Astra Magazine Had Creative Freedom and a Budget—It Wasn’t Enough

From a New York Times story by Kate Dwyer headlined “Astra Magazine Had Creative Freedom and a Budget. It Wasn’t Enough.”:

From the start, Astra Magazine was unusual.

The literary journal, which published its first issue in April, had the backing of Astra Publishing House, the U.S. arm of the Chinese publishing conglomerate Thinkingdom Media Group. It was not intended as a moneymaking operation, but as a prestige vehicle for the publishing house, said Nadja Spiegelman, who was hired in 2021 to be its founding editor in chief.

The financial security afforded Astra great creative freedom and the ability to pursue the loftiest of goals: to promote literature in translation in the English-reading world. It also allowed Spiegelman to hire full-time staff members and to appropriately compensate writers and translators, often a challenge at fledgling literary publications.

The first issue, “Ecstasy,” was presented to great fanfare in the spring with contributions from literary celebrities such as Ottessa Moshfegh, Leslie Jamison, Terrance Hayes and the U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón, plus internationally-recognized voices in translation, including Fernanda Melchor, Sayaka Murata, and Forough Farrokhzad. Its 9,000 copies sold out. So did the 8,000 copies of the second issue, “Filth.”

But on Monday, Spiegelman emailed her network of contributors with news of the magazine’s closure, citing “a business decision in a difficult year for publishing.” The third issue, tentatively titled “Broke,” will not go to print, the website will cease publishing and the staff — including deputy editor Samuel Rutter and poetry editor Aria Aber — will be out of work.

Astra Magazine, Spiegelman said, was “both unusual and exciting, a glamorous and subversive literary project, a breath of fresh air and hope.” And then it was over, leaving fewer places in the United States to publish and read new fiction. Its short existence offers insight both into what is possible for a literary magazine to accomplish and into the tenuous place such publications occupy in the American publishing landscape.

Historically, literary magazines have functioned as sites of experimentation and real-time documentation of a moment’s sensibility.

“From the future, the Harlem Renaissance looks like a tidy group,” said John Freeman, Knopf executive editor, “but there were several literary magazines at the heart of it.” And their impact was significant, even in cases where they had extremely short runs. One such example was Fire!!, which released just one issue but counted Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman as co-founders.

In some other countries with robust publishing industries, houses like Gallimard in France, Granta in the United Kingdom, S. Fischer Verlag in Germany and Kodansha in Japan operate literary magazines as labs for avant-garde literature or places to foster new talent.

In the United States, none of the five large publishing houses currently fund these outlets. The infrastructure supporting national literary magazines is crumbling, too: There are fewer newsstands, fewer bookstores that stock niche magazines, fewer advertisers willing to spend on print, and — in a world where information is increasingly siloed online — fewer people willing to subscribe.

Many literary magazines, like The Paris Review and The Drift, operate as nonprofits. Others, such as The Dial — which launched this week — are backed by foundations and private benefactors. And, as their names suggest, publications like The Yale Review, The Hopkins Review, and The Kenyon Review are backed by universities or tied to university presses.

Journals exclusively funded by corporations, benefactors or universities will always be “deeply vulnerable to someone’s final decision,” Freeman said.

Earlier this year The Believer, a small but respected literary magazine, was sold by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to a company that hoped to make money on the site by posting content intended to draw clicks and online ads. The magazine had not been self-sustaining, but it had an outsize influence in the literary world. The Believer Festival, for example, helped to turn Las Vegas into an unlikely literary hub.

After much uproar in the literary world, The Believer was sold back to its original publisher, McSweeney’s, and scheduled to relaunch this month in San Francisco.

One funding alternative, Freeman said, could be a “communitarian” model where editors are small-scale investors, raise money collectively and develop a self-sustaining financial structure. The long-running short story magazine One Story is an example, he said.

However, it could take years for these self-described “little” magazines to reach a critical mass of readers, which could make them difficult to sustain without long-term backers, he said. It’s particularly challenging at a time when, he added, “we are impatient to digest information and meaning, because of the pace that we’re living at and the ways that our technology is slotting us into predetermined silos.”

Spiegelman said that launching the magazine required reinventing obsolete mechanisms for printing, distributing, and building a subscriber base for a national magazine. (A lot of emails to old-school specialists bounced, she said.)

Astra’s staff decided the magazine would be a 192-page full color book distributed through Penguin Random House, like the rest of Astra Publishing House’s titles. As a result, virtually any independent bookstore in the country would be able to stock it. And then, in an additional stroke of luck, Hudson News agreed to display the magazine at airports and train stations.

To Spiegelman, the two finished issues of Astra Magazine are “a proof of concept for what could exist in a different world, where such things were funded or financially viable.”

Ben Schrank, the publisher and chief operating officer of Astra Publishing House, blamed “an incredibly and surprisingly difficult year for book publishing” for the magazine’s closing, and made clear in an email that the company remains committed to the imprints at the publishing house.

Astra Publishing House’s president, Leying Jiang, echoed the sentiment in a news release, saying that “the format provided unexpected challenges,” and the publisher decided to focus its efforts on books. “We are deeply impressed with and very proud of the Astra Magazine team for their creativity and determination,” Jiang said. “We are here to celebrate the incredible achievements they made in such a short time.”

Some saw in the magazine’s closure broader cause for concern. Catherine Lacey, an author who published a short story in Astra Magazine’s first issue, said its end does not bode well for the future of literary fiction. It is increasingly clear that nationally-distributed literary magazines are not profitable, she added, and executives in publishing must decide whether they believe strongly enough in the value of the writing they showcase to invest.

Making a living as an author is already hard, she said. “Very few writers support themselves with books alone — it’s awards, grants, fellowships, etc., that keep us afloat,” Lacey said. “The few of us who float, anyway.”

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