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.

August 22, 2011

The Manager

The First in My Series of Behind the Scenes Action

A file transfer request landed in my fancy Words In Here email account.

It was from head editor Megan Garr, who found time between climbing and fighting off testosterone-filled idiots to send me something special:

A zip file, filled to the brim with videos explaining our purpose built submission manager.

I was receiving training materials because soon, strikingly soon, our submission manager opens.

Begin the flood.

Worry set in.

Those first couple weeks.

Reading day-in and day-out.

Raccoon circles under the eyes.

Coffee and coffee.


But after watching the videos and familiarizing myself with the submission manager, the stress was quashed.

Our editorial team–although lacking interns–is deep enough to make the whole process workable.

How It's Done

The head editor for the team (poetry, or in my case fiction), picks out a random ten stories which she/he then sends to an editor.

Throughout the reading process each editor has a partner.

If at any point I or my partner are overwhelmed by too much backlog, or if a story is good but not our cup of tea, we can pass on. This prevents rejection due to matters of individual taste or over saturation.

If there is a story that impresses us we pass it on to a second reader with our personal notes on the piece attached. Why is this story good? How does it fit into the Versal canon?

The second editor agree, or disagrees. We chat about it. The story is either rejected or moved on to the next stage.

If the story passes the second reading the entire editorial team for that genre (poetry or fiction) reads the piece. If everyone likes it, the whole editorial team (poetry and fiction) discusses what to do next. Good enough for the magazine? Or a very personal rejection letter?

So very democratic.


I don't think we're reinventing the wheel here, but there's no need to. A well organized reading process not only keeps stress to a minimum, it also ensures the highest quality out of the journal.

September 15th, 2011. Here it comes.

August 19, 2011

"That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it"

I've been bouldering for four and a half years now. I usually train three times a week at my local climbing gym, and the muscle strength in my arms grew so fast that in the first few years I was frequently grounded with weird finger injuries. But even then, after only two years, I was nudging a 7a in the famed Fontainebleau and playing with the burley, lengthy 6cs at the gym. And I can hold on to small edges in a way that'll make you cringe. When I'm there, I don't think about poetry or Versal or the lit world. Or anything else, really, besides being there. I don't compete, and don't want to, but bouldering is the only sport I've ever loved, I'm good at it but not an elite by far, and it confronts me with a range of challenges and fears, from the physical to the intellectual to the spiritual/emotional.

And that brings us to "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it".

Last night during training, I was warming up on a fingery 6b. Rumor has it I'm one of the only ones in the gym to have topped it out because the last hold is such a small pinch that most guys can't hold on long enough. But it's shaped perfectly for my small hand, plus there's that finger strength.

My buddy Casper was showing some newer climbers a 6a nearby. I think these kids are exchange students; two of them speak Russian and two of them German, but they speak a broken English between them. They struggled on the boulder but one of them, the louder of the bunch, finally did it. When he jumped off, he said, "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it."

Casper shot a look at me and then blew some air out of his nose. "Don't ever say that again," he said. Casper knew I'd attack the dude.

I was close enough to have heard but not close enough to have been a natural part of the conversation, but f*** that. I shouted across the bouldering cave, "What did you just say?"

The kid looked at me blankly. "What did you just say?" I repeated. He stammered. I didn't let up. "I can climb better than you any day," I said.

"I'm sure you can," he replied, but unconvinced.

"Yes," I said flatly. "I can."

One of his friends looked at me sympathetically. "He didn't mean it like that."

"That's bullshit," I replied.

The little troupe of boys got quiet. Casper and I started talking about a 7a we're both attempting, and the boys moved on to another part of the cave.

Boulders at my gym are burley and reachy, which means they're mostly all built by tall Dutch guys who like shouldery moves that will show off their muscles. The technical, subtle boulders that I love are rare there, and I plateaued at the 6b level for quite some time thanks to a combination of those reachy boulders and my own attitude that the boulders are "too reachy" and stupid anyway. But I finally read the famed 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes by Dave MacLeod, and I've been working the last two months to overcome my attitude problem. Just because guys dominate our gym doesn't mean I can't climb successfully there. Within a week or two I had ascended my first plastic 6c, and several more since.

Guys at my gym either ignore the girls who boulder, or spend a lot of time giving them advice. This advice usually comes in the form of a laugh when you fall off, and then them going to the wall and showing you the move. Keep in mind that a move between holds can be very different for a tall person. I'm 5'4", so my methods are often more technical and creative, whereas a tall guy can usually just reach up and go. Older men who are not very good climbers themselves seem to approach me sorrowfully when I'm working on a harder boulder, and they offer all kinds of "tips" with a patronizing smile. This has become more frequent since my hair has grown out (when I started climbing, I was Sinead O'Conner shaved). I've watched the exchange between guys there, and have noticed that the better guy climbers never seem to attract advice. People just leave them be.

Last night, I was the only girl bouldering. Well, my friend Fleur was there, but she's 8.5 months pregnant so she was staying on the flat walls and taking frequent breaks. I mean, 8.5 months pregnant and she's been at the gym every week at least once. That's hardcore. I'm not sure I would do it.

About a half hour after my exchange with the Russian kid, he came up to me. I thought he might try to apologize. Instead he said, "If you're so good, why don't you show me how to do this." He'd been working on a 6a in a roof.

"I'm not going to show you a thing," I said. "If you're so good, why don't you teach yourself."

"I'm not so good."

"No, you're not." Which was unfair of me to say, I realize, however true.

"But you're good."

"Yes, I am."

"So show me."

"I'm not going to show you anything." I was calm but stern. "Don't talk to me again, dude. I don't want to have anything to do with you."

His request was part-apology, part-challenge, and I was not going to yield. He left me alone the rest of the night, as did his friends, but I noticed they kept an eye on me. Out of suspicion or anger, I'm not sure. I don't really care. What I care about is that I'm confronted more often than I'd like in middle-class Europe with misogyny and unfounded male-domination, be in at climbing gym or in the poetry world.

I had planned to write about my experiences at the Prague Microfestival but never did. The organizers of the event are good people, even if they surround themselves and the festival with men who walk around acting entitled and superior. Several of the readings there were public displays of male masturbatory pride. One poet who will remain unnamed read an excerpt from some ridiculously long poem that was designed, we concluded later, just to piss off his audience. He read slowly and with a smirk on his face for 45 minutes, 2x longer than most other readers. The Amsterdam contingent was me and three other women, and luckily a few other women did sprinkle the program. But the contrast was stark and the masculinity of the event pervasive. We even made up a rap one night, after a few of those big Czech beers, called "Penis on the Table, Penis in Prague" – taken from an image Shayna gets whenever testosterone fills the room. As I described in my piece in A Megaphone, the Microfest is like most other events in the international community here on the continent -- male-dominated, and unapologetic about or purposefully unaware of it.

Last night's confrontation reminded me of a few things. One, that I had never written about my experience in Prague, out of fear that I would upset its organizers. Two, that speaking up isn't hard. Three, of that fantastic scene in Antonia's Line when the mother aims a shotgun at the man who raped her daughter. Four, that my feminism runs through me through-and-through, and is a part of every step I take in this world.

August 17, 2011

A summary of advice, part 2

In my last post, I provided some background on our current "problem". The consultants got a one-pager that I go back to from time to time now; I like seeing the situation condensed into 190 words.

The 3+ hour long brainstorm yielded some insights specific to Versal, but many of them probably apply to most literary journals which run independent from an institution (or without some kind of external funding). I'll continue this series with the ideas we threw out, and move on in my next post to those which we're either considering or planning to implement.

The ideas we threw out (at least for now)

1. Increase retail price:
The consultants were convinced (and still are) that Versal's high quality production values far exceed the price we slap on the cover (€14.95 as of Versal 9). They're right that it's worth more than you pay for it. But it wasn't hard to benchmark the American literary journal community to find that Versal is at the higher range of cover prices out there. The average, from the sampling I took, is around $11.40.

2. Increase scale:
This follows the economies of scale theory that you may or may not be familiar with. Basically, the theory is that if a company increases the number of units produced, then the cost per unit decreases as fixed costs (production costs) become shared over a larger number of units. In Versal words, we would print, like, 2000 copies, the cost per copy would go down, and we would focus our efforts on hardcore, professional distribution. Why are we not doing this? Right now, I am the proud storage space for boxes of Versals new and old, and I have no desire to house whatever 2000 copies will look like. Until we get an office or a real distributor, scale increase isn't really an option. But for some journals, it could be.

3. Switch to POD:
For those of you who are familiar with the look and feel of Versal, it will be obvious why we're not doing this one. POD is standardized territory, and high quality POD is still territory being charted. Maybe this is where things will go one day, but for now, turning Versal into a POD book would be like me writing a romance novel. Or something like that.

4. Adjust wholesale pricing:
The consultants were appalled that most bookstores only take literary journals on consignment, and were additionally floored by the standard 60/40 split. They encouraged us to renegotiate all of our contracts with bookstores, an action I would very much like to take -- if I thought it had any way of going anywhere. Changing our own practices is one thing; changing industry practices like the consignment tradition and the heavy price tag just seem out of our current galaxy of influence. A situation I may look into harder in the future, but I want to focus my energies elsewhere for now. And our small distribution list is just that, small, so the impact of that much work would be minimal.

5. Initiate crowd review of submissions:
To be honest, we didn't really explore this idea in much detail because it didn't really address our major problems, and I wouldn't consider our editorial team a problem area on any level. I think the idea came during a discussion of engaging the greater community better, and thus leading, in theory, to more book sales. I think this could be an interesting MO for a journal, but it's not an experiment I want to conduct with Versal. You can call me on all kinds of old-school, old-boys, old-washed-up things for this, but you can't really, because I'm in my early 30s (started Versal when I was 23), I'm a woman (and a dyke at that, whoa), and I don't have an MFA. And I love my team and I love putting Versal together with them (c.f. Versal 9's editorial).

In my next installment, I'll share the ideas we like.

August 08, 2011

A summary of advice, part 1

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.

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.