For better or worse, the Internet in the 21st century has certainly changed the ways we access information, be it academic, journalistic or literary; challenging the merit of content and offering a place for creative prose to flourish at the same time. The closings of bookstores nationwide along with the decline of print publications — particularly those with an artistic focus and a specific audience in mind — continue to leave readers, writers and publishers wondering about the future of hardcover books and outlets for literary works in general. Although low circulation, loss of advertising dollars, and even concern for the environment have led to rethinking strategies within the publishing market, the Internet has been the impetus behind the emergence of countless online publications. In 2009, Poets & Writers magazine, in the article “From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals,” commented that “Today’s best online journals offer innovation as well as visibility.” So with a strong belief on that promise, Kweli Journal (www.kwelijournal.org), in 2009, joined the growing number of online publications. “I think that online publishers have a strong future,” says Laura Pegram, founding editor and publisher of Kweli. “Strategic planning goes a long way, and it also helps to have a strong network of support. But generally speaking, online litmags are attracting a wide readership.”
“Kweli” in Swahili means truth, and Pegram says that she approached publishing as an artist and cultural worker who took the motto “Lift as you climb” to heart. “As a published author, I was guided by instinct and need,” she adds. In describing the mission of the online publication, she says, “Kweli celebrates cultural kinships and the role of the literary imagination. In this shared space, you will hear the lived experiences of people of color. Our many stories. Our shared histories. Our creative play with language….”
With the assistance of five contributing editors, Kweli is a biannual journal that publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, as well as photo essays. Pegram points out that one of the advantages of online litmags is that they can feature embedded audio files. “Kweli has also been experimenting with audio and video clips of interviews with featured authors. Original music can complement a photo essay,” she says. Authors that have been featured in Kweli include Angie Cruz, DuEwa Frazier, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Princess Perry and Victor Lavalle.
As with any new endeavor, there comes questions about its survival. And certainly with the surge of online magazines — as well as newspapers — during the past two to three years, questions have risen about their sustainability. Will diehard readers of print surrender to reading on the Web? What are the pros and cons in regard to both readers and writers? With more and more people surfing the Internet for content that entertains and informs, it’s obvious that each publication has the opportunity to get most of its reach by broadening its presence among Internet users. In the Poets & Writers article, writer Sandra Beasley states, “Modern writers are increasingly defined by the work they have available online. Those serious about developing a career have to think about managing that virtual dimension.”
“We studied existing business models and then we added our own personal signature to Kweli’s business model,” says Pegram. “Blackbird and Ploughshares were two journals we looked at rather closely. Poet Thomas Sayers Ellis also introduced us to Transition magazine. Then it was simply a matter of getting the word out and being creative in our approach. We have a diverse readership and receive hundreds of prose and poetry submissions each year.” (Content for Kweli is currently submitted online or via regular mail.) But it also comes down to economics, adds Pegram. “An online journal is simply less expensive to produce than a print magazine,” she says.
Pegram also realizes there is a downside: Online magazines come and go; here today, gone tomorrow. She says, too, that raising money has been a major challenge. “Fundraising in this economy can be difficult at best. However, we have been thinking outside of the box and getting good results.” At a recent fundraiser, Kweli hosted a reading in partnership with The New York Times African Heritage Network that featured prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, along with four emerging writers who shared excerpts of their work. As Kweli is about to celebrate its second year, the journal will have one or two fundraisers a year to raise awareness and finances. “It’s truly the love and support of friends that keep us going,” says Pegram. “It also helps to have a committed board and a dedicated circle of editors.”