Who, in their right mind, would start a literary magazine? Plenty of people, it would seem, if the growth in publishing outlets for new writers, particularly online, is to be believed. While they’re often seen as a kind of cottage industry, small literary magazines are part of a bigger picture.
They provide a temperature check of the cultural climate, they’re a resource for talent-scouting publishers and a first stop for the big names of the future. Sally Rooney’s work, for example, first appeared in The Stinging Fly (see panel) so their influence is often way out of proportion to their size.
We spoke to three journal editors at varying stages of the process to find out what possessed them to enter the perilous world of literary publishing.
Now internationally recognized, The Moth was launched at the Flat Lake Festival in 2010, the brainchild of Rebecca O’Connor and her husband Will Govan. They’d moved back to Cavan from London in 2008 – “the absolute worse time ever!” – to live a more relaxed lifestyle with their family in rural Cavan. (Note the word relaxed)
“We just decided,” Rebecca recalls. “Let’s start a magazine. We had no business plan, we just fancied the idea.” And so The Moth was born. “We decided against funding so as to remain independent. It allows you to make choices quickly and not get bogged down in red-tape of applications etc,” she says.
When they started, they drew on local talent – e.g. Pat McCabe and Dermot Healy, but they soon decided to go further afield and accept unsolicited material. A year in, they set up a website.
“We couldn’t have done it without the internet,” Rebecca explains, and although they wanted an online presence, they didn’t want to produce a virtual publication. The Moth with its mix of writing and visual art, is a physical magazine, and intended to be “a beautiful object".
The magazine grew organically and went international. They added a separate magazine, The Caterpillar in 2013 dedicated to children’s writing, and then a quiver of competitions for short story, poetry, flash fiction and nature writing with annual prize money of €20,000 annually. Their creative empire now also incorporates artists’ studios, travelling theatre, plus raising four children.( Did someone mention relaxed?) They attract international names both in their submissions and in their judges – this year, for example, Nobel Laureate Louise Glück will judge this year’s poetry contest.
Which makes it all the more surprising why the spring 2023 issue of The Moth will be its last. “We created this thing we loved but it was becoming a big of a chore. The decision is not linked to finances; we’d actually made it work – through advertising initially and then through competitions,” says Rebecca. “We’ve loved producing it but it’s a lot of work and it ties you down with the three monthly cycle of production. Also, I was side-lining my own work.”
- Rebecca O'Connor is a published poet and novelist. They will continue with their competitions which are self-financing and back issues of The Moth and The Caterpillar will still be available online but after this year the magazine will be no more
“In 2014, Eimear Ryan, Claire Hennessy and I were friends through writing and we’d had this pipe-dream of setting up a women-led space for writers,” says Laura Cassidy, editor and publisher at Banshee Press. “There was a wave of women involved in writing and publishing at the time who inspired us.”
She cites the two-woman team of Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis Goff at Tramp Press, as particularly influential.
“So it started out as a hobby among friends but turned into a part-time job with full-time hours,” she says ruefully. “We did a lot of planning and having worked in publishing and writing, we were careful not to take on too much (two issues a year). But we still did a lot of learning on the job.”
They took their lead from established journals at the time, The Stinging Fly, and the Dublin Review, which had “small teams but world-class editorial content”.
“We used Kickstarter to raise funding in the beginning and were amazed to fill a subscription list in three days.” A grant from Kildare County Council went towards printing the first edition.
Banshee doesn’t have advertising and the journal relies on subscriptions and an Arts Council grant, which, says Laura, ensures a high level of production. A cornerstone of their funding structure is writers’ fees. “We pay writers – that’s a non-negotiable expense for us.”
They send books worldwide although the majority of their subscribers are in Ireland and UK. They produce 600 copies per issue and they usually sell out within a year or so. They highlight extracts on their website, which acts as a shop window for the print edition.
“We decided early on to go for print – we loved the printed product and know as writers how seeing a book in print in the bookshops can give confidence to early writers.” Editing a literary journal is a lot of work, Laura says, and if you’re a writer as many journal editors are, it does take away precious time from your own work. But, she says, it also informs her own writing.
“Knowing the sheer volume and amount of work involved in publishing and editing has made me more tolerant My patience when submitting has sky-rocketed!”
With a staff of four (poetry editor Jessica Traynor and consulting editor John Patrick McHugh), Banshee doesn’t run competitions as many journals do.
“Contests tend to favour work that’s more polished whereas we can recognise a diamond in the rough. We’ll often give notes to writers whose work we feel is not quite there and encourage them submit again for the next issue,” says Laura.
Howl is a child of the pandemic. Joint editors Róisín Legget-Bohan and Lauren O’Donovan were studying for a Masters CW at UCC in 2020/21 at the height of Covid 19. As a result, the work experience component of the course was curtailed. (Normally they would have been doing internships with arts and literary organisations and festivals).
Instead, the entire class joined together to produce Same Page, an anthology of 40 writers that was published at the end of the academic year.
“We cut our teeth on that,” Róisín explains. “When we got Same Day into our hands we were drunk on the excitement of it, holding the book which wouldn’t have existed without us.” Gluttons for punishment, they decided to repeat the experience with a journal, although they prefer to call Howl “an anthology of poems and story”. The literary journal tag has the whiff of elitism, they feel.
“It’s a labour of love,” says Lauren. “We self-funded for the first issue because raising money for Howl coincided with the beginning of the war in Ukraine last year. We got a small grant from Cork County Council towards printing but otherwise we’re on our own.”
Howl appears once a year and the first edition hit the streets in November 2022, featuring 63 writers chosen out of 1,116 submissions.
At the moment on a tiny budget and an unpaid staff of two, it’s not possible to pay contributors. They’re both writers, too. Lauren is a poet and closet science fiction writer; Róisín writes across the genres – historical fiction, essays, flash fiction and poetry - which makes them well qualified to be journal editors.
“We’ll read anything,” Róisín jokes. “Look, we’re sending out submissions all the time ourselves, so we know what it’s like to get rejected.”
While their mission is to seek out the “raw and the real”, they both feel a responsibility to be kind. “We feel it’s important to have a duty of care towards the writers with whom we’ve built up a relationship.”
They advertise the journal on their website, but like the other editors, they were adamant about producing a print edition. “It’s a tactile, physical thing, that’s important,” says Róisín. It’s also stocked in shops where it can reach a wider readership.
They bring different skills to bear to the operation. Lauren is strong on organisation; she’s a whizz with a spreadsheet, Róisín says, while according to Lauren, Róisín is the literary heart and soul of the magazine.
Have they any advice for someone else considering setting up a literary magazine? “It’s important to jell with the person you work with, to have the same philosophy,” says Róisín.
“Don’t!” says Lauren, but I don’t think she means it.
One of the most eminent of Ireland’s literary magazines, The Stinging Fly was established in 1997 to publish “the very best new Irish and international writing” with a particular interest in the short story. It comes out twice a year in print edition and offers online extracts and podcasts.
“It is where the seeds of future writing careers are sown.”—Anne Enright
The eminence grise of literary magazines, Cyphers was started in 1975. Founding editor, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, acclaimed poet and former Ireland Professor of Poetry, still edits the journal and it publishes national and international poets twice a year.
is an online journal of ideas covering literature, history, arts, society, politics and culture. The review is open to all contributors.
A deluxe anthology, edited by writers Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, Winter Papers is published once a year featuring fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, visual arts, along with craft interviews and in-conversation pieces on writing, film, theatre, photography and music.
is published three times a year by Poetry Ireland, the national Irish poetry organisation. It publishes the work of both emerging and established Irish and international poets with a new guest editor every four issues.
A biannual literary journal from the Munster Literature Centre, Southword features both local and international writers and has published among others Medbh McGuckian, Haruki Murakami, James Lasdun, Colm Tóibín and Vona Groarke.