Building A Sustainable Literary Magazine — Ashley Burnett Interviews Midnight Breakfast

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In a follow up to my post about the closing of The Toast, I thought you might like this substantial interview with the founders of Midnight Breakfast, by Ashley Burnett, writing at The Billfold.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own literary magazine. How much do you think each issue would cost to produce? 

Rubenstein: Sometimes I’m asked why we choose to keep the magazine free to read if we’re also trying to fund it, and my answer is always that we remain in deference to economic diversity. If you’re able to afford internet, you’ve already overcome an economic hurdle that is almost never acknowledged anymore. There’s an assumption that now everyone can afford to have Wi-Fi in their homes, or has access to the internet when they need it, and it’s a classist notion that simply isn’t true. So in order to reach the widest readership possible, our goal is to remain paywall-free…

At the moment, it costs about $1,200 to run an issue and cover our overhead costs, which on one hand feels like a lot of money to me, as a writer and editor whose day job is selling books at an independent bookstore. But I also live in San Francisco, where startups are regularly given millions by investors, with a product of some kind as an end goal, and so there’s also a large part of me that doesn’t feel like our per-issue goal is unattainable. We’re not there yet, but we ran some numbers, and figured out if even half our Twitter followers (which account for a sizable portion of our readership) subscribed through Patreon at the $1 level, we’d be able to publish indefinitely. We would also be able to pay our editorial staff stipends, which would be amazing. Everyone works so hard and it’s the next thing on our list — to be able to compensate our staff with more than an emotional paycheck.

I remember going to a panel at AWP in 2015, where Lisa Lucas, the current Executive Director of the National Book Foundation and Guernica’s publisher at the time (and someone who’s also supported us tenfold from the very beginning), said that if Guernica’s monthly readership all chipped in a dollar, the magazine would theoretically have a million dollars, which would make paying their contributors and editorial staff that much more feasible. I don’t know what their budget is like now, but that really resonated with me: it’s the hope that your readership will understand that while you’re giving free access to a publication, that publication isn’t free for the people making it and is often incredibly labor-intensive, and if you can afford to give even a little bit, it goes a long way toward creating this thing you care about.

It’s an excellent interview, and worth reading in full. They also discuss crowdfunding and Patreon at some length.

If someone were to use crowdfunding in the future to start their own literary journal, what advice would you give them? Is there anything you would change about the early days when you were acquiring funding?

Rubenstein: Map out all your goals and figure out what needs funding and what doesn’t. This seems really obvious, but it’s the most important thing. I can’t tell you how many meetings we had about our budget before we set up our first crowdfunding campaign. Beyond paying our contributors, we had to figure out what everything looked like in the short- and long-term: how many pieces we wanted to feature per issue, how many issues we wanted to do over the course of our first year, how much it would cost to host the site and pay for other web-based services, etc. Featuring original art was a fairly last-minute decision, and so we had to reconfigure our budget based on that.

Another big thing: recognize and embrace the fact that you are part of a larger community. If there’s something crucial I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the literary community is full of countless individuals who make it a priority to support other members of that community. Prior to Midnight Breakfast, I’d already connected with a lot of writers and artists through The Rumpus and a smaller, short-lived magazine called STET, which both have/had such expansive, wonderful communities behind them, and so it was imperative for us to not only embrace whatever community we were able to develop, but to build bridges between us and other literary publications, as well as presses and imprints we love. Bottom line: we would not exist without our readers, but we would definitely not exist without the kind of support we’ve received from other magazines and presses and the amazing humans behind them.

Read the whole interview here.

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