Electronic Age: Should Irreantum Be An Online Journal?

About a month ago, a younger coworker of mine attended a publishing fair at BYU. At the fair, she spoke with a representive from AML, who was apparently quite enthusiastically giving away back issues of Irreantum. My coworker returned to our office with two and said, “I don’t know why she gave me these, but I don’t really want any more books right now, and I hate to throw them away. Anyone interested?” Because I already knew Irreantum, I was. I already had one of the issues, but the other was a few years old–maybe 2005?–and didn’t look familiar.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I didn’t automatically want it either–so many of the books I already own are in boxes I don’t casually add one more–but I did want to flip through the issue before it got thrown away to see if anything caught my eye. Not only did something catch my eye, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Listed right there in the Table of Contents was a story called “Brother Singh.” I blinked. Yes, it did say Singh–the same as my grandfather’s middle name, and the middle or last name of millions of Sikhs like him. I read the entire story right there in the office: it was an intriguing piece about a fictional Sikh convert to Mormonism by a writer who obviously knew a great deal about Sikh practice and history. Incredible! I’d had no idea such stories existed anywhere outside of my family.

Before I left the office, I’d called my brother and arranged to lend him the copy. I think I dropped it off on my way home, though I can’t recall for sure.

I don’t think I’ve seen it since. My brother has moved back to Ohio for the summer and will be leaving on a mission in the fall. I can’t recall if he read the story or not. If he has the copy, it’s more work than I’m likely to go about to get it back. If I do get it back and lend it to someone else, there’s a fair shot that once again, it will disappear for an extended period of time. The odds that I will successfully circulate Brother Singh among the interested members of my family are tiny–and that’s too bad.

Let’s imagine that “Brother Singh” were posted at an online version Irreantum, either instead of or in addition to being issued in print. If that were the case, I might have run across the story while browsing on my own earlier, rather than having needed the happy accident (only possible in Utah) of having a coworker about to discard a copy instead. In my initial excitement about the story, I might have emailed the link to family members, posted a link for friends of Facebook, and posssibly even written about the story on my blog. I wouldn’t have had to worry about lost copies or transporting copies to people. I wouldn’t have had to limit my sharing to people geographically close to me. Wouldn’t that be better for Mormon art?

As I understand it, a primary rationale for continuing Irreantum as a print journal is the belief that doing so will make the stories last. Editors see valuable stories and want them to be there for readers and scholars in the future to find. I wonder, though–if print is acting as an impediment to distributing this material now, isn’t it also possible that it will also make these stories harder to find later? Would these stories be easier to find through a wide range of electronic paths than through two hundred physical copies?

What do you think: are there major advantages I’m missing to print as the primary form of Irreantum distribution? Or is it time for AML to consider switching its literary journal to an online format?

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29 Responses to Electronic Age: Should Irreantum Be An Online Journal?

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I think it’s time for some sort of hybrid. Though what sort of hybrid, I don’t pretend to know.

  2. Wm Morris says:

    I advised the AML a couple of years ago to turn Irreantum in to a quarterly online magazine for creative work that would be free and then do a biannual literary journal (criticism, interviews and reviews) that could only be accessed with an AML membership where one issue is the proceedings of the yearly conference and the other is the rest of the criticism for the year, perhaps with some editions being themed.

    But I understand why it is what it is at the moment. The print version of Irreantum is one of the few tangible benefits of an AML membership. And the core folks who have supported the AML over the years prefer to receive a print product. Whether or not the current course is bringing in newer, especially younger, members I don’t know.

    And, of course, shifting things online doesn’t mean that you have to get out of the print business entirely.

    I’d also point out that the AML is not the only organization that is facing intense fiscal pressure because of the proliferation of free content that the internet made possible.

  3. Compelling ideas, James. We’ll need to talk about them.

  4. Katya says:

    There was some talk about digitizing the back issues a while ago on the listserv. Did anything ever come of that?

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’d be all for digitizing back issues, but who wants to do that work? Not me.

  6. William: I see how the print journal is a core tangible benefit of membership, but I’m not clear (even having served on the Board) about what percentage of dues go directly to Irreantum printing costs, and to what extent revenues support other AML activities. The underlying question being: is AML making enough money from Irreantum to pour into other areas to justify the costs of limiting access?
    I do think it’s better for a small nonprofit like AML to think of money as means to an end rather than an end unto itself. What’s the real goal of the journal? What the real goal of the money?

    Lisa: Digitizing back issues sounds interesting, although you’re probably correct that work is a major impediment. You’d need someone with the website experience to design a way to post them, you’d need someone to contact old authors about posting permission, and you’d need people to do the actual back-posting once a system was set up. Would all that be worth it? Are there people who would be interested in such a project?

    Theric: Maybe talking about hybrids is a good place to start. Should AML only post certain pieces online, and save others for the print journal? Should AML only post excerpts or even "abstracts" online, and keep full pieces in a print journal? I don’t know either, but it seems worth throwing ideas around.

  7. Katya says:

    Lisa: There would definitely be a lot of work to do, but it would be a lot of different kinds of work. Are you really unwilling to help out with any of it, or are you just overwhelmed by the entire process? (Even giving permission for some or all of [i]your[/i] work to be digitized would help . . . )

    James: The posting could be as simple as throwing PDFs up on a server and the designing could be as simple as adding links to a table of contents. If you’re envisioning some sort of searchable, sortable database front end, I agree that that would be great, but it’s possible to start with something much more simple.

  8. Katya: Agreed. And I’d imagine if permission is available, it wouldn’t be hard to get volunteers for that.

    Another awesome idea William proposed a while ago which I just read: why not have a podcast of some of the top work read by the authors? Sort of like bringing the AML Awards reading to the internet? Seems like a good idea for a "hybrid" to me.

  9. Th. says:

    .

    I wonder if the Y or the U or another school would allow asking for student volunteers to do this as part of a class project. I’m not bothering to think this through at the moment, but I remember similar projects during my undergrad years.

  10. Wm Morris says:

    I’m not fond of the PDF model, but, of course, since I have all of the issues of Irreantum except one, I’m probably not the one who should drive any sort of priorities. :-P

    The AML Annual, on the other hand, would be something I’d be willing to put some time in to.

    Of course, with either Irreantum or the Annuals, is you use one of the journal management systems, you get both html and PDF versions + metadata and abstracts. It would be a huge project, though. I’m just happy, for example, that the Irreantum and AML websites are more or less integrated and that this blog exists.

    I do think that the best thing the AML could do at this point is create additional value for members — a podcast would be great. Getting the AML annuals up to date (print or electronic) would be my number one preference.

    The larger issue, though, is the economic one. If you make the leap of faith and switch to all electronic, you will lose readers who prefer the print product and you will most likely end up devaluing your content (whether or not e-books and the rise of tablets will diminish the devaluing of content remains to be seen — early signs for periodicals are not good. For independent authors, things are mixed). On the other hand, if all you are paying for as an organization are awards and hosting costs plus a few administrative costs then that may not be as much of an issue. There’s also the possibility that you can grow your subscriber base with a lower membership price point. I don’t know what would work best for the AML.

    Or to put things another way: because of the overabundance of free content on the web and the attention crunch, it’s possible that those beyond the core Mormon lit crowd would be willing to read one or two free stories written by a friend or loved one and move on and never think of the AML again. On the other hand, nothing drives engagement like the ability to sample the product and find an easy way in to the community.

  11. Melinda W. says:

    As a reader, I prefer a printed product. I’m more willing to put time and thought into reading something printed. When I’m reading online, I’m in a hurry (limited computer time), and I usually don’t give it my full attention (hey! I can check facebook at the next paragraph break!). And I find myself skimming if a post is more than four screens long. If Irreantum moved online, I probably wouldn’t read any of it besides the reviews. But I read the print edition cover to cover. I prefer anything that requires thought and time to be on paper.

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m a reader like Melinda W. Also, there is just something about the thought of print that makes me expect better writing/work. Anyone can slap anything online. Its cheap and easy. But with print, the fact money is invested guarantees me that the people behind it were invested enough to produce something with enough merit to entice me to invest my hard-earned money again.

    And no, Katya, I wouldn’t be willing to put a moment into doing any aspect of the digitizing. I’m not overwhelmed by the process; I’m overwhelmed by my life. As for my work in [i]Irreantum[/i], I only succeeded in getting them to print one story. They were probably kind to accept it, to be honest. But I hereby give permission for [i]Irreantum[/i] to digitize and upload "Room for Solomon" :)

  13. Th. says:

    .

    I’m with Melinda 100%. I love Wired, but I get the print edition. If I canceled my subscription, I would not continue to read as much Wired even though it is ALL online.

  14. Wm Morris says:

    I imagine that many others have that same prejudice, Lisa. I’m sympathetic to wanting to read something in print — we’re just not yet at a point where e-readers provide as good of a reading experience (although we may be close). I personally also prefer to read anything longer than a short story in print form even though I do a lot of reading on the web.

    The second prejudice, though, is one that could be very dangerous if allowed to fester in the AML community. There’s plenty of dreck in print; there’s plenty of dreck online. There’s some great stuff in print; there’s some great stuff online. Don’t confuse the technology with the editorial voice and the readerly community — nor the investment. The investment for print only says that people have money they want to throw in to old technologies. It says nothing about someone’s ability as an editor/curator/publisher. It says nothing about the quality control of the publishing house. To have that attitude also dismisses the investment in time and money and expertise that a really good online journal or magazine needs. To do it right, you need to pay for business-class web hosting; a unique web design; web programming and some sort of content management system; and, most likely (since to publish on the web successfully you really need to provide some strong visual elements), good photography and video. And that’s not even getting in to publishing as an e-book — that’s just pages online. E-books, to be done right, require the same sort of investment of time and expertise to do the layout as print publications (and no PDFs don’t count; they are cumbersome, crippled things) With the advent of apps to be used with smartphones and tablet computers, the investment becomes even more expensive and the experience (if done right) becomes even more immersive and book-like.

    I’m not saying that Irreantum needs to ditch the print journal and go out and make an iPad app (especially since I have no plans on buying in iPad). I’d have to have a look at some hard numbers and engage in some surveys and focus groups in order to have an actual informed, professional opinion and even that isn’t worth a whole lot at the moment because of how things are changing. But I think tying the notion of quality to the technology of print seriously hinders the ability of the AML to make the best decision in what paths pursue in what is bound to be a very knotty future for all of the Mormon journals. There are some very strong market and cultural forces that are bearing down on organizations like the AML, and all signs point to the fact that standing still isn’t a sustainable solution.

    It’s a bit funny to read back over what I just wrote. It may not sound like it, but I hate doomsaying. Heck, I’d be happy to go back to when Irreantum had crappy covers but also had really cool interviews and lots of publishing news — even though I also enjoy that it’s become a much better journal with much better covers (with, I would imagine, higher printing costs). But somehow I seem to have become this digital evangelist and gadfly around these parts. That’s fine, I guess. I do think, though, that the soul of AML is not and should not automatically be dependent on a print journal even as I personally prefer to have my shelf in my bedroom devoted to all the copies of Irreantum. And, of course, with print on demand, there’s no reason why those of us with a print fetish can’t still indulge ourselves.

  15. Katya says:

    Th.: I don’t recommend doing the actual digitizing as a volunteer project, because it’s hard to coordinate the various steps and maintain quality or even consistency over a disparate group. With the projects I oversee, I assign one person to work on one set of materials and take them all the way through the digitization process. It’s slower going than if everyone was working on the same materials at once, but it’s easier to keep the quality up.

    Lisa: All those who would like to thank Sister Downing for allowing her story to be digitized, please manifest. We will now release her from any further obligations. :D

  16. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Yeah, you’re right again, Wm. I get that. But the peer review process has historically belonged to print. (Not that [i]Irreantum[/i] is peer-reviewed; that’s another topic.) Digitalization cames after print. Or so it has been. I’m sure its changing for scholarly journals. Its definitely not something I keep on on, so take me to school whenever I need it. Its unfortunate for the strong online community that weak online exists too. But it does. Save for personal recommendations, I don’t browse blogs or ezines.

    Now, Katya, if you could please just find a way to get the bishop of my ward to say something similiar, I’d be a happy camper–especially if he includes that release from any further obligations. A girl can dream. . .

  17. Wm Morris says:

    My understanding* is that peer review process is actually stronger in the sciences these days because it is online — it allows for more transparency and especially more pre-publication filtering and refining. Humanities journals, for many of the same reasons expressed here, have been slower to make the move, although, of course, it is happening, especially for very specialized, niche subjects.

    Also: I think Katya makes an excellent point. In fact, it might be more effective to do a fundraising campaign to pay someone to do the digitization in a professional way than to launch a time-consuming volunteer effort. It all depends, of course, on what shape the files are in, what rights the submitters agreed to (and what shape their contact info is in), etc.

    *which is a couple of years old because I no longer work at a college where the faculty do research and publish

  18. Katya says:

    Building on what William said (because how can I not agree with someone who thinks I’ve made an excellent point?), I have two counterintuitive suggestions:

    1. Do the fundraising in terms of new AML memberships.

    2. Digitize the volumes one by one instead of sending them all off in a single batch.

    #1 is counterintuitive because all the money from a current member could go to this project, while some of the money from a new member will have to pay for their [i]Irreantum[/i] subscription, etc. [i]However,[/i] raising money in terms of new AML memberships means that you’re growing the base of the organization, which is a better long-term strategy. (And perhaps current AML members could be encouraged to donate in terms of gift memberships, if they wish to make a contribution.)

    #2 is counterintuitive because it’s generally better to process everything at the same time, for consistency’s sake, and because you may get a volume discount if you do it all at once. [i]However,[/i] starting with just the goal of digitizing the first volume (and posting as much of it as copyright permissions will allow) gives you a much lower bar in terms of fundraising and it lets you keep the interest up as you add new volumes to the online repository.

  19. Th. says:

    .

    I’ld buy a gift membership for a person or two to do this.

  20. Wm Morris says:

    Mini fundraising campaigns with specific, low dollar amount goals have been very effective over the past few years, especially when conducted online and via e-mail.

  21. Angela H. says:

    Great ideas here. Sorry I’ve been late to jump in and comment. Pneumonia! It’s been grand.

    Anyway, all of this is definitely worth thinking about. I will say, though, that as far as Jack and I are concerned, having a tangible print journal is a very high priority. I want the finished product to end up on a shelf, and so does Jack.

    This doesn’t mean that digitizing back issues and having them available online is out of the question. I think it’s a great idea. It’s just a matter of getting volunteers to do it.

  22. Cool discussion.

    I’m definitely not against a print journal and Melinda W. and Lisa give good experiential reasons why the print journal is useful.

    My primary concern is with increasing the amount of access scattered casual readers might have. I don’t want literature to be something I do but can’t share with friends who aren’t hard-core literature (esp. Mormon literature) people.

    I hope that online access discussions in the near future will focus on that goal. Even a system like picking 1-2 pieces per issue deemed to be of higher broad-public interest for online posting (as text, pdf, or podcast) would be great.

    No need to switch over entirely: let’s just do more to reach out and make Mormon Letters accessible to a broader audience.

  23. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I like what you say, James.

  24. Katya says:

    To bring this conversation back around to where it started, I’ve also read [i]Brother Singh,[/i] but I had to request it through ILL, which isn’t an option for everyone. I have a particular interest in the stories of ethnic minorities within the Mormon community, so I loved reading the story. (And I’m glad to hear from James that the writer got a lot of the details right–what I know about Sikhism wouldn’t fill a thimble-sized turban!)

  25. I think stories about ethnic Mormon experience are a good example of a category that might have readership beyond people who are already very literary. I know plenty of people who don’t even know what to do with most contemporary poetry, but are interested in different types of Mormon experience. I’d like to see stuff with potential cultural (rather than strictly literary) resonance be made accessible online.

  26. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve been wishing I had an easy way to share Eric’s no-mission-statement address with people. . . .

  27. Tyler says:

    I may be missing something, James, but what’s the correlation between "know[ing] plenty of people who don’t even know what to do with most contemporary poetry" and being "interested in different types of Mormon experience," especially in context of this discussion? Just curious, as one interested in both of these: contemporary poetry and different types of Mormon experience.

  28. Th. says:

    .

    [u]Mormon Experience[/u]

    by Theric

    Mormonsmarchingonwater
    under the
    no
    opening our arms
    tomennamedSingh
    fishsticks (some brands healthier than others)
    as missionaries take drugs to kill the worms
    the contemporary Mormon experience is
    internationalbaby
    contemporary
    Tyler writes poetry too
    but I
    am more pretentious
    (internationally)
    Mormons in Brazil

  29. Tyler,

    Most poetry is invested in its form, and can therefore be off-putting to readers who don’t think much about form. That’s not to say anything against poetry–but more people read prose news, fiction, etc. than any sort of poetry these days.

    If the point of putting content online is to reach out to a broad, less literary audience, it’s probably wise to put up stuff with more accessible forms and clear cultural "hooks." As an early reader, I need to know why I should be sending the link to some friend who’s never touched a literary magazine and why I should think he/she will like what they read.

    That doesn’t mean no Irreantum poetry should go online: it means that if we were to pick 1-2 pieces per issue to post, I’d vote for the ones with clear cultural interest that are the easiest read for a general LDS audience. For many general readers, contemporary poetry is sort of a foreign language.

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