Heavyweight Match: Digital vs. Paper Journals

By Bryce Bullins

There is an increasing shift within literary journal publishers and owners over print vs. electronic media. Some journals, like Superstition Review, staunchly support publishing only electronic editions, as it adheres to their mission as a journal, while others, such as Dirtflask will tarry the line and offer both print and digital, seeking to expand the physical edition with new and fascinating gimmicks or calling cards (Dirtflask sends it’s “print copy” in a literal glass flask of dirt), thus making the physical copy more desirable. In a world where we have access to increasingly cheap and borderline ubiquitous technology, the face of lit mags and journals and their corresponding publishers is changing.

There are understandable arguments on either side. On the electronic front we have a decent reduction of costs. The compiling of a PDF document may very well be only the cost of a designing program such as Adobe’s InDesign®, if there is someone in-house who is able to use it, or the labor cost of commissioning a third-party. There are some hurdles to overcome, such as a digital store, but with the slew of options available to the end-user now, most of said hurdles can be overcome in a matter of days. More pertinently, a digital edition will exist forever in some form, somewhere. Even now we are seeing an ever increasing influx of what were considered out-of-print works being revitalized into digital editions (Project Gutenberg, Archive.org for example) thus making archiving easier for journals who already have a sizable back catalog.

Tablets and e-readers are a becoming an increasingly popular way to consume all forms of media. Photo courtesy of Melenita2012 via Flickr for use under CC License

Tablets and e-readers are a becoming an increasingly popular way to consume all forms of media. Photo courtesy of Melenita2012 via Flickr for use under CC License

       On the print front, many simply prefer the feel of a book in their hand, something palpable rather than a glowing screen staring back at you. The very text has texture, as it were. The costs are higher but there is another, and admittedly more profitable, angle. Most serials departments at universities and colleges across the country, moreover the world, utilize print editions to stock their shelves. These subscriptions cost and thus the publisher can recoup some of its printing costs. Some libraries will fluff their shelves with check-out digital editions but by and large most periodicals found in libraries are in print form. The print cost is higher but there are several highly competitive printers out there that will print 100+ books for roughly $4.95 a book. A “book” in this case being defined as roughly 48 to 800+ pages, at least by Dog Ear Publishing standards.

There is a trend for smaller journals to tend toward electronic publications for various reasons: financial, environmental, experimental, etc. I interviewed Trish Coleen Murphy, founding editor of Superstition Review, Arizona State University’s online-only literary journal to ask her about why they elected that route:

BB:  Superstition Review seems to have taken a firm root in electronic only publishing. What was the biggest draw for producing a digital only literary journal?

TCM: I started the magazine in 2008 as a teaching tool for our undergraduate students. We are a polytechnic campus, so our focus is on the intersection of humanities and technology. My students gain knowledge about the literary and arts community. They also learn how to use Drupal, WordPress, Photoshop, InDesign, Vertical Response, and other tools that will become even more important to them when they enter the job market. I designed the magazine the way that I did because I have an MFA in poetry, but I also have extensive tech and web design skills from years of online teaching. I also have a strong commitment to sustainability and have been teaching paperless classes since 1998.

BB:  Superstition has a social media presence on basically every social media network in existence. Do you feel it is necessary for a journal to be present on so many sites? Also, do you find that in doing so your reader base has increased by a large amount?

TCM: I don’t think it’s necessary for a journal to be present on so many networks—lit mags have diverse missions.

We are active on 9 networks: Facebook, Google+, Goodreads, iTunes U, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube (we also maintain a blog). For my magazine, using social networks is a way to train students to learn more about the contemporary literary and arts community while also giving them valuable skills in technology.

Part of why we’re on so many networks is because there ARE thriving literary and arts communities on each one. My students learn by reading Tweets and status updates by other lit mags and by authors and artists who are working right now all over the world. I feel very strongly that my students need to learn about contemporary trends in writing and publishing. Social Networks offer a real-time reflection of those trends, written by the people who are leaders in the field.

Also, one of my main goals is to mentor my students. I’ve had several students attain competitive positions at social marketing firms after graduation. One student who ran our Twitter feed for a semester got an amazing job running social networks for celebrities. Many of the networks we maintain were student driven: Our Tumblr, Pinterest, and iTunes U channel were started by students who came to me and said, “I think I can use this tool to enhance the content we’re offering our audience.” And I said, “go ahead and try it.” And I feel strongly that each of those networks has greatly enhanced what we offer.

Our networks allow us to offer a lot of supplemental content, which is important since we only publish issues twice a year. And it has increased our readership exponentially. It has also given us wonderful opportunities: we organized a reading by Franz Wright after he contacted us on Facebook, and we conducted an interview with David Shields after he tweeted us to ask if we would do so.

BB: As the digital trend continues to flourish do you see other journals going to a digital only subscription if enough smaller presses and independent journals do so as well?

TCM: Some lit mags are print and will stay that way. Some lit mags are online and will stay that way. Some print mags will go online because it’s cheaper and saves trees and is an easy and current model.

After hearing Trish’s ideas on digital media, the future looks to be grounded there. While there may always still be print-only journals, I don’t foresee this current digital revolution stalling or falling by the wayside any time soon. In fact I only see it flourishing even more as time moves forwards. Physical journals, much like Dirtflask mentioned earlier, will need to find innovative ways to keep customers consuming a physical product. At the end of the day, innovation on both fronts really isn’t a bad way to go. No winners, no losers, just a flux of words and the ways they are revealed to us, the readers.