Speaking to Jeff Sparrow

When you’re editing, writing seems really easy. You become convinced all the writers are complete fuckwits, because everything just seems so simple and you can see what everyone’s done wrong.

I interviewed Jeff Sparrow, Editor of Overland, in the middle of 2013. He almost stood me up on the day – the perfect teacup-storm to begin a conversation.

Sian Ellett: How did you become the Editor of Overland?
Jeff Sparrow: I started as a volunteer around the time of the Maritime Dispute, about 1996. I’d always been interested in writing and most of the literary magazines seemed largely interchangeable and Overland did a special edition on the Maritime Dispute and as I was involved in politics at the time I thought this was an extraordinary thing for a journal to do and so I rang them up and asked them if they needed volunteers and I went in there and started doing bits and pieces for them. Eventually I became Reviews Editor. I did that for about five years and when the Editor left they asked me to edit it.

SE: Were you an activist or a writer first?
JS: I was an activist. I mean, I’d always written. When I was in school, and when you’re in politics, you end up writing stuff all the time – articles for your own publications or leaflets or anything like that. I started writing seriously when my sister and I started work on a book on the history of Melbourne.

SE: What’s it like working with a sibling?
JS: By the end of the first book we weren’t speaking very much. It was good. I don’t think I could have done it with anyone else. It had its ups and downs, but we had good fun doing it.

SE: Do you edit your own work?
JS: Most publications will edit your stuff and its always much better to have someone else’s input, not that you don’t edit your own stuff while you’re actually writing it you know – you’re immediately trying to read over things as carefully as you can before you send it off. Particularly if you’re writing for online stuff where you have to be topical and you have to do things quite quickly. I’ll mostly be writing quite early in the morning and it’s very easy to make stupid mistakes and make a big fool of yourself and you have people pointing out, ‘actually when you said this it was completely wrong’.

I really like being edited. I’ve never had any time for those people who say ‘I’m this genius writer and I can’t stand being edited’. Editing makes writing one hundred times better.

SE: Do you enjoy editing or writing more?
JS: When you’re editing, writing seems really easy. You become convinced all the writers are complete fuckwits, because everything just seems so simple and you can see what everyone’s done wrong. You don’t get much credit as an editor. Everyone just takes what you do for granted. You only get noticed if you fuck something up.

SE: And that’s the art – if you’ve edited well, you shouldn’t be able to see it.
JS: With some writers you’ll end up doing a lot of the work and research on their piece that they should have done.

SE: That sounds like co-writing.
JS: I think a lot of the roles are kind of broken down with the digital stuff. The distinction between copy editing and proofreading and structural editing is not really as clear as it used to be. But you know, it’s quite satisfying to know that you got a manuscript in that was pretty crap and by the time it came out it was actually good because you’ve done something to it. I don’t think anyone much likes writing.

SE: Nobody much likes writing?
JS: Writing is just hard and difficult and unpleasant. I don’t think anyone likes it.

SE: How has Overland changed since the move to digital?
JS: We no longer see ourselves as a printed publication. Overland is a project. It’s not a particular platform – we have an online magazine that’s updated daily, we have the print journal, we have a series of events, we have social media presences. They are all part of Overland.

SE: Part of what you’re describing is specifically what social media has given a lot of organisations – this ability and pressure to extend into a range of new areas. Does this dilute the message, or does it get the message further?
JS: It’s contradictory. There are tremendous advantages in it, like 300,000 people a year looking at the website. How deep that engagement is you don’t know, but it’s a level of readership beyond which the founders of the journal could have imagined. If you’re a journal of ideas, you want people to be able to access those ideas. You want your ideas to travel as far and as wide as possible.

Though what the digital revolution means in practice is far more work to do with no increase in staffing. Where once upon a time we produced a quarterly journal, now we are producing almost daily content.

SE: What about e-readers, iPads – will you have a digital presence in that sense?
JS: Last year we sold our first standalone ebook of Overland short stories. It was our first foray into this area. Though we are planning an iPad version, it’s not a huge focus, especially since our printed content is all available on the website anyway.

SE: As soon as it comes out?
JS: Within a week. There probably would be a readership for an epub version, but we don’t think it would be significant. The take-up of e-readers in Australia is quite slow compared to elsewhere. Obviously that is going to change and we have to keep evaluating these things, but our primary interface is the web, because it allows our ideas to circulate in a way that epub doesn’t. Every article put up as html can be blogged, tweeted, put on Facebook. Yes we will do epub, but we don’t see it as a huge thing for us at this stage.

SE: There’s a difference between a journal doing an epub version and a magazine doing an epub version. Magazines are almost as much about their form as their content and they have to create interactive applications and engage in a more direct way with new technologies. Do you think journals like Overland are always going to be about engaging with the ideas themselves, not the format they are in?
JS: Partly. If you’re a literary journal there’s a tremendous fetishisation of paper by most short story writers and poets; that’s where people want to get published.

SE: Yet you get much more exposure when you’re published online.
JS: But most of the people who are doing creative writing are not really interested in exposure – in the transmission of ideas. They’re interested in self expression. It’s fucked up and it’s not a good thing, but what they want is to have a book in their hand and say, ‘Look at me, I’m a published author.’ To be able to say here is my poem in print is important to people and in a funny way it might become more important as print publication becomes rarer. I would not be surprised if there is an increasing fetishisation of print objects. Being a poet who is published in a physical book will become more important than just having your poem on a website. That partly explains why we have the strange set of relationships with these formats that we do. There’s more of an established subscription model for a print journal than for epub.

SE: People are probably more willing to pay for a printed object than an online edition.
JS: I also think if people want to read short stories or complicated essays, paper is still the preferred medium. There is less distraction, its more conducive to the intense concentration that, say, literary fiction entails. If you’re reading on an iPad, it’s quite possible that you’re receiving emails at the same time or that twitter is open, so it’s harder to engage in the way you can if you’ve just got a book. But all of this may change and anyone who says they know how technology is going to shape the future is lying, nobody does.

SE: How do you, as the Editor of Overland, interact with other areas of the publication? Like design, production, marketing?
JS: There are only two of us there, four days a week, someone else there two days a week and various other people doing bits and pieces. We don’t really have departments. There is someone who does most of the administrative, book-keeping stuff, so I don’t have to do that. But things like publicity and marketing are pretty much whoever wants to do it. We do have someone doing publicity for us at the moment, but most of the time people want to speak to the editor.

SE: Do you think the design of Overland is important, or is it just about the words?
JS: It is and it isn’t. It depends if we’re talking about the print journal or the online stuff. We’re in the middle of a major web redesign, which is important to us. Regarding the design of the print journal – the readability is really important, the accessibility and how many words we get on a page. Most of our readership comes from subscriptions so readers are not browsing a shelf and buying because of the cover. Having something that’s attractive and readable is important, but maybe not in the same way as a publication that depends on shop sales.

SE: A lot of magazines exist on advertising. Do you deal with advertisers?
JS: Our primary revenue is from our subscriptions. We also receive funding from the Australia Council and from Arts Victoria and a couple of other philanthropic organisations. We do accept advertising, but the kinds of people who are likely to advertise in a literary journal don’t have a great deal of money themselves. The circulation of the print journal is quite small so that’s not a selling point for advertisers. The circulation of the online journal is very high, but selling online advertising is very difficult.

SE: What’s it like for you to publish your own writing in Overland?
JS: I’ve done it a couple of times, but it’s not something I like doing. The connotations of it aren’t that great – sometimes it’s because we’ve lost major articles and needed to fill up space, sometimes it’s because I’ve been working on a bigger project and I have bits and pieces that would fit the journal. In principal, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it; I just don’t think it’s the greatest look when our print space is so small.

We are trying to create a coterie of writers around Overland. We will often publish the same people in print and online and try and develop those people as writers and develop a particular political and cultural sensitivity that adheres to the journal.

SE: If you were not editing Overland, what would you be doing?
JS: I suppose I would be writing. That seems to be what I do these days. These are not really great times for being a writer in Australia. When I first started writing, one of the gigs you could get was book reviewing. There were a bunch of publications that dedicated a lot of pages to book reviews. You could write an article for The Age and get 60 or 70 cents a word, so a short article and you’d have $700. Online publishing – you’re lucky to get $50 or $100. The payment rates have collapsed.

SE: I think more and more things will be solely online. Do you think that will change the payment structures?
JS: If anything, I think they’ll go down further. Partly, I think there has been a conservative attempt to use online publishing to drive prices down. It’s like any technology – it is often used as a way to drive prices down. But it’s also that the old economic model in crisis and nobody knows how it’s going to work anymore.

Newspapers are losing money hand over fist. The Age is in a death spiral as the advertising revenue dries up, then they can’t afford to pay for journalists or the pages, which means their circulation declines, which means their advertising budgets decline even more. So the death spiral continues. It’s not just writers. The standard of copy editing on most websites is abysmal. These sites can’t afford to pay for it. When you’re publishing online you need a constant stream of content – there’s no time to worry about getting something right. Look at The Huffington Post – they chuck any crap up there; most of their content is created by interns.

SE: If you met Overland at a party, what would s/he be doing?
JS: [Extended laughter] I have no idea. Probably arguing in the corner.

SE: What kind of arguing? Gentle? Encouraging?
JS: Overland is never gentle. Overland is about picking fights. It’s supposed to be smart without being academic. It’s supposed to be generalist, interested in the culture of politics and the politics of culture. Diverse. It’s supposed to be different. We publish things that no other journal would publish.