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Narrative Magazine Takes the Literary World Digital

Poetry on your iPhone. Short stories on your Kindle. Or, if you're not yet into e-reading, how about a complete print-on-demand literary magazine? However you like your literature, Narrative Magazine has you covered.

Literary magazines aren't exactly known yet for their digital expertise. This genre of magazines has moved slowly into the online realm, mainly publishing limited web content. But Narrative Magazine, a non-profit, innovative publisher, has fearlessly experimented with just about every method of digitally distributing its high-quality content, which has included writers like Saul Bellow, Amy Tan, and Jane Smiley. The magazine's diverse array of creative approaches has established a variety of revenue sources and publicity strategies for the magazine and its writers.

Advocating for Literature in a Digital World

Narrative Magazine is a primarily online literary magazine founded in 2003 by Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks, who are also its co-editors. At the time, Jenks said, there were few publishers providing high-quality literary work online.

"We had been concerned for some time that writers and good writing were going to be marginalized on the Internet," Jenks said. "We were attracted to the fact that the Internet was free and it was open. We wanted to perpetuate that sense with literary material."

The editors sent requests to six writers they knew, asking for material to use on the web. Within a week, they had six manuscripts in hand, and published the first issue of Narrative online. They emailed about 1,200 contacts about the new magazine. Soon, the magazine was up to three issues per year and, according to Jenks, it is now likely to reach a consistent audience of 100,000 readers by the end of 2010.


Narrative is a non-profit and has received consistent support from a "fairly small group of dedicated donors," Jenks said. According to its 2008 IRS filing, the magazine received just over $410,000 in donations that year, a remarkable amount during difficult economic times. Jenks said there was even a slight increase in 2009. One challenge in finding new donors, though, has been in convincing individuals and grantors about the value of a digital literary magazine.

"When people think of funding the arts, they usually think locally," Jenks said. "As soon as you say it's a digital publication, people kind of say, 'Huh?' "

Narrative also received $10,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Arts this year after "quite a few years of conversation with them," Jenks said. "They gradually came to see what we were doing. Two years ago, people had very little sense of what digital book publishing meant, and now everyone's scrambling ...You have to have a little faith and keep moving forward."

Strangely enough, designing a good website and having other digital features have at times worked against Narrative's fundraising. "A lot of people look at Narrative and they don't see it as the struggling non-profit that it is because it looks pretty slick online," Jenks said.


Narrative also charges writers fees for submitting unsolicited manuscripts. Writers pay $20 for prose submissions and $15 for up to five poems, unless they submit during an annual free period held the first two weeks of April.

Though the practice is not uncommon, some writers feel that submission fees at literary magazines are unnecessary, and that these fees are a burden for new writers. According to Narrative, the fees help cover the administrative expenses related to handling submissions and also support the free digital distribution of the non-profit magazine, as well as fund the annual $5,000 Narrative Prize. All paid submissions are entered into the prize competition. Additionally, published authors are paid relatively well for their work, which is also somewhat unusual in the literary magazine world.

Incentives for Readers

Narrative has gone beyond standard social media to develop participatory opportunities for readers, one of which is tied to donations. The magazine's primary goal is to support literature and its digital format means the editors have great flexibility to publish both long and short works. However, they acknowledge that other kinds of content helps attract readers, so they also now include puzzles, audio/visual content, cartoons, and graphic stories in the magazine.

The Narrative site, apps, and email blasts offer easy access to all of the magazine's content. More participatory options are also in the works. "Before too long, you'll also see us do something else -- not social networking, but something to give our readers an opportunity to customize Narrative for themselves," Jenks said. "They can see things they most want to have immediate contact with, and connect with other people on the site."

Another strategy for increasing readers' involvement with the magazine is Narrative's Backstage section. Donations of $50 or more are rewarded with a "Backstage Pass," which allows these donors to view special content early, before it's made accessible to all readers. Jenks said this approach has been a "modest success."

"We wanted to create an encouragement for anyone who might want to give a small amount of money to have occasion to do that," he said.

Print-on-demand copies of the magazine are another revenue source, though smaller. Much of Narrative's content is downloadable as PDFs, and until recently, every issue could be ordered in a fully designed print format. The demand for the print-on-demand edition is diminishing, however, and so now just one issue a year will be available in this format, according to Jenks. The magazine has found new opportunities, though, through mobile apps.

Making Literature Mobile

Narrative currently offers free apps for the iPhone and iPad that offer access to most of the magazine's web content, and they might develop an Android app as well. The magazine was also one of the first literary publications available on the Amazon Kindle, currently selling at $3.49 an issue. Jenks said the apps bring in about 30 new readers per day, and though the Kindle audience is not as large and is not growing quickly, he says it is "meaningful to the writers to be there."

narrative app.jpg

Narrative's effort to keep up with changing technology is partly designed to help writers transition into the digital era.

"It will probably be a decade or so before there's a clearly recognized model for literary publishing the way there used to be. Conventional publishers in New York are just now catching on to things," Jenks said. "In the meantime, there's a whole lot of anxiety and despair, especially among writers."

For Narrative, another major reason for making its content digital and mobile is to attract new readers at a time when there seems to be diminishing interest in reading literature.

"We wanted to attract younger readers who might not otherwise be catching on to literary work," Jenks said. "We wanted to create something -- without diluting what we think of as quality -- that would have the potential to attract readers who might be interested if we could just get them to see it."

The magazine is also exploring possibilities for reaching out into schools to get students more involved with literature. When younger readers get excited about reading literature electronically, Narrative will be ready for them.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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