The Year's Coolest Literary Magazine Innovations

The print landscape is changing swiftly, web journals are now forced to innovate as a result, and blah blah blah — you know all of this. What we’ve seen this year, in addition to an exciting crop of brand new literary magazines (a warm welcome to all of them!) is a healthy number of artistic outlets trying new things. Literary magazines are exploring alternative publishing techniques, and whether it’s a new way to deliver something on dead trees or an exciting twist on the traditional idea of submissions, we applaud it. Here are some of the publications (okay, not all of them are “litmags”) that came up with fresh ideas this year. Read them! Submit your work to them! Share with friends! But ignore them at your own peril. These publishing outlets are thinking outside the box.

Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading 

Yes, the smart people at Electric Literature have already earned a healthy dose of good press for their interesting project Recommended Reading, but with good reason; they deserve this top billing. The new offering, which Electric Lit launched in May via Kickstarter drive (which had a goal of $10,000 but raised nearly $19,000 — guess people are hungry for more litmags), posts one (long!) short story every Wednesday — and all on a Tumblr! The stories are curated by editors from Electric Literature itself, or from an indie press, or from another litmag, or from a big-name guest editor. The concept for Recommended Reading is innovative, but the form itself has also been bold, like single-sentence animations taken from the stories, or like the recent original selection “White Dialogues,” an experimental film crit/fiction creation filled with animated GIFs.

Vice and Tablet‘s monthly fiction

The number of big-name magazines that run fiction has dwindled steadily over the past few years. Esquire, Playboy, and others have all decided it’s no longer in their best interest to run a short story every issue. It’s too bad. But Vice and Tablet (you can argue they aren’t big names, but they’re more established than most in this roundup) are picking up the slack. Both magazines implemented a promise this year to run fiction each month, and the resulting stories have been wonderful. Joke all you want about how Vice began its series with Tao Lin, but they went on to run stories by William T. Vollmann and Stanislaw Lem. Tablet has featured Joshua Cohen and Aimee Bender, among others. Attention, other well-trafficked general-interest Web publications: we dare you to join in the fun.

Boston Book Festival’s One City, One Story

Print is not dead. So says the Boston Book Festival, which as part of its One City, One Story project selects a single, long work of fiction and prints out 30,000 copies, distributing them at libraries and bookstores all over Beantown. But 1C1S also makes the story available online, for Kindle or iPad or as a PDF. And it posts book club questions. And encourages you to comment on the story or share it. This is an all-bases-covered model with the goal of getting all the readers in an entire city on the same page, discussing the same story. It’s very cool! The concept wasn’t new this year — Boston Book Festival launched it in 2010 with Richard Russo, and the 2011 story was by Tom Perrotta — but this year’s story “The Lobster Mafia Story” was by a lesser-known writer, Anna Solomon, which we loved, and it seemed to get the most buzz of any year yet, which we also loved. Watch for other cities to begin copying the model. 1C1S acknowledges that its format is inspired by One Story, which continues to publish a small, bound copy of a single short story each month and snail-mail it out to subscribers.

Revolver’s “Wanted” ads

Just launched this year out of Minneapolis, Revolver has a minimalistic yet colorful look online and regularly runs “short-range” and “long-range” (get it?) stories as well as non-fiction “shots with strangers” entries. In the fall it began a call-for-submissions series through Facebook: the editors post “Wanted” ads seeking flash fiction that works within the narrow confines of an obscure scenario. The second “Wanted,” posted in November, commanded: “Write a 200-word piece… You live alone. You are chopping wood when you notice smoke billowing out of your chimney.” Readers and writers post their entry directly on the Facebook status, as a comment. The “reward,” as Revolver so muscularly puts it: “Toil. Publication. Gloating.”

The New Inquiry’s subscription model

After the overblown article in the Times Style section (why the Style section?) on The New Inquiry and its “literary cub” editors in November of 2011, book nerds all over the web promptly prepared their skepticism. But TNI delivered on its promise, and from lengthy academic essays to shorter, fun reviews (everything but fiction, really) the online magazine does it all. And its design is brilliant — we love the slim center column and the original artwork that accompanies most posts. Then in February (they didn’t waste much time, eh?) TNI launched an e-magazine with the subscription price of only $2 a month. The covers are great, as is the content and the price. TNI may have a “slacker revolutionary spirit,” as the Times grinningly claims, but these editors are no slouches and have attracted big-name bloggers like Teju Cole and Douglas Rushkoff.

Birkensnake’s seven-version issue

We didn’t think it possible for a literary magazine that prints on paper bound with thread (not snakeskin?) to surprise us any further, but the guidelines for Birkensnake’s next issue — in production now and still accepting submissions — are strange and clever and exciting. Issue 6 will have seven different versions, each of them guest-edited by a different pair of people who applied for the privilege. Some of the sub-issues already have titles, such as “Thing Theory,” “Wild Conformations,” and “The Shapes of Words and the Meanings of Sounds.” It’s oh-so-weird, yes, and it’s also pretty cool. One of the 14 editors, Hedy Zimra, sadly passed away after earning the editorship, and yet her partner Diana George (a stranger to Zimra) even manages to make that fit in with the tone of the issue, using “we” in her guidelines and noting: “We think it only fair to tell you that one of us died before this call for submissions was written. So we’re also interested in absence, debts of gratitude, and… unrepayable gifts.”

Submittable

Okay, it isn’t a magazine, but Submittable still deserves mention in a post about litmag innovation. The startup has been around since 2010, but in 2012 kicked things up a notch with half a million dollars in funding from various VC firms and a wise name change (it used to be called Submishmash). The service, a godsend both for publishers and writers, allows for beautifully simple submitting of work (and fast payment of a small fee if the outlet is charging one), and keeps track of all your active submissions in a nicely organized “dashboard” panel. (Occasionally you can find out that a story has been rejected or accepted before even hearing from the magazine, by logging into your Submittable pane.) Everyone is using Submittable, but to name just a few heavy-hitters: The Believer, Tin House, Granta, Gigantic, The Coffin Factory, and Paper Darts. And the Twitter feed (@submittable) is a must-follow for its constant updates about litmag contests and calls for submissions at interesting new outlets you hadn’t heard of before.

Quarterly Co.

Another crusader in bringing back the charm of the snail mailing, Quarterly comes from a GOOD magazine editor, and it’s no surprise when you see the great design that the startup boasts online. Here’s how it works: you pay a nominal fee each quarter to receive goodies from an influential contributor—the list includes designers, businesspeople, and a whole lot of writers. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, sends items that will “lift your spirits,” including, in the past, a sketchbook and small honey jars. Fiction writer and critic Maud Newton sends “books and other great stories that I hope will make you cancel plans or miss your stop or ignore the doorbell.” Joshua Foer is a contributor. So is Jason Kottke. There have been some complaints about the business so far, but the idea is too clever not to deserve a look. And it suggests exciting new avenues for litmags to try.