What does it really take to begin and operate a literary magazine?

As I began to wrap up my Bachelor of Arts program, much of my thoughts and energy began circling around personal reflection. I seemed to become enamored with reflecting on the past four years — looking at who I was when I entered the university as a trembling teen too afraid to leave her dorm room and comparing that image to the empowered woman I identify as today, analyzing what I have learned and what I struggled to learn, and feeling somewhat proud of the intellectual traumas I lived through throughout this incredibly taxing yet rewarding experience — but even more so, I became obsessed with reflecting on my own goals for the future — and the closer I got to that tassled finish line, the less I understood those goals.

However, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to work in publishing. I had spent the last two years of my undergrad working as an intern for our campus literary magazine, Toyon, and it was by far the pinnacle moment of my academic career. This was something that I could comfortably picture myself doing for the rest of my professional life.

When I was given the opportunity to research a topic in publishing for a final project, my instinct was to look into what it really takes to begin and maintain a literary magazine. Part of me was hoping I would stumble on a gold mine that would set me up for life; but as I conducted my research, this turned out  not to be the case. You see, literary magazines as they exist today, primarily consist of labor of love operations and a few untouchably large enterprises that seem to have been around since the dawn of time (i.e. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review). The fact of the matter is, literary magazines have a large supply and rather low demand. Because of this, the concept of “how to operate a literary magazine” became intrinsically tied to the idea of “how to keep a literary magazine alive.”

This did not deter me from this topic. In all honesty, by the time I reached that point of realization in my research there was pretty much nothing that could deter me from such a topic. However, upon gathering my sources, I found that there was not much in the way of peer reviewed analysis of literary magazine startups and business models. This made sense given the low demand for literary magazines at all. So, I turned to trusted (or untrusted, if you’re the glass half empty kind of folk) Google for all the answers I needed; but again, I fell short. On the open web, I found a number of “How To: Numbered Steps to do Anything You Want” sort of articles, a few more “The Emotional Fulfillment I Receive from my Undervalued Profession” op-eds, and good amount of “How in the World do these Still Exist” pieces all seemingly disguised as resources that might be helpful to my research. In reality, few offered more than I would be able to use for a three minute presentation. Here’s what they did have to offer:

Your Name will Determine Your Audience

From your readers to your contributors, your audience will determine who you are by the name you select for your publication. Your name should reflect your mission and the type of material you wish to produce. You don’t want to have a crass name if you wish to publish clean content, and you will deter writers of literary fiction with a name that lacks refinement. Essentially, adopt a name that your target audience will enjoy, appreciate, and remember.

Maintain a Powerful and Professional Online Presence

I used an article hosted by the Every Writer website to receive a step-by-step guide to the online setup for a literary magazine. While I question the credibility of the article (this page and seemingly the rest of the website could benefit from a good proofreading), I found much of the meat of the argument helpful to a portion of my project. The first step in building a professional online presence is to purchase a domain. Having your web address as something like nameofmagazine.hostsite.com makes you look uncredible. If you want to up your credibility a bit, purchase a domain email as well (i.e. submit@nameofmagazine.com).

Next, you are going to want to design your website (and potentially a logo to go on your website). Many of the articles I read recommended investing in a custom design, whether your paying someone else to design it or investing your own time. The general idea is that you don’t use stock templates. There are a number of web hosts out there that offer a lot of flexibility with the design. My personal recommendation is Wix. While Wix is not as transparent and user friendly as platforms like Weebly and WordPress, it has a lot more malleability that will work toward your advantage. This is also a topic that you can do more of your own research on as you’re thinking of getting started.

Lastly, you are going to want to develop a Rights page. Clearly outlining your copyright policy will tell your contributors exactly what their rights are during the submission and publication process. It will also help your magazine look more credible and your website more professional. Here is some more information about specific forms of copyright to help with your Rights page.

Reading Fees

Reading fees, sometimes referred as submission fees, is the practice of charging a writer or artist to submit their work. When you are just starting out, my advice would be to avoid reading fees at all costs. For a long time prior to the era of internet submissions, reading fees were seen as a bourgeois way to prevent equal access to publishing opportunities and were seen as unethical to charge reading fees in any capacity. However, with the internet, there saw a rise in submission numbers to an extent that many magazines are not able to manage them without the aid of a content management software (i.e. Submittable, BePress, etc.). These softwares tend to be on the expensive side; and as we have previously seen, literary magazines aren’t known for turning a profit.

It has become normal for publications who have to use content management softwares (CMS) to charge reading fees in order supplement the cost of their CMS subscription. However, many journals who charge such fees have created alternatives in order keep their submission process as accessible as possible. For example, many accept free submissions by mail and those who maintain subscriptions do not charge their subscribers to submit as the subscription fees help pay for the CMS.

Purchase an ISSN

An ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) is essentially the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) of a series of a collection. This is a one time purchase for your whole journal. Each volume of your magazine will contain your organization’s ISSN instead of an ISBN. This can be easily purchased on the Library of Congress website.

To Stay Alive, Publish Online

The internet is your greatest resource as a literary magazine. This is where a majority of readership will come from. The truth is, unless a loved one had published in your journal or you are a major magazine, no one is going to want to pay to read your magazine, when they can find similar quality work for free elsewhere online. Having your publication online also makes your magazine more accessible to broader audiences. Whether you care about social justice or not, accessibility is something that everyone in this industry should care about.

My Own Experience

Because I was not able to obtain the reliable sources I was hoping for, I figured that I could be as credible of a source as any other willing to write on the subject (as there are not many willing). So I decided to create a literary magazine based on my own model, to figure it out for myself; and that is exactly what I did, with the help of my production partner from my the magazine I worked with during undergrad. Together, we took some of the helpful tips I received from my research and selected a name to reflect our mission (Obelus Magazine), registered a domain and ISSN, built a professional website, and started to build a social media presence.

The next step was to just do what felt right to us. Having received numerous calls for submissions through our own English department, we decided to reach out to English departments across the state. I started with my own university and the rest of the CSU system, sending our fliers to every English and Humanities email I could get my hands on. After receiving a warm response from quite a few of those, I moved on to the UC system, private schools, community colleges, and other states. From here, we decided to engage with our social media community. We utilized the accounts of authors who posted prompts to Instagram. I read through the comments on these prompts, looking for work that fit what we were looking for. When I found one, I would reach out directly to the commenter and invite them to submit.

These sorts of interactions worked to our benefit. Within less than a month, we were able to commission enough submissions to fill a small first edition. We have set our submission deadline for October 31st of this year, leaving us four and a half months to pull enough submissions to produce what we wish. When it comes time to publish, we will be publishing an online edition to our website and hosting a print-on-demand physical copy through CreateSpace and Amazon.

Conclusion

So, know that I know all of this, can I answer my own question? The answer to that would be, “sort of?” I like to imagine a scenario in which I am approached by a bright eyed English undergraduate around their junior year (whether we have gone to college ourselves or simply known someone who has, we are all too aware of the frantic, somewhat dead glare of a graduating senior).

When this junior inevitably asks me, “What does it take to start/run a literary magazine?”

I will respond with this, “Determination. Running a literary magazine is 30% skill and 70% determination.* You have to want to do it and love what you are doing,” and when they stare at me blank faced and frustrated by my lack of an actionable answer, I’ll add, “By a domain, maintain a strong online presence, utilize social media, publish online, and keep your expectation low.”

 

*Numbers are pulled out of nowhere and should not be taken as a legitimate statistic. This is a fantasy scenario. Just roll with it.

Sources:

Burnett, Ashley. “The Cost of Running a Literary Magazine.” The Billfold, 1 Aug. 2017.

Burt, Stephanie. “The Persistence of Litmags.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017.

Friedman, Jane. “The Business Model of Literary Journals (or Lack Thereof).” Jane Friedman, 26 Oct. 2015.

“How to Start a Literary Magazine.” Every Writer, 4 July 2017.

“Starting a Magazine – Young Poets Network.” Young Poets Network.

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