Okay, so now that Dan Wickett has shared with you his inspiring ideas on community building, I'm afraid I need to come along and discuss some of the difficulties. Namely: cash. Or more specifically: how does a nonprofit literary publisher find a community that is willing and able to support its existence so that it can continue to grow? How, also, does financial solvency play a role in a press' ability to nurture its community of writers, readers and staff?
Recently, I was asked to read at the 2nd Story Festival here in Chicago. For those of you who tune in regularly, you'll recall that the theme was "Love" and that the format is mainly improvisational and comedic. In my case, the theme was "dark S/M" and the format was "reading off the page and not looking up." But my own inappropriateness for the occasion aside, 2nd Story is what one might call an uncannily successful literary series. The house is always packed with nearly 100 people, who buy tickets in advance. Wineries donate wine for tastings; the venue--a lovely wine bar--donates the space. Tickets sell for $10 a pop. In other words, money is made on this series. People come and drink, which makes money for the venue. The theater company that sponsors the festival is able to use ticket money towards their activities, etc. Audience members get drunk and have some laughs (um, unless I'm the one reading). Everyone is happy. This is community-building at its most successful.
But 2nd Story is, in the end, a bit closer to stand-up comedy or theater than it is to literature, and I'm afraid that may be the secret to their success. Because ask anyone in the literary world--at least outside of New York, where publishing is actually taken for glamorous and writers, at least a handful of very successful writers, are treated like celebrities--and they will tell you that this kind of raucous packed house is rare at a literary event--as is actually making money! Not too long ago, I attended a well-publicized reading by Simon & Schuster author Lisa Glatt. Lisa had written two books that were reviewed by the New York Times; she had a corporate publicist; Chicago media had listed and touted the event. Yet when I showed up, there were only three other people in the room. Not long afterwards, I went to hear Sam Brumbaugh read from his novel Goodbye, Goodness at Quimby's bookstore--Sam's reading had been chosen as a Time Out Chicago pick and talked up in the Chicago Reader. The event was arranged by the fiction editor of Bridge Magazine, a local publication. Yet when I showed up with a friend, we were the ONLY people in the audience other than the guy who'd arranged the evening. I should add that neither of these events took place in the middle of an infamous Chicago snowstorm: the climate was warm and hospitable. Both writers are talented and had received more press than usual for newish writers. Moreover, both events were free. So where the hell WAS everybody?
Chicago is a wonderful city. I've lived in or near quite a few: Madison, London, Amsterdam, Boston--and when it comes to most things (restaurants, theater, visual arts, museums, dance), Chicago can hold its cultural own against anyone, possibly excepting New York or Paris (which have their own drawbacks, like smugness and heavy sauces.) Chicago, of course, also boasts such luminaries as Nelson Algren and Earnest Hemingway, and is thought of as a city rich in literary history. Unfortunately, Algren and Hemingway have been dead a long time, and other than a couple of very small indies (OV Books among them), there is no (fiction) book publishing community in Chicago to speak of. And without an industry--with all those signature "industry" things, like money and hot parties--it has proven a challenge to find a cohesive literary community in a city otherwise so rich in arts and culture. Yes, Chicago has several creative writing graduate programs, and the students in those programs know one another and form their own communities--but there is not much inter-mixing between the schools, and once that writerly population moves beyond graduate school (and their 20's), they become harder to identify and target as a group. As a result, the literary community in Chicago--at least the identifiable one--tends to possess many of the same attributes as graduate students in any field: they are young, they are often not permanent Chicago residents, and they are . . . well . . . poor.
Here in Chicago, being a struggling writer has an honorable tradition. If there is a school of writing here, it is probably Working Class Writing, which is a major distinguisher in the Chicago style vs. the dominant New York style (as the latter tends to be associated more with privilege and intellectualism, though of course there are many notable exceptions.) But that there is no cohesive publishing industry, that Chicago writers are not by and large a moneyed lot, and that writers here in general tend to disperse as they enter their 30s and beyond, are unfortunate facts that collude to make it difficult to find people to SUPPORT the literary arts here in this city and, I would venture, many other cities nationally outside of New York and perhaps Los Angeles.
OV Books/Other Voices magazine struggles with this truth now as, in our 22nd year of the magazine, we have moved beyond the (usual) efforts to simply SURVIVE and into a period in which we are endeavoring to GROW. Survival, to be sure, was not always easy. We depend, as do most magazines and presses, on grants (which sometimes don't pan out) and individual donors, the vast majority of whom donate $100 or less per year. We do not have any kind of institutional support other than the donation of our office space by the University of IL-Chicago, nor do we have any "patrons" in the classic sense: one or two individuals who fund our operations with one fell swoop by writing a fat annual check. We are an operation that pulls itself together piece by piece: $1,000 grant by $50 contribution, one check at a time. Our subscriptions support part of our endeavors, but would never alone afford us the opportunity to grow in such ways as launching our book press, much less paying writers more competetive fees or paying staff anything at all.
And so we, like most such presses, are constantly wracking our brains about fundraising. When we launched OV Books with the publication of SIMPLIFY in September 2005, we decided to hold a big bash to alert the local arts scene to our existence, and hopefully to raise some money towards things like Tod Goldberg's book tour and ads for the book. A volunteer party planner came onboard to help with arrangements, and we managed to get the Chicago Cultural Center to waive their usual room fee and got ourselves a gorgeous, dome-ceilinged room with marble floors that comfortably would house 150 people. We paid for Tod Goldberg and Pam Houston to fly to Chicago to read at the event, and our party planner got us a special deal on catering and a nonprofit rate to buy wine at a local liquor store. Then the OV editors and interns started pounding the pavement to gather up items from local businesses for our silent auction: we ended up with everything from original paintings to signed books to restaurant and spa gift certificates to week-long stays at stunning vacation homes. In short, it was a far cry from the usual plastic-cup-of-beer, open mic readings I usually threw when I first came on as an editor in the mid 1990's.
But even with all the donations, costs wracked up. We had to pay a cleaning and security fee at the Cultural Center, and it ended up costing more than some (less swank) rooms would have cost to rent. Our party planner, unbeknownst to me (thinking she was doing us a favor) rented linens that ended up costing an ungodly $400! Catering was cheaper than usual but not cheap. Houston and Goldberg both had complicated travel arrangements that didn't entail round-trip tickets, as they were going straight on to other gigs after Chicago and couldn't fly home in-between. Even nonprofit-rated wine isn't as cheap as selling beer tickets. Oh, and of course after all this pomp and circumstance, we needed to send out printed invitations. Etcetera. By the time it was all said and done, we'd dropped nearly a few grand on the party. But we weren't very worried. At $30 per ticket ($15 for students) our event was so much cheaper than comparable fundraising events (silent auctions, posh downtown locations, catered dishes) that we were sure literature lovers would come in droves and we'd soon make back all we'd spent and more.
Enter reality. About a week before the event, my friend Lisa Stolley called me on the phone and asked if she had to pay to get in. She was, after all, my FRIEND, and had once worked at Other Voices, and therefore assumed she'd be coming free. Well . . . on closer inspection, it did make sense, didn't it? She'd volunteered her time at the magazine, so were we right to charge her admission? No, of course she could come free, I said. No problem. A couple days later, our Assistant Editor mentioned that several other staff members and former staff members had assumed they were coming for free. Then our party planner pointed out to me that members of the media needed to be let in without paying. Then one of my former professors told Lisa Stolley to tell me that none of his creative writing students were coming to the event because "you don't usually have to pay for readings." When I pointed out that these students would think nothing of spending 15 bucks out at a cafe or bar, and that at our event they would likewise get food and booze, but also readings and a silent auction and the knowledge that they were supporting a literary cause, this did little to sway his students. In fact, the night of the party, only three people I can recall attending were students. Despite widely publicizing the student discount, $15 was still apparently viewed as too steep a price to support literature in Chicago.
Let me be clear: there are people in Chicago with money, who like to support causes and go to parties. Our party planner knew plenty of them, since this is the circle in which she works. However, while many of them would turn out in droves to support "literacy" (for kids), few seemed interested in turning out to support "literature" (as in, things they might actually have to READ.) The Chicago "social scene," in terms of the kinds of people who go to big-ticket parties, is not full of avid readers, it would appear--and those who do dig books do so more on the Oprah's book club scale, not on the edgy-indie-press scale. It's a pretty mainstream scene. (The women still wear a lot of pantyhose and black pumps.) This Gold Coast-y facet of Chicago is a conservative one, very much at odds with the otherwise working class and hipster vibes of the writing programs or neighborhoods like the East Village and Pilsen and Andersonville, where people, you know, read plenty of books . . . but don't like to pay for stuff. We seemed to be facing a dichotomy where, like a literary thriller with a fast-paced plot but highbrow prose, we just weren't tapping into a coherent, unified "audience." We had found ourselves with an unmarketable product.
In the final analysis, the party was attended by about 60 people. Only about 10-20 more people than usually attend OV readings that offer none of the perks we arranged for our launch party, and receive none of the press. Because in fact, local media had responded very favorably to the launching of OV Books, and our party had been touted in Time Out Chicago, the Chicago Reader, and on 848 on WBEZ. Yet still, the turn-out, especially once all the freebies were taken into account, did not even come close to covering what we had spent on the evening. Only through the silent auction did we make back our costs . . . but because attendance was rather low, competition for items wasn't what we'd anticipated and prices at the auction remained pretty low too. People got good deals and were happy, which made us happy. But after all was said and done, we'd made back what we spent on the party, and perhaps about $100 extra to spare--in exchange for months and months of preparation. We were left shaking our heads at one another and saying, Next time we're going back to open mics in the basement of a bar.
I've had many months since the OV Books Launch party to contemplate the various aspects of that evening, and in retrospect I'm glad we threw the party. The media attention we received would have been hard to attain without a big bash associated with our launch, and that attention proved valuable in other ways than financial. I'm also just glad that those people who DID support us and turn out were able to get such great deals on the auction, and that we were able to throw a party for Goldberg, who deserved it. Attendance was large enough to still be plenty of fun, but small enough to be intimate and special. It was a great night, even if we didn't make money. We celebrated ourselves and were celebrated by our close friends, and sometimes that's more than enough.
But it still begs the question: how DO we successfully raise money? Now, 8 months after SIMPLIFY's release, as we still await payment from our distributor, we're very likely to be left having to go to press with our second title BEFORE having received payment for our first. With this system in place, how are we to meet our goal of bumping up to 3 titles annually over the next few years? How, after discovering that our distributor, who was going to include "marketing," didn't actually "market," do we hire a publicist to supplement our own PR efforts and increase our titles' chances of success? How do we afford author book tours so that our writers can have opportunities to network and spread the word just like writers at the big corporate houses, if on a more modest scale?
Even these concerns come from a prospective of privilege, since Other Voices is a very old, comparatively solvent literary magazine with a (modest but consistent) bit of savings in the bank that's enabled us to grow. On the other hand, I belong to an Editors listserv sponsored by CLMP, and one of the most frequent refrains on the listserv is that writers who submit to magazines don't actually SUBSCRIBE to any magazines, and that many magazines fold annually--or barely scrape by--because subscriptions are so low. Why, these editors moan, don't more people subscribe? The answer is probably complicated. For starters, most writing programs have dozens of lit mags available in a central office, where students can peruse or borrow them, and therefore have little need to subscribe themselves. On a more complicated level, while each writer may submit the same story to 10 or even 20 magazines, s/he may only subscribe to 1 or 2 magazines, and so submissions will always radically outnumber subscriptions. And of course, literary magazines are not widely carried by bookstores, and when they are they are usually hidden away in some obscure corner near totally-unrelated magazines, so many mainstream readers remain unaware that such magazines even exist, much less the variety of choices out there. Unless one meets the fate of POETRY and some benefactor wills an unfathomable amount of money to the ongoing support of a publication, most magazines remain ghettoized in the issue-by-issue financial scraping that renders them unable to even pay their writers, much less launch book presses or throw grand galas far beyond our means.
Community is a wonderful and tricky thing. Everyone in the writing community wants to benefit from the existence of literary magazines and presses. We all want our work published in these forums, and rejoice when agents and other editors read our work in them and solicit manuscripts, or when we receive Pushcart or other literary prizes. Yet most writers are also overburdened and underpaid, and have neither the time to read dozens of subscriptions to lit mags (I know I don't, and I receive many of them for FREE), nor the funds to write fat checks to support their few favorites. Magazines need to find support beyond just the writers we publish--beyond money-and-time-challenged graduate students and professors--and make our way out into the larger world of our cities to gain visibility, collaboration with other individuals and organizations, and financial solvency. Yet often the wider world seems disinterested in our existence, and even those who love us most are hesitant to put their money where their mouths are. And so editor turnover remains very high at journals, where eventually people need to move on and get "real" (read: paying) jobs; where volunteer readers have to push their obligations to a magazine to the back of a long list of other obligations that enable them to pay rent/mortgages. The NEA gives more and more funding to such things as anthologies about the Iraq war, and magazines fold, and small presses keep our lists very small, and those titles that do come out often do so without much fanfare, as there is no funding to take out ads or pay for a tour; as there is no dedicated PR person on an already overworked staff.
What is a literary press to do in the face of this dire scenario? Well, the future of marketing for such smaller publishers is, without a doubt, the internet: blogs and literary websites that get the word out without big costs. But in other ways, blogs may be dangerous to printed magazines--will even FEWER people subscribe to lit mags if it's so easy to just click onto any number of literary websites, including websites with samples stories from those magazines, and read whatever one wants instantly and at no cost? Former OV Assistant Editor JoAnne Ruvoli often told me, if not in so many words, that I was a bit of a cynical downer when it came to publishing, and so, before making the cause of literary community seem in any way hopeless, let me pull back and consider the facts. Despite all these obstacles, Other Voices DID manage to launch OV Books, and our first title went into a second printing even before its official release. Free web forums like Bookslut are doing great things to market independent fiction titles, including my own novel. Despite high editor turnover, and magazines that fold under the pressure, many, many magazines manage to continue to thrive--some for well over 20 or 30 years (here in Chicago StoryQuarterly, ACM, Triquarterly and OV are all old-timers in the biz.) The short story is also thriving aesthetically, even if not financially, and in the realm of history, I am not nearly such a cynical downer as to not believe that aesthetics--timeless ideas, memorable characters and truly gifted storytelling--mean more and survive longer than what makes a buck in the moment. The supporters of literary magazines and indie presses may be fairly small in numbers, but they are a dedicated lot. They work for free; they read voraciously; they write no matter how many form rejection slips they receive. We grumble, but we endure--and even grow, despite all odds.
Here, then, are 10 things we can all do to ensure this remains the case:
1) Subscribe to a literary magazine today. Try to choose a magazine that is NOT high profile and slick--one that cannot afford, currently, to pay its writers $500 or more per story. Your support will mean more and will more directly impact aspiring and emerging writers.
2) Go to readings, wherever you live. Most of them ARE free, as my former professor so aptly pointed out. Would you like to read to an audience of two people? Well then, save another writer from rabid humiliation today and go check out what's being published out there.
3) Buy independent press books. If your local bookstore doesn't carry many, go to the SPD (Small Press Distribution) website and buy directly off their site.
4) Give gift subscriptions to literary magazines as presents, for Christmas or graduation, etc.
5) Once a year, at the end of the year, if you are someone who can afford to make contributions to charities, don't forget your favorite literary magazine or press. Give what you can afford. Or make the donation in someone else's name and give THAT as a gift to a writer or literature lover in your life.
6) Stay connected to writers you knew in your 20's or in graduate school. Don't let communities fall apart. Form a writers group. (If you're not a writer, form a reading group and only read literary magazines and independent press books. Be the anti-Today Show or -Oprah's book club.)
7) Continue to send out your work to small magazines, if you write. Yes we like money, but the honor of receiving your work is the core thing that enables us to survive. Finding the best work out there to publish is why we exist. Remember us, including after you become successful and can also publish in bigger venues.
8) Don't be afraid to spend a bit of money for a literary event, if it is no more expensive than what you would easily spend for another form of entertainment. While we at OV probably won't repeat that "big gala" experiment for awhile, ha, other magazines or presses in your area may need your support!
9) Give your comments on blogs like the Litblog Co-Op, that exist to form and support community and dialogue. Don't read passively--let other members of the community know what you think!
10) Recommend books. The indie press community lives on word-of-mouth more than anything else. If you love a book, tell everyone you know about it! (Remember, Jessa Crispin started doing this, and now Bookslut pretty much rules the world.)
Okay, people. Go forth and form community. I may be a downer sometimes, but you can't keep the written word down.