The End of Paper Tape and What Comes Next

On July 2, I announced that Paper Tape will no longer be publishing new work. It's standard break-up talk to say that it was a hard decision to make, but in this case it actually was. By all measures, Paper Tape was doing well. In less than three years, we published over 125 writers and artists, and 2015 looked like it was going to be our best year. Readership was up. Engagement was up. The number and quality of submissions was up. I felt like I was doing good work. I was publishing writers who had never been published before and working with established writers whose work I loved and respected.

Back in December, I knew that I had come to a crossroads. I either needed to double down or get out of the game. If I doubled down, I would have needed to take seriously the requests from readers and authors for a Paper Tape Press. I would have needed to decide whether Paper Tape was a literary style magazine where authors published to get a notch on their CVs and got paid elsewhere or if I believed like genre markets do that writers deserve to be paid for their work.

Even if I didn't launch a press or form an LLC and start writing checks, submissions were getting high enough that I either needed to drop writing or do what other writer/editors do and raise the response time to three or six months. Having been on the other side of ridiculously long wait times, I knew that I couldn't subject anyone else to that myself. And dropping writing? I couldn't seriously consider it. 

Several people who were close enough to Paper Tape to have insight pointed out that being swamped didn't need to be a fatal obstacle. This is what slush readers are for, they said, and it's true that just convincing someone to help me deal with obvious things like poetry spam would have helped things considerably. 

The problem was, at this point, I had already started down the rabbit hole of Big Important Questions. Am I an editor? Am I this kind of editor? Do I believe in traditional publishing? Do I believe that open call submissions are good for editors? Or writers? Or readers? What do I believe the role of an editor is? What should it be? What should my role be? What am I any good at? What do I love about this? What do I hate about this? What do I have to give?

The conclusion I came to is this: I'm not a critic. I'm a believer. I am at my best (and I am happiest) in the invisible times when a writer has something that is definitely not ready for publication, and I see a spark of something special, and I believe in that spark and cheer them on and work with them through draft after draft until the spark starts to really sizzle, and there is no doubt whatsoever that it's time to throw the grenade. 

Theoretically, a lit mag editor can pull a story that has potential out of the slush pile and offer to help a writer finish it. When I was working on Paper Tape, I did that as often as I could, but at that point in the process the writer in question rarely heard my enthusiasm as good news, and I understood why.

Writing a story or essay is like going on the hero's journey. There are many obstacles to overcome along the way. When you've defeated your self-doubt, your loved ones' doubt, binge watching 90s sitcoms, your inner high school English teacher, your fear of rejection, and an army of beta readers (if you're lucky), if you don't decide that you've earned the right to throw the thing up on the Internet yourself, the editor is the final boss. It's hard enough just getting to the point of being ready submit your work. Being told that there's more work to do when you think you're already done feels like a setback. It doesn't matter how close to being done you are or how sure the promise of publication is when the editor is finally satisfied. 

I would much rather catch writers when they're earlier in the process, before they get to the point when they feel like someone needs to publish them or they'll die. 

That is the work I really care about. (That and, you know, my own writing.) How I will do it, exactly, I'm not sure, but I'm fairly confident there are better ways to do it than publishing a lit mag.