The conversation at Wednesday night’s indie lit mag panel at Powerhouse Arena did not stray from its predictable territory: the challenges of getting funding, the ever-evolving landscape of digital publishing and self-satisfaction about being Brooklyn-based.
Though quieter than some nights at Powerhouse, the audience that turned up to hear the discussion between six editors (from Moonshot, A Public Space, SET, Slice, Tin House, and Electric Literature’s newly launched Recommended Reading) and moderator Jamie Schwartz, managing director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, was considerable.
Ms. Schwartz began the conversation by asking about money, a topic panelists returned to over the course of the night. “I think it’s a mystery to most people how the economics of literary publishing works,” she commented. “It’s really like an oxymoron.”
Anyone who hoped this mystery might be illuminated further was sorely disappointed.
Halimah Marcus, the managing editor of Electric Literature explained that since the publication’s launch of Recommended Reading—a weekly piece of fiction posted each Wednesday on Tumblr—nine weeks ago, the publication has had the chance to focus more on its readers and online subscription numbers, but she admitted that converting readers into funds was “complicated.” With the magazine’s elimination of paid subscriptions, Ms. Marcus explained that they have been relying on fundraising with their new status as a non-profit as well as revenues from “other forms of merchandize”—in lieu of a print publication available for purchase at Wednesday’s event, Ms. Marcus brought Electric Literature flasks to sell.
Slice’s co-founder, Celia Johnson,was somewhat more candid, explaining that she and Maria Gagliano were almost broke when they started the magazine in 2007. “We kept it running by holding bake sales and many house parties that were surely illegal,” she explained, noting that though they strive to pay their writers, the magazine still doesn’t have a paid staff. Additional funding comes from events, such as Slice’s second annual Literary Writers Conference, which charges writers $300 for two days of workshops and will take place this weekend.
“We’ve become well versed in the art of throwing parties for free,” Ms. Marcus added, laughing with Ms. Schwartz about using homemade canapés rather than catering.
David James Miller, the founding editor of SET, which is available for free as a PDF download, explained rather self-righteously: “My intent was always for it to be about the work of the individuals.”
“I didn’t want to have to think about a bottom line,” he said conclusively.
Moonshot’s editor-in-chief JD Scott alluded vaguely to “using the internet for promotion” and PayPal donation drives. Adding that he has a 40-hour a job week, he called his work for Moonshot a “labor of love,” a phrase that was repeated throughout the evening.
And while the turnout for the panel would seem to be an encouraging sign, Ms. Schwartz revealed that from a financial standpoint, the event itself was rather self-defeating. Though the four represented print publications were available for sale at Powerhouse, Ms. Schwartz informed the audience that when readers buy literary magazines at bookstores, the publications actually lose money. The money’s in subscriptions, Ms. Schwartz informed us. Except, of course, for the publications that have eliminated paid subscriptions. The Observer left the panel with far more questions than we arrived with.
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