When I read Charles's tale, what strikes me is "[W]e give them $3940 and they give us $500 back. Oh yeah, and the 400 you didn't sell? they just ripped the covers off and recycled it. Awesome."

In our post-industrial capitalist society, the sine qua non of economies of scale is distribution. This is even more true of cultural produce than others. The Big Four record labels, the broadcast TV networks, Hollywood studios--what they all have, even more importantly than their marketing juggernauts and payola, is a distribution network in a tight grip. Why does Fence or anyone else put up with such egregious behaviors from Ingram? Because they have no other choice. The only comfort in all this is that at least Ingram isn't also a publishing house, because then instead of a tiny chance of reaching readers, they'd have zero. Which reminds me: support net neutrality!

We are caught in a bind. We want literary writing to have cultural relevance, but cultural relevance means playing these repugnant games. When people ask themselves, "Can poetry matter?" they should remember that simple fact. Poetry is the cheapest form of art to make, but if you don't have a distribution channel, no one will read it, and you'll never make money on it, no matter how fat your margin is. Not to mention the fact that in publishing, a high price (relative to the per-unit cost) doesn't mean a fat margin. That's why I believe it when Charles says the per-unit cost doesn't matter.

There's a tendency to write-off zines or other such formats as having too narrow a scope, too little ambition, which is a shame. If one every wants to rebuild literary culture in earnest, one will have to resort to that kind of small-time, grassroots effort. But that's not to say that trying to reach a regional or nation-wide readership is merely grandiose. It's just that there's no way to do it simply by changing what you market or how you market it. People get so bent out of shape that what people are writing is too literary or too intellectual or not intellectual enough, as if once we find the secret formula, literary writing will be the new bestselling market. It's just not true. Well, it might be true if you could convince distributors. But failing that, the only other possibility is a new distribution channel. The internet is one possibility (but not if net neutrality is destroyed). Anti-trust law? I'm out of ideas.

I think that's a very insightful point. Eric and I have been talking about alternative distribution channels for a while and trying to circumvent some of the short sighted stupidity that you see in distribution, along the model of independent music's resistance to the major labels in the form of the Punk Rock DIY ethic. That's part of the reason Wet Asphalt exists, and as time goes by we have a number of different ideas about how to go about alternative distribution. One thing that's particularly interesting in this debate that we haven't touched on (yet) is the way that major corporate media concerns use literary magazines as a filter for their product. That is, it's rare that a literary publishing arm produces a book by an author who doesn't have lot's of important literary journal publications on their cv. Literary Agents freely admit that they take manuscripts more seriously if the author has previously been published in rags like the New Yorker and The Paris Review. Which is to say, big media is getting a huge service out of the literary journals and they aren't paying anything for it. I don't know what the journals can do about that, but it seems like someone ought to have a clever idea to exploit it.

I keep wondering if there isn't a way to meld online/print media with a reduced-cost DIY approach-- an online zine, say, with an option to access a streamlined file which could then be taken by the subscriber to a local print shop, where it could be printed and bound for a low cost.

I'm not sure how effective a method like that might be, but if it worked you'd have hard copies in circulation while completely circumventing the expenses of the postal system, and a serious web presence backing it up. The question is, would readers want to pay a small fee to the website for hard access to the file as well as the $2-3 at a Kinko's to turn that file into a material object?

Essentially, consumers would be paying directly into other markets for the creation of the volume, eliminating that cost on the production end of the magazine. And though it would be difficult if not impossible to protect the file from piracy, who cares? Anyone printing multiple copies of a magazine off of one file is essentially paying out of pocket to increase the circulation of YOUR product...

Of course, I could very well be overlooking some logistic nightmares here, as I've always been shit at the business end. Ideas?

I'm of the mind that the consumer is far to lazy to take something down to Kinkos. However, I'm not sure they'd have to; Print-on-Demand technology is relatively advanced at this point, and with a service like iUniverse, you could have an online document that someone could pay you a few dollars to print up an individual copy that would then be mailed to the person. I'm just not sure if iUniverse handles magazine-sized documents, but then the full potential of print-on-demand has yet to be tapped.

Charles Valle, the editor of Fence, was kind enough to send us a detailed response to the articles on the economics of print literary journals Wet Asphalt recently published (Cognitive Dissonance in Literature as Business and It's the Format: The Problem with Literary Magazines). Valle's letter is reproduced below:

Thanks for the interesting article. Clearly there are more things to discuss-- I am very much in support of some of your inquiries. I obviously cannot speak for Joanna [Yas, editor of Open City. ~JFQ] and the others. I had tried to prod the moderator [of the panel of lit journal editors that prompted Wet Asphalt's recent articles. ~JFQ] and others toward the topics of: the sociological aspects of literary journals, etc.

Below is what I wrote to Cantara [the moderator ~ER] on 4/25/06:


I wasn't thinking specifically of small press products (mugs, t-shirts, etc.), I was thinking more on a theoretical level of the journal as perfect-bound product being culturally consumed by readers and journals' ephemeral quality (i.e. editorial/aesthetic decisions made with the understanding that journals/small presses have a limited/brief existence). My feeling was that the discussion could gravitate towards the topic of "mission-making" and, hopefully, crystallize the idea of why small presses and journals even exist.


Charles Valle

Unfortunately, we never got around to fully engaging the topic.

Re: price point.

As I stated in the panel, for offset printing, the bulk of the cost comes from plate set-up. While you may believe this to be untrue, I urge you to request some print quotes from the many offset printers, domestically and abroad. You will discover that, for our format (which is unconventional (more on that later)), that price per unit variation (for printing 1,000 copies vs. 3,000 copies vs. 10,000 copies) heavily favors printing in larger quantities. For Fence magazine, we hit saturation point around 3,500 copies (1800 subscribers, 1400 print order from our 3 distributors, 300 for contributors and single copy sales at fairs, readings, etc.).

I'm going to use some examples from one of the lower end offset printers, Total Printing Systems, based out of Illinois.

So you have 1000 copies of a 240pp, 4-color, perfect bound book for $3972.59. That equals $3.97 per unit. This does not factor in freight (to ship to 5 different warehouses) nor postage for mailing subscriber issues.

So, same specs, different quantity. $7978.92 for 3,000 copies. You now have a price per unit of $2.65. The price per unit continues to drop with larger quantities. (*printers will often give discounts for orders exceeding 10,000. Therefore, larger trade magazines will often have low ppu.)

As for making it thinner:

For a 96pp journal with similar specs, you're looking at $2.31 per unit at 1,000 copies.

Or, $1.46 per unit at 3,000 copies.

Let's summarize printing costs:
2 issues per year at 240pp, 3,000 copies = $15,957.84
4 issues per year at 96pp, 3,000 copies = $17,521.36

This does not factor in freight, subscriber postage, mailing house fees, permit imprint fees, distributor fees, envelopes, and most importantly time (more on that later).

Per issue:
Freight costs for 3000 copies will usually run $1000 (we'll say $500 for the 96pp example).
Subscriber postage and permit imprint fee = $2000 (we're non-profit, so everything under 1lb is treated the same)
Mailing house fees = $600 (we used to do this ourselves, but we're getting older and we don't have the time)
Envelopes = $250

2 issues per year at 240pp, 3,000 copies = $23,657.84 (or $3.94 per unit)
4 issues per year at 96pp, 3,000 copies = $30,921.36 (or $2.57 per unit)

This does not take into account distributor fees which I cannot fully account for as I cannot make heads or tails of their nickel-and-dime practices. The gross version being: we send Ingram 1,000 copies, sell 60% (600 copies), and receive a check for $500. Or phrased another way: we give them $3940 and they give us $500 back. Oh yeah, and the 400 you didn't sell? they just ripped the covers off and recycled it. Awesome. You know why every magazine (from GQ to Playboy to Time) wants to offer you 50% off the newsstand price for a year's subscription? You realize that Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, and Asimov's all receive steady revenue through advertising, right?

I think the numbers speak for themselves regarding thicker vs. thinner. This is going under the assumption that we wish to publish ~400pp of literature. And as we reject 90-95% of our unsolicited submissions, I think those 400pp say something. There are readers out there who enjoy discovering new work by new writers.

Is it an anthology? That's a good question. One could certainly argue that each literary journal's issues are anthologies for a specific time period (from summer-fall 200X, the editors of X magazine believe the following 200 pages of poetry and fiction represent what they believe to constitute good literature). I don't think any of this can be reduced to such gross simplifications though. I am all for looking at each journal on its own terms. As much as I liked Cometbus, I think it unfair to juxtapose Cometbus with other literary journals similar to Fence or Open City-- who have quite divergent aesthetic trajectories as Cometbus. I think zines in general have a higher limit for formal (and substantive) innovation; they espouse and act upon the independent spirit--- something completely ignored and categorically erased by large corporations such as Ingram Periodicals, Borders Group Inc, Barnes & Noble, etc. Literary journals, on the other hand, serve broader purposes. For some journals the need/desire to reach a larger readership often places them before the doors of Ingram Periodicals. And you have to play their game. Zines, by nature, thrive on (site)specificity. From content, to methods of distribution, and especially production. There are hundreds of literary journals that function like zines. Saddle-stitched, hand-stitched, unbound. photocopies, letterpress, handwritten, etc. It's all out there.

As I said, I can't speak for those hundreds of editors. Regarding your closing question, I think there are editors [who] are "doing something about it." I don't recall complaining that no one is reading Fence. My biggest complaint is the fact that I have to work a day job and answer e-mails and deal with distributors and layout the issue and write press releases and read submissions after midnight. I realize we're dealing with antiquated technology in the context of antiquated business practices. But we continue to deal with cultural capital. And I truly believe in the work we do: publishing engaging texts with a sensitivity towards production and design.

There's a lot more to say.


Charles Valle

Wet Asphalt would like to thank Charles Valle again for his thoughtful and detailed response to the questions we have recently raised, and for giving us permission to print that response here. Wet Asphalt plans to respond in great detail to the numbers that Valle provides, which are truly invaluable for Print Journal outsiders and readers attempting to understand how these publications work. Wet Asphalt remains convinced that for literary magazines to become more culturally relevant than they are currently, lowering the newstand cost of the publication is an important first step. In the end, readers, editors, publishers, and writers all have the same goal: expanding the presence of good literature on the American cultural landscape. Wet Asphalt hopes that conversations like this one will become more frequent and that new ideas and approaches to publication that help the editors to get more eyeballs will follow from them.