Okla Elliott: Everyone is talking about the current economic situation in the US. How is this affecting literary journals, and what are the solutions you’ve found?
Jodee Stanley (Ninth Letter): I think the economy has got us all biting our nails, looking over our shoulders. I’m interested to hear what independent journals have to say about the effects on their projects—for those of us housed and funded in part (or in full) by universities, we are finding ourselves looking for ways both to prove our value and to reduce our reliance on institutional funds, or face getting axed, I think. We’re seeing more journals, like Hunger Mountain and Marlboro Review, going to all-online publication in order to reduce overhead. The situation with New England Review, with Middlebury giving them the ultimatum of becoming fully self-supporting by 2011 or getting cut off—that’s made a lot of us very nervous. I think we’re not going to know the full effects of the economic disaster on literary publishing for quite some time, really.
At Ninth Letter, one thing in particular that’s been hard to take is the fact that our state arts council funds are disappearing—the Illinois Arts Council’s budget for 2010 is less than half of what it was for 2009, which means many, many programs are going to be cut, and the grants that are still being supported are going to be given in reduced amounts. This bodes ill not just for us literary publishers who rely in part on state grants, but also for all artists and writers in the state. If this is happening here in Illinois, I’m betting it’s happening elsewhere, too. Just at the time when we need to be showing our university sponsor that we can go out and attract support from outside campus, we face losing one of our most important off-campus sponsorships.
And of course, the bad economy means it’s harder to get new subscribers and find new donors, because people in general have less discretionary income—but this is where we’re putting a lot of our energy right now, into reaching out to as many potential readers and supporters in as many ways as we can—preferably inexpensive marketing efforts. And we’re also trying to reach out and make more regional connections, to find support, and to give support to others, within our immediate community.
Jacob Knabb (Another Chicago Magazine): I have no idea how to go about addressing this question. I don’t really handle the money matters at ACM. So I can’t speak to the particulars, really. Of course the economy is frightening, and we are quietly crossing our fingers in the hope that we won’t run into major problems as a result.
However, we are independent. Our budget is small, but we are very flexible, and we are only answerable to ourselves. This gives us a great deal of freedom. I’d imagine that we are not nearly as susceptible to a recession as Ninth Letter, for example.
We are currently exploring ways to use the internet to connect with new audiences. We use Facebook. We have a website. Most of our money goes into printing costs. We’re trying to broaden our audience and escape the confines of the Midwest—not that we dislike the Midwest, but we want to reach beyond the region more.
What I am trying to do more and more as an editor is to seek and to explore ways in which we can maximize the strengths of the printed page. It is senseless to compete with web-based literary journals, as we cannot do what they can. But, that said, they can’t do what we can either. So we are moving more towards having thematized issues, weaving tons of art into each issue, and trying to publish work that develops into a sort of dialogue from issue to issue.
Who knows if it will work? But none of us are getting paid for it anyway, so I have faith that we can pay for it in any case.
Anne McPeak (A Public Space): Here at A Public Space, we held our breath like everyone else through last winter, but we seem to have passed through the economic downturn mainly unscathed. The New York State Council on the Arts made ominous warnings about the decreases grantees should expect this year, but in the end, the change was not drastic at all. We renegotiated our printing contract, and we opted for an e-mail appeal campaign rather than a direct-mail one (though cutting costs was not the only motivating factor—marketing by mail just seems increasingly outmoded). We’re a young magazine, founded in 2005, so two of our three appeal campaigns were conducted since December of last year. The response to these letters, written on our behalf by past contributors Nam Le and Wells Tower, was encouraging and exciting, but we don’t really have past campaigns to compare them to.
One of my big projects in the last year has been to increase library subscriptions in order to get the broadest audience possible—and this has been the worst time to approach libraries, with many professors and librarians reporting that budget freezes made purchasing new subscriptions impossible. Advertisers suddenly got very quiet, too. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, however, I seem to be having an easier time selling ads for our upcoming issue, and I’m holding on to that as a good sign.
I’m saddened by the changes that took place in publishing—there were days when it seemed as if the industry was literally imploding. This was more on the book side, of course, but it was shocking to see the waves and waves of layoffs and restructuring that took place. What does this mean for literary magazines? With the big houses inevitably taking less risks due to the financial constraints they operate under, literary magazines become more necessary than ever, publishing the new voices or the unconventional stories that otherwise wouldn’t be invested in. And it’s our financial flexibility, exactly, that allows us to do this.
Aaron Burch (Hobart): Chiming in a little late, but I think I’ll mostly echo Jacob’s sentiments. I guess I do handle money matters for Hobart, but that still doesn’t mean I understand the money or financial issues well enough to really talk about particulars. Our “budget” is pretty small as is and while it is harder to get people to, say, buy or subscribe to literary ventures when their expendable income is decreasing, we didn’t have a huge number of subscribers anyway. I’ve read a few anecdotes here and there—things like being too small of a boat for the storm to affect us too greatly anyway, which seemed to make sense when I originally read it but now, typing it myself, it seems to maybe not quite work as a metaphor, but maybe I am just botching it.
Anyway, the point is that it’s so hard to support an indie lit journal anyway, a little thing like a crippling recession seems to barely even impact the fundamental problems.
All that said, I just spent two weeks this summer on a reading tour for the Dollar Store Reading Series out of Chicago and we didn’t really make money, but a barbeque fundraiser in Chicago and a raffle in each reading city almost completely paid for both van rental and gas for a road trip that took us to 11 cities in 14 days and over 5,000 miles. So that was encouraging. I think the support is still out there—it just helps to bring something new and creative and maybe a little different (are those three things the same? maybe) to the table.
Raymond Hammond (New York Quarterly): Greetings all. I’m getting started a little late with this—my apologies for doing so but I wanted to chime in as soon as I was able. NYQ has not been affected very much by the economic situation simply because we have found that not having much of a base to begin with has left us somewhat recession proof. We are still building support to get the magazine back on its footing including building the board and conducting marketing research, etc., so I am noticing fundraising going a bit slowly but honestly do not have any better days to measure it against.
One tactic that we are working on that seems to be popular among fundraisers now is salons. We have put together some kits that we distribute to our board members and other significant supporters around the country that will assist them in holding an NYQ night at their own house or bar or coffee house. The idea is for these people to invite friends who will each donate between $10 and $100 to attend the event. The important element is that it is more of an excuse for the friends to get together than it is as a particular fundraiser for us. They are told a little bit about us in the course of the evening but it is not a hard sell—again, mostly friends getting together. We recently did this at a bar in Manhattan and everyone donated just $10 at the door, but we raised almost $500—we also gained an excellent board member in the process after they were exposed to the magazine.
Ben George (Ecotone): I think Jodee is correct that the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on literary-magazine publishing may not be known for some time yet. For instance, Ecotone’s funding for printing and production is fortunately secure—we enjoy an administration at UNC-Wilmington that values the magazine and is committed to supporting it in an ongoing way. However, our ability to pay our contributors appropriately, which comes from a cobbling of other sources, is not as secure. This fund fluctuates depending upon the amount received by the UNCW creative-writing department, and is augmented by grants. As of this writing, the 2009–10 budget for the state of North Carolina, which has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country and had an unexpected 40 percent drop in tax revenue over the course of a year, is still undetermined. I am not expecting good news. As far as grants, one would think that organizations like the NEA will be more generous under the new, Democratic administration. But time will tell. I consider it all but inarguable that a publication’s ability to pay its contributors affects the quality of the work it is able to publish. More to the point, writer and artist payment is to me a moral obligation. Exactly how moral Ecotone can be is at present out of our hands. If you’re dependent upon a state institution, only a hefty endowment, à la publications like the estimable Virginia Quarterly Review, can keep you entirely safe and inoculate you against a change to a less friendly university administration. Of course, state-university support does look very valuable indeed in light of the conundrum for the New England Review that Jodee referenced. It’s clear that winning awards and gaining recognition can ingratiate a magazine with its patrons, be they private or public. But fortune of this sort is only too capricious and generally beyond one’s ken, no matter the work ethic or editorial taste.
Solutions to economic difficulties remain enigmatic. Where are the gnomic saviors? Where is Ecotone’s Magwitch? There are two things I focus on. First, who is the Ecotone reader? What sort of person would enjoy the magazine, and how can we reach that person, as inexpensively as possible, to let them know about what we’re up to? This terrain is forever undulating. Second, and more important, am I publishing as good a magazine as I possibly can? Let’s be frank. We are all constantly bombarded by publications that attempt a claim upon our invaluable reading time, and not all of them are worth it. With unending choice for readers, you must make your publication essential, and that is not easy. In fact, it’s the never-ending challenge. But I honestly believe that this is a necessity, that there will be no long-term solution for a literary publication without this qualification having been met, and that if one makes one’s magazine essential, the solutions will present themselves. Look at the Oxford American. Earlier this year an anonymous donor gave $100,000 to the magazine to help it out of trouble. That magazine has had about four rebirths now. There’s a reason people have been unwilling to let it die.