I get a lot of questions about what it takes to start and sustain a journal and while I don’t have any profound insights, I’m happy to share some of the things I have learned. PANK was founded in 2006 by our esteemed editor M. Bartley. (ETA: He has some additional thoughts in the comments below.) For Issues 1 and 2, it was mostly a one-man operation supported by student editorial assistants. The endeavor was and remains a labor of love. He is better able to discuss what it takes to get a magazine off the ground because he’s been doing this since PANK was a zygote. I consulted for PANK 2 and came on board full time for PANK 3 so I’m going to talk about what it takes to sustain a magazine once it becomes a toddler and starts walking around, getting into trouble. This is not rocket science. Most of what I have to offer is stating the obvious.
1. Have a good idea
Don’t try to be everything to everyone. At the same time, don’t be so invested in a niche that you’re not open to work that doesn’t fit your narrow guidelines.
2. Follow through.
In my experience, many journals start strong, but then fizzle out because the editorial staff gets distracted or over-committed, or burnt out, all understandable. But when you look at the magazines that are well-respected, love them or hate them, they have often succeeded because they have stayed the course. Knowing what little I do about what it takes to keep a publication sustained, I have the utmost respect for magazines like Prairie Schooner and The North American Review, Ploughshares and AGNI and so many others who have weathered fluctuations in funding, staffing, reader interest and writers while consistently publishing quality writing. It’s not as easy as it looks.
3. Be kind.
Treat readers and writers well.
- Sometimes, a little title and a fancy e-mail address makes editors assholes. That’s not necessary. It’s one thing to be snarky when faced with 171 submissions about cats, for example. We are only human. And yes, there’s a fair amount of bad writing in the world but either be constructive or don’t say anything at all when you respond. Pointing and laughing is tacky. Â It’s really not nice to be cruel to the very writers who make your publication possible.
- Respond to submissions within a reasonable amount of time. If you can’t respond to submissions within 90 days, you may well have a priority, time management or staffing problem. Everyone gets behind. We have before, we will again, but we make a concerted effort to respond to all submission within thirty days. This summer, we’ve been even faster. It keeps things moving along nicely. It keeps writers happy. If you fill up early, well, you fill up early. When I see 300-day response times Â on Duotrope, I get it but I lose it a little. I really do. Maybe that’s just me.
- Develop relationships with your writers and promote not only the work that appears in your publication but the work they have published elsewhere. Visit their blogs. Comment once in a while. If you see work of theirs elsewhere, make a note of it on your blog. We get excellent writing from excellent writers and we do not yet pay for the privilege. I find that humbling. We really believe in honoring that kind of support and it has benefited us immensely.
- Attending AWP 2009 was very illuminating. I went to one well-respected journal’s table and a guy was sitting behind his table in skinny jeans with his crazy hair, wearing sunglasses while he leaned on the hind legs of his chair. I was there to purchase some issues of his magazine. I was there to spend money on literature, and he could barely be bothered to acknowledge my presence. That’s not necessary. You are not special because you’re sitting behind your little table with your disdain and superiority. I didn’t need a parade, but I did need him to like take my money in exchange for his product without making me beg. Now I really have no interest in ever reading that magazine again. The issues I bought remain at the bottom of a very tall stack of things to read. They are dead to me. I am mad about the $15 I spent. It is burning a hole in my soul. Long story short, respect your readers, whether in person or via the Internet. It is a small world, and news of bad behavior travels fast, not that I’m going to name names.
- Conversely, one of the best experiences I had at AWP was at the McSweeney’s table. They were funny and kind and seemed interested in what I had to say. They ended up getting a lot of money out of me as a result. They made me want to read their publications. They made me want my writing appear in their magazine, despite their inordinate response times. They know how to treat their readers.
- Fulfill subscriptions in a timely manner.
- Provide a good product. Be consistent. Keep things interesting by remaining open to new ideas and approaches.
4. Ask for help. Offer help.
Recently, we realized that we needed to upgrade our website to a content management system, but we don’t’ really know how to implement Drupal. We put a plea on our blog, and a very very kind soul responded. Soon we’ll have a new website. In exchange, we’re going to help their publication out using the skills we have to offer. One of independent publishing’s greatest strengths is the collaborative nature of the work, and the willingness to help where needed, that so many people demonstrate. If you’re going to be part of the community, be part of the community.
5. Be open to new technologies. Make sure you know why you’re using them. Use them well.
Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, our blog and our website have been invaluable in furthering the PANK project. These tools allow us to connect with new audiences. They allow us to promote our work and our writers. They allow us to publish monthly issues, for free, to supplement our annual print issue. They allow us to learn about other exciting projects in the independent publishing world and have interesting conversations about the state of the written word.
At the same time, sometimes publications use technologies without a clear sense of purpose. At one point, we had a MySpace page because we felt like we should, but then we realized that we didn’t really want the page, or need it, or have a clear reason for using it, so we got rid of it and tried to streamline our online efforts. You’re always going to have these missteps. The most important thing is to make the necessary corrections. It’s also important, again, to be consistent. If you’re going to have a website, keep it simple, accessible, easy to navigate and nice to look at. Update it regularly with fresh, free content so that people have a reason to keep coming back. A regularly updated website also helps you keep your brand (forgive me for using that word) relevant. For us the website (ever evolving) has been a small investment with huge dividends.
If you’re going to have a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, update them regularly. One of the things that drives me crazy is going to a blog that hasn’t been updated in months. If you’re not updating a given social networking tool regularly, you don’t need it.
6. Respect the people you work with.
This one, I think, is self-explanatory.
7. Love what you do.
The best magazines are the ones where you can clearly see how well-loved they are. These publications are refreshingly free of cynicism (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and are very invested in promoting great writing. Magazines like Caketrain, Hobart, Keyhole, Monekybicycle, decomP, mud luscious and many, many others, are endeavors where you can clearly see that they are assembled by people who are passionate about their work and enriching the world with outstanding writing.
8. Support other publications and presses
The best gift you can give an independent magazine or press is to buy the things they publish. I read mainstream stuff all the time but I also make a real effort to read the stuff that our peer publications are doing, both online and in print.
9. Invest in the tools you need to make your life easier even if it means using Evil Corporate Products.
I don’t use open source software, for the most part, because I don’t have time or energy to learn it. You don’t need to buy fancy software packages to get things done. There are lots of journals that use open source, free programs very successfully. There are also other fantastic alternatives to what I’m about to suggest. Â I’ve found, however, particularly in terms of web publishing and print publishing, that it is well worth the investment to get a copy of Adobe Creative Suite. If you are at all affiliated with a university, there are steep discounts available. We paid $300 for CS4 Premium. If you’re not affiliated with a university, you probably know someone who is. Ask them to snag the software for you. There are also other ways to obtain the software that involve searching, say, a torrent search engine, not that I know anything about that. The best thing about Creative Suite is that it is very powerful and integrated. You can lay out your magazine in In Design. Â You can export In Design files in e-book formats. You can create publications for mobile devices. You can make PDFs and edit PDFs. You can design websites. You can edit images. And do all these things in formats that are cross-compatible and all the programs (Dreamweaver, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc) have a similar interface so once you get the hang of things, you’re able to move between programs without going crazy. Also, it’s 2009. Can’t we all get on board with the latest version of Microsoft Word?
10. For print journals, develop a good relationship with your printer and understand what you need to provide them with so they can succesfully execute your project.
Working with printers can be overwhelming. Printing is expensive and detail-oriented. There’s a whole language they use that can be bewildering. Here‘s a good place to start to familiarize yourself with some of the lingo. One of the most expensive aspects of printing is that so often, publications send improperly formatted files to printers who then have to make a lot of time-consuming and costly changes before they can execute your project. Knowing what needs to be done beforehand can save you a great deal of money. As an aside, another advantage of using Adobe Creative Suite is that InDesign will check your files to ensure they are properly prepared, and then package everything including images and fonts for you to send to your printer.
For the other editors out there… what kinds of things have you learned about what it takes to sustain a magazine and or small press?