Rise and fall

It seems a foregone conclusion when a new independent or small press short story magazine (or periodical anthology) launches it will fail within a few years – most sooner, rather than later. This has been going on ever since people have felt they can do a better job than the “professionals” (I feel another blog coming on), have an alternative angle that they think is more marketable, use the magazine to stealthily self publish, or any number of other reasons that you might think of. It hasn’t been confined to print magazines either. The demise of online magazines seems almost as common as the old faithfuls.
So what are the reasons? One is obviously going to be the staying power of the creator – usually a one-man band despite the list of editorial and office staff they will claim to have. Most of them will have a full-time job elsewhere (or a bottomless pit of financial resources), so their project is a hobby. I nearly said “merely” a hobby, but that would be denigrating the enthusiasm and energy that these people put into their babies. However, it doesn’t take long to realise a number of problems.
1. It takes far longer to produce a magazine than they thought. Submissions can come thick and fast and picking the right stories is a time-consuming process – and no story is free of errors which need correcting. If they have decided to include illustrations there’s the job of commissioning artists and ensuring they meet the publication dates. If they’re also laying out the magazine – so it at least looks worth buying – they will have to spend a lot of time cutting pasting, swapping, changing . . . and then proof reading. They’ll need to find a printer who will produce their magazine to a standard that justifies the cover price, and it’s a catch twenty-two situation as the printing cost will obviously impact the cover price. And payment to contributors will effect this too. Even token payments can add huge costs to the production of a magazine which is why most small-press magazines (and onliners) pay nothing . . . and even some of the long standing stalwarts rely on the prestige of appearing in their magazine as payment enough. That’s the easy bit. Though it might sound flippant: anyone can produce a magazine.
2. So, they’ve got this fabulous product, and I’m not attempting irony here . . . some of the efforts are really very good. How do they sell them? Online, that’s the easiest answer. So they set up a web site, and suddenly they have another job; constantly updating the site to maintain interest. Ninety percent will go with WordPress and look like every other site out there. But how do they encourage people to visit their site? That’s when they hit a brick wall. And even if they get people to visit their site only a very very small percentage will buy anything.
3. Yep, marketing is the most important and most difficult aspect of the little publisher’s repertoire. Google and Facebook adverts will slowly eat away at their funds with no noticeable returns. Small ads in mainstream magazines will cut into their budgets even further and sales will remain unaffected. Small-time spamming of chat rooms and forums in an attempt to talk-up their products will just result in disgruntled surfers who might even suggest to their friends not to buy from this annoying git. No sales there then. Conventions! If you are happy to spend weekends away from home in hotels and stand (I always think it’s more polite to stand) or sit (which looks like you can’t be bothered) for hours behind a table, then they are for you. Sure, there’s the socialising side in the evening, but wait! It’s cost them X-amount in petrol (try carrying a stock of mags on a train or plain), X-amount for the table (sometimes a membership fee, but of course, they’re unable to make the most of it stuck behind their table), X-amount for the hotel, X-amount for food and drink (did I mention drink) and they sold . . . how many magazines? It doesn’t take much to work out that to break even at a convention, excluding the magazine production costs, they’re going to have to sell shit loads. And even then, unless they have a massive mark-up on their magazine, chances are they’re going to be out of pocket. So what’s the point? Well, it is one of the few ways to get their product known. You’ll be surprised how many people aren’t that PC savvy and don’t spend hours on the net.
I started by saying that it seems a foregone conclusion that small-press magazines will fail. Only if they get the marketing right (even with the best product in the world) will a magazine succeed. But how many are prepared to stay on that long and frustrating slog to success?

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