Thom Didato, the publisher and founding editor of the online literary and arts magazine failbetter spoke to me about writing, reading, publishing and the online literary scene.
The former Program Manager at The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, Thom currently teaches fiction workshops and literary editing and publishing courses at Virginia Commonwealth University where he serves the Graduate Programs Director.
Thanks, Thom, for the interview!
failbetter. Emphasis on the better. And the fail.
First, Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Then David McLendon started a Brooklyn reading series called “failbetter.” Next, Thom Didato and David started the online literary magazine failbetter. Recently, I spoke with Thom recently about the magazine, his writing and technology. And there is so much more to come.
The idea of failing better has been mis-popularized with self-help books and mantras. Thom emphasizes that instead of being a motivational phrase, “it is in the doing and in the failing that you will find success. What makes writing strange and different is that attempt. If it is weird or different enough, sooner or later you find something original. In failing, you will be more original.”
Remember the ‘90’s when we didn’t Tweet about waking up and buying groceries? In that low-tech world, Thom approached David about starting a literary magazine. Their friends’ print magazines in had mostly gone “belly up” and Thom and David wanted to created create something that wouldn’t be, as Thom described it, “relegated to dustbins and used bookstores.” Thom laughed when he mentioned that they were both “absolute luddites.” In fact, a friend gave them the idea of starting it online.
Thom, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, sees more and more students willing to read online as textbooks are available online. As screens become more readable and the technology allows the text to be better organized, he expects that readers will become more and more accustomed to reading longer pieces online.
Thom noted that in the beginning, shorter pieces were clicked more often than the longer pieces. The trend has turned on its head. In the last three years, longer works are read more often, including novel excerpts.
failbetter has started serializing some novels, based on the idea that the readers enjoy reading longer pieces. In this way, contemporary technology is mimicking the 19th century concept of serialization. Look for the first two chapters of Jess Row’s forthcoming novel, as well as others.
There are many approaches to designing online lit magazines. Editors decide how technologically advanced their readers are and how complicated the site should be. Some are more simple, like McSweeney’s, and others focus on the technical possibilities. Thom notes that whatever an editor decides to do, he should use technology to advocate for the best possible audience experience. As web literacy advances, he’s been able to add more (mostly behind the scenes) advances to the magazine. In the beginning, they simply focused on “readable, good material.” Luckily, they haven’t strayed far.
There is much that readers don’t see in an online literary magazine. While the technology looks quite simple and straightforward in failbetter, the behind the scenes work helps to make the experience not only easier, but more enjoyable for the reader. For example, Thom says, “if you read a story in an issue and we see that you like the second person point of view, the database will show you another story that you might like.” That’s not something a print magazine could ever do.
Thom describes failbetter: “We are a strange and significant publication. I think we are taking what are the best of traditional literary concept from a print form and executing it far better in an electronic form.”
As so many writers are also teachers and editors, I ask Thom about how his own writing and reading interacts with the magazine. Thom immediately asserts that there is a “big difference between what you write and read.”
He admits that a personal aesthetic “must have an influence,” but since a number of people are involved (the main cohort being Andrew Day, two poetry editors, two fiction editors and readers), the aesthetics are varied. When editors change, aesthetics shift somewhat. That said, no one person makes all of the decisions and no one aesthetic rules the publication.
Thom’s writing doesn't influence the magazine's choices, but rather, the magazine influences him. “If you talk to a publisher, they greatly learn about writing process from their role as an editor and you realize the subjective nature of it all. A beginning writer doesn’t necessarily understand that you could be shot down somewhere, but then loved elsewhere. As a publisher, you see that something you rejected might win the best short story in Glimmer Train (that’s happened.) It is the subjective nature of it all.” Thom adds that it is “empowering in terms of your own writing, as you are not concerned with approval. What effects the writing is you are exposed to a multitude of writing styles and the reaffirmation that it isn’t something you do, and then you look at how that simple sentence was so incredible.”
Editing has had a major impact on his writing. “It is very difficult to write and work as an editor. To be perfectly honest, my writing ceased three or four years ago, maybe because of my first kid or failbetter.”
“The days of pleasure reading are ending,” Thom concludes with a sigh. “Of course I get pleasure out of this, but the days of walking into bookstore and randomly picking up books are gone. Books are sent to me.” He does a lot of reading based on who they are interviewing for the magazine. Kevin Young is coming up soon. He helps with the interviews. He is also reading books by writers they’ve published: Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames and Love Park by Jim Zervanos.
Thom advises writers who might be considering submitting their work. “Traditionally speaking professionalism is considered a four letter word in the arts community, but it isn’t. We are always shocked by grammatical errors. Writers should be very wary of submitting online. It seems so easy, so people don’t proof their cover sheets. Much like there is an awkward form of email in emotional value (sarcasm), people don’t proof online and that is really weak off the bat. That sounds no different from other philosophy, but given the immediacy and transparency, that’s shocking… that people haven’t taken the time to proof.”
Readers must read the magazines to which they are submitting work. “There is no excuse with an online magazine because you should be able to educate yourself and see if it is something up your alley. At failbetter, we still get genre related material, westerns, etc. It is free, check it out and see if it makes sense. You have no excuse not to. Also, see if you want to be associated with the publication.”
failbetter changed the issue format from a quarterly publication to a cumulative approach. They release pieces every two weeks until it culminates into full issue. More than 50 percent of the accepted material comes through open transit. In each issue, they publish 4 stories and 4 poems and receive about 3,000 fiction, 5,0000 poetry submissions a year. As a result, less than 1 percent of the submitted pieces are published. For the aspiring writers, know that they are sure to always include a new writer.
Go forth and fail even better than last time.