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.


  1. I just want to say I love everything about this post. I love that you use the word freaktified and put a clip in From Clue. I love that you talked about your strategery and that the pros were horrified by your cliches which also apply to the sibling worlds of art and craft. I think the perception that art is fun and not work exacerbates myth of the poor, but happy artist. I love that you are allowing yourself failure. But most of all, I love that you have made a nest for words. Keep on keeping on, toots. You inspire me to do the same.

  2. Good thoughts here, Megan. As you know, I recently founded my own magazine, which is also functioning in the same economic realm as yours. I'm an idealist; I think good literature is worth paying for. I wish other people felt the same way.

    Though I've been treading water financially over the past few years, I've always had money for books and magazines. It's part of my life. I even bought two extra copies of Versal in addition to my free copy.

    Part of the problem of literary journals is that they're really only interesting to people interested in literary journals. They're just not as accessible or versatile as flat-out magazines; though even magazines are a struggling industry. We're fighting an uphill battle. We're combating the digital age, intellectual complacency and economic caution.

    We can go two ways if we want funding. We can become a non-profit and grovel for those dwindling, hyper-competitive grant dollars, but suffer the restrictions of donating organizations; or we can become more 'magazine-y' and seek out some advertiser money. The problem with this latter option is that there aren't many advertisers who will see potential in a limited literary magazine market.

    Maybe it's not a question of failure to meet numbers. Maybe we just have to acknowledge the smaller size of our audience, and market accordingly. Maybe there is greater sales potential in collaboration? Who knows. Maybe we can continue this conversation.

  3. This is a good post... i feel like the problem is that all literary magazines (to an extent) are asking the same audience to buy their products and there is only so many subscriptions we can handle (I do 10 a year plus AWP purchases plus contributor's copies). It's time we look outside the writing community. CLMP started the adopt a lit magazine program (http://www.clmp.org/adoption/) which is great in concept, but really only privileges the already privileged. Maybe it's time to ask creative writing teachers to teach Versal in the classroom. Give them a 25% discount for the class (or something) and a free copy for the professor... Just a thought

  4. I think using literary journals in the classroom is a great idea. I tried to do it as often as possible when I taught, but unfortunately, the same anthologies that haven't been updated in fifteen years are still the standard in the classroom. I'd love to see a campus bookstore filled with lit mags because they were ordered for classes.

    Folks involved in MFA programs are supposed to make up the core of that readership (of lit mags), right? Or at least a good portion of it. But it seems that so many don't seek out new voices and venues. They read The Paris Review and leave it at that. Writers are poor, yes. Most of the ones I know right now are even unemployed in drowning in debt. But some writers also just don't read very much, like Phillip Roth, who doesn't need to read fiction anymore: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bcfc4554-9d87-11e0-9a70-00144feabdc0.html?ftcamp=rss#axzz1QUC88NCz

    And that's discouraging, because I do think that writers have a responsibility to seek out and support new writing (and where better to find an array of new writing but in literary journals?) --especially the successful ones. Otherwise, we're all writing in a vacuum. It's so dusty in there.

    Also, I think it's great that Versal has been here for 10 years, independent from a university. Is that what's keeping it so fresh and strange (in a good way)?

  5. (the successful writers, that is, not journals)

  6. I'm loving this idea of Versal in the classroom. Funny, I was filling out some of an application for an MFA program this morning and had the same idea pop into my head. What IF Versal was put into a classroom setting ...

  7. What fantastic ideas and thoughts! There's a lot to respond to, and I want to keep this conversation going so please feel free to continue this dialogue here.

    Ben, I'm so excited about Anobium. Starting a journal is one of the best things I've ever done, and I look forward to watching Anobium fly!

    Versal has faced similar crossroads re: funding and advertising. Two traditional models, neither of which seem applicable. The audience is small, and you're right - it's a question of how best to "leverage" that. There does seem to be some possibility in collaboration - I have often wondered how CLMP could, for example, facilitate a kind of "subscription" package for its member journals, where you as a buyer choose a set number of journals to get each year at a group price. And where the offering is not limited, like CLMP's adoption project (http://www.clmp.org/adoption), to the already well-established and well-funded journals. There could be a demonstrable need assessment to qualify. Such a package offering would be hard to set up ourselves but not impossible. It's just a matter of editors talking to each other and being willing to collaborate. And I'm sure there are other ideas in this realm we could explore...

    Richard, I'm so glad you brought up CLMP's adopt-a-mag program. I haven't had the courage until now to say exactly what you said: that it privileges the already privileged. I was saddened to see that when they launched the program...Getting into the classroom is important for so many reasons, and it's a fantastic idea. I am thinking at the high school as well as college levels, as well. Quite some legwork but worth it in the end. You're very right that journals have to sell in an already-saturated market, and we have to look outside of that to boost sales.

    Rochelle, your post makes me wish we were all sitting across from each other over beers! Like with CLMP's adoption program, the university programs keep privileging the established, leaving little entry possibilities for the rest and upcoming. We have to figure out a way to nudge ourselves in there...

    "Fresh and strange" - the best two words I've heard about Versal in awhile! Yes, I think the fact that we're not under any umbrella whatsoever - funding or university or otherwise - keeps us on our toes. I also think our editorial model has a lot to do with it, which I tried to write about in the opening of Versal 9 (rather unsuccessfully, I was feeling super sentimental at the time...).

    Philip Roth's comment about not reading fiction anymore spread like wildfire, and it made me really sad. Whenever I can, I try to donate to journals or small presses or buy subscriptions, or ask for these things for Christmas, and I'm by no means a successful writer. Maybe the Philip Roth's out there should be seeking out the struggling presses, not just for the new writing they'll find there, but also so that they remain part of the same economy that supported their success.

    Audra, you remain, as always, an inspiration to me. Thank you.

    Daniel, see you at the climbing hall tomorrow. Good luck with your applications. I think Versal would be such a beautiful thing in a classroom.

  8. Oh yeah, I also wanted to update you on the status of getting picked up here institutionally - currently, our budget obliges us to eliminate one subscription if we pick up another, but some strings might be getting pulled to blow that ridiculous rule out of the water. Funding is hard all over.

  9. Responding to the CLMP comments: Maybe there is some kind of letter us nascent magazine/journal folks can draft and send to them directly addressing the issue and proposing changes or a different program? Just putting the idea out there.

  10. I know Penguin sends a rep. to some English and Creative Writing programs to hock their books. They invite all the instructors to the book 'fair' in the faculty lounge and give away free desk copies and doughnuts with the hope that those instructors will assign Penguin's books in their classes. Wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of similar traveling lit mag fair specifically for college instructors? Maybe this exists in some areas already?

    And Megan, I'd love to be drinking beer in Amsterdam. Things in the US are not looking so good right now. (And as always, the arts will suffer when they make their cuts.)

  11. Audra, in any case thanks for trying. It would be super cool to get into Mansfield. Does the CW dept usually make the requests? I could ask Joanna to throw some of her weight in...

    Ben, this is a great idea. I'll email you about it, let's get this going.

    Rochelle, my partner and I met up for drinks last night with poet Jane Lewty and her husband Wade. Both taught in Iowa and both confirmed this practice. I honestly first thought about drug companies when I read this! Again, this would be a great project for some umbrella association to take up, like CLMP.

    If it's any consolation, which it's not really, the Dutch are cutting arts left and right here. Nothing else seems to be getting slashed, though. It's just the current political vengeance against cabaret apparently.

  12. I have so much to say about these matters and I'm so glad this was posted.

    I've been running an indie lit mag for four years. We were lucky enough to get some grant funding when we started and, per our contract with them, it was all spent. Spent spent spent! on a fantastic release event where all my friends and family members showed up to support us and we got press coverage and it was very exciting to have that kind of momentum.

    We are now on our sixth issue and we are struggling financially. I've put in a lot of my own money to pay for advertising, AWP book fair table, memberships, etc. I sent out an email to all the people I know who read lit mags (or who love me!) asking them to buy this issue. One person did (who also generously donated money).

    Sales are doing well for this issue so far and I'm hopeful that we'll climb out. I'm pretty good at the social networking, both online and offline, but more than that, I do my best to support other journals through subscriptions and hope that this comes back to me in return. Other things we have tried are subscription drives (30 in 30) which usually work out well. I also offer steep discounts when I sell them in person at book fairs. We will sometimes offer bundle deals too.

    With regard to teaching - I think what might make journals more valuable to teachers (esp high school teachers) is providing lesson plans for free along with an issue. This is something I've wanted to do for some time now, but have always had more pressing matters to deal with. Also, talking to school districts and finding the person who chooses the literacy curriculum could be a good start.

    I have a lot of ideas and I'm pretty lucky to have my own personal math consultant (my partner, a software engineer) for financial matters. This is a tough road though and the problems might be stemming from a society that would prefer to read celebrity gossip.

  13. This is a terrific, honest post about the realities of working as a literary magazine editor.

    I'm very curious, though, what suggestions and/or advice - if there was any - nine upper-level consultants suggested. What new ideas, thoughts, and perspectives they had would be really fascinating to read.

  14. I've been glad to see the conversation be picked up over at HTML Giant, by Roxane Gay:


    Some great ideas are in the comments. And some preposterous comment-testosterone crap that's making it hard to sift through. But I'll pull my thoughts/responses/questions/etc. together in a post soon.

    Daniel's post today on our own blog here also touches on some important points that are worth reading if you have a chance.

    Laura and halcyon78, thank you for joining the dialogue. Laura, congratulations on the continued success of Weave. I love your idea about providing a lesson plan with the journal. I wouldn't have the qualifications for this myself but as Ben mentions above, collaboration means strength in numbers. CLMP has responded positively to this conversation and I look forward to continuing this dialogue with them. Upon reading your comment I wondered if we could organize a small/unsupported mag symposium at the next AWP...

    halcyon78, I definitely plan to share the consultants' advice here as soon as I can. I am holding back for the moment only because I want to speak with my team first as we start to make plans to move forward. Once we agree on our way forward, I'll feel more comfortable sharing all of the ideas and our own steps in public. With our team spread around the globe and it being vacation season most places, though, I haven't had the chance to share this all with them yet. Stay tuned!

  15. I run an indie fiction magazine that is available ONLY by digital means, called eFiction Magazine. I am selling 100 new subscriptions every other week. We're growing by nearly 100% month over month(it's ridiculously fast).

    If you're not selling, then either A) The magazine sucks and no one wants it. B) You're targeting the wrong people. or C) The magazine isn't known to your potential readers. Or a combination thereof.

    I'll bet you layout Versal in InDesign right? Do you know how easy it would be to make it digital? Extremely simple. You would gain entire new revenue streams.

    Don't let stubbornness kill a literary journal!

  16. Hi Doug. Congratulations on your 100% monthly growth. You've found what works for you, and that's great. We've been going strong for almost ten years. And now, rather than being "stubborn" as you imply, we are looking for a new way to be strong.

    I appreciate that you've joined this conversation, but I do think you're coming to hasty conclusions. From the sound of it, you have never seen Versal. Which might make you think twice about advising we go digital (and obviously this is no grand revelation, most journals have considered this in one way or another). Versal's contributors are proud to be in it because their work has never looked so damn good. Seriously. You should see it. And our readers love it for the same reason. You can't get what we make on the screen. You just can't.

    As I clearly describe in my piece, we have failed to some degree to market the journal. This may be in part about our target audience and in part about reputation and in part about what copy we choose to market an issue and in part about how our website is built and in part about how we can only get to US conferences one a year and in part about how a great deal of my energy goes into working with the local community here in Amsterdam and in part about...

    You get my point.

    If you think in any way that Versal is on the brink of being killed, by me or by anyone else, then you have misread my piece. And otherwise.

  17. Ironically, one of the things that attracted me to Versal was that it was not affiliated with a university and that it was not tied to editors that focused on MFA degrees and concerns. I am not sure why an MFA program would adopt your journal over one that wasn't tied to another MFA program - isn't that the whole point of MFA programs? I am not particularly against MFA programs; I just don't find much of the MFA focused journals to be very interesting. Also, one of the problems with education right now is that the cost of education is rising faster than the cost of inflation and healthcare. Adding the cost of journals to the mix does not seem to my way of thinking the way to go. I liked what Ezra Pound did with his students. He asked to them to focus on the innovators in poetry, tuning his students ears to the new (with poetry temporally old and new), and then asked his students to bring in what they thought were the latest new voices. I think the first thing I wrote to you was about how much I appreciated the layout of your journal. It is a work of art. That is one of the major reasons I buy the journal. But Doug has a point too: how people are reading and taking in information is changing.

  18. Why isn't there a way to see inside the magazine without purchasing it?

  19. Fascinating conversation here.

    May I just say, if I am paying for a subscription to a magazine I want to hold it and read it: I don't want to pay for the digital right to read it. I want the art of the page and the ink. The choices going into a physical magazine are part of the art of it. I understand that certain textural choices are necessary for digital magz, too, but I guess I prefer my art ready for display, not embedded in the internet.

    That said, I read plenty of free online magz. If I thought that my favorite online magz were in danger of going under, would I send them some money? Who knows, maybe?

    Versal's a great magazine, gorgeous and thoughtful. I try to subscribe to a few journals every year. Usually the ones that get my attention are those that employ a certain editorial and design artistry, boldness, like Versal.


  20. Hi Geoff, thanks for joining this dialogue. I don't think anyone is suggesting we get taken into an MFA program, though? Certainly that is not our plan. We remain and will remain "independent", for as far as that means self-sustained, unassociated, etc. CLMP's adoption program isn't really an adoption, it's a misnomer in fact. It's a way to get copies of journals into classrooms, and teachers can choose from a certain list. That list currently contains well-founded and funded journals, which is the conversation you see above.

    Certainly the way information is being consumed is changing. The book is changing. We are not ignoring these things. Versal is among a (growing) handful of contemporary print journals that really care about the feel of it, the look and design. We weren't the first by a long shot, but we certainly stood out from the crowd from day one. This, in part, because we grew up in the same world in which the consumption of information is changing. I am Versal's founder and editor but I used to be the youngest team member, too - I was born in '79.

    Doug, I know our website may seem ancient to you, but you can go to it and under Bibliography in the Versal section read selections from past issues. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, we are working on a new site but have to do it without the funds, so the process is slow-going. However, a selection from the print is what many journals do, so we're not weird in that. Also, depending on where you're located, it is to be found in bookstores and libraries. Great places to see the product before you buy.

    Clint, thank you for supporting and reading, and for joining this conversation. What you describe is exactly what we are committed to. There is a wonderful place for digital excellence in the literary world, and many wonderful people tending and curating that world. I read them and am excited by them. But I am not them, I am in love with print. It's what I grew up with, desktop design and Kinkos style. And that's where Versal comes from, you might say. I hope, not as relic, but as living artifact. I am like you in that I prefer subscriptions to things I can hold.