The Man Behind Missouri’s Literary Machine

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Speer Morgan, editor of The Missouri Review, can often be found riding his motorized scooter around the streets of Columbia to work.

“He loves that thing,” said Michael Nye, managing editor of TMR. “He will ride it almost every day until the weather becomes too cold. He’s also an enthusiast about biking and wind surfing too.”

“I’ve been riding my scooter for six years now,” Morgan said. “I’ll occasionally ride my bike too. I enjoy not having to find a parking spot on campus.”

Morgan has been the editor of TMR, a literary magazine based out of Columbia, since its start in 1978 and has seen it through many changes. TMR reaches more than 5,000 homes and libraries spread among 50 states and 22 foreign countries, including New Zealand and China.

In general, literary magazines are relatively small enterprises, and as such they must be agile if they are to survive difficult economic times. Morgan thinks literary magazines across the nation, including TMR, have done a good job of riding out the recession.

“We remain agile by using new methods of delivery and finding new sources of income,” Morgan said, leaning forward in his office chair.

In 2010, The Missouri Review launched a digital and audio version of the magazine, making it the first literary magazine to be available in three formats. In just a few weeks, TMR plans to make the announcement of having the option to delivering eBooks, as well. TMR can have anywhere from 3,200 to 5,000 print readers depending on the time of the year and between 1,500 to 2,500 online deliveries through a site called Project Muse. “The change to going online has been very natural,” Morgan said. “Good literature appeals to all ages.”

Over the last few years Morgan has seen TMR’s audience become considerably younger, and that’s partly because of how the magazine is marketed now. Instead of doing mass mailings, marketing is done primarily online and is much easier to access for younger generations.

“He’s a visionary,” Nye said. “He comes up with a lot of ideas, some of which he doesn’t know if they will work. For example, creating an audio format for the magazine started as a conversation in the hallway, and a couple years later we have an audio format and it’s now a staple of our subscription.”

The average income per year from TMR’s website is more than $40,000, according to Morgan. Another large source of income originates from state and federal grants, from which TMR has acquired more than $700,000 during Morgan’s time at the magazine. Morgan has also established a trust fund for the magazine, and completed the second phase of the drive at $400,000.

Morgan does admit there have been two or three times in the magazine’s history when it has been in crisis, but he chooses to focus on the positive side of things.

“My attitude is that the tough times usually provide a really good opportunity to find something new to do,” he said. “You can come up with a better idea than what you were doing before and turn it into an advantage.”

As editor, Morgan handles administrative work as well as making final selections on everything that goes into the magazine, which involves spending a lot of time reading and editing manuscripts and writing the magazine’s forewords among other responsibilities.

“Becoming editor of the magazine just kind of happened,” Morgan said. “I was really into my writing career for about the first six years of the magazine, and I just wasn’t really into being an editor. But then when I was on leave one year I became really interested in putting out a good literary magazine. I soon figured out that getting a lot of grant money is key.”

Morgan is known to give his staff members a lot of freedom to pursue their own interests.

“His door is both metaphorically and literally always open,” Nye said. “He likes to take chances and doesn’t like to stay still in terms of publishing. A while back I wanted to try and create a new website for The Missouri Review, and he just allowed me to do that. I got bids and quotes and he didn’t interfere much. He trusts us.”

That trust and forward thinking goes into what’s on TMR’s pages, too. “I think if you could pick just one justification for a literary magazine, it has got to be discovering new talent,” Morgan said. “We like to bring our readers the best new work being written.”

TMR responds to more than 10,000 manuscripts a year. Often, employees at TMR learn over time what sort of pieces and writing styles Morgan likes and dislikes, helping them to decide which pieces to pass on to him.

To help with the reading, TMR runs an internship program every semester and summer from which interns get hands-on experience and training to learn the realities of publishing.

In Morgan’s opinion, TMR may be the best magazine in the country in terms of running an organized internship.

“It seemed natural to pursue the educational side of the magazine, making it a resource for both graduate and undergraduate students,” he said.

Several former interns have gone on to work in publishing houses and literary agencies in New York due to the magazine’s reputation.

In addition to being the editor of TMR, Morgan has written five novels and teaches in the English Department at the University of Missouri. His first novel, published in 1979, was set in Arkansas and the Indian Territory during the late 1800s and his latest novel won Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for the best book of the year.

As for teaching, Speer is not shy about letting his passion for the craft of fiction writing show to his students. He often goes on in great detail about individual pieces of writing and usually winds up ending his tirade by saying, “well, you know what I mean.” Whether on his scooter, in his office or in the classroom, Morgan is prone to letting his passions show.

 


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