During the twenty-first century, there has been a massive societal shift towards inclusivity. That is, the act of including those who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized. This shift is not new in publishing, particularly here in Vancouver, with magazines that aim to publish a diverse array of voices and stories such as Room operating locally. However, what is relatively new is our commitment to speaking out about it more publicly.
The Magazines West Conference, commonly referred to as MagsWest, is put on by the Magazine Association of British Columbia and takes place every November. This year’s conference boasts two events focused on inclusivity: the keynote speech by Léonicka Valcius which is titled “On Equity and Inclusion” and a session by Jónína Kirton, with Chelene Knight, called “Encouraging Inclusiveness in Magazines.” Kirton and Knight, both editors at Room, also took part in a panel called “Inclusive Magazine Publishing: Barriers and Strategies for Writers and Publishers” at this year’s WORD Vancouver festival, also sponsored by MagsBC. They were joined by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, the founder of Thursdays Writing Collective, and the panel’s moderator, broadcaster and novelist Jen Sookfong Lee. Throughout the discussion, panelists addressed the barriers that marginalized writers regularly encounter in their quest to get published, and tried to put forward solutions that magazines could implement in an effort to become more inclusive. One of the points that Kraljii Gardiner, who works closely with residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, put forward is that publisher’s reliance on the web is problematic for swaths of potential writers. As a person who comes from a place of “e-privilege” (a term that Kraljii Gardiner used) I had only ever experienced the ways that the web has made publishing more inclusive, and throughout this essay I want to explore the ways in which publishers have become reliant on the web to the point of exclusivity.
I do not believe I had been alone in my perception that the internet has made publishing more inclusive, largely because in some ways it is true that is has. It becomes an interesting dichotomy because in many ways the internet has allowed for easier, less expensive access. Students like myself, who tend to be lower-income but have easy access to the internet at school, tend to rely on web access a lot. In general, eBooks are less expensive, and less intrusive in limited space, than print books.
In his TED talk “Laws that choke creativity” Lawrence Lessig spoke to how the internet allows for user-generated content, and the celebration amateur culture. In this case he was speaking about non-commercial use, but this has become true for many aspects of publishing. Online publications do not have to worry about page counts the same way print publications do, and therefore have the ability to publish more content by a more diverse array of voices. In fact, due to this many online versions of print magazines actually offer additional content compared to their print counterparts.
Self-publishing, both articles and eBooks, gives the author more control over their work. Further, the web, and particularly social media, gives them the opportunity to both self-promote and to find or establish the niche communities that make up their intended audience. Websites like Medium have been developed to give an established platform to those who wish to publish articles online. Online editorial collectives help those who cannot afford to hire a freelance editor to prepare their manuscript prior to self-publishing or submitting to traditional publishing entities.
Inclusivepublishing.org was created to help publishers learn how to create digital content “in formats accessible to people with print disabilities.” As such, the web has allowed those who were previously unable to partake in much of today’s traditionally published content to now access it.
However, all of these aforementioned benefits are only available for those who have easy and regular access to technology. So in what way is the publishing world excluding those who do not?
Marketing and Advertising
As I was walking along West Hastings Street on my way to school early this September, I was surprised to see an entire wall plastered with posters for the Vancouver Writer’s Fest. As a person who has a Twitter account primarily to keep track of submissions deadlines and literary events in the city (another example of my e-privilege), it struck me how rare it was to see printed marketing materials around the city.
Social media has begun to be perceived as a “silver bullet” — though marketing professional Zoe Grams of ZG Communications cautioned our Masters of Publishing class against viewing it that way when she spoke to us this fall. This is due to the fact that it is relatively low-cost, as the largest budgeting consideration for social media is simply time, as opposed to the printing costs associated with posters, bookmarks, and the like. The Key Performance Indicators are easy to track, as likes, shares, and posts using dedicated hashtags provide notifications to whomever posts the content. Further, the broad audience reach of social media makes it easier to disseminate ideas and content. If a company does content marketing well, their customers become brand ambassadors. Thus, publishers have begun advertising their contests and deadlines primarily online, and particularly through social media.
If you have considered submitting your work to a local literary or arts journal lately, you have probably encountered something called Submittable, which is an online platform that publishing houses and magazines use in acquisitions.
Per the Submittable website:
“Accepting and curating content submissions for publication is the most common use of Submittable and is what the classic Submittable client uses our software to do. Without the right software, managing submissions can be a time and labor-intensive process for magazines, newspapers, and film and audio organizations. Submittable has centralized the submission, payment, and management platforms into a single online location. Allow your submitters to easily submit in any medium, including documents, images, sound, video, and more; establish your team member accounts; and vote on and accept entries in one efficient and user-friendly place. All you need is a browser.”
With such features, it becomes apparent why publishers have begun utilizing it as a tool. Some publishers have begun to accept only online submissions, whether that be via email or Submittable, due to a myriad of reasons. These include the streamlined process Submittable promises, environmental concerns (less paper is used when submitting online), and lack of space to store manuscripts (a place I interned had manuscripts piled waist high and four stacks deep.)
Conversely, other publishers have refused to allow online submissions at all. Geist, a literary magazine, used to allow for online submissions but per the submissions page on their website they no longer do. I can only assume that the relative ease of email meant that they received an onslaught of submissions. The publishing house I interned for described themselves as “a little old school” and liked to read and mark up manuscripts on paper, and did not want to take on the cost of printing their many submissions themselves.
All of the above reasons are valid in my mind, and I can understand how publishers would want to make their acquisitions as simple as possible. Juggling multiple submissions platforms can be time consuming, and logging manuscripts is generally a task delegated to an intern in a time when most publishers are trying to do more on a skeleton budget. However, the heart of any publishing program is the work they are publishing, so when it comes to submitting, shouldn’t the ease for the writers be at least tantamount in importance to making it easy for the magazine or press? Refusing to accept both hard copy and online submissions is again detrimental to making the acquisitions process truly inclusive.
Table: How 20 BC Book Publishers and Literary and Arts Magazines Accept Submissions:
As this chart shows, only 45% of the local publishers whose submissions pages I looked at accepted both hard copy and digital submissions, with 55% accepting only one or the other.
When speaking of skeleton budgets, and the concept of publishers doing more with less, there has been a new emphasis on the author being expected to assist in marketing their own book. Thus, one of the considerations that publishing houses take into account when receiving an unsolicited manuscript or proposal is the authors social platforms. Are they well-followed and considered an authority on their topic on social media? Do they have a built in audience of people who will buy the book because they already follow them? While this is not the number one deciding factor in acquisitions, it does seem to be an aspect that does hold at least a small amount of weight.
Who Is Being Excluded?
According to Internet Live Stats 88.5 % of Canadians use the internet. With a population of 36,286,378 as of 2016, this means that 4,165,859 people are without internet access. In marketing class, we have discussed the concept of “personas” which are basically character sketches of an ideal audience for the product or service you are offering. When I considered the above statistics, and therefore the people that publishing’s reliance on the online world impacts, I was left with more than one persona that was excluded. For the sake of this essay, I have concentrated on five below:
- The first is an elderly person who is intimidated by new technology, and does not understand how to utilize social media. Throughout their lifetime they have had a wealth of experiences, and they participate in the oral storytelling tradition by sharing those with their children and grandchildren.
- The second, a person who lives remotely and does not have internet access in their home, but reads print books voraciously in their spare time and journals their own experiences.
- The third, a writer who is shy or suffers from anxiety. While they may have the technical skills to follow the magazines and publishing houses they wish to submit to on social media, they do not see themselves as having the ability or charisma to build up the kind of online presence and following that publishing houses look for in first time authors.
- The fourth, a Downtown Eastside resident. Certain circumstances in their life have left them without consistent, safe housing, and although their ability to access the internet on a regular basis is not a primary concern, they love storytelling and have a lifetime worth of experiences to share.
- Fifth, a writer, whom for whatever reason, wishes to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym (as is their moral right). While the initial impression may be that the relative anonymity of the internet would actually make this easier (think: the famous The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner in 1993 proclaiming “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”) events over the last few years have proven this may not be the case. There is a reason that, in 2015, The New Yorker published another cartoon that seemingly referenced the original. This one, by Kaamran Hafeez featured two dogs looking at each other and saying: “Remember when, on the Internet, nobody knew who you were?” Recent notable examples of authors publishing under pseudonyms and then being outed online include J.K. Rowling and Elena Ferrante. Rowling was outed online after publishing The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith, and Ferrante’s real identity was the subject of a much criticized witch hunt by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti. Which the prevalence of social media and the frequency with which it is used, when something like this is uncovered it can spread around the world in the matter of hours.
I have no doubt that there are worthwhile works coming from writers that fit these personas, and I can only imagine how many more would be produced should publishers make more of an effort to reach them.
Ways We Can Improve
All of this is not to say that the publishing world should not be utilizing the abilities of the web. Firstly, it would be inadvisable (if not insane) not to at this day and age, when the stats I’ve cited earlier show that 88.5% of Canadian’s are online in some capacity. Secondly, there are many ways that publishers can utilize the web to indeed be more inclusive, such as the examples I have listed throughout this essay. The point is, that in our current-day obsession with the internet, the thought of going offline no longer seems to occur to us. This is slightly ironic in an industry that romanticizes and even fetishizes printed books. So how do we, as present and future publishing professionals, utilize all the unique and important opportunities the web has given us without becoming reliant on them? A balance needs to be found.
The fourth persona that I mentioned is the inspiration behind Thursdays Writing Collective, which was founded by Elee Kraljii Gardiner who is a writer, an editor, and a founding member of CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts). The Collective holds free workshops for residents of the Downton Eastside, and they describe their mission as two-fold: “to hold a space for writers and to bring that work to a wider audience.” As such, they have published chapbook anthologies for the work created during the workshops. In 2010, they also started Thursdays Editing Collective which consists of professional editors and writers who work with the workshop participants to submit their writing to other publications.
After attending WORD Vancouver’s “Inclusive Magazine Publishing” panel, I reached out to Kraljii Gardiner via Twitter and asked her if she would be willing to answer some follow up questions to expand on some the points she made during the panel discussion. Thankfully, she agreed and provided me with some further thoughts on access and how our local literary community is doing with it.
She echoed the concerns I mentioned about publisher’s reliance on using social media, commenting that they are using “the same old rut of twitter and Facebook to reach the same old people. It is a well-worn path with which they reach the familiar audience.” This seems directly at odds with the oft stated goal of wanting to publish a diverse array of new voices that represent Canada that you hear from many publishers. As someone who has been an active part of the Vancouver literary scene, she admitted that she hasn’t “been stunned by anybody’s efforts, to be honest” when it comes to reaching out to those who do not have consistent access to the web. She did qualify this however by acknowledging her own e-privilege and the fact that she herself is very social media oriented.
Thursdays Writers Collective has instigated a sponsorship program for submissions fees, with Kraljii Gardiner reaching out on Facebook to ask if the writers she had connected with online would consider sponsoring a Downtown Eastside writer by paying their fee. They have successfully implemented this program a few times, with the most recent partnership being with subTerrain who she described as great. The group gathered names of donors, collected submissions from the writers by telling them about the opportunity and then sent them in. The donors paid Thursdays Writing Collective and TWC paid for the submission fees all at once. She explained that they did not pair donors with writers directly, saying it would be “tricky and a bit personal and heavy.” They pitched it as “if you are submitting to this contest why not consider sponsoring a DTES writer at the same time” and it got a great response. She wishes that literary magazines and organizations would commit to having a donation button on their websites for this at all times.
When I asked her what practices she would like to see magazines and publishing houses adopt to reach out to those without good, reliable internet access, she was able to make concrete suggestions that were also relatively low cost and easy to implement. These included:
- Reaching out by faxing or calling mosques
- Recording announcements for co-op and student radio stations
- Printing out hand-sized info pamphlets for community centers and libraries
- Craigslist announcements
- Posting bookmarks on bulletin boards at community colleges, night schools, and ESL schools
She cited her personal experience from editing V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, saying: “I used the bulletin boards in the DTES as well as COOP radio and strategic word of mouth campaigns. I also made an arrangement with the library to have a box for handwritten submissions so people wouldn’t have to pay postage. I was going off what the writers at TWC told me helped and didn’t have any prior model to follow.”
Kraljii Gardiner’s own experiences are examples of publishing professionals utilizing their online channels to promote inclusivity. Perhaps these can become a part of a new standard, the model that she had sought when she began Thursdays Writing Collective. In examining the ways in which we acquire manuscripts, both in the technical submissions process and in the decision making process for the voices we represent, as well as diversifying the way we reach potential writers, we can potentially get ourselves out of the rut we have created. Hopefully, the more we discuss these ideas in public forums such as professional development conferences, the more publishers will make true inclusivity a priority in their publishing programs.
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