Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn about electronic distribution (Part 2)

TL: I guess that’s the good thing about Kindle. You’re only getting 35% of RRP but you’re guaranteed that 35%. And you don’t have to worry about print runs, etc. Does this mean that the 35% will go to the creatives?

CF: And don’t forget after June 30th we’ll get 70% from Amazon, and 70% from Apple once they launch the ibook store and we convert to that format. You’re also right that without print costs any money made will mean I can finally pay contributors a small stipend each, which I was never able to do in print. Although the huge assumption here is the mythical, oft-forgotten last link in the chain, the reader, will actually buy the damn thing. Torpedo sales were never anywhere near those of Meanjin or The Brow and in theory we might have a much wider audience now and be offering a journal much more cheaply and directly into the palm of the hand, but that doesn’t mean readers are queuing up to hand over their five bucks.

Marketing is the biggest skill absent from most independent publishing houses. Having a bunch of creative, artistic people working together to produce a great journal is all very well, but how does the reader find out about it? It’s easy to cover the six hundred or so people in Australia in the indie publishing scene, but what about the other twenty million Australians? How do you even reach 1% of those without a marketing budget and plan? It’s easy to believe people will love your journal, but the reality is most people will never hear about it. I have no solution to that one. If I did, I’d be selling a few thousand copies per issue and still working in print.

TL: True, marketing isn’t taught much in the writing and editing courses (or at least not in mine). I know The Brow has a couple of marketing advisers, which helps, though Ronnie Scott seems to have a knack of making things that sell.

So that’s it? No more beautifully designed bound copies of Torpedo?

CF: The thing is I paid for everything out of my salary when I worked full time and never made a penny from it (or never got my money back for that matter either). I don’t work full time anymore and because each issue made a loss that’s the end of that unfortunately. I’ve outlaid almost twenty grand in the past two years for no return. Quite a sobering thought. It’s been great though and I don’t regret it. I just wish a few more readers had been interested in buying it so it could have survived in print form, but them’s the breaks. I’m happy to let all the other journal editors worry about printers, distributors and postage from now on.

Torpedo will continue to publish work that I think is exciting, but on a different platform, hopefully one that will have an ever increasing audience rather than a dwindling one…I’m glad I was bald when I started all this, otherwise I would have pulled all my hair out.

TL: That has got to be the most depressing thing I’ve learnt all week. And I’ve noticed that we’ve just been discussing money for the last couple of hours. Money’s a dirty word in the literary scene (even more dirty than ‘networking’). But maybe there’s something to be learnt from Torpedo? Your thoughts?

CF: I hope there is a lesson to be learnt, and I’m quite happy to talk openly about the unmentionable issues. The most important piece of advice I would give any aspiring journal editor/publisher is this: Don’t kid yourself. You’re not breaking any moulds or doing anything that previous generations (or people you don’t know about in your own generation) haven’t already done. No matter how awesome you think what you’re doing is, you have to be realistic. If you don’t have much money starting out, you’re not going to make much money back. Morry Schwartz told me that if you were able to convince every single tertiary educated, discerning Australian book-reading adult that your fiction journal was something they absolutely must have (and how on earth would you manage that) then chances are you might just sell 4000 copies. Max. And he has half a billion bucks in the bank, so his reach is greater than ours. That’s why he doesn’t publish one. McSweeney’s only sells 16,000 copies worldwide and it has a superstar editor. The average published book only sells 800 copies and if your Aussie lit journal sells that many, you deserve an Order of Australia medal. It’s worth remembering that it’s not all about sales, but if you want your journal to be around for more than a couple of issues and don’t have any grants to sustain you, that’s the beast you’re going to have to confront.

Torpedo opened so many doors for me personally and it might be one of those retrospective selling things once I’m accepting an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Comedy, but without the Eggers wow factor, a new journal is equal parts foolhardy, brave and insane. I’m sure Ronnie only sells The Brow because people think he’s a ninety-nine-year-old jazz legend (who is in fact deceased).

TL: Well, I think that’s a wrap. Thanks Mr Flynn for your honest advice, and now I owe you a coffee or perhaps some badly baked cupcakes.

CF: There’s no such thing as a bad cupcake.

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Back to previous post, ‘Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn about electronic distribution (part 1)’.

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