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The Online Advantage: In the Editors' Words

In this online-exclusive, we asked three leading editors with Web-based literary journals what makes online markets such great opportunities for writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Read on for their best tips and advice. by Vanessa Weiland

Why should writers submit to online journals or magazines?
Jeff McMahon, editor of Contrary (contrarymagazine.com): I had a conversation recently with a writer, a former minor league baseball player, who was telling me about some great baseball stories he published in journals that are now out of print. If he had published those online, I could read them right now. As it is, if I want to read those stories, I have to hunt them down, either myself or with the help of a librarian. Where's the first place the librarian and I are going to turn? To an online search for any lingering paper copies. If writers want to be read, they have to be online.

Lizzie Stark, editor of Fringe (fringemagazine.org): In addition to the large potential audience that the Internet provides, online clips are more useful to writers who are just starting out. Pitching an agent via e-mail? It's easy to link to proof you've been published. Trying to build a name for yourself as a writer? It's easy to disseminate links of your work to people in your immediate network, and it's easy to consolidate that information on an author site, which every author ought to have.

Leslie McGrath, former managing editor of Drunken Boat (drunkenboat.com): It’s where the heat is in contemporary American literature. Some of the best work within each genre, as well as across genres, is being published online. It’s more widely read and by more people. Teachers of creative writing and literature are more and more often giving reading and writing assignments from online literature. Given the accessibility, global readership and the malleability of formatting—text, audio, video, the ability to interact with the piece—not to mention the green factor, it’s where we’ll be finding more and more literature around the world. And it’s less expensive to produce an issue. I smile when I read the moans about literary magazines being forced, because of the recession, online. They have no idea of the elegance and ease of online production, or the huge audience waiting for them.

How (if at all) has the online format changed the perception/reception of poems, essays and short stories?
Stark: I think the online format fits the way we live now: in a constant state of electronic distraction. The online format has really broken down the monolithic literary journal into small digestible chunks, available on a rolling basis whenever you have a spare moment, whenever you're bored at work, whenever you have a few minutes for art.

McMahon: I think the dynamic possibilities of hyperspace—the fact that readers can click away at an instant—may have raised the bar for writers. Stories can't really afford to flag in quality or interest if the reader has one finger poised over a mouse button.

Have you or any of your authors had issues with plagiarism or unauthorized reprinting?
McMahon: Not that I'm aware of, but this concern is in no way limited to online publishing. Anything published on paper can be scanned and distributed just as easily, in a matter of moments.

Stark: Not that we know of. We had one instance of a criticism piece being republished on another site. Fringe contacted the owners of that site and asked them to link to our site instead. They did so.

McGrath: To my knowledge, Drunken Boat never had issues with plagiarism. I never heard a complaint about unauthorized access either. However, it should be understood that it’s easy to copy material from the Internet, as well as to add it to other sites. All of the audio files of my poems from Fishouse are now available on other sites. As are my poems. This is flattering to me. I want my work to be available, part of people’s lives, which is why I’m happy to have it online.

How does being published online expand or shorten the life of a poem or story?
McMahon: A poem or story that's published online is newly published every day, every time someone discovers it and reads it. A poem or story published on paper is inexorably tied to the lifetime of that paper. Most paper copies will be out of circulation in weeks or months. A few copies will linger on a shelf in a library, yellowing and gathering dust. Poems and stories published online remain dynamically available forever. Or at least until the end of the world as we know it.

Stark: Online work is forever in a way that's different from print. Your work can never go out of publication—even if an online magazine folds, its files are saved in the Internet Archive. And your work remains searchable forever.

McGrath: I’ll give you a story from my own career as a poet. In 2006, I was approached by From the Fishouse, a site begun by Matt O’Donnell with the intention of collecting and featuring the work of emerging American poets. He asked for poems, audio of the poet reading her poems, and the answers to questions about the creative process. He built the site over the years and charges no fee to access it. Fishouse has been responsible for many of the opportunities I’ve been given, from translation of my work, to readings, inclusion in anthologies, publication in literary magazines, you name it. I use the site regularly when looking up other poets’ work.

What challenges do online formats face compared to print?
McMahon: A few years ago, it was still common to encounter people who weren't sure it was acceptable to publish online. I rarely encounter that attitude today. Nearly everyone assumes it's acceptable. What's more, people who've been exposed to the dynamic world of online publishing seem to assume it's the place to be, not just that it's acceptable.

Stark: There's the design challenge of readability, presenting work in such a way that it's readable from a lit-up screen. Also, you're competing against a wide range of Internet content … which means that the writing has to really grab a reader up high.

McGrath: Literary magazines starting an online presence will need to employ those with the technical knowledge of the Internet, and this includes not just Web design, but search engine maximization, the ability to parse Google analytics, a blog feature and an online submissions manager. There’s an age divide (I see 55-plus as the current far side of that Maginot line) in terms of this knowledge.

This age divide also applies to a writer’s willingness to both read and submit work to online magazines. At Drunken Boat, we actively solicited work from writers new to the online literary scene, and heard repeatedly what a joy it was for those writers to have their work read by thousands of readers around the world.

Older people have often remarked that longer pieces of prose are difficult to read online. I think that as the population ages, and those who grew up reading online get older, this won’t be as much of an issue.

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