Genevieve Tucker: Online? Present & Accounted For

24 July 2007

In 2003 Cordite commissioned Anna Hedigan to review the websites of Australia's established literary journals.

Now, four years later, we ask: what's changed?

Genevieve Tucker's update looks at the online presences of some of Australia's litjournals in the context of online content licensing, to give our readers an idea of the rocky road some of these publishers have traversed between paper and hypertext in this sparkling cyber age.

In 2003 Anna raised the issue of online archives with regards to Meanjin:

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.

However, the thorny question of how electronic versions of this kind of content are currently managed by commercial database publishers is not an easy one to answer, even today. Literary journals in Australia vary widely in the range of content they have licensed to electronic publishers to sell back on their behalf to libraries (which in increasingly fewer numbers also subscribe to hard copies of the same journals.)Worldwide, semi-academic serials are going through publishing convulsions as the growing electronic publishing industry stumbles through the inevitable and initial period of hybridization with hard copy publishing.

There's a jungle of virtual copyright traps, Open Access publishing initiatives and licensing deals and packages waiting for unwary literary editors, who need the services of savvy cyber-publishers or e-publishing librarians if they are to keep up with all that's going on in this rapidly developing area.

For example, in Victoria, one can read all issues of both Meanjin and Overland from 1994 to the previous twelve months on workstations in the State Library, while library card holders working from home don't have access to full text articles. But licensing deals between the journal publishers and third parties are developing and changing as we speak.

Recent news indicates that Melbourne University Press, one of the best e-publishing outfits in the country, is trying to get much closer to the heavily subsidized journal Meanjin, to the discomfort of, among others, Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose, who may well be simply feeling left out in the cold hard copy world as he sniffs the winds of digital change. For as he should know, coverage of Australian Book Review by the RMIT Publishing Informit database is far more sparing, as I found to my considerable shock last year while doing some research.

Presently, through the State Library of Victoria, only 274 fulltext articles from Australian Book Review dating back to 1994 are currently available on the Australian Public Affairs FullText database (APA-FT). The same limited online content is available through the National Library. This is hardly a substantial archive, indicating clearly that you archive what you can pay for in the current Australian electronic publishing environment.

One could imagine Peter Rose has reason to mutter darkly about a takeover by a committed university press with a good electronic publishing business of a rival magazine, which could then be in a much stronger position to publish for itself and sell to libraries under both formats. This is something ABR doesn't have a hope in hell of managing at this point in time, unless it either arranges something more substantial (and costly) with RMIT Publishing, or moves into something like the very spare (yet functional) e-repository format of Australian Humanities Review, published by one of its sponsors, Latrobe University, via their library.

For Paris Review-style archives must be paid for somehow, whether it be through the use of sponsorship dollars from a good publisher with a genuine desire to promote the publication for its intrinsic cultural worth, or staffing dollars to provide a publication with the technical support to adopt something closer to an Open Access journal model. Space does not permit me to expand on what that means, so please read this further information. One can also set up as a commercial operation online, as publishers such as Australian Teachers Of Media (ATOM) have done, and still have content licensed by commercial database publishers to libraries.

Without these approaches, however, such archives will remain dream territory for Australian literary journals, even when the brave new guard of tooled-up creative industrialists graduates and is parachuted into their offices to rescue them. There are still those contracts with existing publishers like RMIT to unravel and restitch, after all. It's not like building a new mag with an online presence from the word go.

So in the meantime, let's have an alphabetically arranged trip around a few websites. It will be interesting to see if any of our previously reviewed editorial outfits read Anna's initial e-publishing report, and, more importantly, if they took any notes.

Australian Book Review

http://www.australianbookreview.com.au/

Australian Book Review is trying desperately to get with the program – there are lots of reviews and articles online from month to month, but site navigation is somewhat chaotic, to say the least. As Anna noted, the index of book reviews is cumbersome, and one wonders why those available online are not in a separate (and searchable) list. Also the back issues section looks like it was started with good intentions but is a mess, with snippets of incomplete articles scattered everywhere and Google in charge of any search results.

At present this site is for the curious and patient browser only, and is a good example of how daft it is to put so much online without any thought to how it can be retrieved systematically by the user.

This is a pity as Peter Rose's effortless, jazzy style as a blogger puts a lot of us well and truly in the shade, without him having to try too hard. But ABR is still appearing on Google as two different websites, a bewildering array of impermanent links to most content can be found on each (yes, even within Blogger!) and someone has to say this – it is high time that the ABR editors took on a website manager, or at least purchased some content management software and learned how to use it.

Griffith Review

http://www3.griffith.edu.au/01/griffithreview/home.php

The Griffith Review website has had quite an overhaul since Anna was there last, including a nice little Flash intro.

Some things here work better than others – I'm not crazy about frames and drop down boxes myself. Also I'm not sure that only having articles and abstracts available in .pdf format is such a great thing (there is a barely noticeable graphic in the bottom right corner of the screen which suggests to those in the know that they can 'get Adobe Reader' – but a barely webwise visitor might struggle with this.)

Titles of articles in the “Past Editions” section (and in all search results) could do with a parenthetical indicator of whether they are available in abstract or fulltext, that is, before you click on the link instead of after you've downloaded. An abbreviation in the file name is not a clear enough instruction to the average web reader, I'm afraid.

Perhaps some of this is nitpicking around a site that holds some of the most interesting cultural content in all of Oz. However, the Letters to the Editor section is misnamed 'Get Involved' (volunteers? I thought to myself at first.) A search engine is all very well, but all results are .pdf files, which kind of cuts the search capacity off at the knees, doesn't it. This could do with quite a bit more work, at present it's in no danger of superseding the hard copy with its tiny print and all those files 'n' frames.

HEAT

http://www.giramondopublishing.com/heat/index.html

While Meanjin, Overland and Australian Book Review are allowing electronic repurposing of their content to develop in fits and starts, HEAT remains obdurately paper, image and browser bound. Despite this, I am a new subscriber. Having said that, one friendly blogger can't do any more to confer online prestige to your publication if you are not doing it yourself.

Nothing has happened on this site since Anna's review, apart from the change of URL, a few email and postal addresses and the dutiful addition of issues, images and a few editorials from Professor Indyk. Earlier images don't display in Firefox, that's all. I will not repeat what Anna said about the puppy and Christmas, as I don't agree that it's quite that bad (though there is a lot of red around, isn't there).

While I'm secretly sympathetic to the brave, recalcitrant statement this site offers that class will out, and that good literature sells itself, how much faster would it get out there if visitors, showing an interest in what HEAT has to offer by clicking on an URL they found in Google, could read some of the fabulous content? I certainly don't want to see HEAT selling T-shirts at writers' festivals anytime soon, but neither do I ever want to see Ivor Indyk on a stage again asking a Melbourne audience if they have heard of Giramondo Press.

Perhaps the editorial board might like to look at the efforts of Wet Inkrevamped very recently (and looking rather marvellous). The Wet Ink website is inviting, with good visuals, and makes an attempt to engage the reader by sharing news and content.

An effort to convey the importance of visual art to the total HEAT package could be sucking up a bit of Giramondo's publishing attention, and certainly the reproductions of original artwork on the site continue to contribute a distinctive ambience. Their subscription form (PDF) is also impressively designed. Just spread a bit more of that love around, guys.

Island

http://www.islandmag.com/

The crew at Island have to be doing something right – one puts Island into Google and this site is the first one that pops up. That's not so surprising once you've had a good look around – it's a site you want to visit, and visit often.

Almost an exemplar of online journal design, it is easy to navigate, easy on the eye, some important information is published on more than one page (subscription, management and contributors' notes), and judicious samples of the product are on offer from each issue. Even the colours are restful on the eye.

I'm not crazy about the half-page width allowed for the archived content, but that's about all I can find wrong here. Also, as a new visitor to this site, I would like to know more about the history of this magazine. This publisher could go even further ahead of the pack by providing a Print formatting button for the online material, but that would really be icing on the cake. I'm looking forward to spending more time here, now that I know where 'excellence and variety' can be found so easily.

Meanjin

http://www.meanjin.unimelb.edu.au/

Meanjin seems to have taken all of Anna's suggestions for web design on board (and yes, they have a website manager and his name can be found inside the front cover of a hard copy as well as online, suggesting he's a valued part of the team. Go, you good thing. There's even a link to stockists in the top menu now, and one would have to be a usability expert (which I'm not) to pick holes in this site. The Forthcoming Issues link, carried over from the earlier site, has less of the publishing blurb gloss on it, focussing clearly on the themes of the upcoming issue and less on the writers involved . A very happening space, with links to the MU Press bookshop for subscriptions and back issue purchases.

Overland

http://www.overlandexpress.org/overhome.html

Overland seems to have cleaned up its site a little since Anna was there last, though they do love red, don't they? (And yes, I understand there's an emotional connection there. The most infuriating thing about this site is perhaps how little early content is actually online, probably reflecting the higher amount of material still licensed for online publication through Informit.

The earliest available online articles are from issue 177 (Summer 2004), including half of Peter Hays' useful attack on Peter Craven, and Andrew McCann's memorable diatribe on the state of Australian publishing, How To Fuck A Tuscan Garden.

Clicking to order back issues from this site is titillating – will there be an online shop on the other side of this link?? – but the form which appears is for posting only, plus a row of boxes to tick for issues required, and not even so much as a 'print this page' button. Overland is a major contributor to debate in Australia, and should be easier to buy online by now.

I'm not quite sure whether the Indexes by year (in .pdf format, on the right of the back issues page) are useful or not. They smack of seeming to be a good idea at the time, and look useful, but are of course not searchable, nor is a link to said indexes provided from the home page. Now such a link to a searchable index in HTML would be quite an addition. A 'Search By Author' list, following the Eureka Street example, would also be an enhancement to this site.

Of course there is more content online than at HEAT, and this is praiseworthy, but the job's not quite done.

Southerly

http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/publications/southerly/

While the Southerly website has received a dignified make-over since late 2003, it's intriguing to see that there will be no hope at all of a searchable online index while the good folk at Southerly can sell their two-volume hard copy index to you! and virtually meaningless abstracts of both volumes, together with photographs, are sitting on the website for your delectation and purchase.

An academic's fiefdom it has remained since Anna's notes, and with that in mind I was rather tickled by this instruction to potential contributors who might (heavens!) be trying to ingratiate themselves with the editors:

Although a portion of each issue is given over to a particular theme, it is not expected that writers submitting to the journal will be aware of these themes. Since each issue is prepared many months in advance of its publication, it will not be of any particular advantage to potential contributers to enquire about the themes of forthcoming issues.

The right hand column of text could easily move over a little so the page fits in a browser window – after all, there's plenty of space on that page already – no need to run away from the punters, is there? Not a single issue's listing contains titles of the articles within, merely a list of names of contributors and formats under which they were published – 'essays by, poems by-' and so forth.

There are some excellent webtech people at the University of Sydney, so it does look suspiciously like these editors are very good at refusing to supply meaningful content whenever someone does a site audit.

Voiceworks

http://www.expressmedia.org.au/voiceworks.php

This magazine for writers under 25, which is published by Express Media, also has a MySpace presence by popular demand, along with a chunk of the Express Media website. (I did not know that Farrago, This Is Not Art and papertiger media are also on MySpace. The things Net research uncovers…)

I'm not terribly impressed with Express Media's treatment of Voiceworks, which pretty much sacrifices the mag to a very busy webpage design consistent with the rest of the site which I think does it no favours at all, especially on the mag's 'homepage'.

Here I don't like the spread of topics and sections of online content from the magazine spread over three columns and straggling endlessly down the webpage. By all means have sections with headings if you think people can track them easily (which I doubt), but do make sure the columns line up at the bottom. It's not a (messy) blog, it's a website. It might be my age showing, but the pages attached securely to the submenu are much easier to read and navigate.

I think it would be helpful to dispense with the Express Media menu at top and bottom and give this section of the site a more distinctive flavour, so that we know where Voiceworks content starts and finishes. I'd like to see a link back to Express Media on said menu, not a submenu stuck in a corner for the magazine, as is presently the case. It's an important contributor to Australian writing, as well as a good little mag, and it deserves more attention than this.

Westerly

http://westerly.uwa.edu.au/

As Anna noted, Westerly have attempted to put their index online (at present this part of their site is under construction, but a long list of issues from 1956 onwards runs up the page, which doesn't give much hope for it ever being fully searchable.) However, Westerly does have its own spartan quarters on the UWA website and is therefore doing much better than the University of Western Australia's feminist journal Outskirts, which has to share its site with the Department of Women's Studies undergraduate and honours programs.

John Kinsella, who is an editorial consultant to Westerly and co-founder of the outstanding Salt Publications (and admittedly a very busy poet) clearly doesn't give any editorial advice to his alma mater about digital stuff. (Though the rich and colourful transcontinental Salt Web, which has festival and TV links, podcasts, and staff with MySpace profiles, oddly enough is in the process of reviving Salt Magazine but has left half the magazine site full of Lorem ipsur and dead links. Go figure.)

In conclusion, it would be remiss of me not to mention the march of Eureka Street Online towards (and past) a million hits per month. The publishers here have done a wonderful job of connecting with an online audience, right down to providing shorter articles for online consumption and offering plenty to entice the occasional visitor, as well as subscription-only material.

All of the journals mentioned in this review, and all of the publishers in Anna's article, could do worse than study that site intensively, as it just gets better and better. Congratulations are due to Jesuit Publications for taking the cyber leap and showing all the others it doesn't have to look or feel like pulling teeth.

And in case you want some online news – HEAT magazine are putting their spare dollars into an extra issue this year. If you read that here first, be a sport and let them know you heard it on the Net.

Genevieve Tucker is a Melbourne writer and researcher who blogs about books and writing at Reeling and Writhing.

Image: Bowser by Kent MacCarter.

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