The Benefits of Community Based Reading in the Online Literary Journal

By Matthew Yasuoka


Over the course of the past decade, the number of literary journals has grown significantly. During this period, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses’ membership swelled from 230 to 500 publications and small presses over that period of time [1]. In fact, it seems that the Internet provides the perfect set of conditions, under which literary magazines can thrive. For instance, the Internet has dramatically expanded the audiences for many journals; a good example of this is Diagram, an e-journal with over one million monthly hits [2]. Indeed, many e-journals acknowledge the opportunity provided by the Internet as Coop Renner, editor-in-chief of elimae, one of the earliest e-journals, told Duotrope [3] in an interview, “If elimae were a print magazine with runs of 1000 copies, we might get read by 1000 readers. As an online publication, we might get read, or at least browsed, by 100,000 readers. . . who would never have access to a print copy.” [4] Thus, the omnipresence of the web, as a content distribution platform, provides e-journals with the greatest opportunity to expand and showcase the work of a broad spectrum of writers.

The idea for Missive, the journal used in this experiment, originates on a philosophical level from Matthew Stadler’s lecture for the Berglund Center for Internet Studies, which discussed the book as public space or a shared experience [5], because, I reasoned, if reading is a shared experience, then every piece of literature is a letter. This idea, though, was only part of the philosophy. The second thought engendered by the idea of reading as a shared experience was the concept of a more democratic journal. While there are many journals that have editorial boards or readers systems, there is a dearth of diversity in these panels. Very few of them feature geographically diverse groups of readers, or a large number of readers. At the same time the demographics are generally homogenous, either college age students, professionals, or single editor systems.

Thus, I decided to create Missive, as an experiment and reaction to this trend. I felt that while the Internet was certainly diversifying literature, at least in terms of dissemination, it was not doing so in terms of selection. In order to represent the views of a wider range of people, I developed the concept of Community Based Reading (CBR), which would utilize a readers’ panel that was demographically and geographically diverse, under which each reader would have an equal amount of power. As such, a piece needed to receive a majority of “yes” votes from the readers in order to obtain publication. However, I wanted to create a system that would allow for the divergent views of the readers to facilitate the most diverse selection of content possible. This desire spawned the idea of the wild card system, which would give readers the ability to ensure the publication of a piece they liked even if it did not receive the majority of votes necessary to secure publication. Both of these systems were created to maximize diversity and quality.

The use of community based reading panels would increase the diversity of opinion and would make even the acceptance of a piece a highly contested process, this in turn would produce pieces with wide appeal, as they would be able to curry the favor of a variety of readers; the wild card system would serve to mitigate this homogeneity of opinion by allowing readers to express their divergent views.

The first step in the experiment was the creation of the journal itself. The advent of off the shelf solutions on the Internet simplified this task. The goal was to create a visually interesting and collage like look. Fortunately, Google’s Blogger service provides a layout that perfectly fits this need. I decided early on that I wanted Missive to showcase not only literature, but art as well, because I feel the two are inextricably linked. Also, the combination of the collage like appearance, with the text, and images was meant to create a postcard like aesthetic.

The second step was getting submissions, and in order to facilitate this, I posted a listing for the journal on Duotrope, which greatly simplifies the old-fashioned call for submissions process, by aggregating a large number of them into one place.

The following will focus on the response data from the nine readers involved in the first issue of Missive. For the purposes of this experiment acceptance rates have been calculated by the following formula: “yes votes” / (total number of pieces) = “acceptance rates.” The journals acceptance rate was calculated by the following formula: “accepted pieces”/”total number of pieces.” A “piece” is defined for this experiment as an individual poem or short story that was submitted to the journal.

The voting records of the journal highlight the divergent opinions of the readers. The range of individual acceptance rates was 0.741% to 58.519%, the median was 22.22% (with and without outliers), and the mean was 25.35% (excluding the outliers increases the mean to 27.090%). On the other hand, the journal had an actual acceptance rate of 15.385%, a nearly ten-percent difference.  Furthermore, only one reader was under the actual acceptance rate, while eight were over. When outliers were excluded, only two readers were within +/-5% of the actual acceptance rate. Thus, it is clear that readers disagreed more often than they agreed, due to the large differences between reader and journal acceptance rates.

As a result, the difference in individual acceptance rates from the actual acceptance rate shows a few things. First, it clearly shows that the opinion of the readers was extremely diverse, along with their benchmarks for accepting or rejecting a piece. Clearly, the reader with a 0.741% acceptance rate had a very different idea of what should be in the journal from the reader with a 58.519% acceptance rate. Second, the use of paneled voting creates a system that mediates competing opinions. All votes were cast secretly, no reader saw the votes of other readers (except me), and as such they were all voting in a vacuum. The use of a majority, rather than a plurality system meant that the readers had to achieve a substantial overlap in opinion, in turn ensuring that only pieces with diverse support were selected.

That being said, even amongst the accepted pieces there was still a good deal of controversy. The largest number of pieces, ten, were accepted with five votes, the lowest number a piece could receive for publication. No pieces received eight or nine votes, and only one piece received seven votes. Five pieces received six “yes” votes, while the majority of pieces received three votes or less. Overall, the highly competitive nature of piece selection shows the diversity of opinion even on the accepted pieces, as while pieces may have had a majority of “yes” votes, they were no where near receiving a unanimous decision.

Thus, while the pieces that were accepted had a broader appeal then the rejected ones, the high level of contestation clearly shows that the acceptance of pieces would not be nearly as homogenous as I thought. The use of a larger number of readers seems to guarantee a higher level of contestation.

Nowhere is this level of diversity more apparent than in the wild card system. For the first issue, three readers used wild cards on pieces in the general submission pool, of the pieces accepted by the use of a wild card, none of them received “yes” votes from other readers. This confirms that the wild card is an efficacious mechanism for ensuring diversity in a process that seems to only allow universally appealing pieces to triumph.

The highly contested nature of the voting process produced an interesting range of pieces, and authors, from high school students to university professors. This I think is the greatest success of Missive, as there is a broad representation of writers from all walks of life.

The use of Community Based Reading, while beneficial in terms of creating a highly competitive and diverse journal, has some major drawbacks. First, abstentions, some of the readers on the panel did not understand the commitment they were making, and as such in some instances readers simply did not vote or read a large number of submissions, while this was a rare occurrence as only two readers read fewer than a third of the submissions, it is nonetheless a limitation. Second, reader turnover poses a problem and an opportunity. For the second issue, only five of the original nine readers agreed to continue reading. This could be seen as a positive because it promotes a constantly changing set of opinions, which is good. However, finding new readers is difficult. Third, is the lengthy response time. The use of Community Based Reading creates long response times, because the readers have other vocations and lives outside of reading, which is the point of using a Community Based system. On the other hand, this can make it a more excruciating process for the submitters, as they have to wait over a month to receive a decision on their submission. Additionally, the submitters receive decisions in a fragmented way, in which they are told updates on pieces as they become available.

The idea of community based reading, at least from my view, is an alluring one because it allows for a large and diverse group of people to democratically decide the content of a journal. Each reader brings different ideas of what makes good literature and in turn help to shape the body of published work by applying their ideas to the submitted products.

The use of Community Based Reading in the online journal provides a way to represent a broad range of opinions, while still maintaining the competitiveness of the journal. This represents the best way to achieve both quality and diversity, as the large number of readers helps to ensure a balance of wide appeal, while preventing homogeneity in decision-making. The wild card system is especially critical to protecting diversity, as it allows for individual readers to personalize the content of the journal and showcase their unique viewpoint on literature.

Addressing some of the problems, such as readers failing to read submissions is extremely difficult, as unless there is greater incentive—positive or negative—to vote, ensuring compliance would remain difficult. One option could be eschewing the entire voting system altogether and giving every reader a single wild card, which would guarantee greater diversity, without requiring consistency. Further analysis of this would allow for a better understanding of the comparative advantage of such a system.

Another option, would be to circumvent the entire readers process by formatting an issue as a digital open mic, in which there would be a featured writer, followed by a set number of open slots, which would be filled by whoever signs up first. This system would certainly produce the most communitarian results. Experimentation would be required to ascertain the quality of such an approach. Both of these would provide interesting directions for future issues.

By and large, the Internet has allowed for the creation of a wide variety of online journals. At the same time, it has allowed for the expansion of new approaches to literature. Missive represents one of these new approaches and by all accounts the experiment has been a successful one.


 Appendix

Table 1. Readers and acceptance rates

Reader #

“Yes” votes “No” votes Acceptance rate
Reader 1 33 73 24.444%
Reader 2 21 19 15.556%
Reader 3 30 104 22.222%
Reader 4 1 134 0.741%
Reader 5 64 70 47.407%
Reader 6 26 80 19.259%
Reader 7 79 50 58.519%
Reader 8 23 79 17.037%
Reader 9 31 3 22.963%
Journal 18 117 15.385%
Mean 25.35%

Table 2. Readers and acceptance rates without outliers

Reader # “Yes” votes “No” votes Acceptance rate
Reader 1 33 73 24.444%
Reader 3 30 104 22.222%
Reader 4 1 134 0.741%
Reader 5 64 70 47.407%
Reader 6 26 80 19.259%
Reader 7 79 50 58.519%
Reader 8 23 79 17.037%
Journal 18 117 15.385%
Mean 27.090%

Table 3. Pieces by number of votes

Number of yes votes Number of pieces
7 1
6 5
5 10
4 13
3 27
2 31
1 26
0

21

 

References

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/08/us/08bcculture.html

[2] http://thediagram.com/subs.html

[3] Duotrope is a free resource that gives readers information on a variety of publications that accept unsolicited submissions. The information includes response statistics such as: response time, acceptance rate, and personal vs form rejections.

[4] http://www.duotrope.com/Interview.aspx?id=1085

[5] http://vimeo.com/33674543

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