This came up in my post about the 21st century publishing conference I attended a few weeks ago, and about Rebecca Frank Morgan’s comments about the ecosystem of literary publishing. But I think it’s worth further thought. Is there a real benefit to publishing in print rather than online?

It used to be, back in the early days of the galactic interwebs, that online literary publishing was stigmatized. I know, how could that be? Aren’t artists, especially writers, supposed to be forward-looking and imaginative? Daring and cutting-edge? Still, the ‘online only’ journals struggled for legitimacy. It took a decade of really dedicated editors (plus continuing tech revolutions that moved more and more of our world to the web) to even begin to gain ground for literary journals. And the ‘best’ journals still are print-only, with struggling web presence. But is that really best?

Online journals offer writers a lot. This 2010 article from Beyond the Margins lists pros and cons for print and online. And online, for younger writers, wins. More visibility for more time seems to be the big thing: with a print journal only a few people are going to see it (fewer and fewer, it turns out), and then only for the month that it’s current. Online, anyone can stumble onto your work anytime. So long as the journal exists, the work is available. Not only that, it’s easier to share (email a link, rather than suggest people buy a copy of a journal), more likely to get taught (I’m currently designing a course that draws heavily on free online poetry and criticism), and easier to build a reputation cumulatively. The stigma is all but gone, and people are paying attention to online literary journals. They are the new ‘little magazines’.

But best of all, in my opinion, is the flexibility of form online publication offers. “On-line journals create more opportunity for not just one, but several creative powers to co-exist” writes the author of the above article. The internet as a medium is incredibly flexible, much moreso than the printed page. Embedded audio, video, images? Sure. Animated text? Why not! If you can imagine it (and build it, or find someone to build it) there are few limits to what you can do with literature online. My press is exploring some of these things, as is Triple Canopy, among others. And the elit movement is still on the sub- part of culture, but interesting and vibrant. It opens up new ways of imagining your work taking shape. And isn’t that the greatest benefit for real artists?

I think it comes down to this: print is where you go to be safe and to publish mainstream, normative literature if you’re interested in commercial literary publishing. It is where you go to “get a deal” and sell your work, eventually and if you’re a fiction writer. But online is where you go to explore and invent, where risks can be taken in form and content.