Anna Hedigan surveys Australian journals on the web

23 September 2003

Print journals in Australia are not web-savvy. They're mostly hip to the notion that they need a web presence but most sites betray little or no idea of who is reading them, or what information those readers might want. You don't need a focus group and expensive consultancies to work these issues out, but I suspect most print journals haven't even sat down with a texta and butchers' paper to map the content of these sites, much less refined them as a real tool for broadening their buying and reading audiences. For the most part, these sites look like they've been generated by the (Mac) monkey with the typewriter.

If you'd never seen an issue of the journals reviewed below, you'd think they were duller than a software manual. Out of date information, no content to “privilege” online readers (eg – online only articles, access to archive materials, artwork, sound/visuals from events) and tired design result in web sites that are little more than a placeholder for “the real thing” – the journal they're trying to sell you.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. A dynamic site might generate interest to increase subscriptions, or at least encourage people to search the journal out in a bookstore; more traffic means more people know about you and appreciate your content. Surely Amazon has proven that of all things, people feel comfortable buying books online, so why are Australia's journals so slow to pick up on opportunity? A brief look at sites like Granta, admittedly much better funded than many Australian journals, and smell-of-a-wet-rag operations like Diagram and the Land-Grant College Review show some journals are far, far more savvy when it comes to enticing online readers to cough up for hard copy.

Without the web, great publishing initatives like OneStory wouldn't be able to continue – it's an essential tool for selling and promoting what they do. If the market in Australia for journals is small, why not go global? Through offering account logins for subscriber access to special areas of their sites, discount offers on back issues, information on special deals with partnership organisations, or even just posting some content from each issue and using mail groups to inform their online community that a new issue is available, Australian hard copy journals could be doing a lot more with their sites at fairly low cost. For starters, even small journals should be offering secure online sales, at discount subscriber rates (direct sales won't attract hefty distro costs). If it's any consolation, most Australian publishers' sites are making the same mistakes as the literary journals. Just compare Canongate to Random House Australia and you'll see what I mean.

Few of these journals have capitalised on the cross-over between people who love to read “hard” books and journals, and web-readers. Do they think we're all searching for porn? Or are they worried that posting content from their journal will dilute their brand? Reading lit-crit blogs like Maud Newton, North of the Latte Line, TMFTML and Bookslut might put editors in touch with the concept of the hungry online reader who's willing to shell out for good hard copy, where ever it's published worldwide. All they want is a little taste, man. The first one is free, but if you're up to scratch, good writing junkies always want more.

Meanjin
www.meanjin.unimelb.edu.au

A classic example of a “placeholder” site that offers nothing to excite the web palate. A clean design but vanilla all over. No samples of work, news, or anything particularly “live” except for upcoming and current issue information, which was out of date when I checked it. What about listing their next launch event and who is reading at it, just for starters? There's no site map to make it easy to find things, and I actually needed one – the list of stockists was placed under subscriptions and took some digging to find. There are no contents listings, even for the current issue, only a summary of each issue going back to 1998, a poor cousin indeed to a full listing. Considering the rich history of Meanjin in publishing the next-big-things of Australian critical, academic and creative writing, they're sitting on a gold mine of archive material that it would be lovely to see extracted here, with authorial permission of course. There's no sense of the importance of Meanjin in the literary landscape either – what about a profile on Clem Christesen, who died recently, or some mud- slinging – sorry, impassioned debate – from past issues? A visit to The Paris Review is in order to see how it should be done.

HEAT
www.giramondopublishing.com/heat/

A site that utterly fails to reflect the rigour and quality of both Giramondo publications and HEAT in any real way. It offers no information on events, or special features in upcoming issues, both of which are real selling points of the journal. HEAT presented a great lecture series as part of the Melbourne Writers' Festival – a personal highlight for me, and something worthy of a good crow, but there's no mention of it here. As part of the NYWF in October 2003 Heat is running a zines project, where zine-makers respond to Heat magazine – the outcome will be inserted into subscriber copies of HEAT and sold at HEAT events. It's a project likely to attract interest outside the print journal's normal demographic, and makes subscription that little more attractive as subscribers will be getting content that bookstore copies won't get. Yet no information is available from the website on this. The site is totally static except for basic information on new issues and Giramondo books. I'd kill the red highlighting – and definitely load some content from issues. At least the wonderful artwork from recent issues gets a run online. There's no stockist list, an amazing oversight for a small publisher without broad distribution. The Giramondo Press part of the site is dull, with text hard up against the left hand side of the screen. What about some reviews of titles? Places online where you can read other work by Giramondo authors? Brian Castro has his own website – why not link to it here? I suspect HEAT and Giramondo are suffering from that interminable problem in small arts organizations – someone offers to do something for free (build a website) but do you think you can ever get them to maintain it properly? This site is a puppy that's been dumped after Christmas, I'm afraid.

ABR
http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/

Includes an index of online reviews that's not searchable, so unless you've got time to scroll through the extensive archive it's of limited use. No online secure sales, but at least every issue has some material online, and a full contents listing is provided for issues going back to 1997. I liked the Advances section, offering information on upcoming events and issues of note – the only problem being they've not altered the listings from hard copy format, making no use of hyperlinks to the events they're talking about. Some sections of the site are woefully out of date, and there's no information about ABR's history outside the masthead. A site that's almost there – all it needs is a good clean up, and regular maintenance on all sections.

Overland
http://www.overlandexpress.org/index.htm

I'll declare my interest and confess I once worked for Overland editing their online web journal overland express – quite a different kettle of poisson from this site. This site uses a newspaper-style layout you find on daily updated media sites, but considering the paucity of content, it's too busy. At times using bitmapped images and italicised fonts that are all but unreadable, Overland does at least advertise its events clearly, provides good detail on upcoming issues and it plans to have an index. The site overall suffers from poor organisation; the issues section runs out of chronology, with a sidebar in red that draws the eye only to give a precis for an earlier issue that should logically sit at the bottom of the page. Red is a poor colour choice for readability online. Submission guidelines get straight to the point, but include distribution details, which more naturally belong with the subscription section, and should include more than a reference to the distribution company. The rich history of Overland kicking against the pricks could easily be invoked by a few choice back issue articles, but no details are offered for issues before #163. There is some content from issues online, but you may have trouble finding it – articles sit in the overflow section, as well as a letter that is in response to material the online reader has no access to. It's a great idea to draw online readers into debates on issues they can only partially read about without the “hard” journal, but Overland fails to capitalise by offering too little. The overflow section doesn't seem the right place for this kind of material either – as overflow is actually a stand-alone online poetry issue that's great, and at the very least deserves a link from the Overland homepage. The site doesn't offer secure online sales, and should better highlight the Take-3 deal that Overland offers with Tirra Lirra and Island to receive all three journals at a discount bundled price. A problem occurs if you happen to browse online with images tu
rned off, or are a user with a disability, as none of the images including the navigation bar have alt-tags, effectively making the site invisible. Arena is a politically forthright journal in the same mould as Overland that does a better job of engaging the reader online, despite being a less attractive site, thanks to its generosity of content.

Griffith Review
www58.gu.edu.au:4500/grifrev/

A new quarterly journal with themed issues, the first edition on “Insecurity in the New World Order”. It sits within Queensland's Griffith University website, using the same simple take-me-seriously grey and red design. The home page is a tad longwinded but site navigation is clear. It includes a search engine, a contributors list and secure online subscription service. Curiously, the subscription page doesn't list the prices to subscribe nor is there a list of stockists. The Review is published in association with ABC Books, so presumably is stocked through ABC shops, but is linked to the general ABC site only from a discreet link on the homepage. I searched for it on the ABC Shop website to find they do stock it, but subscribers don't receive a discount on the stand cover price – so why would you bother subscribing? There's a great selection of content from the current issue online – from academics, journalists, irreverent culture-jammers, poets and artists. Some articles appear in full, others merely extracted to dangle the carrot and make you want to get your hands on a hard copy. Subscribers receive a login that allows them access to the full archives online, so you get something extra with your subscription. No events or news listings, nor a full index of the issue. Submission guidelines are a bit fuzzy on details like copyright and payments but overall the Griffith Review is taking its online audience seriously. I haven't seen a “hard” copy yet, but having enjoyed the taster paragraphs of Andrew Belk's “The Big Jesus” I'll be buying one.

Salt-Lick Quarterly
www.members.optusnet.com.au/saltlickquarterly/

Proves a small organisation can produce a good looking site with better content than the big guns. There are bios on authors as well as extracts from the current and previous issues, a clean design that's easy to find your way around, and even the small miracle of a stockists' list. No secure sales (their budget probably doesn't run to that) but the list of links and the editors' favourite poets makes visiting virtual Salt-Lick a warm experience. Salt-Lick run regular readings and post photographs of them, for the poets out there trying to spot themselves. I'd really like a full contents listing of back issues, and better subscription information – how many issues per year are published, for example.

Westerly
westerly.uwa.edu.au/

A nicely laid out corpse – it offers a search facility or you can browse all of its issues for full contents pages, but all is hermetic – no material is offered online and there are no details of Westerly's history. The submission guidelines have a decidedly negative cast – they warn for email inquiries “replies may only be made for acceptances” and that about 1% of the poetry they receive makes the cut. This wouldn't seem that relevant, except there is so little offered elsewhere on this site to give you any flavour of what this publication might be like for the uninitiated. Calling out for some content to be loaded.

Southerly
www.arts.usyd.edu.au/departs/english/southerly/default.html

Obviously designed by an amateur, offering very basic information that does not include complete content listings, or stockists. It's pretty unattractive and gives you no idea of the content or history of the journal at all – but there are much slicker looking Australian journal websites that do no better than this one in terms of content. Looks as though it's the fiefdom of an interested academic who could use some help from the University of Sydney IT staff in making it look better and contain more current news.

Anna Hedigan is one of the editors of Going Down Swinging, a literary journal whose website is well worth checking out.

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