August 23, 2011

A summary of advice, part 3

So by now, hopefully, I've explained the crossroads where Versal finds itself and I've listed several directions the consultants thought we could go. In this final post, I'll list those ideas that we are considering - and I'm sure, for those of you still reading, this may cause some debate. Please be kind, I think comment flame wars are lame.

Ideas we're considering

1. Expanding sales/reach into the broader arts community
Versal, as most of you know, is "more" than "just" a literary journal, and it's been that way since we started in 2002. It's a veritable object, an artistic archive, a coffee table book, if you will. In the last few years, our editorial reach into the arts community has expanded considerably. Translating that into copy sales is a good next step. For example, we recently joined the shelves at the Stedelijk Museum here in Amsterdam.

2. Professionalize
This may seem like a somewhat vague step, but with the consultants' help we could give form to a Versal that is not run like a non-profit, but like an enterprise. Sounds scary, I know. But I can see some advantages: a bank start-up loan, for example, might allow us to rent office space, get a few of us on a payroll, and help us inch towards economies of scale if we want. One potential element of professionalization would be if members of the editorial team become shareholders - essentially buying Versal and realizing later financial return from the investment. I could definitely see this model working for a brand new journal, where each editor joins in with an investment of funds, and once the journal reaches profitability the editors get "paid".

3. Leverage our contact moments
"Contact moments" is industry speak for the times when Versal comes in contact with a person. Each of these moments is a sales opportunity. For example, we could leverage pre-ordering during the submission process by asking folks if they would buy the issue, whether published or not. A non-binding agreement, of course, but an indication for us of how many buyers we may get from our submitters, and a nudge to those who send us work that supporting the journal may be a good thing.

4. Charge for submissions
Corollary to #3 is to charge a small fee for submissions. This idea came up pretty quickly in the brainstorm, as the consultants felt it was more than reasonable to ask a few bucks for the time we invest in work review. And a few bucks would be no more than the old SASE costs, especially the international ones. Since Versal's review process is editor-only (no interns, undergrads, or the like reviewing the "slush pile" - we read it all), and we give frequent personal feedback, there's added value to sending your work to Versal. Plus, if you're accepted, your work will never have looked so damn good. The consultants were convinced a submission fee could help. I explained that there's a lot of controversy about this, and industry-disparagement of the practice (e.g. Duotrope does not list journals that charge for submissions), but I am pretty sure as both an editor and a writer that this is where things are going. The recent discussion on HTML Giant seems to agree. And personally, if I really want to get my work into a journal and it charges me $3, I think that's $3 well spent.

5. Engage our network
In 10 years, we've crossed paths in one way or another with hundreds of people. Writers and artists who have sent us work, people who have bought copies, editors we have exchanged copies with ... the list goes on and on and on. I would recommend to any new literary journal that it starts an Excel spreadsheet or database of some kind to keep track of all of its contacts. These people can be tapped for later sales (that sounds bad, but you know what I mean), sent questionnaires to gain insights into the market, asked to reach out to their networks, etc. We have probably a dozen different spreadsheets by now, so our systems in that sense are a total mess, but we could better leverage our contacts to boost sales - I'm sure of this.

6. Editors' better engage their networks
Here's an example. The strategy consultants are one of my clients (I am a freelance editor, writer and translator, working with Dutch companies to improve their English texts), and are 70-strong at their Amsterdam office. So I pitched Versal 9 to their account manager as the annual Christmas gift. We'll see if he bites. Another idea: those editors who teach in schools could teach Versal 9 - and the school pays for students' copies. It's not just about sending an email to our families, it's about tapping our professional networks too.

I hope this has been helpful, not only to other editors struggling with sustainable business models for their endeavors, but to writers out there who want more than a glimpse behind the curtain of the journal world. Though this post concludes my series on the advice we got from the strategy consultants, I will no doubt continue to share insights that we've had under their guidance, our thoughts on some of the potential directions we can go (like submission fees), and maybe a few pie charts.


  1. Hiya - instead of submission fees, how about annual pay-to-enter contests? The downside of submission fees is that the quality of your submissions might decline - I don't know a single experienced writer who'd pay to have his/her work considered (submitting is a transaction in which the journal is the client, so if any money is involved, it should flow to the writer, not the other way around). Contests are another matter entirely.

    Another thing you could consider is to release a stripped-down, low-cost version of Versal in Kindle/pdf format. Cheaper = more likely to buy. Also, that would do away with shipping costs. (Print version = luxury edition for those who are prepared to pay 14.95.)

    Some journals post work online, too (Agni, for instance), enabling readers to browse the mag for free. Those who like the stuff on offer are more likely to fork out cash for a copy.

    Just a few thoughts :)

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for these thoughts. I'll try to reply briefly to each of them:

    1. Sub fees vs. contest fees
    The sub fee question is a big debate right now, among writers and editors alike. I know lots of writers who don't mind submission fees (by "experienced" I assume you mean well-published?), who are publishing and successful to some degree. Not the Alice Notley's of course, but they don't submit to journals anyway through normal channels. They just get published. :)

    Obviously we've thought about contests as a way to increase funds, but many small journals I know (journals like us) find that contest fees only end up paying for themselves. The model has to be very well executed and the fees set correctly for it to make financial sense in a way that will actually impact a journal's profitability.

    I don't agree about the relationship between the journal and writer as a transaction in which the journal is the client. I think it's a mutually beneficial relationship, we just have to learn how not to feed off each other to each others' detriment. We would love to pay our contributors something for their work in our journal, and obviously our transitions will look towards that as we reposition ourselves and grow stronger. Right now, we barely get by so this is not a current option.

    2. I think I should post a piece just on the "digital" option. Lots of people keep giving me this advice as if it's something we haven't thought of (no offense). Obviously digital formats are cheaper - once you find the right programming/template design. For poetry (i.e. line breaks) that ain't so easy. Trust me, it's a big conversation among editors right now.

    We do want to offer a digital annex to the print journal once we get a new website (i.e. an upgraded, web 2.0 compatible one), but that's a developing project. Needless to say, digital is on our minds but is not the solution here.

    3. Samples of past issues can be found on our site under "bibliography".

    I'm curious to hear more of your thoughts on the relationship between a writer and a journal. Why wouldn't a writer pay a few bucks to submit their work online? Instead of postage, say. Better the money goes to the journal than to the post office, in any case? :)

  3. Thanks again, Megan, for posting all of this. It's incredibly useful.

  4. This is interesting to think about. I'm fascinated by how differently writers view this issue.

    Aye, by experienced writers, I mean those with decent publication credits. Myself, I don't write much short fiction, but nevertheless sent out about 30 submissions in the past year (with four acceptances). Sub fees would add up … especially for those hardy souls who send out hundreds of subs every year.

    It could be that my perspective on sub fees is skewed, as I submit to both experimental/literary and genre markets (and in the latter category, I would never submit to a non-paying mag, as those are the ones that do not have readers).

    Hmm … I guess my view of the writer-journal relationship is transactional due to the nature of the submission process (one sends out a piece, the editor accepts/rejects it - it feels like business, not a personal relationship). Once a piece is published, the relationship becomes mutually beneficial, certainly, but before that …

    There's the problem of submission volume vs. acceptance rates - good journals publish so few of the pieces they receive that charging a sub fee feels a bit dodgy, like a lottery. That said, proceeds from lotteries do go to charitable causes, don't they …

    Getting feedback on a submission is always welcome, but it is of limited value - once a writer has reached a certain level of competence, feedback usually only serves to help the writer target future submissions to that particular journal.

    Anyway, I guess the bottom line for me is that given the choice of submitting to a journal that charges a reading fee or to a journal that does not, the latter wins out, every time. I'd much prefer to support a journal by buying a copy.

    On another note, I would love to see you post a piece on digital. Like many expat, highly mobile people (who I imagine must make up a substantial share of your readership), I'm totally sold on the benefits of digital. Dead-tree copies do pile up.

    Aye, there are samples on the biblio page, but they're short and hard to find. That digital annex you mentioned sounds excellent ...

  5. I'd like to complicate the notion that writers with serious publication credits wouldn't pay submissions fees. New England Review and Missouri Review, two more-than-respectable journals, were among the first to charge fees for submissions. I'm sure that many writers, even ones with books and/or good publication records, are still paying their three dollars to submit to these journals. And, I would add, at least in the case of NER, these are journals with significant operating budgets - and not "independent" journals.

    I do wonder why one might feel it is okay to give the USPS 2-3 dollars for mailing fees, but it might seem unethical for a journal to charge submission fees, especially if / when the journal is using that money to cover basic operating expenses, such as the computer-based system that saved the submitter the money (and paper / ink) in the first place. Somehow that doesn't make sense to me.