by Katherine Barrett, Understorey Magazine‘s founder and editor
Understorey Magazine sprouted as an idea in 2012. We published our first issue 2013 and have since published 21 issues—over 400 writers and artists. The future of Understorey is uncertain but during our recent hiatus, I looked back at how the magazine evolved, what I’ve learned, why literary magazines are so difficult to sustain, and how the outlook for literary magazines, especially in Canada, might be improved.
The ideas below are based on my experience as an editor/publisher and also as a writer submitting to other literary magazines. The ideas are also based on a survey sent to Understorey readers and contributors and posted on our social media and website. The survey is not scientific but the replies (123 in total) are inspiring and insightful.
I hope this essay helps writers see what happens to their writing when it’s submitted to a literary magazine. I hope it helps editors and publishers of other literary magazines find ways to sustain their publication. And I hope it helps all members of the publishing “ecosystem” in Canada see that literary magazines are vital—they’re the understorey of the literary ecosystem, if you will. We need new ways to help them thrive.
(Note that I use the word “stories” below to refer to fiction, poems, creative nonfiction and essays published in Understorey Magazine.)
1. Literary magazines are full of great writing that often goes unread.
Literary magazines publish work by renowned writers, writers on their way to renowned, and writers who might never be renowned but write brilliantly nonetheless. Lit mags also publish often, quarterly or monthly when they’re on a roll. This means they’re publishing new themes, styles, and voices well before big book publishers. They exist to move literature in new directions.
So who actually reads literary magazines? The general wisdom is that lit mags are read almost exclusively by those who are—or want to be—published in lit mags.
Understorey is “open access” so everything is free to read online (see Point 5 below). Over the years, I’ve seen that stories by authors who have large a social media presence are viewed intensely for one or two days after publication and that most of this activity comes to Understorey via social media. Those articles are being viewed by people in the author’s own social network (which is both good and bad; see Point 2). Articles by authors with little or no social media presence don’t see this bump, or as many views over a longer period. Moreover, when a whole issue is announced via Understorey’s social media and e-newsletter, I see a very large bump in views—but mainly of the home page, not of individual stories. People seem to “check it out” but don’t actually read, at least not right away.
There are a few exceptions to these observations but I believe most stories are not read by general readers of literature. That is, literary magazines do not enjoy the same audience as literary books.
In our survey, we asked what people value most about Understorey. Reading the actual content was an option but it was not the most popular choice. Most respondents (70%) liked Understorey’s mandate and many (60%) liked that we are a paying market for writers. In contrast, only 40% selected reading the magazine. In other words, Understorey is valued more as an opportunity for publishing than as a place to read those publications. I believe editors and publishers of other lit mags would agree with these findings.
Why are literary magazines not as widely read as literary books? A few possibilities:
Branding. Non-writers may perceive lit mags as amateur, esoteric, or just plain bad. In fact, acceptance rates for literary magazines are very low (see Point 2) and while some magazines may fall into someone’s idea of amateur, esoteric, or bad, there are plenty of published books in these categories too.
Marketing and distribution. More likely, non-writers never see a literary magazine. The vast majority of lit mags function on shoe-string budget. Just getting an issue published is an achievement. Time, energy, and funds for advertising, promotion, and distribution are in short supply.
Lack of income from general readers means even less marketing and distribution, even fewer readers and, well, see Points 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!
2. The best stories are sometimes the “worst” submissions.
It is notoriously difficult to get published in a literary magazine. This might surprise people who dismiss lit mags as amateur. According to Duotrope, acceptance rates for unsolicited submissions at highly competitive magazines like Granta or The New Yorker range from less than one percent to absolute zero. At the other end of the spectrum, the most welcoming (least choosy) magazines have acceptance rates of only 50 percent.
Understorey has an acceptance rate of about 10 percent, which is high compared to many magazines, but we have still rejected nine out of ten writers.
There are many reasons for low acceptance rates—but here’s a big one: Publishing good writing requires establishing a relationship among the writer, the editor, and the publisher. We expect this in other realms of publishing. No one submits a manuscript to a book publisher or a scholarly journal and expects it to be sent to the printer as is. Book publishers have in-house editors who play a significant role in shaping the final version. Scholarly publishing has peer reviewers as well as editors.
But most literary magazines don’t have the capacity to work with writers. Magazine staff are likely volunteer or underpaid and/or precariously employed. Magazines can have hundreds, even thousands, of submissions for a single issue. They look for—they need—writing that is pretty much ready to go.
This is a problem. It means writers who have the time, education, experience, connections, and resources to create a ready-to-go piece have a huge advantage (see Point 4). It means the best stories may be rejected in favour of the best-written stories. It means many voices remain unheard.
Understorey Magazine was created to publish stories that are under-told and under-published. It would be impossible to fulfill this mandate if we accepted only ready-to-go submissions. Most of the pieces published in Understorey received some level of editing. About one third underwent extensive editing, back and forth many times with the author to mutually agree on a version ready for publication. We took on this work because those stories are utterly unique: no one but the author could have written them yet they speak to a wider shared experience. They do what literature is supposed to do. Yet if we had been looking for “fine writing” or the “best writing,” these stories would have been rejected.
Getting to know writers through this process has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the magazine. There is now an Understorey community and I am still in touch with writers who submitted work almost a decade ago. Of course, our resources are limited and this kind of editing, over the years, has amounted to unpaid or underpaid work. It is not sustainable or scalable, even though it is necessary to mentor and inspire new writers and to help sustain the whole publishing ecosystem.
3. Rejections can be welcomed.
Given high rejection rates, most literary magazines do not have the capacity to send writers more than form rejections. This is a huge source of frustration for new and emerging writers. It’s hard to improve your writing when you don’t know why it’s being rejected.
Having experienced this frustration many times, one of my goals in founding Understorey was to send personal responses to all submissions and provide a reason for rejection, if not concrete feedback. We’ve met that goal (except for those few submissions that had nothing to do with the magazine). Often, our feedback was a line or two about what might be improved, or at least what did not resonate for us. Sometimes, it was simply a personal note to say we liked the story, but we have limited funding to pay contributors. Not a ton of feedback but some direction for writers.
Very often, those rejected writers have replied to the rejection—with glee. “Thank you for the lovely rejection!” or “Thanks so much for the helpful suggestions!” or “I really appreciate your comments and will incorporate them in the next version!” Writers are craving feedback.
While this practice is rewarding for both editor and writer—and essential for developing new writers—it requires considerable thought, effort, and time. There are options midway between form rejections and personal replies. Tiered rejections, for example, would give writers a rough idea of where their story landed. Offering editorial feedback for a fee is another way to support writers and the magazine (but see Point 4).
4. Diversity means more than a special issue.
There’s an exciting and overdue push in the literary world to “increase diversity,” to publish voices and experiences that have long been underrepresented.
For literary magazines, this push often includes creating a special issue by and about an underrepresented group, lowering or waiving submission fees, and posting inclusive invitations in submission guidelines. These efforts are necessary.
But diversity is … diverse. A person can be excluded from literary publishing for many overlapping reasons. A writer who identifies as Black, for example, might also identify as female and disabled and rural, all of which affect her opportunities as a writer. So “increasing diversity” means looking at the many reasons some people can sit down to write a short story and others cannot.
And not just sit down to write, which is a feat in itself, but also revise and edit. Learn the craft. Write more. Seek out potential publishers. Follow varying submission guidelines. Craft a cover letter about accomplishments to date. Send out the story and letter to many publishers. Sometimes include a submission fee. Wait. Wait. Wait. Weather multiple rejections (this requires more resources that you’d think). Maybe take a class. Send work out again. Complete legal contracts when acceptance happens. Promote the much-earned publication online and possibly at literary events as well. All for little or no pay.
Writing is vital, exhilarating, expansive—but it requires opportunity. Creating a special issue, waiving fees, or posting inclusive calls for submissions help, but I’ve learned that it’s not enough. Publishers who are serious about “increasing diversity” can’t only create space for writers. They must help create the writers to fill that space.
Some things we’ve tried at Understorey:
• Holding community workshops focused on telling stories as well as the craft of refining those stories. These workshops tend to gather people who might not yet consider themselves “writers,” but are looking for guidance in telling their stories. We’ve published many pieces sparked by these events.
• Seeking editors who represent and support the underrepresented. For issues such as African Nova Scotian Women and Diverse Stories of Women on Stage, our editors not only vetted submissions but reached into their communities to find and support new writers.
• Considering various forms of writing, especially from new writers. Sometimes a submission doesn’t work as a complex piece of fiction or poetry but does work as personal essay, a letter, or even a series of email exchanges.
5. The internet opens doors—and closes them.
Understorey would not exist without the internet. Online publishing allowed me to start from almost nothing—just an idea and a WordPress site. Our first grant came from a community fund run by the provincial government. It paid for website hosting and a logo designer, the extent of our operating costs. The rest of the grant went to contributors and staff.
Throughout the past ten years and roughly ten grants, this breakdown has remained the same: a small amount toward operating; the rest toward paying writers, artists, and editors.
In addition to lower costs and an easier start-up, online publishing has also allowed articles to be shared quickly and at low/no cost. Readers can comment directly on the site, immediately letting authors know they’re being heard. Online publishing has also allowed us to present stories in multiple formats such as audio and video. This expands creative options for contributors and offers options to readers who prefer to listen or watch rather than read on a screen.
Despite these advantages, I’m not convinced that online publishing is the best format for literary writing or to attract literary readers, which lit mags need to do. Literature is slow—slow to write, slow to read, slow to absorb and appreciate. It does not fit with website terms such as “skimability” and “search engine optimization.” And although the internet makes Understorey more accessible than print in some ways, it likely reduce accessibility for people without reliable internet and/or have challenges reading online.
We have created two print editions, African Nova Scotian Women and Rural and Remote Living. In both cases, we received extra, one-time funding for a limited print run. In both cases, reception was overwhelming. Readers beamed at the print version in their hands and many commented later on how much they appreciated the content. Print allows that special combination of mental focus and sensory awareness that encourages deep, considered, enjoyable reading. This is backed-up by our survey: most respondents chose “create print editions” as the best way to improve the magazine.
Costs for our prints runs were more than double our regular costs, however, even with a tiny distribution network. Our survey respondents suggested a few alternatives, including print on demand, single-story print runs (like One Story), subscription newsletters (like substack), and anthologies or “best of” collections.
6. Literary magazines are essential—but not well supported.
Literary magazines are essential for writers, for literary publishing, for literature in general. I remain convinced of this! Our survey respondents agree. When asked what is most needed to support writers in Canada, 63 percent chose “more venues for short work (e.g., literary magazines).” Just 31 percent chose “more venues for book-length work.”
Publishing in literary magazines is recognised as a critical stepping-stone for new writers—often the place a writer’s voice is first heard—as well as a venue for established writers. They are also recognised, along with small, independent book presses, as a crucible from which new voices and forms of literature arise.
Essential. But not well supported.
Many literary magazines are volunteer-run and do not pay contributors. Of the magazines that pay staff and/or contributors, most are funded through:
• Grants offered by government or foundations. The majority of Understorey’s funding has come from grants, most generously from the Canada Council for the Arts. Grants are fabulous once you get them but they take time to write, they are never guaranteed, and they are almost always short term. We’ve had to apply for funding every year, which means time and energy spent writing grant applications rather than publishing a magazine. Core or operating funding, which allows multi-year planning and innovation, is a rare thing indeed.
• Universities. Many lit mags are published through universities. Again: great if you can work out the arrangement but universities are not particularly stable these days either and some have dropped links with literary magazines.
•Writers. Revenue from readers is minimal (see Point 1) so this leaves revenue from writers themselves. Some lit mags charge a small fee ($2-5) to submit work. Some ask that writers purchase a copy before submitting, which is fine if you submit to only a few magazines (but see Point 3 on rejection rates). Magazines that run contests almost always charge a submission fee ($25 or more) as this is a reliable way to raise funds and increase subscriptions. As one respondent to our survey said, “I’m learning it’s expensive to contribute to literary magazines.”
Limited and precarious funding means limited and precarious staff as well as limited time for providing feedback, editing promising work, and the advertising, marketing, innovation, and grant-writing required to keep the magazine going. Hence Points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!
And around we go.
A More Supportive Ecosystem for Literary Magazines.
I offer some suggestions for the various elements of the literary ecosystem, ways we might better support this one small but vital element: literary magazines.
• Literary magazine publishers and editors. We need to work together to share ideas, challenges, successes. We might co-publish more often. We might put together a lit mag event, association, or just a website. The Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers (CLMP) does a fine job but is US-based and US-focused. There is no equivalent organization in Canada.
• Grant providers and culture/arts/heritage administrators. Public and private grant providers need to recognise the unique role of literary magazines in creating new writers and supporting the publishing industry. We need multi-year funding that also covers operating costs (like maintaining and upgrading a website) and sufficient funds for publishers and editors to do the work outlined in Points 1-6. Funding is also needed for new literary magazines that can, for example, demonstrate a clear plan and deep knowledge of their project, but do not yet have thousands of readers and other sources of funding lined up.
• Contest holders. Likewise, organizations that offer literary awards and contests, especially those offering tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, might consider the vital role of literary magazines. What about a prize for lit mags? A prize for editors of both magazines and books? More prizes like the Journey Prize for single stories and emerging writers? What about announcing even longer longlists for all contests and awards? For contests runs by literary magazines, announcing longer longlists is a simple, low/no cost way to support writers and bring more attention to the magazine.
• Book publishers. Big book publishers might also recognise the role lit mags play in developing new writers—writers that then have the experience to publish with big book publishers. Maybe these publishers could help fund literary magazines? Notably, Amazon’s Literary Partnership funds nonprofit literary organizations in the US, including CLMP, which then funds literary magazines. This program isn’t offered in Canada (and, well, accepting funding from Amazon seems a very tough bargain).
• Booksellers and libraries. Consider stocking more literary magazines. Consider displaying lit mags with the literary books, not with other magazines. Keen literary readers browsing the book section just might select a literary magazine, too.
• Book reviewers and interviewers. Publications that review books and interview authors might consider also reviewing an issue of a literary magazine and interviewing lit mag authors and editors. NewPages, Becky Tuch, and Duotrope have been doing this work for many years. Discussing literary magazines in publications aimed at general literary readers, however, would help shed light on the larger literary landscape.
• Writers’ and literary festivals. Include literary magazines, especially local publications, on book tables. Consider a session featuring lit mag writers and editors. Encourage book authors to discuss if/how they got their start in literary magazines.
• Magazine associations. It’s great that the National Magazine Awards are recognising more literary magazines. In general, magazine associations might consider separate programs, fee structures, awards, and outreach programs literary for magazines, especially those publishing outside large urban centres.
• Writers associations. Most provinces and territories have a writers’ association whose purpose is to support writers. Most of these associations are also stretched financially but it’s possible to support literary magazines in low/no cost ways: listing literary magazines on association websites; offering editing assistance; offering workshops about lit mags; offering a contest or award for literary magazines in their region.
• Educators. Several Understorey stories are regularly used in classrooms. One respondent to our survey, a middle-school teacher, noted that Understorey gave her access to diverse stories and resources that have been otherwise difficult to find. CLMP’s lit mag adoption program, which pairs magazines with schools, is brilliant but in general lit mags seem underused as an education resource.
• Readers and book clubs. #booktok on tiktok has boosted sales of print books simply by providing a venue for readers to talk about new books. We need similar excitement around the stories published in literary magazines. If you love literature, love literary magazines!
Many thanks to Jann Everard, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, and Wanda Taylor for discussions on this topic and comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I welcome comments from editors, publishers, writers, readers, and everyone involved with literary publishing.
Published May 17, 2022
Updated (more points added to the final section) June 4, 2022