Is this a good time to be running a magazine? Probably not. Research at the Institute for Welsh Affairs shows that newspaper consumption is in significant decline. The regional press more steeply than the UK nationals. On the net everything is free. Twenty-four hour news television is ubiquitous. Mobile devices that allow us access where ever we are – bed, train, settee, restaurant, street – are owned by increasing numbers. Against this background who would want to venture into print? And having ventured how would they sell their products? Yet in the Welsh literary world brave souls still do.
In English Planet, Poetry Wales and the new New Welsh Review still dominate. In Welsh Taliesin rides on alongside Tu Chwith. And Barn, the long-lived cultural heavyweight fights it out against Lolfa’s newcomer. No sign there, apparently, of circulation doom and mass transfer to new technology. But then the thumb-keying young who live by the screen have not yet taken over the world. But they soon will.
One of the great myths of Wales is that somewhere, out there, are thousands of untapped readers. All we have to do is find a way of accessing them and our Welsh periodical publishing problems will be over. It is a litany I have been hearing now for many decades and it still echoes on. When the late, great Robin Reeves edited the New Welsh Review he came up with the promotional scam of offering bone china mugs with poems on them to new subscribers. There was an R S Thomas and a Dylan Thomas, both in fine and tasteful white. You couldn’t buy them unless you also subscribed. Subs soared.
Things came to a head a year later when subscriptions came up for renewal. Readers seemed to be leaving the magazine in droves. A certain fall off is expected but not as much as the Review was experiencing. A bit of investigation threw up the fact that there were more china collectors in the UK than readers of literary magazines. Collectors were subscribing just for the mug and were throwing the print into the bin unread. Why am I doing this, Robin said to me. It would be cheaper if I just gave the magazines away.
Elsewhere further ploys are in use in the hunt for new sales. These include free chocolates, free beer mats, free pens, free hats, and a free first year so long as you sign up by direct debit. The money slides from your account, annually, almost by stealth. The Welsh Union of Writers’ magazine, The Works, which last appeared around ten years ago still has a number of dedicated subscribers resolutely paying by standing order. Despite what you hear the banking system is a wonderful thing. Where would magazines be without it.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail