By Matthew Lamb
I edit two literary magazines in Australia.
The first is the Review of Australian Fiction, which is nearly two-years old, and
is entirely digital; we publish two short stories every two weeks, delivered on an
The second is Island, which is nearly 35 years old (although I’ve only been
editor since the beginning of 2013), and it is one of the heritage literary
magazines in Australia, published quarterly; traditionally print-based, but over
the last few years trying to adapt to the digital publishing space.
Working closely with these lit mags has given me a perspective to better
consider the other; what is unique to both, what is in common to each.
In the first volume of his 1930 novel, The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
offers a wonderful discussion on the image of the doorway, which, he argues
provides us with a sense of possibility. But, he provides this qualification: ‘If
one wants to pass through open doors easily, one must bear in mind that they
have a solid frame: this principle is simply a requirement of the sense of
It is these co-dependent aspects—reality and possibility, practicality and
idealism, what Aristotle called actuality and potentiality—that accompany
every idea, every decision, that we at Island and at the Review of Australian
Fiction make. Every possibility requires a solid frame in order for it to be
realised. Or else it simply remains a ghostly possibility.
The internet, in general, and digital publishing, in particular, are usually
portrayed as offering a multitude of possibilities. And it does. But unless those
possibilities are given, in each instance, a solid frame, then they will only
remain as possibilities, and they will not achieve a sense of reality. And we will
be like Tantalus of Greek myth, forever reaching for the fruit that for eternity
eludes our grasp.
For lit mags in Australia, this necessary sense of reality—the logistical and
practical side of our operations—is very acute. Limited resources, limited
staffing, and limited funding seriously curtails our ability to fulfil the promise of
online publishing. I’m not saying that we are not able to do anything—that is
patently incorrect, many lit mags are doing very interesting things—but I am
saying that, just as the sense of possibility requires a solid frame, so too, any
discussion, requires a starting point that is much more grounded than most
discussions of the internet usually tend to be.
Keeping this in mind, I want to look at how the Review of Australian Fiction
and Island are working in an online space.
The Review of Australian Fiction was launched on the Booki.sh platform in
early 2012. We sold through our own website, as well as through various
independent bookshops in Australia who used Booki.sh to sell ebooks. The
bookshop side of things didn’t work very well, mainly because the bookshops
didn’t fully grasp what Booki.sh was trying to do. International ebook
distributor OverDrive did, however, grasp what Booki.sh was trying to do, and
so they bought it; and they are currently in the process of transposing its
platform to manage their international distribution of ebooks, to independent
bookshops and to libraries world-wide. The Review of Australian Fiction also
migrated to the international stage as part of OverDrive, and it is now being sold
to libraries around the world, as well as through various international
bookshops, such as Waterstone’s in the United Kingdom.
Domestically, the Review of Australian Fiction shifted to another Australian
start-up called Tomely, as the platform behind our website; we also sell directly
through Tomely’s online ebookstore, while continuing to sell through our own
website. We are also in the process of brokering a distribution deal that will see
us sold through Kobo, Amazon, iTunes, and so on.
On the surface, this all sounds very exciting, and it is. But in reality the business
is also losing money, and there is a question as to whether it will survive
another twelve months. Why? Two reasons. The first is that these very large
international distributors, like OverDrive, Amazon, Google, and so on, each
take a very hefty cut of any of our sales—between 30-50%—while at the same
time there is pressure to keep the cover price of ebooks low. Even at $2.99AUS
for each issue, we’ve had some sources tell us that we need to cut the price!
Now the business model for each of these companies is that they make a little
bit of money from very few sales, but from a very large number of content
providers. And it is at that scale that they make their money. For each of those
small content providers—be they publishers or authors self-publishing—the
little bits of money remaining from the very few sales is often unsustainable.
But for these large companies, there are always new small publishers, new
authors self-publishing, to fill these gaps of attrition.
And this is the second reason that the Review of Australian Fiction may not
survive another twelve months, and that is the low number of individual sales.
However, by distributing as widely as we are in the process of doing, there is a
possibility that we can try to play our own numbers game. OverDrive, for
instance, distributes to over 22,000 libraries worldwide. The question is going to
be whether or not we can stay afloat long enough to get into enough of those
libraries that we don’t financially sink in the process.
Island magazine is another beast altogether. Three years ago, it had (I believe)
its first website. Two years ago, this website launched its first blog, and social media—Twitter and Facebook, in particular—was deployed for the first time.
And we continue to do so today on a revamped website. It also started
producing an epub version of the print mag.
There are two developments here worth examining, the first to do with the
digital magazine, the second with the print magazine.
There was some pressure put on Island by various funding bodies to embrace
the digital and to move online, if not completely, then at least as our primary
format. As digital publishing is said to be the future—it is certainly a perennial
topic at writers’ festivals—then that is where the funding should go. And
besides, the cost of printing is too high.
However, early in 2013, only a few weeks before my first print issue of Island
was going to be published, the group that previously converted our magazine
into an epub told us they were no longer going to do so. It was too late to get
some other group to do so at such short notice, and so our digital subscribers
received, instead of an epub, a pdf version of the magazine. Before the next
issue came out, we had sourced a few alternative groups to make epubs for us.
But the price was now too high. The cost for conversion was actually
significantly more than we would have received from the sale of the epubs. So
we’d lose money. The question we’re now considering is whether or not we
actually provide a digital version of the magazine at all? or should we ditch it
altogether and simply focus on producing a high quality print magazine?
This latter question is not as absurd as it may first sound, and it touches on the
second development that occurred at Island, with the reformatting of the print
magazine. Previously, it had been an A5, largely text-based, journal. When I
started at Island, I did so on the condition that I was allowed to change the
format to an A4, largely design-based, magazine (but without losing any of its
content). This involved doubling the printing costs. And hiring an Art Director to oversee the production of the magazine. Why did I do this? Why did we take
this risk? And why was I allowed to take this risk?
It is because of Marshall McLuhan. Those of you who haven’t read everything
that McLuhan wrote, do so. Those of you who have already done so, but don’t
think he has much of relevance to say to us today (especially as he died in 1980,
long before the digital revolution), then I suggest you go back and read it all
again, as you clearly didn’t understand it the first time around.
Marshall McLuhan explored the impact of communications media upon culture.
Toward the end of his life his synthesised his ideas into four laws of media.
Although, these are not so much laws, as they are presented as a series of
questions, a form of heuristics to enable us gain our bearings in any media
environment. He asks of any new media:
What does the medium enhance?
What does the medium make obsolete?
What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
Most of the discussions of the internet, in general, and of digital publishing, in
particular, really focus only on these first two questions. And narrowly so. I
spoke earlier about the possibilities of the internet that we are offered. Greater
connectivity, greater reach, enhanced social presence, and so on. This
characterises the Utopian discussions that occur around the internet.
Then there is the Dystopian discussions that occur, usually around the theme of
the death of the book, the demise of print; that which the new digital media
But I am more interested in the second two questions. But I’ll only focus on the
third one here: What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced
We are actually living through a unique period where the speed of technological
development is so great—so enhanced—that previous media which has, or has
been threatened, to be rendered obsolete, is already being retrieved from that
obsolescence. It is actually the discussions of the death of print that are now in
the process of being rendered obsolete. Print itself is slowly being retrieved, but
in new ways, by the presence of digital and online media.
The online world provides a new frame, a new perspective, through which to
approach print, with books and magazines being framed as artefacts, as
boutique craft objects. And it is that niche that Island is attempting to explore,
as a print magazine, but, paradoxically, it is able to do this precisely because of
the internet. And so this is how Island is moving online: by not moving online.
There is a website, and there is a blog, but these are used to provide this frame
through which people are invited to engage with the print magazine, first and
This risk is actually starting to pay off, with sales and subscriptions of the
magazine increasing. Coincidentally, the Review of Australian Fiction has also
been approached by someone who wants to produce a print version of one of the
volumes, probably as a limited edition, boutique artefact.
This leads to another question that I am constantly asked: How are we planning
to engage writers in the online space? But this is the wrong question to ask. The
question should not be how are lit mags going to engage with writers, but rather
how are we going to engage with readers. Because what the developments of
new media over the past few decades have made obsolete, I think, more than
anything, is the role of the reader.
In a 1972 paper, soon after the Xerox machine—the first photocopier—became
commercially available, Marshall McLuhan examined this new technology. He
argued that the Gutenberg technology—the invention of the printing press in the
15th century—initiated a slow process whereby, across the next few centuries, it
turned everybody into a reader. The Xerox machine, he then argued, was going
to be the start of a process whereby everybody becomes a publisher. (This
process was escalated by the invention of the home computer, the portable
printer, and then later by the internet, and by digital publishing, none of which
McLuhan lived to witness.) However, in the following passage, we can very
easily replace the word “Xerox” with “Google” or “Amazon”, for example, and
it is still a relevant description of our current situation (perhaps even more so
than it was in 1972).
Your idea that anybody who writes should be able to be published may,
in fact, come true. Xerography is a process that can make this possible,
but whether it will make people feel better I cannot surmise, unless they
happen to be Xerox shareholders [or Google shareholders, or Amazon
shareholders]. Certainly if publishing becomes universal, and if it is
regarded as a kind of civil right, or a kind of public requital, then our
concept of literary property must change. Everything will be published
and it will belong to everybody—power to the people. There is nothing
illogical in your idea. If everyone finds a publisher, he will then find a
reader, maybe just one reader—the publisher himself. Of course, writers
want lots of readers, but this desire will be less and less fulfilled as there
are more and more writers. Quantity declines as specialisation declines.
Eventually, every man will become at once [his own] writer, publisher,
librarian, and critic—the literary profession will disappear as [each]
single man undertakes all the literary roles.
I think this is a very apt description of where we currently stand. My only added
point is that, as with any cultural situation, it does not necessarily have to be. And it is against this tendency that lit mags in Australia—at the very least, it is
the impetus behind my involvement with the two lit mags I edit—that we are
stubbornly positioned against this very tendency.