October 13, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

On Cost and Value

I had an interesting conversation with some of the Kenyon Review Student Associates the other day on the unliterary sounding topic of the relationship between cost and value. Here’s the context: Assistant Managing Editor John Pickard and I were meeting with them to talk about “new media initiatives,” which is a fancy way of saying that we were looking for their help in figuring out what a literary magazine like the KR can do to reach more readers on the web. In the short term, we’re redesigning the KR’s website to include more content: most literary reviews, including us, still have websites that look less like magazines than like expensive posters announcing the next issue or the latest literary event. If you’ve been to the KR website’s front page, you know that we offer interviews, podcasts, and excerpts from the latest issue, but we want to do more to make our website more like the magazine itself.

But that raises some important questions: if our mission isn’t simply to increase the number of subscribers to the Review, but rather to help keep the flame of literature alive by publishing the best poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction we can, and if we can reach more readers on the web than we can on the printed page, why not simply make everything that we publish in the magazine available on the website?

It’s an interesting question, and one that we’ve been discussing at some length. Print is an old and very expensive technology for delivering content to readers; the web is a new (and very expensive) technology that does the same thing, but in different ways. We never plan to stop publishing a magazine, mainly because we love that old literary technology, but also because we know that it can do things that the web can’t: a print magazine is permanent, coherent, and a pleasure to read. A website is ephemeral, less coherent (since one can simply click into another text, issue, or site), and often a real pain to read, particularly since it ties you to your computer screen. One odd feature of many online journals is that they’ve gone back in time from the modern design of a book to the design of a scroll, with half the content on a page hidden away beneath the virtual fold. Still, where a poem that we publish in a print magazine can reach thousands of readers (let’s call it mid four figures), a number limited by print run and distribution challenges, the same poem published on a website like Poetry Daily can potentially reach a much wider audience, the number of readers who see it limited only by the challenge of catching their attention. (And that’s no small problem in itself: the web is like a souk, where the whole world hawks its wares. How can a poem compete with the web’s endless seductions of news, gossip, and you-tube videos? Only, one might say, by appealing to those who find poetry the greater temptation. There are actually plenty of readers out there, but the challenge every literary publisher faces is getting that poem in front of them in a way that catches their attention, arouses their interest, and authorizes its quality.) Literary magazines are also expensive to produce, and even more expensive for one of their most important audiences: young writers who may lack a steady income. Publishing on the web is one response to those economic challenges, and the recent proliferation of online magazines suggests that many of the next generation’s writers will at least begin their publishing careers on the web.

Those are some of the questions we’re discussing in our own attempts to figure out the future of The Kenyon Review. But what was interesting in the conversation with our student associates was how much they still love the old technology, and how little they trust anything that the web offers them for free. In their minds, value is closely related to cost: the fact that one has to pay for a copy of The Kenyon Review means that its value is assured, while the exact same content offered up for free on the web would have less value to them.

Now let me say, I’ve never taken an economics class, but I get the principle here. As the New York Times recently found in the failure of their online subscription service, people will pay for a hard copy of a newspaper, but not its online equivalent. This partly reflects our sense of the internet as a free space, not only in the sense of the free-flow of ideas, but a place where everything is free. But it also reflects the fact that we live in a commodity culture: we value the object — the book — more than its contents.

Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to literature. I’ve always assumed that one thing we can all agree on is that a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. I’m thinking here of Lewis Hyde’s view of literature as a kind of gift economy, in which the intellectual and spiritual labor that goes into the making of a literary text far exceeds anything that the poet or novelist can expect to receive in return, except in the pleasure of reading other literary texts. In a sense, the value of a literary text far exceeds its cost, but only to those who already share a common set of cultural values. It’s easy to talk about a “literary community” (and far too common for most literary folk to behave more like squabbling neighbors or warring villages), but the basic idea here is that literature is a form of community defined by common agreements on the value of the written word, and also a gift economy in which we labor to give more than we get in return. While every young writer may dream of wealth or exalted reputation, those dreams rarely survive the reality of the grueling daily labor it takes to produce a great poem, story, novel, or essay. Some of us may be lucky enough to get paid for what we write, but one could argue that the return would be so much greater if we expended that same amount of time and effort in a more worldly pursuit that it’s impossible to say we write for money. We write because we have to, and many of us do it simply for the pleasure it gives us and ??? we hope — our readers.

The web offers a way to build literary community, as the explosion of literary blogs shows. It can be a great place to hold a conversation. What’s not yet clear is if it’s a great place to read. That may change as the technology for delivering the web to us (or us to the web) improves, but the question of value will remain unresolved for the time being. Does everything we get for free have the same value? Is there some way to assert greater value without greater cost? If The Kenyon Review puts a text up on the web, or if a reader simply picks up the magazine and reads it for free in a library, that reader can be confident that anything she finds has undergone a rigorous editorial process. The labor we put into the process of editing and publishing is one measure of that text’s value, even if we give it away for free.

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