Pulling the Plug on a Labor of Love

H. Perry Horton

In November 2004, I had a crazy idea, or rather, a series of crazy ideas: Why don't I sell my house and two cars, liquidate my meager savings, move clear across the country—from Virginia to Oregon, a state I'd never even visited—and start a literary magazine?

Despite ten issues under our belts, more than ten thousand copies shipped, contributions from notable writers, and even some publicity, we were broke—jobless.

The market for literary magazines was flooded, sure, but my idea, I thought, was unique. I'd revive the serial, the tried-and-true format that over the last century has been purloined from literature and co-opted, quite successfully, by television and movies. I even had the name: Ellipsis…Literary Serials and Narrative Culture. I asked my smart, patient, understanding, spontaneous (and now former) wife, along with four friends from graduate school, to join me in this madness. For some reason they all agreed. Perhaps it was because they, like all writers and artists, will go to just about any lengths to get good work into people's hands. Or perhaps they were driven by the desire to enter the literary world from another angle and transform themselves from writers into editors. Finding work that keeps you enmeshed in literature isn't easy; perhaps, like me, my friends leapt at any such chance that came along.

Within a year there we all were, cramped in a one-bedroom apartment that served as an office, scrounging together our technical and creative resources and trying to figure out how exactly to put a magazine together. Fifteen months later, despite ten issues under our belts, more than ten thousand copies shipped, contributions from notable writers such as Isabel Allende, Steve Almond, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and even some publicity, we were broke—jobless.

When we set out on our literary adventure, we hoped that within a year we would be a hip new publication garnering national attention. We saw ourselves as a rival to McSweeney's, a young, innovative journal with popular appeal outside the usual literary demographics. We envisioned a steadily growing readership that would support our publication for years to come. We viewed our first volume as an audition, and therefore put everything we had into it.

We made room in the budget for small salaries so that certain members of our staff—the managing editor, graphic designer, and myself—could dedicate themselves fully to the project. We established a monthly print run to both maximize the effectiveness of the serial format and flood the marketplace with our presence. We went with a magazine design rather than a traditional journal—glossier pages, heavier paper, larger dimensions.

They were all good ideas, but they simply weren't sustainable with our budget. By the end of the volume—ten issues—none of us was on salary, our deadlines had become murkier, and our printing costs were draining us to the point that I had taken a part-time job as a night janitor just to deposit my paychecks in the press account. When the volume ended, the idea of launching a second felt impossible. Not wanting to return to our readers with a substandard product, we pulled the plug.

Quite frankly, there is never just one reason a publication goes under; there are, however, an abundance of excuses. The market wasn't ready for us, the market wasn't interested in us, we weren't reaching the right market, we were reaching the right market but we weren't appealing enough, the writers we published weren't established enough, the writers were too established, and so on.

Regardless of our decision to pull the plug, I don't view the experience as a total failure. We completed a full volume, more than eight hundred pages of quality content that found its way into the hands of readers all over the United States and Canada, and even made it to the United Kingdom, Japan, and Korea.

In the end, we just weren't prepared for the tempestuous world of literary publishing. Of course, now that we're out of money, with what we've learned we're convinced we could run the best damn literary magazine ever. To keep that information from going to waste, I thought I'd share the benefit of our experience in the event that there are others out there like us, eager to throw caution—and funding—to the wind. Keep in mind that though phrased as absolutes, the only sure thing I've learned in this business is that nothing is for certain.

Don't go commercial. In our case, our former managing editor is British, so we had to incorporate in order to obtain his visa for employment. Not a bad move on our part, but it resulted in our having to bite off more than we could chew financially. We were required to pay him a livable salary and provide health insurance, which meant, in my naively equitable mind, that I needed a health insurance plan for everyone. Then, of course, there were incorporation fees, immigration fees, legal fees, licenses, worker's comp, business insurance, payroll services, accounting fees, state and federal taxes, and a plethora of other, minor charges that added up to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the year. When you declare your press a business, declare it nonprofit. Never has the term been more applicable.

Don't pay anyone. This means yourself, your staff, even your writers—at least not at first. Ideally you'd love to reward everyone who contributes to your journal, but it's just not that easy. You're not going to make any money. I'll repeat that, because you need to understand it: You are not going to make any money. "Compensation" in our field is more of what we call a "spiritual" thing, karmic. No one gets into literature to get rich. If you want your writing-editing-creative skills to earn you money, go into advertising.

Remember your pants size. This is my translation of the maxim "Don't get too big for your britches." In business, at least this sort of business, you don't go national: The nation, if you're lucky and the work warrants it, comes to you. Cultivate a local following first and spread out from there. Feature writers in your area, so the area has an interest in seeing you succeed. It's easier to grow than it is to shrink.

Treat your contributors well. Writers are your bread and butter—the better they are, the better you are. If they want to work right up to the deadline, resubmit a chapter or section, submit a two-hundred-word bio note, or make a post-proof edit, let them. It's their work, after all; you're merely the vehicle. In lieu of payment you have to be willing to grant them flexibility, consideration, and appreciation. Furthermore, if you treat your writers well, they'll treat you well in return. Writers always know other writers, whether they teach them, study with them, or see them at literary events, and writers are readers of the best sort—they're readers who care. One good turn typically begets another.

Utilize friends and family. Don't be afraid to call in favors. Our first thirty subscribers were related to and/or well acquainted with the staff. Of the six writers who wrote work that was serialized over a period of six months, four of the five were professors or writers I knew personally. Some might say this sort of nepotism is poor practice, and that perhaps it might lead readers to mistrust our editorial judgment. We made a conscious decision not to publish our own creative work and, truthfully, held submissions from writers we knew to a higher standard. We didn't choose our writers because we knew them, we chose them because we knew and respected their work. The literary field is a close-knit community, and to a certain extent, you have to publish people you know. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality. Whether at universities, conferences, residencies, or readings, good writers are everywhere. Get to know them.

Don't employ a distributor (at first). Distribution in your early stages should be done on a local level, and by subscription. Distributors are designed for publications with larger circulations than yours is bound to have initially, so the shipping costs and distributors' percentages end up being prohibitive, even demoralizing in some cases. Nothing sucks the wind from your sails like receiving a return invoice stating that 438 copies of your magazine have hereby been destroyed by paper shredder. If your print run is anything less than ten thousand, you're better off doing the job yourself. Call bookstores in your area, universities, libraries, or arts councils; sell on consignment, move three copies here, five copies there, anything to get them out on the street. It's more work, certainly, but it's less of a siphon on your funding and well worth the wait. The distribution companies will still be there when you're ready.

Promote, promote, promote. You can have the most brilliant idea in the world, the best content imaginable, and a daring, eye-catching design, but if no one knows you're out there, no one's going to care. Engineer advertising swaps with other publications, send press releases to arts journals and newspapers in your area, host an open-mike benefit at a local venue, put on a reading featuring your contributors, create a MySpace page. You can never market your publication enough. There will always be more people out there who haven't heard of you than who have.

Despite the hardships and the challenges—despite the fact that I spent $150,000 publishing a literary magazine and all I got was a closet full of literary magazines—it's totally worth it. Time, money, sleep, hair, peace of mind: What are these things compared to art?

By starting a literary magazine, you will be discovering new voices and showcasing more experienced talents to a new audience. If you've got the urge, the drive, and enough know-how to get you through the day-to-day, I say go for it. Just keep your eyes open, your thoughts rational, and your sense of humor healthy. You're going to need it.

H. Perry Horton is a founder and former president of Wayward Couch Press, Inc. He was the editor of Ellipsis…Literary Serials and Narrative Culture. He lives in Portland, Oregon.