Andrea Routley News Views

The Problem with Looking Good

by Andrea Routley

Descant has an enormous community. It is an international magazine with a strong focus on Canada and on emerging artists. We have trained dozens of interns, hundreds of editors have worked with us over the years, and thousands of writers and visual artists and musicians and dancers have been published in our pages.”

Sounds pretty great, eh? And Descant has been doing this for over forty years!

Or had been doing this. Yes, it’s the end of an era. One of Canada’s oldest literary magazines can no longer afford to publish another issue.

Sigh. You know that old saying “dress for the job you want”? In other words, lie about your economic or professional status so people will find you more credible and endow you with the authority you desire?

We do this in the arts, and as artists, we do ourselves a great disservice.

I work in marketing, so I know all about this kind of “Hey! Look at how awesome everything is!” approach. I also used to play music, and even toured a little in BC and Germany. Wow, you say. On tour in Germany? Yes! International touring!

There is a joke among seasoned/bitter musicians. It goes like this: “Yeah, that was a great gig — hardly cost me anything.” And more and more, we are presented with great “opportunities for exposure.” This means play for free and be grateful.

I have ranted about that subject many times to many people. But instead of simply bemoaning the state of the arts, I want to share some information that may be helpful. What I want to say right now is that we’re all pretending to do well, and I believe this is hurting us.

Sometimes people email me at Plenitude referring to my “staff.”

One writer was offended when I invited them to submit way back when I started and could only offer a twenty-five dollar honorarium. This person said they would not even tell their colleagues about it because I couldn’t pay (much). Fair enough. After all, “that gig hardly cost me anything” is no way to make a living.

But I was not receiving any money, either — not even that twenty-five dollars.

An editor of another literary magazine told me recently that after five years as editor, he finally, just this year, paid himself an honorarium — not a salary — for the first time. And this is a magazine with funding from both provincial and federal granting organizations.

There is no staff here at Plenitude. It is just me and a handful of volunteers. We manage to pull together two magazines per year while also trying to have some kind of web presence.

To do this, I taught myself how to design ebooks, make a website and create ads and posters using Adobe InDesign; I stumbled through Mailchimp (I have failed at Mailchimp); I wrote answers to time-consuming text-based interviews and blog posts to promote the magazine; I created press releases, managed digital subscribers and licked dozens of envelopes; I organized multi-author events in Vancouver; I applied for grants; I did radio interviews and on and on. Volunteers have read submissions, solicited web content from fellow writers and friends, created web content, put up posters, copyedited, made book lists, read at events, led workshops and more.

The reason I am sharing some of the tasks involved is not to impress you with what hard workers we are, but just to give you some idea about what’s involved. Because there is a major disconnect with what working in the arts entails, and how most people perceive this work.

The point is, there is no staff. That word implies salaries or wages, and there is none of that. At the end of my paid workday (which involves sitting at a computer and trying to get people to care about books), I muster the energy to respond to emails or design a button for the New Queer Books page, which will link to the list on 49thshelf.com. Oh, and make more lists, so it’s not just one giant list, but organized by year or genre or something like that, and I really should do some kind of “Get what you really wanted for Christmas” promo to boost circulation. I’ll do that this weekend, except I’m moving, so next weekend, I guess, and I need more posts so it’s not all Query Project posts, and wasn’t someone sending me something about that new film? Whatever happened to that? And I never did contact that queer youth writing organization, but we should probably do something together…

I probably suck at this. But I care about it. But it is a lot of work.

I meant to finish writing this post on Monday.

Often people tell me they are so happy that Plenitude exists. Simply existing is not sustainable.

Let me break something down. This is actually kind of embarrassing. If you have a background in business, then you will be embarrassed for me. So trigger warning for terrible business stuff:

Because Plenitude has a modest print run, the cost, per issue, for the printing alone is $3.22.

The cost, per issue, to mail a magazine is $3.10.

That’s $6.32, and that does not include the cost of the envelope, the cost of the content (all contributors receive honorariums), the cost to ship those magazines back to me, the cost to drive to the post office to mail them (I live about fifteen kilometres from town and drive a Police Interceptor Crown Victoria, aka a “gas guzzler”), or the time it takes to produce it, which is really the mostly costly part of all of that. We turn around and sell this magazine, including shipping, for $9, which, by magazine standards, is rather expensive.

So we lose money on every single subscription. How crazy is that?? But that is okay because it takes time, right? We just have to be patient and maybe in another year or two or forty we will be “in a deficit position, and as head of the Descant foundation and Editor in Chief of the magazine, I carry all the debts.” Whoops! How did that quote get in here?

Another editor of one of Canada’s most established literary magazines told me he found it disheartening that most of the subscribers were from contest entries. To him, this indicated that most subscribers were not actually interested in reading the magazine, but in winning money and getting published. On the flip side, this may simply indicate that most subscribers are aspiring writers, but I have noticed something about contests, too. When there is no cash reward, but instead, say, an opportunity to develop one’s craft with guidance from one of Canada’s most critically-acclaimed writers, entries are modest.

A writer I asked once about being a mentor passed on the idea, but commented that it sounded like a good scam. This “scam,” which includes two issues of the magazine, also costs more money than we make from entry fees.

Part of me is very nervous about posting this. I feel like I am lifting up my dress to declare, “Behold! I too have a third nipple, like all of you!” But I know that the challenges I face in publishing Plenitude are not unique, that they are, in fact, of the two-nipple variety.

Another editor of one of Canada’s most established literary magazines told me recently that they had come close to folding numerous times over the years, and this could still happen. We are all lying about how well we’re doing — writers, publishers, musicians alike. We’re dressing for success. And I believe that this is not only promoting a sense of failure among us, but endowing our almost-supporters with a false sense of security. You are happy this music, that painting, that magazine or organization exists, but do you know how close it is to disappearing?

There is no great industry behind the proverbial green curtain; our literary magazines rely on support from you — fellow writers and artists. These magazines are not run by ivory-tower writer-scholars who get paid to select Canada’s next literary stars, to decide who will be permitted entry to the club. They are run by community-builders with a passion for literature. It is an exhausting endeavour, usually thankless, full of tedious administrative tasks, and always on the cusp of failure. Descant is a good reminder to all of us that it is not helpful to simply state our support for an arts organization or artist; we have to show it — donate, subscribe, volunteer, contribute.

Maybe this isn’t so scary to you. Maybe my tone is too ominous and gloomy. But what this fragile state of literary magazines in Canada tells us is that there really is no money in the arts. What a cliché, you might say. But it is true. This means that writing is not about getting published*, getting interviewed, getting award stickers on the covers of your books, or being listed in various “Top Ten” or “Best Of” lists. Writing is really only about two things: writing, that never-ending process of discovery and development; and community, that small but thoughtful group of people who engage with your work, and you with theirs.

It is a gig that will hardly cost you anything.

This past year, I tried out a print edition of Plenitude Magazine. Nothing compares to the feeling of holding an artfully designed publication in your hands, especially if that publication contains your work. I received a lot of really nice compliments about the design. The print magazine was laid out by Kathleen Fraser (who spent many hours working on it). The availability of a print edition did not translate into an increase in circulation, but it did mean more work. For the past eight months, I’ve gone around and around about this print-versus-digital dilemma. Most writers prefer to see their work in print. Me too. But you have seen the numbers. It is an expensive gig, and it is not sustainable.

I have made the executive decision to simplify operations and minimize costs of publishing Plenitude by delivering the content online, free and accessible to everyone. Poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, book reviews and other articles will appear online as posts, and be searchable. With this delivery, granting organizations will be looking at web traffic instead of numbers of subscribers. Please help us ensure the modest funding we receive remains intact by visiting the site regularly to read new content.

In addition to our change in delivery and format, I have made the difficult decision to reduce the amount of our honorarium so that contributors in all genres of the publication can be compensated. This will enable Plenitude to pay honorariums to not only writers of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, but also to book reviewers and other critical writers, who play an indispensible role in inspiring thoughtful conversations around queer literature.

Despite the challenges of producing this magazine, I would like to say thank you those who have donated their time: Amber Dawn and Carellin Brooks for emceeing the readings in Vancouver; Trevor Corkum for hosting the reading in Toronto and editing Issue 4; Scott Dagostino at Glad Day Books for doing sales at that event; the authors who read at these events: Alex Leslie, Leah Horlick, Amber Dawn, Emilia Nielsen, Lydia Kwa, Brett Josef Grubisic, Alan Woo, Esther McPhee, Nat Marshik, Rachel Rose, Vivek Shraya, Dani Couture, Maureen Hynes, Shawn Syms and Trevor Corkum; Matthew Walsh for reading poetry submissions; Aysia Law for reading poetry submissions; DJ Fraser for writing thoughtful articles about film and filmmakers; Brett Josef Grubisic for soliciting all the Query Project posts; Nat Marshik for putting up posters; Kathleen Fraser for laying out Issue 4 and Issue 5 and reading fiction and non-fiction submissions and copyediting etc.; Anna Nobile for reading fiction and non-fiction submissions; Rachna Contractor for contributing reviews and interviews; Joy Fisher for contributing an article; Fazeela Jiwa for contributing an article; the people I have contacted periodically for advice — John Barton, Arleen Paré, Chris Fox; Cliff Haman in UVic’s Fine Art Department for helping me with web headaches; Alex Leslie for reading contest entries. I apologize to anyone I have failed to mention here.

I also want to say thank you to the modest but loyal group of people who subscribed. Your dedicated support validated the work, giving me the energy to continue.

*About ten thousand books are published in Canada every year. How many have you heard of?

Andrea Routley has played many roles along the writing/publishing spectrum: she is the founder and managing editor of Plenitude Magazine; she currently works for a little bit of money in publishing by marketing and promoting books; and she has published two previous books which most people have definitely never heard of. She has had many “day jobs,” including cleaning houses, planting trees, giving international students campus tours, serving coffee at Starbucks and booze at the gay bar. She has a monstrous student loan debt, which she will probably never pay off. She believes telling people these things ultimately makes us all feel better about the work we are doing.

5 Comments

  • I have always loved how no-nonsense, honest and forth-right you are, Andrea. Thank you for this piece and for all your amazing work in literature. On the other hand, it makes me anxious to learn how close to the bone the periodical business is. On the other hand, you have inspired me to consider submitting to magazines more often, something I rarely do currently. A new New Year’s resolution. Not that my submissions will solve the close-to-the-bone problem, but at least I’ll be contributing.

    • Yes, definitely! And it also feels great for emerging writers to share the pages with more celebrated writers like yourself. 🙂

  • thanks for taking the time to write out in painful detail many of the truths of small literary mags and even small literary presses in canada; it has always been thus, as it was in the last half of the 20th C. as Daphne Marlatt observed. however, at least now there is the technology to allow for the shift in publication you are making.
    it would appear, that there are always talented, dedicated, dare i say, revolutionary, people who would rather do something meaningful than earn money.
    good on you for being one of them / us, and good on you for being honest about the actual (& personal) costs. thx for all yr hard work on behalf of canadian queer lit.

  • An accurate assessment, Andrea, & kudos to you for persisting in editing Plenitude despite all this. you’re right, what counts are writing & community. my memory goes back to the 1960s when small groups in Vancouver, Toronto, & Montreal were issuing little mags & poetry newsletters in just the way you describe — only the technology has changed. without the work many writers do for no pay, even for debt, there would be no pluralistic & evolving literary culture here. counter to current economic dictates, our literary bedrock remains a gift economy.

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