Published January 2013
It all started about six months ago, when my former roommate and I were lazing about on a long Saturday afternoon discussing our inability to get certain “Jewish” pieces out into the world. We acknowledged the possibility that we are novices in our writing. However, as we had each independently delved further into the publishing world before and been unable to find a fitting venue for our pieces, we decided to take measures into our own hands. We did what any industrious 20-something-year-olds with an Internet connection would do- we started our own “company,” aptly entitled, “Jewish Literary Journal.”
At one of our early meetings we concluded that we would not be paying authors for their submissions. There were a host of reasons for this decision—the major factor being that we did not want to take on investors or pass on the project to someone with resources. We wanted our vision to become the reality. Instead we bankrolled, designed, and marketed (if you can call Facebook/Twitter posts that) the site all on our own. Perhaps this was a foolish endeavor, as we had no pedigree or particular experience of which to speak in the literary world (aside from minor publications and a couple of competitions and internships here and there). But we really wanted to be involved in a project like this from inception to execution, so we launched it all by ourselves.
The first few weeks we were antsy and we had to remind ourselves to stop checking our e-mail for submissions every hour. This was obviously a niche publication, only being seen on the Internet and only marketed by about four people through social media. Submissions would come; we just had to be patient. As luck/providence/persistence (is there a difference?) would have it, the pieces did come in – albeit a little late and a little rough. We pressed on, the first issue had to post, and presto the journal was up and running.
There were the early snafus, such as the “comics/graphic novel” section proving a dud as no submissions came in, or the necessary publishing of occasional pieces that might not have quite been up to snuff because we needed to fill the space by our first of the month deadline. But we were content with what we thought we were accomplishing.
Fast-forward about five months and we were once again coming down to the wire for publication of the fourth issue without the necessary pieces. We were hoping by now that people had gotten to know us and saw that we were trying to build something they wanted to be a part of. Unfortunately, that had not (yet) been the case. I went back to our original source for material/marketing (read “Facebook”) and posted something for my writer friends to see, “could I rustle up one more author who was willing to send us his/her stuff?” This move turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
In the comments section I got a response from a friend of a friend that asked if we compensated the writers. Despite the fact that this question could have been answered if the commenter had bothered to actually check our site (where all the guidelines are printed for all to see—they took forever to get just right, by the way), I decided it was a simple question so I answered it there (“No,” if you’ve forgotten).
The response at first was unexpected and harsh.
“There’s no reason to submit unless people really like you and want to make you happy…Without compensation, you are not only taking away the profit motive but you are also taking away the secondary motivations that people would have for contributing to such magazines – resume building and name recognition. Sure, you can convince gullible amateur writers to contribute but you are going to have to edit their work heavily to make them readable and if any of them become good at their craft, they are going to stop writing for you as soon as they wise up and realize that it’s a waste of time to write for free markets.”
And then as if realizing how his comment sounded he added “Basically, that’s advice and not criticism…”
Now while I appreciate critiques as much as the next guy (really, I do), I believe that a lot of the writer’s issues are based on assumptions that could have been remedied if a) he had actually looked at the site first and b) he looked at art/writing in a different way.
Our purpose is simple: to create a digital space where the art form of Creative Writing takes center stage. The reason to submit to our journal is if you believe that as well and you want your piece to help cultivate a revival for Creative Writing in the 21st Century. We especially saw a lack in the Jewish world for this sort of writing and so we looked to remedy the situation.
Our site offers no money, but if you search Google for “Jewish Literary Journal,” we come up as #2 on the list. Compensation can come in two forms: money or acclaim/name recognition. While we weren’t offering the first, there was the second, to a certain degree (hey, it is a niche market after all). Additionally, in the first three volumes of the Journal we have published multiple people with Masters Degrees in different genres of writing as well as published authors, we had been viewed in over 8 countries, and, most importantly, we had been read by hundreds of people. While these stats aren’t necessarily the most impressive when comparing it to the rest of the Internet, to us it was not bad. Heck, it might even be considered impressive, especially since we really did not know most of the people submitting (which meant our net had been cast a lot wider than we had originally thought).
Furthermore, this assumption of getting paid for your creative writing is a little out of touch. I hate to break it to this person (and really anyone who is looking to get into writing, creative or not): it doesn’t pay. Strike that, it doesn’t pay well. And anyone who is getting into it for money should stop now and go into something more lucrative like banking or real estate (although nowadays nothing is really a sure bet). I have been composing poetry for about six years now. I have almost never gotten any money for it (and what I have gotten has been quite negligible in the grand scheme of things like rent and groceries). Instead I have worked in multiple professions in order to pay the bills. Yet, whenever someone asks me what I am, the first answer I give is writer/poet. I write because I love to, because I need to, not to get money for it. While I understand the sentiment that you shouldn’t do something for free if you can get paid for it, I don’t think it necessarily applies to art: my starving artist friends would agree with me.
Perhaps one day we will be able to pay our submitters with cold hard cash (I am a struggling writer myself, so I understand the desire to get paid for your work), but for now our journal just can’t afford it. And even more than that, we might never want to pay for pieces. Because our intentions are to get creative writing back into general conversation, we may never want to taint it with the scent of money. We may just want to help foster the dialogue surrounding the importance of being able to put pen to paper and create words that last for generations. It’s in our DNA, as we weren’t labeled “People of the Book” for nothing. There is a long tradition of Jewish writers, some who were paid and most of whom were not. We wanted to allow the words to present modern Jewish ideas and ideals and to let the works speak for themselves. If this is not something that interests you, than feel free to search for publications that do pay (also, feel free to pass them along). If, however, this sounds like your cup of tea, than please feel free to join us in the conversation.
Aaron Berkowitz is a writer, editor, and teacher, who is also Co-Founder of the Jewish Literary Journal.