Michael Kelly is the editor and founder of the literary journal, Shadows and Tall Trees (Undertow Books), which I had the good fortune to read and review recently. Along with editing, Michael's also an accomplished author, but it's his experience with the meat grinder that is running a short fiction magazine that'll be the focus of his guest post for today. If you've ever had an itch to get into the racket, or you just wondered what might go in to bringing a magazine to life, you'll want to read this. Enjoy.
A Short Primer on Starting Your Own Magazine
By Michael Kelly
So, you want to publish and/or edit a magazine.
First, get some editorial experience in the field/genre you want to work in. Second, get some editorial experience in the field/genre you want to work in. Third, get some editorial – well, you get the idea. I can’t stress this enough. The only way to cultivate your editorial voice and taste is with experience. Whether you cultivate good taste or not, is an entirely different matter. Just reading the magazines and journals you admire isn’t enough. Those magazines may be shit. Yes, you simply may have bad taste. I bet your favourite band sucks, too. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop good taste. Hopefully. Start reading the magazines and books that top editors and writers mention on convention panels or in yearly summations. Taste is subjective, yes, but try to figure out why esteemed editors like certain magazines. Chances are, even if you don’t like all the stories, the writing is top-notch. You have to read good writing before you read bad writing. And if you are editing a journal, you will read bad writing.
Which brings us back to editorial experience. You have to dive in there and read some slush or assist another journal/magazine in their editing and selection process. More bad writing. Lots of it. Keep at it. Act professionally. Try and earn a spot on the magazine’s masthead. In short, make a name for yourself. Easier said than done, of course. It’s a long hard road.
Now, even though you’ve gained some experience, writers worth their salt are not apt to submit work to a fledgling publication unless you are paying professional rates. You are not offering professional rates, are you? Didn’t think so. So how can you attract professional writers? Simple. Put out a professional publication. Act like a professional. Always. Okay, it may not be that simple. This is also where other experience, like previous writing credits, help. It’s hard to drum up submissions for a new venture if the publisher/editor has no experience. If you have a decent reputation, and act professionally and can say “Hey, I was published in that magazine alongside you and I’m starting a similar journal and would love to see something from you,” or “I came across your story in the slush, passed it up and they bought it. I’m starting my own magazine and would love to consider your work” it certainly helps. But say it better than I just did.
Decide what you might want to publish besides fiction. Reviews? Essays? Interviews? It might be a good idea to get an interview with a name author or editor for the journal, as that lends a bit of credibility to the venture straight away. You might have to pay for the interview. It’s the writer’s time, after all.
Be prepared to lose money. I don’t know of too many small ventures that make money. By claiming expenses on tax returns, you might break even. Of course, if you’re in it to make money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Do it because you love it. That’s the best reason to do anything.
Pay your writers. Even if it just a cent-a-word and a few copies, you have to pay your writers. It’s a small token that you are appreciative of their efforts. You can’t pay them what they are worth, perhaps – more power to you if you can -- but they will appreciate the gesture. And you can pay them in other ways.
Be a big advocate for your contributors. Send the journal to all the ‘Year’s Best’ editors, plus jurors for the all the major awards. The writers appreciate this. This is part of acting like a professional.
Have a plan, and have an editorial vision. Maybe your idea is a “literary horror journal with mainstream sensibilities.” That could pretty much be your editorial vision, as well. And perhaps you want it to be a small lit journal because you like that sort of thing, and because it’s cheaper to mail a smaller journal. Make sure the covers and paper are quality. People do judge a book by its cover. If it looks professional, you’ve a better chance of attracting professionals to the pages. Conversely, there are some ‘professional’ magazines, which shall remain nameless, that are so poorly designed and feature covers that look like they were designed in Microsoft Paint by an overly-caffeinated 12-year-old, that even the most desperate writers are advised to steer well clear of. But it is the contents that the magazine will ultimately be judged on. It won’t fly if it is filled with shit. If you can, solicit work from writers you like for the first issue. And don’t accept it unless it is good. This can be a difficult thing for the fledgling editor. But you only want good work, don’t you? If not, if all you want to do is publish ‘name’ writers regardless of the quality of their submission, then stop now. There are already too many magazines out there doing just that. When you solicit writers, introduce yourself, tell them your credits/experience, and explain what your journal is about. Compare it to other journals (Shadows & Tall Trees, Black Static, etc.), or whatever aesthetic you’re going for. Make sure you spell out the exact terms you want (you’ll need a contract), like payment, rights, length of term, etc.
So, now you’ve gathered all your quality submissions, procured great cover art, had the text professionally laid out and typeset, etc, and sent the files off to be printed. Now is the time to announce your venture, not before. If the community sees this new journal with a great cover and a terrific line-up of writers, they will take notice. Writers, artists, and readers will show an interest. Hopefully, you can sell a lot of copies of the inaugural issue to lay the groundwork for future issues. But don’t count on it. And don’t count on making any money. Ever. It’d be nice, sure. Just don’t ever count on it.
Finally, be very picky about the work you publish. Sounds easy, I know, but quality is the only way to get the journal noticed. When a new market opens, writers will toss their trunk stories at it. Be prepared. This is where editorial experience helps. And this is why you solicited writers for the first issue. Also, if you feel you don’t have enough quality material, delay publication. If you’re planning a quarterly, you might feel pressured to get the issue out at a certain time, and you might accept work that isn’t quite up to snuff. Let your taste dictate publication schedule, not an arbitrary deadline. Writers and artists, like everyone, are temperamental. Be polite and professional. Go slow. Work out a budget. And act like a professional. As long as the product is good, you’ll attract good writers.