Behind-the-scenes at FAILBETTER.COM w/ Thom Didato.
The plans I had for my blog today fell through, so I grabbed Thom Didato of failbetter.com, and formerly of CLMP, for a quick interview about behind-the-scenes at one of my favorite literary magazines.
I love the name FAILBETTER. Tell me how you came up with it and what “failing better” means personally to Thom Didato.
Of course, the name comes from the famous Beckett quote ( EVER TRIED. EVER FAILED. NO MATTER. TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.) To be honest, I can’t take full credit with coming up with the name, rather my original cohort in crime (co-founding editor), David McLendon had used the inspired quote to title his then popular Brooklyn-based reading series (failbetter presents). When we got together to start the mag, I told him the term, failbetter, was just was too good not to use. Much like the quote itself, the meaning of name is subject to debate and interpretation. For me, it’s somewhat akin to the Yoda principle of “Don’t try. Do.” And do it again, and again, and again.
David has long since left the failbetter but we kept the name. And now, though the day-to-day operations is still a two-man job (being Managing Editor, Andrew Day, and myself) failbetter now has a much larger staff of editors and readers. I would like to think that we will be failing better for many years to come.
How would you characterize the identity/personality of failbetter? What type of stories do you look for? What kinds of stories do you see too much of?
As I said in a recent editorial, our little online litmag has been around for six years, and nearly fifty thousand people read each issue. But now and then, people still ask us the same old question: “What is . . . ‘fail . . . better’?” We heard it most recently at last month’s Associated Writing Programs convention in Austin, from a writer who happened by our table at the publishing fair. We started to give our standard answer: “It’s a literary magazine that features the finest fiction, poetry, and visual art.” But we looked out at a sea of tables staffed by hordes of editors of scores of periodicals that till the same field . . . And we caught ourselves in mid-answer, wondering, What makes failbetter.com different from this quarterly, that review, such-and-such journal . . . and what makes it better? Certainly we run top-notch stuff, as you’ll see when you flip through the virtual pages of our twentieth issue, which features an unusually eclectic mix of fictionists and poets, and the AbEx-gets-happy paintings of Shawn McNulty.
But again: what sets us apart? Well, failbetter is an online literary magazine–and one that’s not only, we think, the best of that lot, but fast becoming the most-read too. And while we don’t mean to cast aspersions on our peers who print, our readership dwarfs that of nearly every publication that shared the hall with us at AWP. Add the fact that www.failbetter.com is easier to find, and costs less–indeed, costs nothing . . . So we are distinctive in both substance and medium.
As far as the more practical question of, “what do we look for — and what do we see too much of?” Well, being a genuine “literary” magazine should already help any interested writer/reader understand if their work has a chance to find a home with our magazine. That said, the literary label is not so limiting when it comes to form. We’ve published short shorts, stories and novel excerpts — both experimental, and more traditional in style and subject matter. Nevertheless, we do see far too many first person “memoir-like” tales (some of which we have accepted in the past, but the majority of which gets rejected).
Give me some stats (or rough stats) at failbetter–what percentage of work is solicited? what percentage of unsolicited work is accepted? any Pushcarts, O. Henry’s, etc? any other interesting stats or trends?
Our last issue was read by over 50,000 folks (unique visitors — 6-8 pages per view per visit). Indeed, our readership has grown exponentially over the past six years, and we’d like to think that ours is just one of several fine online literary publication that have help breakdown the initial barrier/views that many literary print traditionalist once held. Works published in failbetter have received recognition in the annual Pushcart Anthology in the past (in fact, we only just found out that a story (by Martha Cooley) that we published a few years back received “honorable mention” in this year’s collection [it was reprinted by the folks over at AGNI]). Of course, we were also thrilled to hear that J. Allyn Rosser’s poem “Discounting Lynn,” featured in Issue 19, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2006. (Congratulations, Jill!). We’re still waiting for the folks at the O’Henry to recognize us online brethren, but surely it’s only a matter of time.
What have you learned most from working on a lit mag?
What has been the most refreshing discovery (both as an editor and as a writer myself) is the fact that there are plenty of fine works and fine writers out there just trying find a home for the work. Yes, of the 5000 submissions we receive in a given year, the vast majority are easily rejected. But more often than not we’re in position to reject even quality work. I know this may sound odd, but as both a writer and reader it pleasing to see and realize that good work gets rejected all the time. Perhaps a solid story or poem simply doesn’t “do it” for one of our editors, and/or doesn’t go well with a given issue (or we’ve recently published something like it). Back in 2000, we did have to solicit work from more established authors (which on more than one occasion caused some sticky situations when we rejected said works). Thankfully, we do not have to solicit much work these days, For instance, in the new issue, I think 3 of the 4 fiction works came through the “slush” (same ratio holds true for poetry).
How do you feel about writing rejections?
Rejecting works can be both a cathartic, depressing and dare I say it, some times fun. Furthermore, as you can attest, we’re often put in position to decline work from good writers we know and like. In the beginning, when things were a little more manageable, we prided ourselves on not using standard form rejections. We often erred on the side of brutal honesty (i.e. “We had absolutely no interest in any of the characters”) figuring that writer would appreciate the realization we did indeed take the time to read their work (alas, that was not always the case). Once the submissions really started rolling in, the day of personalizing ever rejection ended. That said I still read every submission that failbetter receives. Nevertheless, both Andy and I are truly grateful to have editors and readers we can trust to weigh in on the merits of a given submission. Thus, the diversity of editorial opinions results in failbetter accepting perhaps a wider array of work, but quality work just the same. Moreover, it makes the job of reading all the submissions not only more manageable, but more enjoyable as well (“I can believe you like that piece of . . . OK, ok, I must have missed something. Let me re-read it.”)
Give me a taste of the new issue (Issue 20). What are you especially excited about?
Hell, we’re excited about all the work (I’m always excited about the work). Of course, the likely news splash in the issue will undoubtedly be Margo Rabb’s intriguing interview with one of our literary heroes, Anne Tyler. Here’s an acclaimed literary author who seldom grants interviews. Indeed, over the course of her four decade long career such interviews have been a rarity — given the author’s well-known aversion to publicity and pontification. (“Any time I talk in public about writing,” Tyler confesses,”I end up not able to do any writing. It’s as if some capricious Writing Elf goes into a little sulk whenever I expose him.”) Thankfully, she consented to share a few thoughts about her upcoming novel, Digging to America.
failbetter has been fortunate to land interviews with some of the best literary names in the biz (Chabon, Russo, Auster, Hornby, Gaitskill, Houston) all of whom have contributed greatly to our growing readership. Indeed, we love the fact that in the same issue we published an interview with the likes of Tyler, we can also publish stories and poems by several firstimers.
Can you talk for a bit about CLMP and AWP and your involvement with them?
failbetter was one of the first online magazine to become a member of CLMP (which, in case one isn’t familiar, CLMP is the national organization for independent literary publishers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. They are the defacto “union” for independent literary publishers [press, mag, print or otherwise] in this country). Basically, CLMP exists because, while us literary folks often have the aesthetic and editorial sense, we tend to have little to know idea how to run the business-side of things. CLMP has been a tremendous resource for failbetter in that regard. In fact, it became more than that for me. A few years back, I saw that CLMP was hiring and was fortunate enough to land a job as a Program Manager. Not only did I become educated in the lit pub biz, but CLMP afforded me the opportunity to meet and make friends with a vast community of literary publishers (yourself included!). Alas, I recently had to give up that gig as my wife and one-year-old son moved down south. But for anyone who is interested in either starting up a literary magazine of press, I strongly urge you to get in contact with them — after all that what they’re there for! (Contact Jamie Schwartz, CLMP Program manager here: email@example.com.)
Thanks, Thom! I hope you guys will check out his magazine and let him know if you enjoy it.
Barbara MintonAugust 10, 2007
Please forward this message to Thom Didato:
Several years ago, I worked with you at a book publisher, whose name brings up too many miserable memories to be mentioned. At the time, you and I discussed our “real” professions–you, a writer and editor, and I, an artist printmaker. We looked at each other’s websites, and you said you might be interested in my work. I’m wondering if you will take a look at my website (barbaraminton.com) again, and let me know whether you might want to publish some of my etchings. My series of Brooklyn has expanded since the website was created so I have other prints to show you, as well.
Thank you for your consideration.
Susan HendersonAugust 10, 2007
Thanks for dropping by, Barbara. I’ll let Thom know about your message.