Jacob Russell wonders why so many writers are so eager to get their work published in "little magazines":
Each one of these periodicals receives hundreds, and many, thousands of submissions a month. Is it the hope of becoming "respectable," of making an honest buck, that drives writers to spend their time and money printing and copying and addressing and mailing and keeping records so you don't send the same story to the same place?
And answers his own question:
Aside from Harpers (which publishes no more than 12 stories a year) and The New Yorker (which may publish 100), what's left? Esquire. Playboy. Maybe a dozen open slots left in the Real World. What's left, the last remaining outlet for print publication: the Little Lits. So what drives this is the writers. When the readers disappear, what else is left?
The problem with this answer is that the readers didn't "disappear." They never existed. Little magazines have always subsisted on subscriptions from libraries and subsidies from universities or some other outside funding agency. Very few (perhaps none) have been able to keep themselves in print off of individual subscriptions and sales, and even those that do find themselves onto library shelves mostly go unread except by a few creative writing students who want to know what sort of thing a given journal is accepting these days.
The literary magazine as we know it was the product of two aspirations, one noble, one less so. Most of the early "little magazines" were created, at least in part, in a sincere effort to provide "serious writing" a place of initial publication in a world where the "book business" has little or no interest in literary short fiction or poetry. To some extent, such magazines continue to be founded on this idealistic ambition, although over the years it has become increasingly difficult to see how yet another literary magazine published from yet another small college or regional university is going to spark a revival of interest in poetry or the short story. The circulation numbers for most of these publications remain microscopically low.
The other function the little magazine came to fulfill was offering the opportunity for publishing credits to the scores of writers who began to emerge from the creative writing programs appearing in increasing numbers in the 1950s-1970s and that now exist in some form in almost all American colleges and universities. Since not all of these programs could insist that incoming faculty already have books to their credit, placement in one of these magazines could help insure job candidates appropriate credentials and could serve as measures of "production" for faculty members in mid-career. Take a look at the contributors page of most literary magazines, and you'll most likely discover that most of the contributors are either members of the faculty of a creative writing program or students at one of these programs, presumably in both cases seeking publication credit that will specifically advance their academic careers.
(I am a graduate of one of these programs, and I can certainly testify from my own experience that gathering such credits was something I was taught, both directly and indirectly, to vigorously pursue.)
I'm afraid that this more utilitarian goal has come to dominate most writer's thinking and largely accounts for what "drives" them to engage in the submissions game Jacob describes. Jacob further cautions against blaming "academics" for the dismal rules of this game. But it isn't the "MFA Mafia Cartel" that controls current little magazine publishing operations, even though graduates of the more prestigious MFA programs do seem to have pride of place in the more presigious literary magazines. (Just as scholars from more prestigious universities get pride of place in most scholarly publications of any kind.) It's the very attachment of little magazines to universities, from which most of today's little magazines still originate, and inevitably to the protocols of academic publication that most directly influences the dynamics of publishing in even the smallest, least recognizable of the literary magazines.
On the one hand, the existence of this system does help to keep poetry and short fiction alive as literary forms. This is not a negligible accomplishment, and for it the editors of little magazines, who endure a maximum amount of trouble and enjoy a minimum amount of compensation for their efforts, should be thanked. On the other hand, the bland uniformity of what is published in the little magazines as a whole begins to suggest that the publishing format created decades ago to serve the needs of "literature" as embodied in the institutional necessities of academe isn't aging well.
For a more extensive discussion of the role of literary magazines, see my essay here.