Many of you are acquainted with the quarterly online and print journal The Pedestrian, which debuted in 2010. The magazine features personal essays on a designated topic, in celebration of the traditional essai, an attempt to explore everyday experience. I was surprised by the announcement that after publishing two issues, the journal will be going on hiatus for financial reasons, so I queried editor Christopher Spiker about what unforeseen forces may have come into play. We are all familiar with the travails of large-scale print publications struggling to find solvency in the transition to digital media, but to hear that a new online journal is meeting obstacles gave me pause.
Spiker explained that he had to confront the same risks as any start-up industry, only he had to do it with a shorter timeline to profitability than he would have liked, due to the demands of raising a young family. Fully half his start-up costs were for marketing. He also took a risk on hiring a marketer who did not do the promised work, and ended up wearing yet another hat himself.
He does not cite changes in the publishing industry as a cause for derailment. To the contrary, he believes that those very changes are what made his progress to date possible. As he states:
Only because of the power of recent technology was I quickly able to develop an expertise in a particular literary genre of interest to me (thanks to online journals, Google Books, Questia.com, Amazon.com, online used book store searches, online library catalogs for any university, etc.). I was easily able to find (Google search, online faculty listings, online bibliographies, social networks, blogs-linked-to-blogs-linked-to-blogs) and network with (email, Skype) experts in this genre in the US and the UK. I was able to solicit writing from anyone in the world who had an internet connection and was able to correspond with them at no expense. I was able to follow the latest news, commentary, and information on an industry (publishing) that I had not worked in before (something that would have been impossible for an industry outsider prior to the digital information era).
Spiker is an avid consumer of digital news and other online functions such as networking, podcasts, video, and research. While digital material is subject to the reader’s control, for example by jumping ahead using word-search, he feels differently about literary content:
I'm still a bit old-fashioned about reading literature. I like it to have a spine. . . . Reading literature is a more passive and personal type of activity: more of an attentive listening to a voice with which you gradually become familiar, entering into an experience in which you are led by the text. A book is more suited to this type of experience. It leads you page by page.
He also values the physicality of a book:
While I'll probably purchase fewer books-with-spines in the future, I will have an even stronger preference for books that are well bound, with beautiful typography and paper that has the right scent, sound, and texture. Because I think that these aesthetic features of books are more important than ever, I tried to get these things right with the print edition of The Pedestrian.
His closing thoughts:
I wholeheartedly embrace the digital revolution, and from what I've read today on my computer, we may well be reading digital content not on screens but on contact lenses or some such thing in a decade or two. Great! Bring on progress! Still, I won't be surprised if print remains the best medium for reading literature. So, having learned a number of business lessons the hard way, if I can secure the right resources to get The Pedestrian going again, I'm confident that there will be a proper market for it, at least for some time to come.