Want to start a literary journal? Tread carefully, warns John Freeman: “The truth is, no journal is sustainable as a business. They are either dependent on a wealthy benefactor and donations, or are non-profits or funded by universities. Longevity [of a journal] is pretty tricky.”
There are probably few people better placed to judge the market for literary magazines, or to make one work. Freeman was editor of Granta for four years (and the American editor for a year before that) until 2013 when he, and most of the senior staff at the journal, resigned. This year, he launched his own journal called Freeman’s, a biannual which débuted in January, with the second issue shipping in August.
Freeman did not set out to immediately launch another journal. But after his Granta stint ended, the American moved from London back to New York and, struck by what he saw as a new divide in inequality, published a Penguin anthology called Tales of Two Cities, with contributions from the likes of Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz. This led to Morgan Entrekin, publisher at Grove Atlantic, which distributes Granta in the US, offering to back Freeman’s.
Why another journal? “I felt like it was a good time,” he says. “We’re in the age where we’re drowning in choice. The internet—partially because of the sheer speed of comment and opinion online—hasn’t figured out how to do good longform writing well. I think that’s why people are going back to print books and why there’s a place for the quite frankly old-fashioned literary anthology-cum-journal.”
Freeman’s is “Granta-esque”, with each outing broadly themed around one issue, featuring essays, poetry, long-form journalism and short stories written by a blend of literary heavyweights and promising newcomers. The first issue, centred on “arrival”, included work from Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers and David Mitchell.
But the model is slightly tweaked. Unlike Granta, there is no subscription with revenue driven solely by book sales (Freeman’s is treated as a book rather than periodical, and has an ISBN). The title is distributed in the UK by Atlantic and by Text in Australia. Freeman said the company had 15,000 copies in print worldwide of the first issue.
“It’s a very lean machine,” Freeman laughs. “It’s a hilariously idiotic thing to do but I can’t stop myself. It’s very different from [Granta] as I worked for someone and had a staff. Now it’s just me, an assistant editor at Grove, and that’s it. My previous job was like flying a jumbo jet; this is like skydiving.”
Freeman left Granta amid a slew of resignations and an overall restructure by owner Sigrid Rausing which saw Granta Books publisher Philip Gwyn Jones also depart. A couple of years on, Freeman is sanguine about the episode. He says: “[Rausing] owns Granta and as a proprietor I understand the desire to run everything. We just had different ideas about the future and I felt some editorial constraints. Rather than fight, I just quit and moved back to the US. It ended up being as good as taking the [Granta] job in the first place. It was a great job, but it was great to leave.”
Outside of the journal, Freeman is finishing a book of poetry, due in 2017; editing a book of essays on US poetry (“I’m really going where the money is”); and teaching writing at New York City’s New School and at New York University. Ultimately what keeps him going is not necessarily the Murakamis or Eggerses he brings to Freeman’s, but the new voices: “My feeling is that a key part of a literary journal is a sort of small form of guerrilla action, and the joy as an editor is that you can introduce people to writers they didn’t think they needed.”
Freeman's to date
Part of the Freeman’s publishing philosophy is bringing the title to the masses in a series of literature events. Freeman held over 40 panel discussions, seminars and readings across the globe for the launch of Freeman’s 1 (left), and the second edition of the journal has a similarly busy live stream, including a 2nd August event at Foyles’ Charing Cross Road london flagship, with the line up including Sunjeev Sahota, H M Naqvi and Joanna Kavenna.
Freeman says: “You really have to bring [the journal] out to the people— it works, it sells books. But in general journals are a cultural space, a community building exercise—I mean that in a non-California/New Agey way. Reading is solitary, but everyone who reads wants to talk about what they read.”
Freeman’s 2 (right) is centred around family but Freeman says “not as in going back home at Christmas is hard and my dad didn’t go to my graduation. Family, I find, is where the anvil-like forces of history and contemporary life break hardest.”