One of my favourite pieces in Volume 2 of The Reader is ‘Why Australia Doesn’t Need Another Literary Journal’ by Torpedo editor Chris Flynn. From the title, you can guess the subject matter: if you’re thinking of starting a journal, magazine, anthology or collection, don’t. It’s compelling advice, and Flynn is rather convincing. You might even say he’s right. When it comes to literary journals, they shouldn’t be entered into lightly, and many could benefit from heeding his words. (By way of disclosure, he does have some very flattering things to say about Kill Your Darlings and its editors.)
But apart from articulating arguments I wish I’d made, and speaking from experience I wish I had, something that Flynn’s had me thinking is whether his advice should be applied to The Reader itself. It’s a young journal in a well-populated landscape. So should it have been started, and now that it has, should it continue?
The Reader has already survived the two initial hurdles of attrition: making it to print in the first place, then making it past the first issue. It’s done so primarily because it’s a project of the Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF), with the attendant support and infrastructure that this provides. So it’s easy to make retrospective arguments for The Reader’s instigation. But to consider whether it should keep going, we might turn to everyone’s favourite benchmark: sustainability.
So, broadly speaking, does The Reader generate enough money to justify the time and effort put into it? On sales alone, no. At least not yet. The first volume didn’t sell out. Will the second? Fingers crossed. It’s not about to fall over, but its commercial viability is yet to be proven.
And this is key to Flynn’s argument. The commercial viability of any journal is, at best, tenuous. The reason? The market is small. Journals don’t just walk off the shelves. First they have to get to the shelf, and from there – even with stellar contributors and great production values – you can’t count on anything more than a casual dawdling. Most journals keep their print runs below 1000, and Flynn asserts that Meanjin rarely breaches the 1500-sales mark. It doesn’t exactly leave room for immense profits.
In light of this, a journal has a couple of options. It can make the operation workable within these limits, reject the figures and shoot for the stars, or develop new models.
The current approach of The Reader is option one. If the second volume does sell out, the argument for a third is strong, and the choice will be justified. But if it doesn’t, what then? Is it sustainable as a print journal? Should it become print-on-demand, an e-journal, or simply shut up shop?
With this last option, we move into a broader debate in the arts, that is, whether economic success should determine something’s existence. Arts operations have been increasingly moulded into business-like structures in the last ten years, to cut reliance on public funding. But despite this, the overwhelming majority still rely on grants, funding, donations and philanthropy for their survival. Which is not a problem, except in an economic rationalist sense. While they might not be commercially viable, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. Just ask an opera fan.
I think it’s important to accept that most journals are unsustainable in pure commercial terms – if only to wrench the conversation back from the successful business model agenda. But the outcome of this acknowledgement might only be an ideal, and based on a small semantic turn. Should commercial viability determine the existence of a journal? No. Will it? Probably. The harsh reality of starting a high-risk project is that no one’s going to rush in to save the day. No white horse, no novelty cheque. And so every journal – old and new – should aim for sustainability, even if it remains an asymptotic movement.
In addition to the independence and security you get from cutting reliance on funding and similar sources, perhaps the more important reason for pursuing sustainability is for the benefit of the people involved. Namely, the writers, editors, designers and publishers. Sustainability shouldn’t just mean scraping by. It should mean these people getting paid, getting paid more than they currently do, and that journals are able to provide viable career opportunities beyond the ubiquitous exposure and professional development.
In this, The Reader, like so many independent journals, could improve. The rationale for the collection is to offer opportunities to, and provide a useful resource for, emerging writers. Which it does. Being published in a well-curated, well-designed collection is a good opportunity, it just doesn’t pay that much. (To find out exactly how much, you’ll have to read Greg Foyster’s piece in Volume 2.) But it’s also an opportunity for people like me to have curatorial and editorial control over a great collection. And in that respect, it’s one of the most rewarding projects I’ve been involved with. So I want it to exist. I want to sell out this print run, to be sustainable, to pay writers more. I want The Reader to run to a third print volume.
When I started writing this, I was hoping to honestly address Flynn’s piece, without offering an apologia or entertaining a hypocrisy. But I don’t know if I’ve achieved this. I can’t refute Flynn, but I can’t argue against The Reader without idealism getting in the way. And so perhaps the only argument I can make is that if you do start a journal, or get involved in one, make sure what you get out of it is worth it. And that you know what’s at stake.
Volume 2 of The Reader will be launched in Sydney and Melbourne:
Penguin Plays Rough #20
Saturday 6 November, 8 – 10.30pm
Applebee Orchard, 4 Lackey St, St Peters
Readings by Darryn King, Gabrielle Maait, Felicity Castagna and others
You can pre-order a copy here.