Trad Pub, Indie Pub, and Southern Living

Growing up, all my maternal relatives (and several of my paternal ones) subscribed to Southern Living. I remember that I liked Ladies Home Journal better, because it was easier to read and had neater advertising. But the thick, word-dense Southern Living appeared every month, full of houses and gardens, food, essays about travel and books and Southern characters and essays on hunting, nature, and Southern culture and life in general. Eventually, at a low point when I worked in the Midwest, I started buying it, then broke down and subscribed. I kept that subscription for over ten years, clipping food articles, savoring the book recommendations and nature essays, and chuckling at the garden guy’s misadventures (and good advice). And then the magazine died.

No, it did not go out of business. You can still subscribe and find it on newsstands, and they still sell cookbooks. But the fat, word-rich journal I looked forward to savoring my way through shrank. First the pictures got bigger and the articles shorter. The white margins on the pages also grew. The nature essay vanished, followed by the entire gardening section, and the book reviews and culture notes. The back essay shrank and the illustration came to take up half the page, every month. Advertising replaced text, and the writing dropped by several grade levels. It wasn’t my Southern Living. It was medicine ads and stories that could have taken place in any large city or rural B&B. The big company that had bought the magazine from the original owners just could NOT leave it alone. They had to try to make it relevant to a younger, busier, TV and Internet-trained demographic. Did it succeed? No idea, but the last time I got a “please come back, pleeeease” letter, they were offering a year for $10. That smacks of lots of advertizing . . . and of desperation.

Several major publishing conglomerates seem to be suffering from the same problem. Now, no publisher that isn’t run as a hobby or the arm of a larger institution (university or museum press, or religious house) can run at a loss forever. It has to make money at some point, or it will close. But many of the books published by traditional houses seem to be declining in quality (due to lack of editing) and homogenizing. Every YA and paranormal romance looked exactly like Twilight one year. Vampires with angst, semi-helpless heroines, and watered-down spooks filled the shelves. Then it was 50 Shades flavored “romances.” This year YA has been afflicted with afflictions and angst. Other genres suffered similar gluts of the last best seller, with editing growing weaker, covers more generic, blurbs blander than watery oatmeal. I prowled the shelves wondering what had happened to the variety and options.

When Southern Living fell apart, several new magazines appeared. Southern Lady focuses on food, entertaining, and home decor. Garden and Gun took the older style of writing, with long, detailed stories and great photos, and updated them a little, but kept the flavor. No gardening advice here, but lots of travel ideas, stories about Southern characters, fishing and hunting, humor, books, music, other arts, and Southern life in general. I suspect there are also new Southern-aimed gardening publications that I have not noticed.

Thus too, indie publishing started to flourish as readers went looking for cozy mysteries, old-school sci-fi and fantasy, romances with less lust and more passion, YA books that encouraged rather than depressed, and even smaller niches. A few semi-niche publishers, like Baen, did pretty well, and new indie imprints are growing.

I still miss the old Southern Living some days. But the library gets Garden and Gun, and it’s not bad. I miss the days when I could find new, exciting fiction at the bookstore. But Amazon’s search functions are improving.