In my July 26 post I mentioned that we had the opportunity to sit down with several senior-level strategy consultants about the situation at Versal. Many have asked me what kind of advice we got, so here's part 1 of a summary of the 3+ hour brainstorm.
We came to them with a very basic question: "How can we keep going?" To understand the enormity of this question, you need to know a few things about Versal.
Versal started out as just a spoke in the wheel of "wordsinhere", a non-profit focused on supporting local, international writers. In fact, when I moved here in 2001, there was no literary community to speak of, so wordsinhere acted like a kind of instigator: a journal, local events, workshops, etc. etc. Everything you might expect from a literary community so that writers living here, who are not working in Dutch, can still find the support they need.
Completely volunteer-run, we survive on a circular, community business model: revenues from local programming pay the costs of the journal (i.e. printing and shipping), and of course whatever other costs we incur from programming. We have never had an office, so it has been through alliances with other local organizations (like Mezrab) and businesses (like The English Bookshop) that we have been able to offer writers "space" to meet, workshop, and read.
Over the last ten years, Amsterdam's international literary community has found its feet. It's no Paris or New York, but it's an active, supportive, conscious and connected community of writers. I love being here. And the community's foundations have also, in turn, given me the opportunity to focus more of my energies on Versal itself and on being its editor (or Queen Bee, as Robert calls me).
The problem? Postage costs go up each year, and soar each time another company buys the now privatized Dutch postal service (which has changed hands, and names, at least 5 times since I moved here in 2001). By regular mail, it costs us €10.45 to mail one copy of Versal to anywhere outside of the EU. We are lucky to have the offset printers we have, who pay attention to detail like we do yet charge us barely more than cost, but since the crisis the cost of paper has skyrocketed. And we found these rising costs hard to "pass on" to our community. Until Versal 9, a copy was only €10.00 anyway -- double that just to get it shipped to you?? Preposterous. And though our workshop programming has always been the cheapest in town, it seemed counter-intuitive to charge the same exorbitant rates as some of our "competitors" -- we, too, believe the old adage that writers are generally of the poorer ilk, and unless Margaret Atwood's the one standing at the front how could we charge €150 for an 8-hour fiction course?
Maybe the answers to the question above seems obvious to you -- maybe it has always been to us, too. But the consultants brought me more than face-to-face with my gut instincts. They also, as I mentioned before, gave me a sense of perspective. The literary economy, whatever it is, thinks much like I do -- not business-like, not economically. And that's ok, maybe, but it's a weird positioning if what you need to do, or want to do, at the end of the day, is sell copies.
In my next post, I'll share some of the brainstorm we had with the consultants.
Oh, and that's my bike in the middle of nowhere Holland. On the first of three sunny days this summer. It represents spokes and wheels and stuff.