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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Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn on the hows and whys of electronic distribution (part 1)

Less than two weeks ago, Torpedo announced the release of its back catalogue on Kindle and the demise of its print issues. According to its blog, Torpedo is the first Australian journal to embrace the Kindle format, citing prohibitive printing and postage costs and a saturated lit market as its reasons to go digital. I thought this was a bit space age, so I started bugging Torpedo’s editor Chris Flynn about the transition process; he was nice enough give me some decent replies.

TL: How does it feel to be the first Australian journal on Kindle?

CF: In Australian terms, it feels good to be a pioneer and to be embracing new technology, though there are virtually no Kindles in circulation in Australia, so that’s unfortunate. Still, it means we’re available on iphone and PC through the apps, but people seem to be unwilling to make that much of an effort. Since launching it on Kindle last week, every sale we’ve had has been in the U.S. No Australians as yet. Part of the problem there is that we’re so far behind with this technology. Americans have had Kindles for almost two years now and Amazon sold several million in the last quarter of 2009 alone. In New York, it’s not so much a case of ‘have you got a Kindle’ but ‘what sort of skin have you got for your Kindle’. We seem a long way off that here in Australia and I find that a little embarrassing.

TL: Yeah. We’re a bit backward in the outback. I don’t have a Kindle and I don’t have an iphone. I didn’t even know that we could put journals onto Kindle. Is it easy to set up? How does one go about it?

CF: It is and it isn’t. You have to register with Amazon as a publisher and present your credentials to them so they know you’re not uploading books you don’t have the rights to. All that takes a little while. Once that’s done, it’s a matter of playing with their desktop publishing software, which is easy to use, and creating html versions of your books. Having some coding experience is handy, but html is not as difficult as it might seem to the layman.

You definitely need a physical Kindle to test how your books look before putting them up live on the Amazon store though. There are limitations to what they’re capable of at this stage too. Although they can handle 32 shades of grey, some photos, illustrations and comics don’t look very good, mainly because you can’t zoom in the way you can on an iphone, and will be able to on an ipad. Plus, no colour. So for the moment the Kindle versions of most books are relatively simple text-only format. But hey, it’s a book, what more do you want? Once they go colour and touchscreen, graphic novels and photography will be perfect for the format, as it will be an inexpensive method of displaying rich content.

The financial model has come under question since Apple’s ipad announcement. Amazon currently take 65% of the list price of every book sold on their store, but on June 30th that will change to 30%, in line with what Apple are proposing.

TL: So Amazon takes 65% from your RRP (hopefully less in the future). How does this compare to the middle-men who distribute print journals, for example Readings, Mag Nation, and Selectair?

CF: Selectair (or Speedimpex as they are now known, since their amalgamation with Europress) are the only Australian magazine distributor who will distribute independent titles…Selectair also take 65% of the cover price, which is quite a lot considering how much it costs to print. Getting 35% back on the cover price makes it very problematic in covering print costs and paying staff/contributors. Also, you have to pay to ship your stock to Sydney where they are based.

If you distribute yourselves through shops like Readings and Mag Nation, you may be able to strike better deals (where they take as low as 35-40%) but you have to manage that distribution yourself and that is very time consuming. Plus, you have to chase up invoices and as a small player it can be very difficult getting money back. Readings are good eggs in this respect, but there are unfortunately many independent bookstores that I have found to be sadly unreliable when it comes to paying me what I’m owed. They’re keen to have the stock to make their store look good, but less enthusiastic when it comes to paying their bills it seems. That’s a real shame and it makes it hard for an independent publisher to get behind independent bookstores.

TL: You’ve mentioned in private that you’ve lost a bit of stock through dealing with unreliable independent bookstores, a common pitfall that emerging journals are often unaware of. Can you tell us more about this? Who are the bad eggs?

CF: Obviously I can only speak about the stores I’ve had personal dealings with, despite having heard about the problems other journals may have had. When I self-distributed my magazine Litmus Journal prior to Torpedo, I had problems getting money back from McGills (now closed) on Elizabeth Street, and unfortunately Metropolis in Curtin House. I like that bookstore, and I’m sure the hundred bucks or whatever it was at the time wasn’t high on their priority list, but when you’re an indie publisher it only takes a few stores to be slack in paying their bills for your next issue to be screwed. Perhaps other editors/writers will tell a different story, but I’ve heard too many people talking about this topic to stake the future of my journal on it. That’s why I chose not to distribute Torpedo in any bookstores at all (except Readings). I knew if I ended up waiting six months for a few hundred bucks here and there to be paid back to me, the next issue would be put in jeopardy and I didn’t want to spend half my time chasing up invoices that I felt should have been paid automatically at the end of the month or whatever.

There’s a strange symbiotic relationship between independent publishers and independent bookstores. They rely on each other. I just feel personally that the bookstores aren’t as invested in keeping the publishers alive as the publishers are in supporting the bookstores. That’s short-sighted and makes no long term business sense and I know no one likes paying bills, but if stores want fresh stock on their shelves then they have to understand that’s not possible unless they tighten up their invoice-paying process.

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More ‘Death of the printed journal’ will be posted up on Thursday. Meanwhile, read Torpedo’s post on Kindle here.

NYWF 2009: Day Two

After attempting to write a couple of race parody vignettes, I had been looking forward to the ‘You are So Lacist’ panel, and initially, the session touched on the topic, with talk on how racial parody can reiterate what it seeks to deconstruct (Tom Cho), how ‘whiteness is ignored by non-whites’ (Bhakthi Puvanethiran), and how art is like a rorschach inkblot (Tom Doig). But then the audience hijacked the panel* and flew it towards those twin towers of Indigenous Issues and White Guilt and the room was on fire, people started to shout, and I stopped listening—

The ‘Sweet Staple High: The New Class’ panel defined what an Established Journal was. Meanjin, Heat, Overland, Southerly, Westerly, and Island are examples of Established Journals. They have stuck around for years, have greater resources and circulation numbers, maintain a steady subscription base and a staple of writers. Some might be described as ‘set in their ways’ or failing to ‘diversify their content’.

The newer journals, on the other hand, have less money, smaller circulation, and do not usually have a subscription base. Therefore, they are more fluid/inconsistent, and are more willing to take risks with unknown writers/artists. Christopher Currie (facilitator), Kirk Marshall, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran, Sean Wilson, Angela Meyer, and David Edgley read a sample of newer literary journals and voiced their thoughts:

Stop, Drop, and Roll

  •  A beautifully designed publication.
  • Good non-fiction. (Bhakthi)
  • But is it more of the same? (David)

Harvest

  • Ridiculously over-designed. (Kirk)
  • Fairly consistent but sometimes it makes odd choices i.e. quirky twister game juxtaposed with serious non-fiction.
  • Good non-fiction. (Bhakthi)

The Lifted Brow

  • Has vision.
  • A ‘treasure trove’. (Angela)
  • In terms of style, The Brow is much more punchy.

Ampersand

  • More able to reach a wider audience as it incorporates other material.
  • A curiosity.
  • Nifty pocket size. (Kirk)
  • Something that I would want other people to see on my shelf (Bhakthi).

Torpedo

  • ‘Very specific group and type of writers’. (Angela)
  • A lot of stories are pretty similar; it can become a little bland. (Kirk)
  • Fiction only.
  • Another Me Too McSweeney’s?

Cutwater

  • Alienates readers with its design. (Bhakthi)
  • From a contributor’s perspective: poor editorial feedback/communication. Cutwater seems to take its contributors for granted. (Kirk and Angela)

Since many of the newer journals are Melbourne-based, the audience expressed some concern. Is there a Melbourne clique, and does it influence the content of Melbourne journals? Angela Meyer denied this. Friendless when she first moved down to Melbourne, she has managed to acquaint herself with many of the region’s publishing industry. And her work has been rejected by editor friends several times**.

Naturally, networking helps. After meeting you, editors might be more inclined to read your published work and solicit submissions, but their priority is to produce a quality journal. Or at least, that’s my theory. Feel free to rip into it.

*Wah, if I rearrange the letters, I get ‘plane’.

**And I can attest to this. Editor of The Lifted Brow and Meyerphile, Ronnie Scott, has rejected her work several times. TLB6 will be the first time her work has been published with The Brow.

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Upcoming NYWF shennanigans: ‘Crimes Against the Industry’, ‘Distro How-to’, and ‘The Great Gatsby Ball’.

Four More Sleeps

The Melbourne Writers Festival starts this Friday, and I’m getting excited. Despite having lived in Melbourne all of my life, I have never been to the Melbourne Writers Festival, which is really poor form, considering that people like Angela Meyer move to Melbourne to get closer to the literary scene. Yes, I walk around with a paper bag over my head. And no, please don’t steal my paper bag to vomit your disgust into it. 

I wanted to go last year, but had unwittingly double-booked myself. While everyone else was listening to Nam Le, I was falling off ski-lifts in New Zealand. This year, however, I have cleared August of snowboarding, errant pharmacy shifts, weddings, and engagements. Only an invasion of three-legged aliens is going to stop me from making it to MWF 2009.

Workshops are getting booked out, but I’ve managed to score a spot on Wells Tower’s Small Lever, Big Rock: Short Fiction & The Simple Machines of Emotion.

There’s also a couple of Big Ideas talks at the RMIT Capitol Theatre that look interesting: Life, the Universe, and Nothing; The Future of the Book; and Does the End Justify the Means?

At Melbourne Town Hall, on Friday 21 August, Freedom of Speech: Should There Be Limits? With Ian Buruma will debate Geert Wilders and the Danish cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Toff in the Town is hosting some fun stuff. Spoken word artists such as Alicia Sometimes, and Emilie Zoey Baker will be performing a poetic tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on Thursday night. while McSweeney’s (Futuristic) Antipodean Adventure will be happening Saturday night, 29 August. 

More performances are planned for the Festival Club. Wordplay’s scheduled for Sunday 23, with Geoff Lemon, and Nathan Curnow. Angela Meyer will be also doing her thing with SPUNC on Saturday 29.

Will I make it to any of the day events? Not likely, since I have to work (writers’ festivals = $$$$$). But Tom Cho will be discussing his book in Fable, Fantasy and the New Short Story. Brain Castro will be In Conversation on Sunday 23 August. McSweeney’sIsnotmagazine, and Torpedo will be fratenising with each other in Fly Like a Butterfly on Friday 28 August, while Krissy Kneen will talk on erotic writing with Linda Jaivin, and Nikki Gemmell in Put Your Hands All Over My Body. There is too much shit happening; I can’t deal with such excess (and neither can my credit card). Oh <insert alternative to God here>!

Thuy Linh Nguyen’s Ambitious MWF Itinery:
I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours…
Friday 21 August

Saturday 22 August

Sunday 23 August

Thursday 27 August

Saturday 29 August

  • McSweeney’s (Futuristic) Antipodean Adventure @ The Toff

Sunday 30 August

The Pitch

Fact: prior to this week, I was a writers’ festival virgin. There have been flirtations—a magazine launch here, some voluntary cyberspace work there—but nothing concrete. No, ah, entry of any sort. Angela Meyer’s ’15 Minutes of Fame’ was my first taste of a real writers’ festival event (for more on ’15 Minutes’, click here); I liked it so much, I decided to come back for more.

So, after work today, I drove down to the Melbourne Town Hall where the Emerging Writers’ Festival was being held. I managed to attend two panel sessions: ‘Truth and honesty in writing’ and ‘The revolution will be downloaded’. I also managed to make two somewhat transient friends, Stuart and Tamara, who offered to buy me a drink initially, then ditched me to chase after some writerly celebrity residing in a corner of the Portico Balcony.

I also managed to sit in for ‘The Pitch’, where editors from various print and online magazines gave helpful tips about pitching and submitting one’s work. Torpedo’s Chris Flynn was particularly useful, giving a succinct list of submission dos and don’ts:

  1. Do read the submission guidelines
  2. Do read the publication. It quickly becomes apparent to the editor when a writer hasn’t read the publication at all.
  3. Don’t submit your old work. Not only is it a poor reflection of where a writer is at the moment, it also encourages laziness and ‘laurels-resting’.
  4. Do submit one story at a time.
  5. Do submit the right genre. If the guidelines say ‘fiction’, it means exactly that.
  6. Don’t frontload. Keep your cover letter/email short and sweet. (Apparently someone once sent Chris Flynn a fifteen-hundred-word email for a twelve-hundred-word piece. He was not impressed.)
  7. Do keep formatting to a minimum. The editor’s going to have to remove it anyway, and he or she won’t thank you for the extra work.
  8. Do be nice. It. Gets. You. Places.

In regards to manuscript pitches, Aduki Independent Press’ Emily Clark gave the following advice:

  1. Know the publisher: how does your work fit within their vision?
  2. Know your market: who’s going to buy your book?
  3. Don’t burn any bridges: just because they didn’t love your first idea, doesn’t mean they’ll hate all of your future ones.

It was great hearing from heavyweights such as Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, The Big Issue, and Overland, as well as less well-known publications like Stop Drop and Roll and Tango. I also practise my pitching skills on Emily Clark afterwards: ‘Hi, I’m from The Lifted Brow…’ But more on that some other day.