About Independent Literary Publishing
What is an independent literary magazine?
Literary magazines publish fiction, poetry, book reviews, criticism,
and essays. Some focus on solely on one genre, others provide a mix,
yet others emphasize poetry or fiction but also include reviews, criticism
and essays. The majority of literary magazines publish quarterly, though
frequency ranges from monthly to biannually. Their format can be perfect
bound or tabloid, with anywhere from 14 to 400 pages.
One of the oldest is The Sewanee Review, founded in 1892 and
still publishing in 1996. Notable literary magazines which are still
active have been founded in every decade of this century. Some examples
| Prairie Schooner
| The Kenyon Review
| The Chicago Review
| The Paris Review
| The Threepenny Review
Something of a renaissance occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, stimulated
primarily by the counter-culture revolution and secondarily by low postage
rates and inexpensive methods of reproduction (often mimeograph). The
late 1980s and 1990s have seen a similar burst of publication brought
on by the ease and accessibility of desktop publishing.
Where are these magazines to be found?
Literary magazines are published in all fifty states and the District
of Columbia. Many are concentrated in states with large populations
(California, New York, Illinois), and certain regions of the country
host a large percentage of the more than 500 magazines currently publishing.
The West Coast, Midwest, South and New England are four of the regions
where large numbers of magazines are concentrated.
Many magazines are supported by a university sponsor. Most university-based
magazines were founded in the 1930s and 1940s when various "schools"
of writing and literary criticism were formed and outlets were needed
for their expression. Magazines brought prestige and a national image
to the universities which provided them with a home, staff and a generous
operating subsidy. In more recent decades, the majority of magazines
have been founded outside the academy and thus are known as "independents."
Why do they do what they do?
Literary magazines have always been first and foremost about writers.
They provide many writers with access to publication, often for the
first time. Magazines have been and still are sponsors of innovation,
purveyors of experimentation and occasionally protesters against tradition
In the early decades of this century, a new generation of writers rejected
by publishing houses, found sympathetic editors at literary magazines.
Those writers included Robert Frost, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, Ernest
Hemingway and William Faulkner. Ezra Pound was in the habit of forwarding
manuscripts to Poetry and the Little Review, the latter of which first
published Joyce's Ulysses in the United States.
Literary magazines had a unique role as iconoclasts in the publishing
world until the 1960s when many social taboos were broken. At that time,
commercial magazines began printing works of fiction and poetry which
previously had only been found in literary periodicals.
Driven by mission, the magazines devote their pages to an infinite range
of writers, be they new discoveries, marginalized voices, representative
of a particular genre, style or school, or works in translation. Stories,
poems and essays are selected for publication to support the magazine's
A sampling of mission statements from leading literary magazines include:
To discover and nurture new writers, to give attention to the
noncommercial work of established writers, and to serve as a bridge
between American literary culture and writing from abroad.
To nurture and publish women's finest writing and art and to
promote that work to a wide audience. To maintain a commitment to publishing
literature and art of social, literary and feminist integrity.
To provide a forum for writers whose work challenges accepted
forms and modes of expression, which experiments with language and thought.
To encourage the study, composition and appreciation of contemporary
literature, especially poetry; to expand the audience interested in
poetry and literature; to provide authors, especially poets, with a
wide-circulation magazine in which to present their work.
One of the cultural contributions of literary magazines is their tradition
of providing the first publishing opportunity for new writers. E.L.
Doctorow, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wright and Phillip Roth are just
a few of the now well-known writers who were first published in literary
magazines. In addition to discovering new writers, literary magazines
have also provided outlets for minorities and marginalized voices, experimental
writing and mid-career writers with several books to their credit.
Among these writers are:
William S. Burroughs
Karen Tei Yamashita
Writing is an art which takes many years to perfect. As they develop
professionally, writers feel the desire, occasionally, to emerge from
the isolation of their study and hand their poem or story over to an
editor and an audience of readers. This exposure provides the critical
feedback that every artist needs. It is through literary magazines that
writers can receive that public exposure whenever they are ready. Unlike
the publication of a book, which requires a collection of poems, stories
or a completed novel, literary magazines exist to publish a one or three
poems by a single writer, one short story or a single essay. These magazines
are a vital link between writers and their readers, be they new writers
publishing for the first time or established authors producing work
Fiction and poetry editors at commercial publishing houses rely on literary
magazines to bring writers to their attention who they might not otherwise
"discover." Similarly, readers of fiction, poetry, essays
and criticism rely on these same magazines to deliver a rich and varied
array of the best contemporary writing currently being produced in the
U.S. and throughout the world. No other outlet exists which makes available
so much literary work with such frequency and at a fairly modest cost.
What is an independent literary press?
Independent or "small" literary presses focus their publishing
programs on works of fiction, poetry, belles lettres and drama. They
are distinguished from commercial publishers in that they are independently
owned or are nonprofit organizations.
The leading nonprofit literary presses were established in the 1970s
and early 1980s by editors with a vision to publish literary works not
being published by commercial houses. The majority (90 percent) of these
presses are still run by their founders.
Where are these presses to be found?
Unlike commercial publishing which is concentrated in New York City,
literary presses are located in communities throughout the United States.
They are found in large urban centers such as Minneapolis/St. Paul,
Houston, and San Francisco, smaller cities such as Port Townsend, Honolulu,
and Albuquerque, and rural areas such as Brownsville, Oregon and Willimantic,
Why do they do what they do?
Independent literary presses are mission-driven not market-driven.
The motive to publish is to enrich the literary culture by bringing
works by important and often neglected writers to the widest possible
audience. Manuscripts are selected and books are published as part of
a press's fulfillment of its mission.
A sampling of mission statements from leading literary presses include:
To publish poetry of the highest literary and artistic merit;
to introduce works by new poets; to present the most important poetry
of foreign cultures; to encourage education in poetry and other literary
forms; to stimulate public interest in and appreciation of literature;
and to make the oral presentation of poetry available to the public.
To publish literature that reflects a commitment to social change
with an emphasis on writing from Latin America and Latino communities
in the United States.
To restore the lost history and culture of women in the United
States and throughout the world.
To create an appreciation for modern and contemporary literature
of enduring cultural and artistic importance, works that challenge accepted
views of life and art, foster an international and multicultural sensibility
of literature and preserve and extend the literary tradition that values
innovation and experimentation in form.
Because they are publishing writers whose work has intrinsic literary
value, and contributes to the country's literary culture, these presses
keep most if not all of the books they publish in print. Keeping this
writing available is also part of their collective mission to make the
work available to the widest audience.
Noncommercial literary publishing begins and ends with an editorial
vision. That vision is reflected in the writers and writing which make
up each season's list. Small presses are often pioneers, discovering
talented new writers and bringing their work to the attention of reviewers
and readers. They have also been the source for much experimental writing,
works deemed too risky by other publishers. Minorities and marginalized
voices, ignored by mainstream publishing, have long been mainstays of
Among these authors are:
Leslie Marmon Silko
It is not uncommon in the publishing world for writers to be dropped
by their publisher when sales diminish or popularity wanes. Another
threat writers face is when publishers let their books go out of print,
making it difficult if not impossible for future generations of readers
to discover and enjoy these literary works. Many small presses have
turned this situation into an opportunity by picking up prestigious
writers in mid-career as well as bringing back into print (and keeping
in print) important books which might otherwise be lost.
Among these writers are:
Zora Neal Hurston
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Works of foreign writers, translated into English for publication, has
over the years increasingly become the domain of the small presses.
Because they are editorially driven, these publishers view as an opportunity
the chance to publish important foreign writers and broaden their reach
to the English-speaking audience. Prominent foreign writers, recognized
and honored in their own countries whose work received its first translation
and English language publication from these presses include:
Victor Montejo (Guatemala)
Annie Ernaux (France)
Shulamit Hareven (Israel)
Giaconda Belli (Nicaragua)
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