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Do You Want to Build a Lit Mag? Get Tips from the Experts

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October 5, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower

Every so often, someone will start a conversation about wanting to start a lit mag. It usually begins something like this: I think I really want to start my own lit mag, but I have no idea how to do it. The conversation will then morph into Is it really worth it to start my own lit mag?

do you want to build a lit mag

Back in 2008, I launched Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine with the assumption I could change the world of publishing. I didn’t, but it’s been a rewarding experience for the past six years. There are definitely things I wish I would have done differently (build the site in a CMS being the primary one). But, as they say, you lie in the bed you make.

Rather than coming up with some cheesy “top ten ways to start your lit mag” or “ten things you must do before starting a lit mag” list, I’ve decided to bring together a team of experts. I asked nine editors who started their own lit mag or took over an existing one for their advice.

Each editor provided his or her insight on these two questions:

1. What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

2. What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

Here’s what they had to say about the experience.

 

Advice from the Founders


H. L. Nelson, founding editor of Cease, Cowsceasecows

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

Make sure you absolutely love the work. If you don’t plan to bring people aboard to help, you’ll be doing all of it. Sometimes even with others’ help, you may be shouldering most of the workload. And, if you aren’t a fan of marketing, I say quit now! It’s a joy to share writers’ words with the world, and you should be totally committed to doing so.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

Figured out how in the hell to monetize things so I can pay all of the talented as fuck writers we publish. Personally, I hate striving to get money. I’ve never been exceptional at earning a lot of it, and that has unfortunately extended to my magazine, which operates at a deficit. I hope that I make up for this shortcoming with marketing and enthusiasm, but there’s always that gnawing guilt.

H. L. Nelson is the rather strange founding editor of Cease, Cows magazine, which has published strange (surprise, surprise!) flash fiction and prose poetry since early 2013.


 

Matthew Guerruckey, founding editor of Drunk Moneys drunk monkeys

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re starting out is that you need to do the work. There are so many little tasks that go into each step of the process—content, editing, readability, and overall design aesthetic—and if you let any one of those elements atrophy, readers won’t come back. Each of those annoying little tasks is the real work of what you’re doing. It’s not about networking, it’s not about getting to read towering works of literary genius, it’s about building something. In the beginning, you just need to be present and consistent. Content and character will evolve along the way.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

I wish I’d done a little more research into the field before jumping in. I basically came in with no idea what was happening in other literary sites, and I could have avoided a lot of my early mistakes if I’d noticed that other people had made them before me. But the one thing that I wish I’d done—that I still wish I’d do more often—is keep to a set schedule. This sort of enterprise operates like tending a bonsai tree: it needs careful tending and pruning, but if you trim too much, the damn thing will dry up.

Matthew Guerruckey is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys. Since 2011, Drunk Monkeys has featured a wide range of eclectic literary and pop-culture content, and has had published works featured in the Best of the Net anthology.


 

Mike Joyce, founder of Literary Orphans litorphans

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

You’re gonna want to have a reason. You’re gonna want to ask yourself the deep question we always forget to ask ourselves–the simple one that we usually just assume we know the answer to: WHY? Why am I doing this? Why am I starting a lit mag? Why am I friends with this asshole? Why  do I continue to root for the Bears every season only to have my soul crushed? Why am I putting three microwaveable pizza puffs into a blender with vodka?

The answer doesn’t necessarily have to be noble so long as it’s honest. Because his wife has some really good looking friends. Sometimes the answer is even really stupid. Because my old man does, and his old man before him. That’s OK, but it’s important to have some intentionality, some honest-to-God-mission behind it all otherwise how can you ever judge your success? What are you talking about Mike? Success will be judged by the soft puree of this fine beauty as it either constricts down my throat or ends up on wall, floor, and ceiling of dis ‘ere kitchen!

Let’s face it guys, we get excited. We realize at once that we can do something, and forget to ask ourselves why and how we’re going to do it. I wanted to start a lit mag for a while. I wanted to start it to increase my writing network. I wanted to start it to publish amazing new writers. I wanted to do it to help buoy the network of writers I knew who found themselves excluded. I wanted to do it for all those reasons, but I didn’t. I didn’t for years. It didn’t feel like enough, I felt that I needed to have something special that my mag could offer that not many others could. Eventually that turned out to be the artistic edge. I realized that what I was in a unique position to offer was presentation–coming from a very Adbusters-esque place with a considerable understanding of Photoshop and CMS, I could create something that had significant visual draw (that I felt was lacking at the moment). I think that if you start with a concrete ideology of who you are and what you want to become, rooted in practicality, you have a much better chance of getting there. Take a look around you–what can you offer that few, if any, other lit mags can? There are lots of gaps there, I feel. Lots of opportunities. It just depends on the place you’re coming from.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

Experience. You learn on the job. Rather than just chillin’ and concocting ideas of vodka/pizza juices for a year or so, or other strange lit-mag ideas, I should have been out there helping another magazine. Be up front. Approach a magazine you like, tell them you’d like to start your own magazine in a year, and that you want to be an Associate Publisher. Tell them you want to work your ass off, see what it’s really like. This will create a mentor for you–someone who will give you an idea about the best way (or, worst-case, a way) to act when strange things pop up. And those strange things will pop up.

This will give you a wide network of support–we’re a pretty open community with not a lot of super angry competition. The fact is, there are so many writers, writing so prolifically, that we’re able to spread the good will around! If you can create a network of people, get first hand experience, learn the tools of the trade… well, why wouldn’t you?

Mike Joyce founded Literary Orphans Journal in 2011.


Sheldon Lee Compton, founder of Cellar Door Magazine (2003), Wrong Tree Review (2009), A-Minor Magazine (2010), Revolution John (2013) revolutionarywarflag1

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

It’s probably going to sound worn out but before somebody starts a lit mag they should ask themselves if they really get pleasure from sharing the work of other writers. If the answer is yes, then do it. Be honest with yourself, and if the answer is no, just leave publishing to someone else.

Now, depending on whether or not they intend to publish in print or online, they’ll have different things they should consider. Don’t get started with a print publication unless you have enough start up money to print the first run (I would advise starting with no less than a print run of 250 copies) and can afford to lose that money with no hope of seeing one cent back. In fact, that may be the most important thing, accepting and being perfectly fine with the fact that you are certainly not going to get rich doing this and most likely will never make money from it at all. It’s not about that in any way whatsoever. And, again, the trick isn’t knowing this, it’s being absolutely okay with it.

With an online journal or magazine, there are far less risks. But, don’t take it less seriously because of that. Work you will publish in an online publication will very likely be more widely read, far more accessible, and, ultimately share a ton more content over the course of a year or so, as you’ll likely have a weekly or even daily publication schedule as opposed to quarterly or annual. Few indie print journals honestly manage a monthly journal very well. And for online publishing, don’t limit yourself to only fiction or only poetry or exclude anything, really. Readers want variety, so give it to them. Include photography and artwork, essays, columns, and all the rest. Remember, there are no print costs. You can actually use the color red and not see hundreds of dollars added to your print quote. Take advantage of that freedom.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

My regrets are minimal as a publisher, but important ones to learn from. When I sit down and consider it, I would have managed the money better during the year I published Cellar Door. Strangely, we made some money and were actually able to pay graphic designers and others involved in production for about half a year. By the end of that first year we would have been able to pay writers for their work if I hadn’t spent too much too quickly and not saved enough overall. Paying contributors is something I have always wanted to do and that was about as close as I ever came. I would have without question cut back on certain costs involved with printing and general travel and promotion and all that so I could have paid writers. Man I regret not using what little business mind I do have to accomplish that at the time. But then I am a writer myself, so I can only go so far with the business-minded end of things.

In short, and as a final thought, make publishing a lit mag about the writing and the writers and whatever other creative beauties whose work you are privileged enough to share. If you place this first on the list of priorities, you can’t go wrong.

Sheldon Lee Compton is the Founding Editor of Revolution John. Founded in October of 2013, Revolution John publishes work on a rolling basis including fiction, nonfiction, photography, artwork, and the like.


 

Matt Potter, founder of Pure Slush pure slush

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

Be sure of your vision. This includes what you don’t want it to be. Sure, your ideas can change, but if you hate reading stories shorter than 1000 words or you don’t like poetry, make sure you include this in your guidelines. And your guidelines should express your vision in a concrete way.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

A different design. I wish it was a cleaner and leaner design … BUT, there are many many many other cleaner- and leaner-looking websites, so ah, I choose to look past that.

Pure Slush was establish in December 2010, its aim to promote fun (and less wank) in flash fiction.


Sam Rasnake, founder of Blue Fifth Review letterrr Accepted

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag? What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

In the fall of 2000, I began planning a launch for Blue Fifth Review, an online magazine of poetry and art. I’d been an associate editor since 1990 with Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, a print magazine from Sow’s Ear Press, and chapbook editor there since 1992, so I had an extensive background for the process, but that didn’t necessarily translate to a readership or wealth of contributors for BFR. The first issue went live in January of 2001. The Internet was world away – a universe, maybe – from what is today. Actually, the online experience was quite primitive by today’s standards. The first major obstacle was finding writers interested in contributing works, and the second was in establishing a readership. I invited contributors, and sent out a number of e-mail notices of the magazine, and slowly – year by year – built a readership and more contributors than I could handle. When I began, there weren’t very many online journals, and literary communities were not accepting of the online magazines as authentic venues for literature. That has changed – I’m pleased to note – since many of the major literary markets have added an online version, and some have, due to economic factors, switched to an online version only.   Since the first issue of BFR, many online venues have opened their pages, and then disappeared.   Starting an online magazine is not difficult, but maintaining a steady readership and a range of contributors is not easy – and that’s leaving out the editor’s need to remain energetic, involved, and driven – issue to issue.

In the fall of 2010, Michelle Elvy – a writer-friend who is now co-editor at BFR– and I began discussing ways to expand and change the review. I had been, for some time, growing weary of the angelfire.com web base for the magazine. The process of writing html was becoming too tedious and the website too difficult to work with. Michelle began work as an editor at BFR, and we decided to make an online change to wordpress, making the layout of each issue a smoother and easier process. We also decided to add flash fiction to BFR’s pages, and did so in the winter of 2011. Michelle, who has been involved in writing and editing fiction for years, was invaluable in the transition to a new format and range of selections – and remains so.   My one regret is that she didn’t join the pages of BFR sooner. We now publish twenty-four issues each year, including a regular monthly series – the Blue Five Notebook – a Broadside series of fiction and poetry, a poet and fiction writer feather, themed Quarterly issues , four to six fiction and poetry special issues, and an annual collaborative / ekphrastic issue – the Blue Collection. In 2014 we began accepting essays and reviews for the flash and poetry special issues.

Blue Fifth Review, an online journal of poetry, flash fiction, and art, is edited by Sam Rasnake and Michelle Elvy.


 

Alison Ross, founder of Clockwise Cat clockwise cat

What is the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag?

I think the most important thing to do when starting a lit mag is to decide how you will differentiate yourself from the pack – aesthetically, but most importantly, content-wise. What will you do that no other lit mag is doing? It could be the type of literature you are seeking, it could be how specific you are in your guidelines as to what you want to see versus what is forbidden, etc. The look of your lit mag is highly significant too – it needs to reflect the type of literature you will publish, and it needs to have an engaging style. Seek out artists and designers who have a keen eye for creating imagery that mirrors your lit mag’s purpose for existence/raison d’etre.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

Honestly, I don’t know if I have any regrets about what I would have done differently when I started out – I only resent that I don’t have more time to commit to doing my lit mag. It brings me much joy.

Clockwise Cat is a progressive magazine of verse, reviews, and invective. We seek poems that explode the boundaries of linguistic convention, we seek reviews of progressive books, music, and films, and we seek political polemics and satire that are radically progressive in nature. We have been around since 2007.


Advice from the Take-Overs


Renee Asher Pickup, Editor-in-Chief of Revolt Daily revolt daily

What is the most important thing to do when taking over a lit mag?

When I took Revolt Daily over, it had already gone a bit dormant. I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch, but in many ways I was starting at the bottom. I think the most important piece of the puzzle at that point is to sit down and map out what your expectations are, and get ready to spend a lot of time on it. Time, time, time. It will take time to get things rolling smoothlymonths not weeks. It will take time to get quality submissions regularly. It will take time to figure out how you want to deal with the sticky things like rejection letters.

Not only that, but it will take your time daily, especially in the beginning. You may not clock in and out like a day job but if you don’t set aside a certain number of hours per week to work on it, the results just won’t happen. That part never changes. If I put the magazine on the back burner for a couple weeks I have to work twice as hard, twice as long to make up for it.

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

I wish I had taken the magazine offline for awhile, initially. The changeover was incredibly difficult and we didn’t really gain anything by trying to keep putting content out while we didn’t have our infrastructure together. If I were starting from scratch, I would translate this to making sure that there is a long term and short term plan, that I had a good, reliable team that was dedicated to making it work, and build up some content before launching. It’s easy to get excited and get carried awayeven more so in my case because I was coming in to revive something I loved, thinking if I just jumped in headfirst and worked hard it would all be fine. It was fine in the end, but I could have saved myself a lot of frustration with a little patience.

Renee Asher Pickup is editor in chief of Revolt Daily, an online magazine featuring fiction, personal stories, and more.


Nicolette Wong, Editor-in-Chief of A-Minor Magazine & Press a minor

What is the most important thing to do when taking over a lit mag?

A-Minor Magazine was a flash fiction venue founded by Sheldon Lee Compton in May 2010. I took over the zine and relaunched it in September 2011. It’s hard to say what was the most important to do at the time since it all panned out surprisingly well. Sheldon was, and is, well-respected and people responded positively to his passing the gig to me. Once we made the announcement and I posted the call for submissionsnot just for flash fiction, but also poetry, artwork and mixed genre workthe inbox was swarmed with quality submissions in two days. Some of our fellow writers sent kind and encouraging words. I had no problem filling up the weekly line-up for the next month or two, though I did solicit work from one fiction writer, Edmond Caldwell, whose work leans experimental/bizarre for the first feature, to set the tone for the kind of writing I hoped to get. Once the zine was relaunched, it seemed to become popular quite quickly. In that sense, I think getting “community support” is key.
 
Revamping the zine, or making it one’s own, is another story. I kept the weekly publishing schedule for a while, and the zine sang a very different tune from when it was in Sheldon’s hands. But I wanted A-Minor to be a conceptual unfolding, a showcase of thematic, formal and stylistic variety. So I came up with the ideas for two special issues in 2012second anniversary issue, and flash fiction/prose specialand the zine went quarterly later on. In 2012 I also had two editors come on board: Kenny Mooney, fiction editor for 1.5 years, and Eryk Wenziak who’s still our art editor for the zine and press. From there the volume and variety of submissions kept expanding. It took an extended effort, but we were able to push the zine towards where we wanted it to go. Kudos to Kenny and Eryk.
 

What is one thing you wish you had done differently?

There’s nothing I wish I’d done differently. I’ve been lucky.

Nicolette Wong is the Editor-in-Chief of A-Minor Magazine & Press.


So there you have it. Advice from nine experts who’ve survived the grueling commitment required to start and run a lit mag.

Are you ready to build your own?

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5 thoughts on “Do You Want to Build a Lit Mag? Get Tips from the Experts

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Nathaniel! Even though there are numerous literary journals, each with its own aesthetic purpose and conceptual demeanor, there is one thing that unites all of these together-an untiring passion for literature of those at the helm, accompanied by a selfless desire to publish and promote good writing. The beginning and the end of a literary journal does not matter, as long as we are happy with the process. That is what makes our literary community so unique and powerful.

  2. M. Howalt says:

    While I hadn’t considered starting a lit mag of my own, this was very interesting and useful reading! Nice insight into the editors’ minds. – And there were a few of the mags I didn’t know and will be checking out. So thanks for putting this together!

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