The origin of American little magazines can be traced back to the radical pamphlets of the American Revolution, but it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that little magazines came into their own. By the early part of the twentieth century, little magazines were recognized as an important outlet for literary works. The "little" in little magazines refers not to the physical size of the periodical but to the circulation, which numbers from approximately 200 to 2,000 or more subscribers, a mere fraction of commercial counterparts. Typically, little magazines have provided a place for writing that could find no other home, and have often been used as an entry vehicle for new writers to get published. The magazines exist primarily for writers, though all readers are welcome. Their editors have often founded them for personal reasons, and there is a signifi-cant relationship between self-publishing and little magazines; Deanotations, for example, is a magazine of poems by the editor and drawings by his wife. The magazines usually have small staffs of one or two persons, or they may reflect the efforts of a writers' cooperative; for example, First Draft is based on works of a writers' group. A number of little magazines are associated with a college or university, especially an English Department, such as Cream City Review from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sometimes a little magazine will serve as a springboard to a small book press, for example, CAYLX: A Journal of Art and Literature for Women engendered CAYLX Books.
The exact number of little magazines is difficult to track because of the many that do not make it past their first year of publication; still others have erratic publication schedules. Promotional budgets are nearly nonexistent, and most have trouble attracting advertising revenue. Most lack a profit motive, and few break even financially. The effort is largely based on passion. In contrast, most commercial magazines are part of a larger profit-based corporation. These mainstream magazines aggressively seek advertisers, have large budgets for promotion, employ large staffs, and circulate to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of subscribers. The writing and topics are usually homogenized and stylistically uniform. While on occasion they may be thought provoking, they are rarely thought disturbing, a trend more common to little magazines. Commercial magazines appeal to a mass market, rather than a select group of kindred spirits, and purposefully pursue the acceptably correct and publishable verse. Many little magazines derive from a need to say things that commercial magazines reject. Little magazines need editorial freedom and are willing to remain little, non-profit, and independent of corporate control in order to have this.
The 1930s through the 1950s were a vibrant time for little magazines. The content was largely focused in the areas of the arts and literature with writing that was edgy, peculiar, and asocial. Many of these little magazines served the interests of the bohemian and Beat generations. The works were unfettered and represented eclectic interests and literary experimentation, for example, ethnopoetics and experimental language. During this time there was an outgrowth from the literary genres into areas of fantasy literature and science fiction, a subset of little magazines that came to be called fanzines—a term that was later shortened to zines as the phenomenon grew. The line between little magazines and zines is not easily distinguished. Each has an independent spirit and an idiosyncratic nature, and both are adversaries for free expression; however, zines are not predisposed to any type of category. Little magazines are traditionally literary.
In the early 1960s, there were reputed to be approximately 600 little magazines, and by the mid-1970s, approximately 1,500. This growth was a result of technology, beginning with the so-called mimeo revolution based on the duplicating capability of the mimeograph machine. This capability accelerated through inexpensive and easy access to photocopy services and machines. Continued growth came as the result of an increase in grant monies through public and private agencies, which was facilitated by organizations such as the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. As little magazines grew in number so did their interests. Another subset of little magazines evolved as a result of political unrest during the 1960s and went underground, creating the term "underground press." Though the term is still occasionally used, radical magazines are more commonly called "progressive" and focus on alternative music and lifestyles, critiques of politics, sociology, the environment, culture, and current events.
There is a significant core of little magazines that are concentrated in the areas of art and literature encompassing poetry, prose, fiction, short stories, plays, photography, collages, satire, art, criticism, and reviews. The magazines may be primarily literary, but their interests are peripatetic, such as Hammers, a geographic-based magazine stressing Chicago area poets; Primavera, a gender-based magazine expressing the perspectives and experiences of women; The Connecticut Poetry Review, a genre-based magazine that publishes only poetry; The Crescent Review, a genre-based magazine that publishes only short stories; Italian Americana, a magazine that reflects aspects of the Italian experience in America; City Primeval, which addresses the nature and activity of men and women contending in, and with, the evolving urban environment; City Lights Journal, a magazine edited by Beat writer and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Bathtub Gin, a magazine that looks for work "that has the kick of bathtub gin"; and The Dirty Goat, a magazine that will consider anything.
To maintain independence and survive, many little magazines have found it necessary to concentrate on the business end. Many writers got into the magazine business accidentally, for no other purpose than to edit and distribute good writing, not to develop marketing plans and balance books. To assist these individuals and writers cooperatives, nonprofit agencies have been formed, such as the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers, Independent Press Association, and a number of distribution companies that specialize in distributing little magazines to bookstores and libraries. The purpose is not to make a mark on Wall Street, but to remain solvent so that ideas and values outside of the commercial mainstream magazines may have a voice. When a little magazine becomes big, something unique is lost.
Anderson, Eliott, and Mary Kinzie, editors. The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History. Yonkers, New York, Pushcart Press, 1978.
D'Adamo, Charles, et al., editors, annotations by Marie F. Jones.Annotations: A Directory of Periodicals Listed in the Alternative Press Index. Baltimore, Maryland, Alternative Press Center, 1996.
Fulton, Len, editor. The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses. Paradise, California, Dustbooks, annually from 1965.
Marek, Jayne E. Women Editing Modernism: "Little" Magazines & Literary History. Lexington, Kentucky, University of Kentucky Press, 1995.