Development of Covered with Fur, an online literary magazine by A Strange Object press

In 2014 I was fortunate to work with A Strange Object, a small press in Austin Texas, on Covered with Fur, their vision for an online literary magazine. I became involved during the later stages of the process, to help them with their final push, and was curious to know how the project had developed from inception. So I asked my collaborator Joe Costello, a usability specialist with a background in small press publishing, to flesh out the story.

In this guest post, Joe Costello speaks with Covered with Fur’s nonfiction editor Jenn Shapland and fiction co-editor Marian Oman.

Covered with Fur
Covered with Fur homepage.

Joe Costello:

This project had several stages of development; what were they?

Marian Oman:

Jill Meyers, Callie Collins, Jenn Shapland, and I all worked together on the literary magazine American Short Fiction (ASF). ASF went “on hiatus” in 2012, at which point Callie and Jill started talking about founding their own small press. That’s how A Strange Object was born.

They knew they wanted to publish print books, but they wanted to have a digital presence as well. I had been the web editor at ASF, so they asked me if I wanted to be involved in putting together an online fiction magazine for A Strange Object. Jenn had been involved at ASF too, so she came on board to edit nonfiction.

I had a lofty vision for the fiction side of things originally… I wanted to use the digital platform to showcase the behind-the-scenes process of fiction writing, and to publish not just final stories, but also relics of the creative process. My whole thing was just that writing and publishing both are so much more than a final product, but in fact leave all kinds of physical traces—notes, drafts, scribblings…ink, old printing presses, wood pulp—in the process. Even “digital publishing” exists in the material world, even though everyone likes to talk about it as though it’s ephemeral. Nope — there are keyboards, servers, cables. I saw a digital magazine as a vehicle for poking at that boundary between process and product, for whatever that’s worth. We’ve incorporated that idea into the site by publishing a sub-series called “The Material” where we feature supplemental materials related to the writing process that went into the stories we’ve published.

Anyway, that was the idea. And it stayed an idea for a long time, as we had no technical expertise to implement them. Eventually Jenn started learning something about web development and different website/content platforms, so she started building the site herself. By that time, I was in grad school and had started working for Marty Spellerberg part-time on the side. So, it was a natural thing to ask Marty if he could help get the site to a fully implemented/realized form.

Selection of Marian’s original CWF wireframes
Wireframes for Covered with Fur, by Marian Oman.

Joe:

At the Covered with Fur about page, I’m curious about the statement “We believe in subtraction, in lingering, in making space.” What were the early conversations about the vision of A Strange Object’s weekly digital magazine?

Jenn Shapland:

I knew I wanted something spare. I was tired of looking for worthwhile things to read on the web and finding instead an endless chain of links and listicles that seemed more interested in keeping my attention moving, unfocused—perhaps more easily advertised to?—than in holding my attention. I wanted to make something quiet enough to hear what its contributors were saying—to create a monologic space for each piece. I knew I wanted it to be an online magazine that suggested an alternative to the existing format of blogs and digital publications that constantly update. I knew that this wasn’t going to be about “hits” or “likes” or “comments.”

We also knew that for our own sakes, and to be consistent with the non-overwhelming plan for the mag, we didn’t want to put out six new pieces a week, or a new piece every day (though originally we’d thought of it that way). It was kind of a revelation when Jill suggested at one of our meetings “What if we just had FICTION and NOT?” And I love it, because it emphasizes and calls attention to the simplicity, the ease of the magazine. We’re not going to publish more than you can read and digest—perhaps even revisit—in a week, which eases up on the pressure of constant influx of new material, new articles, what I see as the more more more quality of the web.

Marian:

I feel like this stems from our collective sense that all the things that make reading and writing powerful—i.e., beauty, wonder, curiosity—these are all things one has to make space for. We live in a too-much world—too much information, too much to do. As publishers/editors, I think we all feel like it’s part of our job to create the space—by publishing work that surprises or delights; by presenting it in a (hopefully) aesthetically arresting way—that empowers people to have those little moments of magic.

Joe:

The design evolved a lot during the process. Will you please elaborate a bit on the original designs?

Jenn:

As I recall, we drew inspiration for the homepage in the original wireframes from a previous version of Triple Canopy’s website. We also used Pitchfork’s cover stories for ideas about layout for individual stories. We worked with Justin Cox at Public School to build them.

We spent a long time choosing a readable webfont, getting the line spacing exactly right, giving the pages actual margins. White space is invaluable. And we also keep readers in mind by drawing their attention to the individual lines of a piece with print-derived elements, like pull quotes and drop-caps.

Selection of Justin’s original CWF comps
Original mockups for Covered with Fur, by Justin Cox.

Joe:

How did you negotiate balancing features/design goals and technology/cost limitations?

Jenn:

We had this conversation over and over throughout the process. Ultimately, it came down to questions about how we can accomplish what we want (i.e. consistently put out work in an immersive, well-designed form) within reason. And since a big priority for the magazine is paying our contributors, we made some sacrifices along the way. But I actually think it ended up better than what we originally imagined. Pared down, distilled. Marty was helpful in steering us toward what features we could afford and what we could approximate without breaking the bank.

Joe:

As the site is up and running now, have there been any surprises?

Jenn:

Well, there was one time I accidentally brought the whole site down. Thank heavens for Marty’s timely intervention! That was seriously alarming.

Otherwise, running the site has been remarkably smooth. My favorite surprises come from watching submissions come in, and finding and soliciting new work, which connects me to a whole new network of practicing writers and artists. And then we’ve been also able to find unexpected ways to use some of the features Marty built in. For example, the gallery function is giving us a great platform for the genre we’re calling “Slash”—work that doesn’t fit comfortably in a category. “The Material” is a series of slash pieces that combine images and text to excavate a fiction writer’s process of creation—notes, drafts, inspirations. I’ve also used the gallery to create a hybrid art/photo essay with Lynne Maphies’ “I Can’t See the Arctic from Here.” It started as an essay, but the focus was so visual and so steeped in artworks and landscapes that Jill suggested laying it out as a photo essay of sorts. I love the result.

Marian:

CWF was a long time coming. We originally conceived of the site in August 2012, which means I originally read some of these pieces what feels like a lifetime ago. So, it’s been lovely to be resurprised by them, to see them reincarnated online, and to read them with fresh eyes after all this time.

Joe:

Returning to the statement about “making space,” do you feel that technology offers writers new bounds?

Jenn:

Definitely. But I think that’s true of any technology, any publishing platform, even any writing utensil. I love that CWF is bringing process to publication, documenting a writer’s progress from the early stages of insight to the crafting and revising of a piece. Others, Genius for example, are also exploring this on the web, albeit in a more interactive way. We’re going for immersion over interaction.

And I think there’s a sense of being able to take certain risks, certain chances with web publishing that you might not see in print. But I do want to resist the binary between web and print, and to suggest that the two media are both constantly in flux and being redefined.

Marian:

To be honest, I’m a bit boggled by this debate about “the future of publishing,” as though change is somehow at odds with or new to making art. I feel like good writing is good writing—whether it’s on a papyrus or a screen.

Joe:

Do you see physical and virtual publication as increasingly codependent?

Jenn:

Codependent doesn’t feel like the right word, but coevolving might. Is that a word? A Strange Object publishes print books and an online magazine. More and more of literary culture takes place online—on review websites, on social media like Twitter and Goodreads—even if the readers or reviewers never touch an e-book. And for CWF’s part, we’ve found print publications to be inspiring for our design, while looking for ways to take advantage of some of the distinct features and qualities of digital publication.

Marian:

I guess it’s about having more choices. I don’t think you have to publish digitally today—though it certainly would be weird if, say, The New York Times didn’t have a digital component. But there are plenty of print-only or web-only publishers, and plenty who do both. And that’s great!

Posted July 2015

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