The Million Writers Award: raising the profile of online literary journals

A few years ago, Jason Sanford became visibly frustrated. It was during a conversation with the editor of a year’s best short fiction anthology. When Sanford asked the editor to consider stories published in his online literary journal,storySouth, the editor responded that he didn’t consider online magazines to be “real” publications.

Sanford, 36, once edited for Meadowbrook Press, a publisher distributed by Simon & Schuster. Five years ago, he launched storySouth to showcase fiction, nonfiction and poetry from what he calls the “new south.” To him, his free online publication was just as legitimate as any print journal. With an average of 1,000 visitors a day and a rigorous editorial process, it reached a wider audience than most university publications. In his frustration,the Million Writers Award for online fiction was born.

“A few years ago I wrote an essay which made the case for why online magazines give more exposure to new and emerging writers than traditional literary journals,” Sanford said. “Basically, most print literary magazines have a total circulation of between 500 and a 1,000 copies. This results in fewer readers than a site like storySouth receives in a single day. When you add in printing costs to this equation, then it’s easy to see why so many literary magazines are either establishing online presences or going totally online.”
jason sanford
(Jason Sanford, creator of storySouth and the Million Writers Award)

For the Million Writers Award, readers, editors and a round of judges nominate stories that were published online in that year. Stories published in print journals are considered as long as they also appeared online. At the end of the nomination period, Sanford chooses 10 of those stories as finalists. He then sets up an online poll and the public is encouraged to read and vote on their favorite stories. This year, the winner received a $300 cash prize from the Edit Red Writing Community. The winner for 2007 was Catherynne M. Valente, for her story “Urchins, While Swimming”(originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine).

According to the award’s creator, the nominees gain more notoriety which can boost their careers.

“Winning awards helps any author in his or her career,” Stanford explained. “Due to the internet—where anyone can publish their work—and the increasing numbers of books being published each year, more writers than ever are competing for attention. This makes it hard for deserving authors to find readers. When authors receive awards, that helps them rise above the clutter. An award tells a reader to check an author out; to take a little bit of their valuable time and see if this writer might be worth reading.”

Valente, the winner of the award, agreed with this idea. The author has had her novels and poetry collections published by both small and large publishers for years, but has only recently begun to sell short fiction.

“I hope it will increase the visibility of my short fiction, which often gets overshadowed by the novels,” Valente said. “But awards always help–I think the best thing that the Million Writers Award has done is to drive hundreds of people to read ‘Urchins, While Swimming.’ Most of those people would never have seen it otherwise, and that’s a fantastic result. Time will tell if it will drive my short fiction further.”

For Valente, deciding whether to publish a short story in an online or a print publication often takes deliberation. When considering print publications that don’t pay pro rates, she first considers whether she could reach more people through herblog.

“The advantage of online publications, as I see it, are these: they are not beholden to print costs, and are therefore often more adventurous in the work they will accept,” she said. “They have the potential to be seen by many, many more people than any print magazine or anthology, if the story is widely linked and catches on…also I do feel that the short fiction community is enlivened by the internet, and I love participating in that–to me it is a lot like the old oral tradition, with computers as the campfire around which we gather to tell stories.”

Though it’s impossible to gauge the Million Writer Award’s direct effects, short stories and essays that originally appeared online have begun to be selected for year’s best anthologies. The Best American Short Stories, for instance, recently published a short story by Cory Doctorow that was first printed at I pointed this out to Sanford and asked if his motivation for running the award has changed over the years.

“Yes, that’s why I started the award. However, you are correct that in the last year or two, ‘best of’ anthologies have begun to reprint online fiction,” he replied. “While I praise this change, I’m not sure it’s really that big a deal. What we’re seeing are more traditional print authors publishing their works online; as these authors publish outside the dead-tree-bindings of print publications, the best of anthologies are following them. What I don’t see are these anthologies publishing much work by authors who have published almost exclusively online. While the Million Writers Award honors all online fiction—including stories by established authors—one of our strengths is that we also highlight new and upcoming writers who are only known online. I don’t see the print anthologies doing that. Perhaps they will in the coming years. Until then, I’m simply happy that the Million Writers Award has helped raise the profile of online fiction.”