local library in St Kilda, kids walk past the shabby magazine shelf to fight over the Xbox controllers whilst adults queue to use, yes, you guessed it, Peter – the Internet). He is also labouring under a very odd misapprehension that the Internet is evanescent, as opposed to being a permanent depository for the sum of all human knowledge, available at one’s fingertips. This is how our literary and intellectual history is being preserved and it is infinitely more likely that curious readers will access journals online than they will pick them up in a library or see them in a bookshop.

A few cases in point: since The Paris Review vastly expanded its online presence this year by starting a blog and making all its famed interviews available gratis online, it has enjoyed a veritable renaissance of interest and a renewed readership. A subscription to Harper’s grants you instant access to every single issue ever produced online, dating back to 1850. How is this ‘evanescent’? No library in Australia offers me this service. There are several elephants in the room here. In case Mr. Craven and others anguishing over the inevitable move away from print have not noticed, that is not recycled paper Meanjin is printed on.

Environmental Trends and Climate Impacts: Findings from the US Book Industry was a report commissioned by the Book Industry Study Group and Green Press Initiative in 2008. It offers some sobering statistics, most notably that 1.5 million metric tons of paper are used per annum in the American book industry alone, creating a carbon footprint of 12.4 million metric tons. Over a billion unsold books are pulped or reach landfills every year and only 5% of paper used in books is recycled. Whilst many publishers are taking steps to address this issue, clearly we cannot continue down this path. Fledgling literary magazine harvest have at least adopted an ethical approach to printing, at some expense, using post-consumer Australian paper and vegetable inks, a practice puzzlingly not in evidence with their more established, well-funded colleagues.

The second pachyderm in the corner is one many writers are struggling to come to terms with – that of validation. The idea that writing must appear in print in order to be respected currently hangs over the worldwide publishing industry like the ghost of Christmas past. As notorious egotists, writers love the notion of print’s permanence. Whilst there are many crucial issues to be resolved surrounding copyright and remuneration when it comes to ebooks and online publishing, from a writer’s perspective it simply doesn’t look or sound as good as having a book to show your friends and colleagues. A time is rapidly approaching, if indeed it is not already upon us, when writers the world over will have to put such vanity aside and accept that their industry has changed forever, that it is print that is becoming evanescent and the Internet that is preserving writing for future generations to enjoy. Any other attitude is simply outmoded, if not, indeed, barbaric.

Considering how under fire Melbourne University Publishing chief executive Louise Adler seems to be in reference to this issue, her measured response to the furore over Meanjin’s future has been the most sensible comment so far. ‘The ratio of what you print and what you publish online is a question that is changing for all of us [in publishing]. I don’t want to be prescriptive. The new editor will need to think all those things through.’ Irrespective of one’s views on the print vs. online debate, Adler’s statement neatly sums up the challenge facing every magazine and newspaper editor in the world. At what point do they bite the bullet and move entirely online? With paper an increasingly precious commodity and thousands of people converting to handheld reading devices every week, what format does their print presence take and how do they justify it? The answers will be troubling for many, and egos used to being bolstered by finding their publications on the shelves of public libraries and bookstores will inevitably be bruised, but as Sophie Cunningham herself explains in the following excerpt from last November’s interview, this is not a time to have one’s head in the sand, clinging onto last century’s business model.

Jeff Sparrow and I are collaborating on a project next year called Meanland: Reading in an Age of Change. We found that when we’re on panels we’re always expected to say the journal is awesome, the journal will never die. You can’t stand up and say, ‘we’re fucked’. I don’t necessarily think we are, but it means the whole panel is slightly disingenuous because you can’t talk about the elephant in the room. People also say books will never die, we love the smell of books, but who really knows? We want to try to push the mainstream, conservative conversation in the direction of what if the book does die? What if people start reading e-books? It’s not about saying whether it’s good or bad, simply that it’s happening and how are we going to deal with it? Let’s talk about what’s happening rather than romanticising the past. That may mean at the end of next year I realise there’s no further role for Meanjin in print. The big debate when I took over was that Louise Adler was going to force the journal online, but I have been under no such pressure. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes wonder if the place for journal culture is in fact online. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have print product. There are beautiful things you can only do in print, but there’s also quite a lot of what Meanjin does that can be represented online. I can imagine a world in which you had a once-a-year awesome, beautiful McSweeney’s style print journal and then lots more regular content online to compensate. I do think it will have to change, probably not under my editorship, but it’s hard to imagine that in 20 years the world will tolerate low-selling print journals.

NB: Sophie Cunningham’s response to the current debate can be found on Crikey.

Chris Flynn is a writer and journalist from Melbourne. His blog, Fly the Falcon, can be found here.