July 26, 2011
Why 1 to 100 was always going to fail
I've come to the grim realization lately that out of all the Versals that leave this house/my hands/our stock/Amsterdam, only about 30% of those are actually sold. The remaining 70% go to all the expected places, free. Contributors, of course, receive a free copy. Review copies, swaps and editorial contacts make up a huge "promotional" percentage of gratis gratis. What's left, at least of issues 5, 6 and 7, are unopened cardboard boxes in my attic.
In other words, I am one crappy sales person.
A lot of editors I know and have spoken with over the years believe deep-down in the purity of this inventory spread. The work we collect must be in the world. In whatever way possible. We'll leave rogue copies on coffee counters. Slip one or two between politico blah blah at the chain bookstore. Swap copies with other editors as a sign of goodwill. Donate them en masse to fairs that raise money for literary organizations or otherwise. Sales run contrary to our bones. We were made to write, to edit, to appreciate. Not to hold it up and ask someone to buy.
This is all great if there's money coming from somewhere. Or if you're in just "in it for fun" at the copy shop. The first model, where money is coming in from some outside source, is a little like European socialism where government funds are (were) used to bolster less capitalist ventures, like healthcare or the arts. So I'm thinking of university journals, mostly. The second model is more like anarchy, squatting. A utopian vision of the world passed from hand to hand without commerce. [Side note: Here in the Netherlands the first is dying a violent death while the second is rising up with new force in the face of also violent government crackdown.] Anyway, for those of us in the middle, which can rely neither on a socialist model nor on the goodwill of celebrated poverty, we seem stuck in a constant feedback loop of frustration. Why? I think I'm starting to think that it's because we're trying to swim in the free (capitalist) market. We have to rely on the crowd for survival, but we're modeled after one of the two above. So we're confused.
Swimming around in the "marketplace" isn't necessarily a bad thing, I'm learning. Everyday I watch fellow editors use the crowd networks of Twitter and Facebook and now + to try to promote their things. I'm developing my own rhythm with it too, trying to extract from vague "impressions" numbers what time of day is best to post about buying Versal, or when people really just want to be linked to some cool article that they'll then share and I'll see rise up again in my newsfeed. So we're already using the crowd, or trying to.
But what I'm really coming to understand is that I don't know how to sell to that crowd. The problem is clearly a lack of math. Not of math skills, but rather of math not coming anywhere near my understanding of reality. I think a lot of editors feel this way. And even most of the panels I see on it seem to be legions behind most marketing and sales know-how out there. For my journal to survive, though, I need to figure this out. Versal will not receive funding from the Dutch government or any of the arts funds here, especially not now. And we'd rather end the journal than turn it into a cheaper product or move it entirely online. If we're going to be in the middle, we had better figure out how to be the middle too.
The 1 to 100 by August 1 campaign was set up before most of these realizations started taking form. I had the hunch, I guess, but now I have pie charts. And, typical me, the campaign was set up to fail. I knew we would never reach 100 sales in just 3.5 weeks. That's preposterous.
And that's also really sad. Right?
Last Wednesday, we had the rare opportunity to sit down with 9 upper level strategy consultants to talk about Versal. They were appalled by some of the cliches we throw around every day. Like, writers are poor. Like, people submit to journals they've never read. Like, bookstores buy the journal at a 40% discount. Like, bookstores don't even buy it, they just take it on consignment.
I was floating after that meeting. I took a breath, got some perspective, confirmation that we navigate somewhat crazy waters here, that we model ourselves after the socialist university mags or the utopian zines but we're actually crashing against regular-old capitalist realities. So of course our survival has become rather freaktified and precarious.
But I'm not going to blame our community on this. It's not anyone else's fault that Versal's sales numbers aren't high enough to pay for Versal. My failure here is ok. I'm not upset about it. We've survived almost ten years on sheer willpower. TEN YEARS. I'm really proud of us, we have made something truly unique in the literary world, and we're going to keep making it. With the fantastic team of editors and volunteers who support us, and our beautiful local community and greater global community, we're going to sell this f***er. To quote Miss Scarlett in Clue, August 1 is just a red herring.
This post is messy and these thoughts more so, but I'd love to hear your ideas on this if you have them. What do you think your role is as a writer, in terms of the literary world's economy? What would you like to see happen (not just with Versal but with lit mags in general)? What measures has your journal taken to overcome some of these obstacles? etc. etc.