On Wednesday, February 29, 2012, eve of the 35th annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writers Programs (AWP), the members of the Council of Literary Magazines & Presses (CLMP) met for a general meeting. About 100 CLMP members were in attendance, representing largely non-profit presses and magazines, generally with very small lists and distribution, all dedicated to publishing work of high artistic quality, often from very new or experimental authors. In his welcome to members, Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of CLMP and Small Press Distribution, referenced the more than 200 publishers in attendance at this year’s conference, saying that what was once “a conference with a little book fair attached,” is quickly becoming more like “a huge book fair with a conference attached.”
Although this recently expanded publisher-presence might be pushing focus beyond the strict label of “writers and writers programs,” Lependorf sees a symbiotic relationship between growing numbers of publishers and the boom in conference registration overall—which maxed out this year at 10,000, more than a month before the event began. “For writers attending—largely representing highly literary and therefore sometimes less commercially viable work—the presence of so many of the publishers most likely to publish them presents the greatest draw to attending.” From this viewpoint, it is AWP’s growing publishing presence that is making it more of a writer hot-spot than ever before.
One way that CLMP expanded the publishing profile of AWP ever since its first official involvement ten years ago is to host a number of panels and workshops on business and operations issues facing literary publishers. Many of this year’s panels were a portrait of how digital publishing has hit on the “micro” level. After jumping to imitate models pioneered by large houses or equally, by self-published authors, many niche operations are already finding it necessary to reinvent the digital publishing revolution in their own image.
In this vein, when CLMP first proposed the 2012 panel topic “Phoning It In: Publishing Through an iPhone App,” the topic seemed cutting-edge, yet promising. But because AWP panel titles get cemented almost a year beforehand, the panel so-named was stuck, by March 2012, with a title that was a historical monument to early 2011’s hopes for the future of publishing. “At the time, it seemed like one of the most promising things we could talk about,” said Jeffery Lependorf, smiling wryly. “But that was one whole year ago.”
The panel’s title wasn’t the only testament to lessons learned mid-stream. Participants Maribeth Batcha, Publisher of One Story magazine (a short-story “singles” publisher that sells by subscription only); Tyler Meier, Managing Editor of The Kenyon Review; Daniel Pritchard, Marketing Director at the Boston Review; and Chad Post, Publisher of Open Letter Books, all discussed changes that have needed to be made after the initial “big change” to integrating digital processes into their workflows over the past few years.
Some of the biggest challenges have lain in the ways that epublishing initiatives have jostled distinctions between small presses and literary magazines. In their size and frequency of distribution, along with production requirements, lit mags have always stood at a remove from the average commercial periodical. But with the frenzied push on every publisher—whether of books or periodicals—to get everything digital, “or else,” many literary magazines took the most available route: converting their print files into individual ePubs which could then be sold individually.
What many magazines soon realized, though, said both Maribeth Batcha and Tyler Meier, was that, even though ePubs are in a very different format from traditional codex books, they are, in fact, very much still books. At the very least, they are books insofar as they require the kind of constantly renewed marketing force for which a small lit mag simply isn’t equipped. It might be easy enough to put the ePubs up for sale on your site every quarter (in the case of Kenyon), but convincing customers to make a new purchase each time you have a new issue available is exhausting and not where a small magazine’s strengths lie.
The market-each-epub-individually model was so impractical for One Story (which publishes every three weeks) that it transitioned to the Kindle Magazine subscription model early on—they were one of the first 25 magazines to do so. Kindle has been a great fit for One Story, it turns out—of its more-than-4,000 Kindle subscribers, very few overlap with its print subscribership–”which, of course, is fantastic,” says Batcha. “We’re reaching a new population.” Kenyon Review is preparing to make the transition to the Kindle subscription model (away from the ebooks-on-its-website model) later this year.
When asked by audience members, “Why not Apple Newsstand?” (given its widespread status as a subscription-specific application), Batcha said that for One Story, the choice was straightforward. “Content and layout-wise, we’re much more like a book than a Cosmo. And who has the largest book-ereading market share? Kindle. When you have so few eggs, sometimes it’s smartest to put them in a single basket.”
Despite these positives, both Meier and Batcha emphasized the difficulties of not having access to subscriber data through the Kindle platform—that data being, as it is, the heart and soul of traditional magazine marketing and reader-engagement strategies. Just as with the “ePub-or-Perish” approach, this model tends more toward that known to book publishers. “Not that Kindle Magazines hasn’t been great for us,” Batcha said in closing. “It’s just crucial to realize that what we’ve acquired here is not a new subscription model. The subscriber data that was so valuable to us in that setup is absent here. What we do have is something more like a new newsstand or bookstore. That can be good—we just need to learn how to navigate it to our best advantage.”