U.S. Postal Rates Up, Editors Down

Kevin Nance
From the January/February 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As the Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR) moves into its twenty-sixth year of publication, having celebrated its quarter-century mark with a double issue last fall, founding editor Ronald Spatz should be all smiles. Instead, he is understandably worried that new postal rates, which have increased his mailing costs by around 50 percent, could mean that some small literary publications like AQR might not make it to their next big anniversaries.

Literary publications across the country are reeling from last July's rate hike, which has increased mailing costs for small magazines by an average of 15 to 20 percent.

"It's a killer for us," Spatz says. "Either we don't send out the [magazine], or we don't pay student workers, or we don't buy cover art—it's kind of a Sophie's Choice. These postal increases are a serious issue for a magazine like ours because we have such a small margin, and they're one more factor in an already difficult situation. It's like one of those horror movies where the walls keep getting closer and closer."

Spatz isn't the only editor feeling the squeeze. Literary publications across the country are reeling from last July's rate hike, which has increased mailing costs for small magazines by an average of 15 to 20 percent. Breaking with two hundred years of national policy, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) voted last March to recommend a new pricing structure shifting some of the burden of postal costs for periodicals from large-circulation, advertising-heavy magazines to smaller ones with mostly editorial content. The PRC justified its decision by noting that publishers of big magazines like Time and Newsweek make the job of the United States Postal Service more economical by presorting the magazines, loading them onto pallets, and/or printing them closer to their destinations. But those options are largely unavailable to mid-size and smaller publications, leaving editors scrambling to compensate for the additional expense.

"It's so absurd and almost malicious, or at least indifferent," says Marilyn Auer, publisher and editor in chief of the Denver-based Bloomsbury Review, which saw its postal costs soar by 27 percent. "It doesn't mean we're going to fold, but it means that we've got to get other sources of revenue and do other marketing."

For the Philadelphia-based American Poetry Review (APR), postal costs increased by around 25 percent, which editor David Bonanno characterizes as "quite a jump" for the bimonthly tabloid-size journal. "About 10 percent of our expenses will be for magazine postage [this] year, as opposed to about 7.5 percent before the rate hike. In an overall budget for a nonprofit, that's pretty significant," he says. "We knew something was coming, and we knew it was big, but it's sort of hard to adjust. Basically we've become more conservative."

That means, among other things, reducing the number of free copies APR sends to students in MFA programs across the country. "We recently raised our subscription rates," Bonanno adds, "and we'll probably feel a need to do it again." APR's writers fees, however, will likely be unaffected, at least for now. "We don't pay writers a lot anyway," he says.

Brenda Keen, business manager of the Georgia Review, says the full impact of the rate change is still unclear, but she wouldn't rule out reducing writers fees to keep the publication afloat. "If relief is not given to smaller publishers," she says, "unfortunately those extra costs will have to be passed along in higher subscription rates or lower payments to authors or by whatever means will make ends meet."

The issue has yet to attract much public attention, although Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has advocated reversing the rate hike, and a congressional subcommittee held a hearing on the topic last October, partly in response to calls from Kucinich. It's unclear, however, what the prospects for reversing the decision would be, given the postal service's perennially dire financial straits.

Still, some remain hopeful. "The publications are prepared to pay more, but this is way too much," says Joseph Torres, government relations manager for Free Press, a nonprofit media policy lobbying group. "We're looking for relief in the form of a very small subsidy that will help these publishers continue. They're not profit-making institutions in the first place, and for the postal service, it's really not a huge amount of money."

For AQR's Spatz and editors like him, however, the stakes are high. "If the frontline journals go, I would really fear for the literary arts in America," he says. "Where are we going to have a vital literary life in this country? Where's it going to be? It's not going to be anywhere."

Kevin Nance is a critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times