Former M.F.A. students Joel Whitney and Michael Archer had no grand plan, much less a business plan, when they started the online-only lit mag Guernica. Compelled by a shared passion for international literature and serious journalism, the duo, who met during a teaching program in Puerto Rico, decided to try their hand at publishing a magazine and launched their vision online. Roughly four years later, Guernica has bucked the trend among literary magazines, not only surviving but growing. Next spring it will appear in print for the first time and, according to Whitney and Archer, that’s just the beginning.
The difficulty of keeping literary magazines afloat has never been a secret in publishing circles. Many, said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, grow out of good intentions, if little else. “Most people [who found lit magazines] are writers themselves... who want to print what they like to read. Very rarely do they have a background in business or publishing.” Of the thousand literary magazines Lependorf estimates exist in the U.S. at any given time, the majority never make it past their first or second issue.
The ones that do survive distinguish themselves with excellent content and, more importantly, their niche in the marketplace. Guernica, which publishes a mix of journalism, fiction and poetry (as well as q&a’s and photography), adheres to a very specific ethos. Although the publication’s subtitle is “a magazine of art and politics,” and much of the writing grapples with the intersection of the two, the template allows for a broad range of material. As Whitney points out, recent interview subjects have included Mia Farrow, Don DeLillo and Brooklyn indie band Aesop Rock.
One way Guernica, which is not-for-profit and does not pay contributors or staff, has distinguished itself is by maintaining a heavy international focus; the magazine publishes a roster of foreign authors and regularly focuses on topics that reach well beyond American borders. (Recent subjects have included Ireland’s shifting cultural identity, Cairo’s quickly diminishing Jewish population and the surge in murders of women in Guatemala.) The fact that American book publishers are consistently criticized for not publishing enough foreign literature, coupled with the reality that U.S. magazines designate little space to international coverage, has won Guernica fans here and abroad. (Whitney said the magazine is read in over 100 countries and that, overall, tens of thousands view the site monthly.)
Although some money has started coming in from reprints—foreign newspapers have paid to run some interviews—keeping the magazine alive is still about fund-raising. Most literary magazines, according to Lependorf, survive by establishing affiliations with universities, receiving either office space or direct funding. Guernica, which has had brief affiliations with some New York schools—Whitney taught at Fordham and Archer still teaches at City College—has been supported by grants and donations. The money for the first print issue, which the pair thinks will run at roughly 5,000 copies, has been provided entirely by donors. Still, Whitney and Archer are looking at a variety of ways to bring in more cash to cover what will be a more costly distribution and production cycle. Already the two are thinking about running ads, selling subscriptions, getting a newsstand presence and, possibly, implementing a POD model. (Whitney says POD would not only be cheaper but also in line with the magazine’s commitment to eco-friendly practices.)
Whatever model Whitney and Archer decide on, currently they’re enjoying the fruits of their grueling labor. Planning for an event in Manhattan—the magazine recently hosted an industry party aboard a boat cruising the Hudson—Whitney tried to get Minnie Driver’s band, Puff, Rocks and Brown, to be the entertainment. After multiple failed attempts to get the rocker/actress on the phone, Whitney got through: Driver couldn’t do the gig, but said she’s a big fan of Guernica.