A strange and often frightening place, this weird, wonderful thing known as the Internet-or so it’s seemed for years. Now, with the advent of all-too-common home connectivity and the common man’s lust for information, the Internet is becoming the equivalent of an office bulletin board swamped with bits of paper and advertisements. Everyone’s got something up there; everyone’s looking for something else. Businesses pack your mailbox with unwanted advertising; con artists invite you to get swindled; friends and family-and strangers, for that matter-have turned it into a second-hand shop of bad jokes and faked photographs. The Internet is at once electrifying and frustrating.
For today’s writer, there is more to the Web than one might notice at first glance. The traditional ink-and-paper author is beginning to realize that there’s more than anonymous websites; in fact, the Internet is becoming a massive publishing industry, one whose influence is booming and whose potential is barely scraped by the literary community and the public alike.
Major literary magazines and university journals have made their place on-line, establishing, at the very least, a minor presence. A handful have created successful web counterparts of their print editions. A strong example might be Zoetrope: All-Story, which gave birth to Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, a fully web-based magazine that features two authors a month. Other profitable magazines, like Glimmer Train, have simply posted relevant submission info and the like on their sites.
The true opportunity, however, exists in smaller corners of the Web, hidden behind lengthy URLs and sometimes novice design. In these corners, for writers as well as aspiring editors and publishers, you will discover the world of the webzine.
I spoke with a handful of editors from the most respected and popular literary webzines on-line. Narrowing down the list of editors I started with became difficult; as you might already know, a webzine is often nothing more than a soapbox for someone who has something to say-something that isn’t heard or listened to in another venue or forum. But those that do it well, those that succeed, do it in the best way.
My list shrank from fifty potential editors to three, and we talked about the webzine and the literary community, and what it’s like to be involved in something with the potential to really change things. Their answers differ immensely, and discerning their passion is not a hard thing to do. Here is what the three editors – C.E. Chaffin of The Melic Review, James Horner of Progress, and Tom Dooley of Eclectica – had to say.
Jason Gurley: Because so many webzines are less-than-noble in their intention and content, it’s important for a successful and respected webzine to have a discernible theme. What would you say is yours?
C. E. Chaffin: Quality for quality’s sake.
Tom Dooley: When Chris (Lott, founder and contributing editor) and I started this magazine, our intention was to bring the concept of a quality literary print magazine to the Web and meld it with the advantages afforded by the electronic medium. We also wanted to avoid being trapped in any particular genre or style of writing (science fiction, say, or poetry more than fiction, etc.). As the title of the magazine suggests, we had/have eclectic tastes and wanted those tastes to be represented by the kinds of works one would be likely to find in the average issue. We wanted to combine an “anything goes” attitude with the highest possible standards, and we promised ourselves that if we only hand one good submission that we both liked, then we would only publish one submission in that issue. So far, we’ve been blessed with an amazing variety of top-quality work.
James Horner: Trying to push the literary limits a little-both my own and other people’s. I’m not sure if it’s that the word isn’t out enough about Progress, but I’ve been surprised how little really progressive writing I’ve run across. There is some interesting material being done in Shockwave format, which is quite exciting, I think, for the new ways it allows for text to become more visually stimulating. This sort of thing allows for writing to be presented more like a movie with accompanying images and such.
Nonetheless, there has been some really excellent writing in Progress. It is always great to read something that knocks you back a bit, and I think there is some of that in Progress.
The main theme, though, is probably about experimental writing and works in progress. These both fascinate me terribly. Experimental writing challenges language. Sometimes it’s little more than a game, while other times it really shakes the way you look at text. Works in progress are intriguing because you really get to see the mind of the author at work. It is a unique perspective. Also, I really love the notion of the serial novel, like how Dickens published his work. It is fun to print a work in pieces over time.
J.G.: The on-line publishing industry is a new one, and most publications are rather young. How long has yours been in operation?
Chaffin: Almost two years.
Dooley: I believe our first issue was up and running on October 6, 1996, so about three and a half years since we started putting things together.
Horner: I’m not sure anymore. Since we have no issues, so to speak, it is updated whenever there is new material to warrant it. Less than a year, I think. More than six months? Since last week? I have a poor conception of time.
J.G.: What is the average readership, subscription, or site traffic of your publication?
Chaffin: On average, I suppose we get around 300 visitors a day, who click their mouse about ten times.
Dooley: At last check, we had about 10 thousand distinct users per month, which is pretty good considering we don’t advertise and for some reason can never get representation in Yahoo or some of the other big “search” sites.
Horner: No idea. I intentionally didn’t put a counter on it because I don’t want to focus on that. Considering the amount of submissions Progress has received, I’d say we have quite a few visitors. In terms of who is reading Progress, I think it has a very broad readership. Then again, maybe people who submit don’t always read the submission guidelines, which would account for the huge array of material. There’s been some really sappy, cliched stuff I’ve had to reject. It’s hard to tell someone that.
J.G.: Most webzines are non-profit publications, and budgets are tight or non-existent. How large is your staff, and how has it grown or changed since the publication’s inception?
Chaffin: Blake Kritzberg, outgoing webmaster, helped produce more issues (4) than the previous two combined. She also transformed the magazine into a stylish, user-friendly site. Kathleen Carbone, proofreader extraordinaire, helps us achieve a level of accuracy equal to the print medium, a quality sorely lacking in most web publications. We also feature guest editors: Sharon Kourous edited the “Fathers” issue (Melic VI) and Kathleen Carbone has agreed to edit the “Faith” issue (Melic VIII, March 2000). Sometimes volunteers sign on for an issue, most recently Denver Perkins as Fiction Editor for Melic VII (“Melic in Heat”). (Note: Melic also is helped along by Val Cihylik, Fiction Editor, and Roundtable Poetry Board monitors Teresa White, Ken Ashworth, Jim Zola, and Shann Palmer.)
Dooley: Er, assuming that’s not a personal question, and you mean who all’s running the show, it’s mostly me. Wisconsin-Parkside’s beautiful and talented Julie King helps out with the poetry selection, and up in Alaska my former co-editor Chris Lott bails me out on the technical end of things. We have regular contributors/columnists/reviewers, including Don Mager, Paul Sampson (Dallas, TX), Stanley Jenkins (Queens, NY), and Ann Skea (Australia). When, if, we expand to include a print edition, we’ll have a number of people helping with distribution, public relations, etc., and we’ll probably try to pick up a couple more readers/editors. The Eclectica “family” has grown to include people in most states and most of the major cities of the world, and certainly someone on every continent.
Horner: Progress started off with myself and Chris, but he’s so busy now it’s mostly me. Very biased, I’m sure. I try to be as objective as possible. I did a degree in English and worked in a bookstore for about a year, so I think I’ve been exposed to a good variety of writing. I like most styles. To actually answer your question, our staff of two has actually shrunk! Soon, I too will disappear and it will run itself. Only then will it be truly great.
J.G.: Each of you were selected for this interview because your publications are both professional as well as respected. Explain why you believe your publication is at the forefront of the on-line publishing industry.
Chaffin: Err.. that’s not for me to say. I can say: We strive to encourage excellence even-handedly. Unlike most literary e-zines, we don’t publish poetry or fiction by staff unless previously published elsewhere, and even then it must go through the same submission process. We have rejected names and published unknowns. I try not to read the author’s name when scanning submissions, for instance, though sometimes the e-addy makes it unavoidable. It’s already a cliché (among web-editors), but we are fishing from the same shallow pool, and a good catch requires much patience. And hope.
Dooley: I think I’m really pretty modest about Eclectica, so I don’t know if I’d lay such a lofty claim, but we were one of the first ezines to really establish editorial standards and stick to them. And in terms of longevity, three and a half years is a long time in the current on-line world. I think our philosophy of eclectivism is well suited to the web environment, and we’re firmly on the side of integrity and quality over commercial success, which is a refreshing change from the way many people see the internet as little more than a new advertising format.
The other thing is this. On one hand, Eclectica is just a pretty good-sized “web-page” maintained by one guy in his spare time when he’s not teaching high school kids or coaching his wrestling team. But on the other hand, it really is one of maybe five or ten established, well-known and (so far as I know) highly respected literary ezines on the web – out of probably ten to fifty thousand sites that bill themselves as “ezines.” It’s one of the miracles of the web that something like this can happen, I think, without corporate backing and a six to eight figure operating budget.
Horner: I think there are about a zillion on-line publishing ventures, but most of them are only interested in printing their friends or very second-rate work. There are, however, also some totally first-rate ezines out there, just not as many. If Progress is any good, it’s cos we are interested in printing more “out-there” material along with more traditional writing. The combination ensures there is wide audience. That wasn’t intentional, though. We intended to focus only on experimental writing and works in progress. The mandate has shifted slightly, but I like where it’s gone.
J.G.: Even while the on-line publishing industry is exploding, gathering popularity and interest daily, there are many traditionalists that hold tight to print media as the only ‘true’ publication. What do you believe is the source of this hesitation?
Chaffin: Laziness. I mean, why should Merwin bother to submit on the net? Or Levine? Or Ashbery? Or Rich? Or Dove? Or.. Give us ten years and the big names will appear regularly, I think, because of the advantages of a global audience.
Dooley: There are some things that just can’t be replaced. You’re talking about apples and oranges. On-line publishing is great for what it can give you, which is tremendous freedom of information, instant access and search capabilities, global interaction at the touch of a button, hyper-text, sound, images, and other bells and whistles… but it’s still not a tangible thing you can hold in your hand or leave in a trunk in your attic.
An ezine will never be lying around on anyone’s coffee table or taking up space in a doctor’s waiting room. Also, there is a sense at least in my mind that stuff on the web ought to be free to all. But if something is free, that means no compensation for the creators, which just ain’t right. I’d like to find a balance between the two for Eclectica, so we can enjoy the best of both worlds and our contributors can reap some financial rewards for all their good work.
Horner: The main complaint I’ve heard is that the Internet is “where people who can’t get published in ‘real’ (paper-based) publications print their own stuff.” That might be true, to a certain extent, but I think things have changed a lot in the past year or two.
The other complaint, the classic one, is that the Internet doesn’t pay much. A lot of writers are interested in that bottom line. I know I will probably never see a cent out of on-line publishing, but that’s not what it’s about. The Internet is a place where people can reach a far wider audience than some snooty paper-print lit journal can. As well, it allows you to come into contact with great writers from places like Australia and Israel. And then there’s the writer’s groups and such-I haven’t tried any of these but they are a great opportunity for people who want to get involved. Things like this WTO protest in Seattle show us exactly how connected the Internet can make people. That is amazing. Hopefully it can keep doing the same for writers.
J.G.: Finally, as the on-line publishing industry gathers momentum, what trends do you see emerging over the course of the next year?
Chaffin: Same old, same old. The web is cheaper and easier than any print medium in history, resulting in a “Cyber-Fleet Street” more pervasive than Pope (in his “Dunciad“) or Dryden (in “MacFlecknoe“) could have imagined. There are so many vanity sites out there (by those who have no idea of what poetry is but think they can write it) that I’m waiting for a Cracker Jack prize featuring free cybershrine construction.
The larger picture is just like print: Advertising and circulation rule. The trouble is, on the Net, you must achieve a certain level of circulation before you can even consider selling advertising, unlike print, where you can charge for car flyers.
Dooley: I really have no idea. Maybe everyone else is thinking what I’m thinking. I don’t talk to everyone else too much. If I had to go out on a limb, I’d say that there will be more conglomerations of small ezines – webrings and stuff like that – and that somewhere, someone is working overtime trying to figure out how to get money out of people who surf the web for things other than pornography. As soon as they figure that one out, the internet as we know it will be blown to smithereens by capitalist forces too awful to resist.
Horner: More people trying to make a buck out of it. There will be more ‘professional’ ventures which are intentionally setting out to sell ads, etc. I hope this increasingly corporate Internet doesn’t discourage all the good writers out there! Actually the increased capital involved will probably mark a swarm of professional (i.e. making a living from writing) writers coming on-line to print their work. It may also help budding freelancers get their foot in the door. However, I think the print media will remain somewhat arrogant to on-line writers.
I also think that with faster Internet connections being commonplace, and streaming audio and video being very accessible, we will see an increase of spoken-word poetry, book readings, video interviews with author, and the like, on-line. Since we are just starting to see the possibilities, this is a very exciting time to be involved in on-line publishing.
The Melic Review is at http://www.melicreview.com
Progress is at http://www.track0.com/progress
Eclectica is at http://www.eclectica.org
Copyright © Jason Gurley 2000
This article may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of The Literary Web is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.
Jason Gurley lives and writes in Nevada. His fiction has appeared in
over 30 literary journals, both in print and online, among them The
Paumanok Review, Palimpsest Magazine, and The Bay Review. He edits and publishes the literary quarterly Deeply Shallow and is writing novel no. 3. He can be emailed at [email protected] and also has his own homepage