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why Overland is free online

In a postscript to her review of Overland 193, Angela Meyer notes: ‘PS: It looks like you can read all of Overland online now. Don’t know how it will help the subscriptions, but it’s all here.’

Her question raises a series of issues with which all literary journals are, one imagines, currently grappling. How should a print journal relate to the web? What does the potential — and the expectations — of the new digital environment mean to the traditional subscription-based models by which the ‘little magazines’ have traditionally been funded?

I don’t think anyone’s really got a complete handle on this yet but what follows is the way that we’re thinking about it. 

Firstly, the web makes writing more accessible. If you are a journal of ideas, then reaching more readers is unequivocally A Good Thing. More people have probably now read Antony Loewenstein’s essay for Overland 193 on screen than in the print edition. Those extra readers are something to be celebrated, not to be frightened of.

Secondly, reading – particularly reading intensely – is an aesthetic experience. Despite all the wonders of the intertubes, it’s still more pleasurable to read a nicely designed and typeset page on paper than on screen, particularly if it’s fiction or a long and complicated essay. Most of us use the internet for browsing and we do our serious reading in an armchair or in bed or in the bath – basically, anywhere that gets us away from the computer. That’s why a website can never – at least, not with today’s technology – substitute for a printed journal. Readers who discover Overland online will (we hope!) still want to hold a physical copy in their hands.

Thirdly, the digital revolution has already changed the nature of subscribing. For most of the twentieth century, a magazine subscriber was part of an exclusive club: unless you took out a sub, you couldn’t read the particular journal in which you were interested. Today, however, most people can, without too much difficulty, get access to full text versions of most publications (through, say, university or public library databases). Basically, if you don’t want to pay for a journal, you no longer really have to. In that sense, subscribers to Overland are inevitably becoming more like subscribers to public radio stations. You can listen to 3RRR or 3PBS for free but people who really care about what such stations are doing recognise that they should manifest that support by becoming a subscriber.

In the case of public radio, the act of subscription becomes an expression of community as much as simply a cash transaction.

An Overland sub is a little different (in that you do actually receive four copies of the journal) but it reflects the same sentiment. People who think that arguments about the politics of culture and the culture of politics are important will, we hope, continue to subscribe, even if it’s physically possible to read the entire journal without paying a cent.

That, of course, all amounts to an extended hint … 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. It’s nice to see you acknowledge the very tip of the iceberg that is the effect the internet is having on publishing and writing. When I saw your Subscribe Now advert, I hit the link thinking it would give me your RSS feed. It seems to me that the old ways are rapidly fading but there is a certain reluctance to accept that fact. Soon the career path for a writer will be completely independent of these ancient paradigms, more a career ocean than a career path.

  2. Well, yes and no.
    Obviously, things are changing and will continue to change. But, as I tried to say in that post, there are certain things that work online and there are certain things that don’t. The web is good for the rapid dissemination of a small amount of information; for the sensory experience that is a literary novel, not so much.
    Even if that changes (with, say, the introduction of the long threatened platform that will do for print what the Ipod did for music), there will still be a need for editors and designers and so on. One of the pleasures of reading a book rather than a blog is that it’s actually been consciously designed as an enjoyable reading experience, whereas blog posts are rarely edited and never typeset.
    So I’m not sure the new world will be that different from the old one.

  3. Have you thought about not offering *all* content online? It might be better to offer a few key pieces online? Just an idea. While the point you make of the physical act of reading is true, the value of buying the journal is changed this way; cynics would think reduced.

    Another thing to consider doing is to ensure that the content stays on the site, rather than offering it in a plain text format, it could be embedded in a reader (which is rather against the idea that information wants to be free, but I’m not sure if that applies to subscriptions). The value added here is that at least if the reader is not using a physical journal they are using the actual website.

    Must be odd to releasing a journal in the current landscape; definitely interesting to watch what you do.

  4. We sort of do release the content in stages, if only because it takes a while to get it all ready for the web. To me, though, the biggest problem any journal faces is not people reading without paying but rather people not reading at all. If there’s a substantial readership for Overland online (and I’d like to think there is), you’d expect to be able to convince a proportion of those readers to take out a subscription, partly because it’s so much more pleasant reading the print edition, and partly because most punters understand the need to support literary culture. As I said, community radio is a very good example. There’s no need to subscribe to 3RRR at all since you can listen to it all for free without paying a cent. But sufficient people feel a sense of responsibility for alternative music to keep the station going. At the end of the day, that’s exactly the situation with independent publishing.
    As for the reader thing, well, I think http://issuu.com/ is kinda interesting. But it’s quite a different model to what we use.

  5. I think you’ll find many a blog post is ‘consciously designed as an enjoyable reading experience’ also but I was thinking more of the shift toward independent publishing wherein one is no longer required to seek the permission of the established status quo in order to publish a very nice book. Writers can connect directly to a readership without developing a CV of ‘recognised publications’ or having the right jobs at the correct educational establishments. I hope that the new world is radically different from the old one.

  6. I dunno, Paul. I mean, I know some people have reached mass audiences with individual blogs and so on but the whole industry still seems very much dominated by the same big players as it always was. Isn’t it a bit like the music scene? A few bands crack it big through their Myspace pages but if you look at the charts, all the top selling artists are still with the major corporate labels.

  7. What literary magazines need/want most is an engaged audience – a sense that they are disseminating ideas and contributing to cultural and political debate. So, in that sense it’s not about the subscriptions anyway (though they do become a bureaucratic tool for measuring a success). What I mean by that is, if you are reaching a wider audience by publishing on line, it can only be a good thing and if you lose a few subscribers so be it. (Though I would agree with you, Jeff that you are likely to gain them, not lose them.)

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