Publication in a literary journal is often the first step in an emerging writer’s career. Room magazine will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first print journal to publish my work. 

So when I learned that Room is struggling to stay afloat it got me thinking about the vital place lit mags hold in the bigger literary ecosystem – and what is lost when the journals we love are unable to survive.

Why do literary magazines struggle for survival?

Following the sudden demise of Bookworld, Nadja Spiegelman noted a major problem for lit mags is the lack of a business model. 

“Companies and readers alike underestimate the resources it takes to sustain literary magazines,” she said. “People see this as a public good, “a service.”

Working and teaching artists are very aware of how this perspective makes it difficult to earn a living. No one wants to think about creative work in relation to commerce. This tension makes it difficult to offset the real costs involved in operating a creative venture like a literary journal.

As lit mags shutter and well-loved conferences – like Hippocamp – disappear we lose the diversity and richness of a culture that represents a range of new and emerging voices.

The impact is fewer places to publish and fewer opportunities to learn which makes the individual journeys of writers harder.

Why are lit mags struggling?

Subscription fees alone aren’t enough to cover the costs of publishing a journal. Lit mags rely on grants, subsidies, funding and donations. When costs go up or donations go down, survival becomes extremely precarious.

In recent years a number of literary journals have shuttered like Catapult, Tin House, Astra, Compose, and BOATT. Since the COVID pandemic, rising costs as well as cuts from universities, donors and other funding sources have made sustainability a challenge. Literary journals are often among the first cuts when the universities that fund them are struggling financially.

In Room’s case, a dramatic increase in costs over the past year have made the journal’s future uncertain. A 40% increase in printing costs and higher shipping costs have added to the financial burden as well as a commitment to compensate staff equitably and pay editors and contributors.

A lot of folks think the internet has made publishing free – but it isn’t true. Online journals may not have the same overhead costs as print journals but finances are still an issue; staff and volunteers are required to run them and administrative tasks like marketing, managing an email list, updating a website, and overseeing the submission and publication process all cost time and money.

How can you support a diverse and thriving culture for writers?

Many writers struggle to make ends meet themselves for the major reason journals flounder: people don’t want to treat art as commerce.

Just the other day I saw a writer comment on a magazine website that “contests should be free to enter”. I disagree. Contests are a time-consuming administrative endeavour. Entry fees help sustain the magazine funding the award.

I’ve come to consider submission and entry fees as one small way we can help cover admin costs for journals and support a thriving literary community.

Want to offer your support to keep lit mags going?

1. Volunteer as a reader
2. Write to donors and funding agencies to let them know why their support for a journal matters to you
3. Share calls for donations, contest entries or subscriptions on social media
4. Make a financial donation
5. Sign up for a subscription, enter contests, and let your friends know how they can do that, too!

If you want to support Room magazine’s good work click here to donate to the Keep Room Magazine Going IndieGogo Fundraiser.