July 28, 2011

A Call to the Writers

Our head-honcho Megan started a bit of a fire with her post the other day. She made the not-so-shocking confession in her short essay that running a literary magazine at a profit is impossible -even financial suicide. The conversation has spilled over into other corners of the internets, even on HTML Giant.

There were many arguments raised by the HTML Giant post by Roxanne Gay of Pank, all which need to be answered in good time, but I want to focus on the importance of writers purchasing journals.

First, let’s get one thing straight. If every writer who submitted to Versal purchased a back copy, we would sell out quickly. Hell, we might even be able to get into the black.

In an ideal world, writers should purchase the journals they want their work in. But the reality is that many submitters have not purchased a copy and in most cases, have never read the journal at all.

But this comment is weighted. Writers are not wealthy people. To get published, sometimes you need to simultaneously submit to 20 journals just to get your work looked at. At 10 to 20 bucks a pop, this adds up. It’s probably damn near impossible to buy all those journals on the regular writer’s salary.

In reality, the writers submitting to 20 journals at a time are the serious ones who do buy a journal when they can. The best you can is good enough for sure.

But it is the new writers, the ones not quite established or working hard at their craft, that have to step up. Supporting journals has practical applications for the aspiring writer.

Something I've spoken about briefly on this blog is how engagement with the writing community as a whole is one of the essential components of being a good writer/editor. Although some engagement should be face-to-face -meeting editors and other writers at conferences, going to writer groups, etc- it is also important to engage with the literary journals that publish new writing.

Just as reading the "big" novelists helps shape your writing style during the formative years, reading journals helps refine abilities. Seeing so many variations of the writing craft -how writers engage with material, how they call upon historical stylistic norms and how they make their work subversive- is a learning experience (for any writer, young or old). If there are so many ways to engage with fiction, why feel obligated to adhere to the lessons of the "masters"?

Where do you fit in? How would you know without purchasing journals what is current? Maybe you don't fit in. Maybe you don't want to? These are the questions some journals can answer.

And if we refuse to buy the journals, then we can’t complain when the model needs to change. We, as the writing community, can’t persist in the same way. Governments in financial turmoil are not going to support leftist hobbies (one of the more infuriating comments from Dutch politician Geert Wilders this year).

Journals will never likely have the large following that magazines who also happen to public fiction might have, such as the New Yorker. We can’t expect it. Something has got to give.

I chortled a bit the first time I encountered submission fees. Do we, as writers, ever get paid?

We cry out when we see submission fees, but what is the problem really? Submission fees are are often less than actually buying the journal itself, and goes toward the publication of a journal that you, as the writer, has deemed worthy of having your piece published in. Some journals have even started PAYING their writers with this model, god forbid. Even better, some journals running contests with a entry fee give a journal away with entry. Can a submission model work in the same way?

But maybe part of the journal revolution can come from the writers, who suddenly, one day, all start buying the journals they want to survive. Even better, the writers start handing them out as gifts, shouting from the rooftops how good they are.

Not everyone has to read Jonthan Franzen.

Note: This post poses a lot of questions and half formed thoughts. No definitive arguments are made here. I want your thoughts on what writers can do to further support their favorite journals.

July 26, 2011

Why 1 to 100 was always going to fail

Versal festival armband around a street sign in Prague.

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.

July 21, 2011

A History of Time

I started out as an actor.

Yeah, one of those guys; working in New York City, bussing tables and going to auditions. A real A-type.

I studied acting in college, had some good instruction from some great teachers and moved to NYC. I auditioned into the Terry Schreiber Studio and spent some time there.

But NYC, as you probably know, is a hard place. I was a green kid from Ohio -still am- and the city ate me alive. I was evicted from an apartment, squatted a place or two, slept on a pile of clothes as a bed, etc. I was worn down and done with it in a short period of time.

I moved to London after that. Another hard city, but I landed on my feet. I kept on acting. I performed increasingly abstract pieces at the ICA, the Buxton Fringe Festival and the Shunt Vaults. And I started writing as well.

To be perfectly clear; although I was acting during my late teens to mid 20s, I was always writing. I can't really remember a time when I wasn't. I wrote Sci-Fi stories and comic book story lines as a kid, short stories as a teenager, even tried my hand at a terrible novel in my early 20s; but I started seriously when I moved to London.

I was interested in writing plays during the first part of my time in London.These were language heavy pieces that relied greatly on line breaks and rhythm. One play I wrote, if I remember correctly, was almost entirely done in dactylic hexameter. I don't know what drove me to do that. Insanity maybe.

During my third year in London I lost interest in theater. In turn I gave up on plays as well. I started writing bad short stories instead, and tried another scatter-brained novel (a story about a guy with synesthesia). But writing in this way stuck. And over time, I got better. I published a few things under a pseudonym and found my groove.

There was a time when getting involved with a literary magazine seemed like the last thing I would do. Or wanted to do. Most editors have an "in", right? It's all very incestuous -isn't that true?

Yes. In many instances it is. But luckily I found some regular people, working within the writing industry, in Amsterdam.

I grabbed on to the Words In Here community tight. When there was a new event, I was there. I introduced myself to everyone, tried my hardest to keep things professional and not have too many beers from the bar, and eventually, I found myself at the editors table. It wasn't work exactly, it was persistance.

I'm not a graduate from Yale. I don't have literary blood coursing through my veins. And I guess this is why I decided to share this history. It's common. Nothing really special.

July 14, 2011

An Introduction

Faithful Versal readers,

I’m the new fiction editor for the journal.

I am also new to editing.

So, the trust put into me by the welcoming editorial personnel of Versal is immense.

I'm learning as I go. Faking it till I'm making it.

And maybe that is what you are doing.

I assume, as a reader of a fine literary journal such as ours, you may be a writer or an editor, chugging along, learning the tricks and mechanisms behind the world of publishing as you go.

This can be hard. Lonely. There seems to be a mystical aura surrounding publishing and the -rather cliquey- literary journal landscape; impenetrable without some sort of incantation or relic. It doesn't have to be that way. If only there were a way to make the publishing of a journal more transparent.

Well, I’ve been asked to write a series of posts that introduce to you devoted who read this very small patch of cyber space how it works behind the scenes of Versal. From here you will follow the step-by-step process; gearing up for the submission avalanche, the nail biting decisions, the putting together of the actual pages of the journal -all of it.

I find myself intimidated, but it makes sense.

Who better to narrate one year of the journal’s life cycle than an outsider suddenly allowed access?

So here I am. Editing this little introduction to death. Grinding my heels into the ground with the hope that the longer I wait, the less daunting the task will seem.

So let's get on with it.

There will be regular updates here outlining the work we’re doing on the journal, my feelings on the process and some of the work out there that inspires me.

In the spirit of collaboaration, feel free to comment or ask me questions through Twitter:


Or on our Facebook Page:


My next post will be a bit about my history and how I’ve stumbled upon being a Versal fiction editor.

Daniel Cecil

July 04, 2011

Versal 9 acquired by The Itinerant Poetry Library

Back in 2009, The Itinerant Poetry Librarian (TIPL) came to Amsterdam and we donated a copy of
Versal 7 to the library.

Since then,
Versal 7 has accompanied Sara Wingate Gray on some of her travels. Here it is with Sara (wearing a space suit), during the art gallery Frankenart Mart's 'Space Station' themed show in May 2011 in San Francisco.

TIPL returned to the Netherlands this year for the Poetry International Rotterdam festival, so we were able to give the library a copy of
Versal 9 (after successfully completing the rigorous acquisitions interview).

TIPL has moved on from the Netherlands now, but you can keep track of the whereabouts of the library (and perhaps that copy of Versal 9) via the librarian's Twitter feed.