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Honest Conversation: the state of online publishing

Blog Josh Ambrose

I watched for a bit, then got bored and exited the window.

Frankly, a lot of literary online publishing today strikes me as similarly problematic…

Not too long ago, indie rock gods Arcade Fire released a quite unusual music video to their new album, “The Suburbs.” After going to a website devoted entirely to their song “The Wilderness Downtown,” users are asked to input a street address. The website then opens a number of browser windows to loop a variety of video effects over a street map view of your childhood home. Voila! A music video tailored expressly to you.

It’s an interesting idea–albeit one prone to error. I tried a ridiculous amount of former addresses before lighting on one actually registered in Google street view. I watched for a bit, then got bored and exited the window.

Frankly, a lot of literary online publishing today strikes me as similarly problematic.

Don’t get me wrong. Phoebe is extremely excited to ramp up our efforts in the world of online publishing. We’re quite proud of the fact that we’ve well over 2,000 unique visitors in less than two months and over 20,000 page views; truly excited to offer online submission; thrilled by the flexible possibilities an online platform allows both artist and publisher alike.

At the same time, we’re also very cognizant of the difficulties in front of us for creating an online experience that people want to visit, read, and revisit. At the moment, the average reader on our site spends between two and three minutes on it. It’s not a bad statistic by web standards (and more than enough time to find our contest and submission pages!)–but not indicative of a rich reading experience.

Obviously, part of the “problem” is with literary journals themselves. The fact that our contest and submission pages are our most visited segments of the site is quite telling. Put simply, it could be argued that literary journals increasingly need to expand from their Achilles heel: built-in audiences from MFA programs and aspiring writers. In a world where arts and culture magazines are dying left and right and where newspapers are a joke of the past, I truly believe online lit journals have an invaluable chance to showcase good writing that rises well above the average joe’s arm-chair critic blog.

But even if we hook readers with more diverse, obviously immediate content, there are other hurdles. In case you hadn’t noticed, the aesthetic and tactile experience of reading from a screen is quite different at almost every point from reading from a book. (Don’t worry, you can still order a physical copy of Phoebe today!)

So we join all the other publishers looking at our options and considering how to create a better reading experience.

What do Arcade Fire type of experiments in interactive text herald for online reading? Will such ideas ever advance beyond multimedia gimmicks? Will e-readers like the Nook or Kindle eventually focus our attention back on plain ol’ words and eradicate the apparent need for a multimedia rich environment? At the very least, it’s clear that a lot more readability type experiments are begging to be implemented.

A quick look at any lit journal website will prove that we’re not alone in facing these difficulties. We stand at an interesting point in the history of the printed word, riding a crashing wave where one generation of consumers is being replaced by another with very different reading habits.

These are obvious questions, but that doesn’t make them less pressing.

This much is patently clear–now, more than ever, the need for writers to work collaboratively with designers and artists is immediate. Visual artists, want an audience? We have one–and we want to showcase your work. Submit today.

I don’t have all the answers. But that’s not going to stop us from trying our best.

Contribute art and writing to Phoebe today–and let us know your ideas. How can we improve PhoebeJournal.com for you?

Josh Ambrose, web and nonfiction editor

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