Selling the Intangible - Literary e-zines and their profitability

Originally published in the PN Review, January-February 2002

Perhaps the most obvious difference between a literary magazine in print and a literary magazine on the World Wide Web is that the first is tangible and for sale, whereas the second is intangible (perhaps I should say virtual) and freely available to anyone who can find it.

Anyone attempting to launch a print journal has to tackle the questions of how much it will cost to publish and how that cost can be recovered. How will it be reproduced? How large a print-run should be risked? What cover-price should be charged? Once printed, how will it be distributed?

These questions simply do not apply to e-zines. The question of reproduction does not arise because strictly speaking an e-zine is not reproduced at all. The web pages of which the e-zine consists are simply “posted” or “uploaded” to a host computer connected to the Internet. Once the host computer has received them, anyone with a browser and an internet connection can look at them. The costs and complications involved with mechanical reproduction are obviated.

The problem of distribution is obviated too. All parts of the World Wide Web are theoretically able to connect with one another at any given moment. Geographical whereabouts is not a consideration. So once an HTML document is on a host computer, and the host computer is connected to the Internet, anyone with a browser can look at it at any time, from anywhere in the world. E-zine editors don’t have to worry about selling their editions on street corners, circulating them in pubs, placing them in shops or sending them out by post to subscribers: they simply upload them to the Web, and they are automatically made available to all interested parties.

What about publicity? One of the problems confronting a literary journal in print is that publicity is expensive, but without publicity product-awareness will remain low, and product-awareness governs the inclination to buy. People are unlikely to buy a product unless they have already heard of it; and they will be much more likely to buy it if, once having heard of it, they are reminded of its existence and virtues from time to time. These are the principles on which all advertising campaigns are based, but advertising campaigns are beyond the pockets of literary print journals. They have to rely on reputation and word of mouth.

Literary e-zines are just as short of financial resources as their print counterparts, yet they can attract surprizingly large audiences within comparatively short periods of time. Partly this is because the audiences are paying nothing for the privelege of reading them, but partly it is because web-zines are placing themselves in a worldwide market rather than a national one. And even if their editors do not take the trouble to list their publications with the main web search engines, they are likely to be found and listed sooner or later, since most search-engines now use “web-crawlers” or “web-bots”, devices which automatically follow links from one site to another, recording and categorising as they go. Furthermore, literary e-zines are particularly good at publicizing each other by exchanging links (editor A puts a link to editor B’s e-zine on his or her own site, provided that editor B agrees to return the favour). And well-organized editors will soon begin to put together sizeable lists of e-mail correspondents, to whom information about new issues and so on can be posted. Since e-mail is free, this is a particularly effective and well-targeted method of publicity, the only downside being that people tend to change their e-mail addresses fairly frequently. My first acquaintance with Slope magazine came about because I was sent an e-mail informing me that a new issue had just been released. I still have no idea how they got my name and e-mail address.

John Tranter, editor of Jacket, says that his e-zine is publicized mainly by “word of mouth, and the Internet is good for that. Also, I send out announcements of new issues to a group of people mainly by e-mail.” Ethan Panquin, editor of Slope, agrees that “Slope is primarily a word-of-mouth enterprise - never has a print ad of any kind run… Listservs and e-mailing lists provide the only ‘publicity’.” Marek Lugowski, joint editor of Agnieszka’s Dowry, says “We indexed it to the best of our ability in various search engines, and from that point on, it sort of mushroomed by reference.” All e-zine editors seem to agree about the importance of “word of mouth”, and they also seem to feel that their audiences are still growing.

The downside of web-publication is that no money changes hands. Web pages don’t cost much apart from time and effort to produce, assuming the editor owns a computer already. The only expenses are domain-name registration (to protect the e-zine’s web-identity and web-address from being used by other people) and web-hosting (which pays for someone else to keep a computer running non-stop with the HTML documents on it) - and even these are optional extras. It isn’t compulsory to have a domain name, and there are free web-hosting services available. Compared with the expenses involved in publishing and distributing a print journal, the cost of web-publishing is negligible. But the fact that anyone can visit a website at any time makes it difficult for e-zine editors to make money directly from their readers. They don’t have anything tangible to sell.

John Tranter, editor of Jacket, sees this as a virtue. “Apart from selling pornography,” he confesses in his article about e-zine publication, The Left Hand of Capitalism, “no small organisation can make money on the Internet.” But the fact that the Internet is so resistant to profit-making, in Tranter’s view, helps keep it out of the hands of big business and preserve it as the domain of the enthusiast: “Weird things happen to capitalism on the Internet. Think of one of those pink rubber kitchen gloves. If you pull a (pink) right-handed kitchen glove inside out, you get a (silver) left-handed glove. That’s what the Internet does to capitalism: it pulls it inside out… A culture of free exchange and mutual help has come into being in cyberspace, an economic model based on the hippy ideal of the barter of intangible goods. If you have a problem understanding a computer program, say, and ask for assistance on the Internet, you’ll get a hundred replies, with no strings attached, except that you’ll feel an obligation to help others in the same way.”

Of the seven e-zine editors who replied to my questions while I was researching this article (their publications are listed at the end), none was actually publishing at a profit. It should be born in mind, however, that all web-publication enterprises, by definition, are still in the early stages of their development. Replies to my question about whether it might be possible to make money in the future varied widely, from hard-bitten negatives, through wishful thinking, to bullish optimism. If John Tranter can be taken to typify the anti-profit stance, then Ethan Panquin, editor of Slope, points to the other extreme: “Online literary magazines will eventually charge for subscriptions, the same as any print journal or newspaper. The technology that can allow this to happen is here; editors just need to realize the earning potential they have.” He adds that Slope, being a non-profit organisation, “has no plans to do this”; but on the other hand he admits “Yes, we hope to make money - to pay for production of the magazine, first and foremost. To be able to take it in new directions we can’t travel in at this time due to lack of funds.”

For some e-zine editors, the non-profitability of their websites is an acceptable state of affairs, because even if they are not making money in themselves, the sites are serving as shopwindows for other enterprises. Rupert Loydell, editor of Stride, says “I see it as an adjunct to Stride’s book publications”. Marek Lugowski, one of the editors of Agnieszka’s Dowry, says that his magazine exists both online and in print: “After each online issue closes, we prepare a chapbook that reflects its alphabeticized by author content.” The enterprise as a whole, run by three people, goes under the publishing name of A Small Garlic Press, which is another non-profit organisation. supralurid, edited by nicoLe sativa kurlish, is also published both in print and on the web: “That’s what I wanted: my baby in print, tangible. But I’ve put stuff on the web too because I know I’ll reach a much larger audience that way. It’s part marketing, showing people a sample of what they’ll get in the print issue, and it’s part supplement for the people who do get the print edition, and it’s part just giving people something to read.” Jacket magazine, edited by John Tranter, carries a link to Tranter’s personal website, which features a wide selection of his poetry, and another link to the site of Australian Literary Management, the literary agency he runs with his wife.

The impression which emerges, then, is that e-zines are not necessarily set up as ends in themselves, or self-contained business ventures. Often they are launched as a means of publicising already-existing print ventures. The editors are enthusiasts rather than businesspeople, who may have been involved in small-scale publishing for some time, before being drawn to the Web as a cheap and powerful alternative to print. Rupert Loydell, for example, started Stride magazine on paper in 1980, and only launched it as an e-zine in 1999. John Tranter, likewise, was obviously involved in literary publishing for years before he launched Jacket online in 1997. Perhaps because of these backgrounds, the non-profit ethos is strongly in evidence. E-zine editors are familiar with their territory: they know how hard it is to make “literary” writing pay. They are motivated by a desire to publish and promote what they see as good work, rather than a desire to make money. And some of them obviously still retain a deeply-felt loyalty towards the medium of print.

One interesting attempt to combine the tangible qualities of a print magazine with the wider possibilities of the new electronic publishing media is papertiger, an Australian poetry magazine issued on CD, which was launched in April 2001. The papertiger website serves purely and simply as a shopwindow, inviting browsers to send off their money and receive a CD copy of the magazine in return. Paul Hardacre, the editor, explains: “The idea of adding to the growing legion of poetry websites didn’t turn me on. Web seems so transient to me sometimes, and you can never really possess or own or collect, at least in a traditional sense, a web zine.” The fact that papertiger is a tangible product, according to Hardacre, makes it more saleable: “Web just isn’t something that people really will part money for, for the time being. E-books and d-books (print on demand) on the other hand, are something that people will pay for, because they can download them and then own them, to enjoy whenever they like. CDROM is kinda the same - once you buy it, it’s yours, always. I think that the e- and d-book sector particularly will be a growth area in publishing.” This belief that there is a genuine market for the product is reflected in a particularly businesslike publicity drive: “Publicity for papertiger is through ads in poetry mags, links on poetry web sites, direct emailing to my poetry contacts, listings like the annual Bookman Writers’ Marketplace, online listings, mentions on sites like, print articles and reviews here in Australia, the networks of the papertiger Contributing Editors [of whom there are ten], etc.” On the other hand, he admits that “Our print run for each CDROM is currently 500”, which is a long way from big business - although it must be remembered that only two editions of papertiger have come out so far.

The consensus seems to be that people will be reluctant to pay for e-zines, because they will be getting nothing tangible in return. Yet as soon as a tangible product is involved, as with papertiger, the “circulation” plummets from thousands of intangible “hits” (as visits to a site are known) to a concrete sales figure of less than 500 per edition.

But perhaps those intangible hits bear closer examination. In his article The Left Hand of Capitalism, John Tranter announces that “The other day (September 1999), the counter on the front page [of Jacket] ticked over to 140,000”, meaning that the e-zine had been visited by 140,000 readers since its launch in October 1997 - a period of just under two years. He admits that “This is not quite like having one hundred and forty thousand subscribers for a print magazine - a buyer has to buy the magazine, whether they want the whole thing or just one article, whereas a ‘visit’ to Jacket might consist of a few minutes’ worth of browsing or just one article…” In other words, getting people to visit a website is not the same as persuading them to read anything, let alone browse the site thoroughly. But any visitor will glance at the homepage if nothing more, which means that any sizeable number of visits could produce revenue in one way if in no other - advertising.

“Most sites are funded by advertising banners”, writes Tranter, “those irritating, animated slabs of imagery that sit at the top of each site’s homepage and slow down the loading time.” Certainly advertising can spoil the look of a webpage, and since most of the editors I contacted are justifiably proud of their e-zine design, they might well be reluctant to allow little oblongs of it to be taken up by company logos, let alone the animated banners mentioned by Tranter. But from the advertiser’s point of view, an advert on a web-page has one obvious attraction without parallel in any other medium: it doubles as a link which will take the browser direct to the advertiser’s own site. A browser can thus be converted into a customer at the click of a button; and by their nature, literary e-zines, although they may not attract visitors in great numbers, are bound to attract a specialist audience which would be very attractive to advertisers of a certain type. It is not difficult to imagine one of the big online bookstores, such as Amazon, being prepared to part with money for an advert on the homepage of Slope, which was launched in November 1999 and by June 2001 had attracted more than 600,000 hits - an average of more than 28,500 per month. Whatever the views of the current generation of e-zine editors about advertising, it could well prove a source of income to literary sites in the years ahead.

Does it really matter whether e-zines are financially successful or not? Literary journals in print have been surviving for years without making big profits, because the people running them are enthusiasts. E-zine editors are enthusiasts too, and it seems obvious that money-making is not their primary motivation.

But commercial publishing in print is now so thoroughly moribund that it will not take a risk on anything genuinely new. Experiments don’t pay: only writing of a type which has sold well already can be relied upon to sell again. The hyperliterature market, which is in its infancy and rapidly expanding, represents an opportunity to challenge this state of affairs. Literature on the web is experimental by nature, because the possibilities of the new form are still being explored. And although the audience for such experimental writing in any given country is small, worldwide it may be substantial.

To the average reader, e-zines represent hyperliterature at its most accessible. The main problem with new writing on the Web is lack of editorial control. It only takes a bit of knowhow to put together a website, and in recent years a tremendous number of unpublished writers have done exactly that. Unfortunately the vast majority of them are unpublished for good reasons. To uncover new writing which is genuinely worthwhile, the reader requires a discriminating guide, and the e-zines are in a position to take on that role. They are also in a position to explore the possibilities of the new market. Many e-zines are already running publishing ventures on the side. If they can find substantial audiences, and ways of making their activities pay, an expansion of literary e-publishing will surely follow. Certainly the better e-zines are going to make very interesting reading over the next few years.

©Edward Picot, 2002