Headland: Literary frontiers

Liesl Nunns, co-founding editor of the digital literary journal Headland, describes the opportunities of digital publication.

On a March morning in 2014, stirred up by Professor Dame Anne Salmond’s speech at the International Women’s Day breakfast at Parliament, Laura McNeur and I began a conversation that, four years later, has resulted in 12 (fantastic) issues of Headland (www.headland.org.nz) and counting. Whether it was imposter syndrome, a reaction to tall poppy syndrome, some other kind of syndrome, or perhaps just a healthy amount of humility and good manners, I remember feeling that we needed to wait till we woke up as Bill Manhire or Fergus Barrowman before we could have the chutzpah to call ourselves the founding editors of a literary journal.

It is exactly that feeling that we think plagues many writers: that they do not feel entitled to submit their work to reputable journals, especially if they do not have a creative writing qualification. This is not to say that New Zealand’s excellent writing programmes and their affiliated journals foster that insider-outsider mentality, not at all. But we began Headland with the mission of actively encouraging work from unpublished writers alongside their well-established counterparts. We pride ourselves on being approachable, on making submission guidelines easy to find, and on making the publishing process transparent. All submissions are judged blind by our incredible team of volunteers, as we look for the best stories on their own merits.

The publishing format we chose is perhaps controversial in some literary circles. We publish solely to Amazon through Kindle Direct Publishing. Yes, I hear those appalled hisses. To some extent, I understand them, too. But both Laura and I were already unashamed e-reader fans. We both read more because we can take books anywhere with us much more easily now. We both buy more books now (sorry, librarians), even if at the reduced price of a digital version. And we have not stopped buying good, proper, three-times-the-price books made of paper because of our Kindles; in fact, we both treat our Kindle as a rehearsal, and end up buying books we really love in hard copy, so that those authors are getting two hits from our pockets. 

But, as publishers, the upside of digital publishing is massive. It is the difference between us steadily increasing our annual prize amounts (as we have done to date) and eventually paying every author (our ongoing goal). Sure, it won’t be all writers, and I imagine there are some who check out our website and understandably decide that they want to see their work on the page, in their hands. As much as we’d love to have received their submissions, it is great if those writers feel they have a choice to pursue the book or the tablet. 

We also find that the e-reader is well-suited to the pick-up and put-down nature of reading a collection of shorter works. Headland is the sort of thing that we ourselves like to read on the bus, in a waiting room, or when your friend is running 15 minutes late for that coffee date. 

It took trial and error, and some research, to find our way with Kindle Direct Publishing but, generally speaking, the platform is accessible and manageable for a small team such as ours. The current tax treaty between New Zealand and the United States means that New Zealanders selling to Amazon’s worldwide marketplaces do not need to obtain a tax identification number from the United States Internal Revenue Service. Those marketplaces also mean that Headland is truly an international journal, albeit one that signals its Kiwi identity proudly. From a practical perspective, it has also proved to be less of a technophobe’s nightmare than initially feared. We have not needed to use difficult design software, nor have we been made to jump through a lot of e-publishing hoops. Almost all of our issues have been published from a laptop at a kitchen table (after an in-house editing process, of course), with a triumphant “hooray”, followed by a feverish
moment of nervousness when we imagine errors that may remain.

Publishing in this way is not without its problems. Amazon only allows magazines with a readership such as The Economist enjoys to create subscriptions. Slightly fewer people read Headland than read The Economist, and so our readers must purchase each issue separately. The formatted page itself is also something of a moveable feast, as it changes to suit the device on which it is being read: someone reading Headland through the Kindle app on an iPad sees a slightly different layout of the same story that another person reads on an e-reader. This mutability of formatting is one of the main reasons that we do not accept submissions of poetry. Lastly, handing out review copies is not easily done, nor is giving our writers a complimentary copy.

It is this point about authors’ copies that rankles most, as we are conscious of how little writers already make for their labours, whether they consider themselves a Writer or simply like to dabble in their spare time. We’d love to pay all writers for the privilege of publishing their work. Currently, we offer two annual cash prizes, with these prize amounts increasing each of the three years in which they’ve been awarded. It is only a first step, but at least it is a first step. To take the next steps we must find the time and human resources to grow our readership, to find philanthropic support, and to be awarded grants.

Build it and they will come. The feedback that we get from our writers is that they appreciate, and feel energised by, the Headland community and the work of our team. Happy authors submit more work and spread the word, which means writing of the best quality, which means more readers, which means more resources, which means happier authors. In our recent e-newsletter, I counted 23 “shout outs” applauding the recent non-Headland-related writing successes of Headland alumni. Several of those writers began their writing careers on our digital pages, downloaded and read in the cafes and waiting rooms of Dunedin and Mumbai and Vancouver and who knows where. We’ll keep supporting them in every way we can, until and even when we can support them financially. After all, it takes chutzpah to write a story and push “send”. 

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