An interview with Maribeth Batcha, publisher and Hannah Tinti, editor of the literary magazine One Story
One Story is the only literary magazine I currently subscribe to. It's format is perfect: a single story in a small booklet, published every three weeks, that I can put in my pocket and take on the subway with me. The quality of stories is very high, and I previously recommended "The Ledge" by Austin Bunn on this site as something that everyone should go and pick up.
One Story costs $21 for a year's subscription (18 issues) and they offer the first two issues risk free, you can cancel without paying anything. You can also order individual back issues.
One Story is produced by Maribeth Batcha who generally handles publishing, business and marketing and Hannah Tinti who handles editing. I sat down with them at a café in Manhattan to talk about literary magazines, publishing and the state of short fiction in America. Batcha arrived first, and though we intended to wait for Hannah, the conversation naturally drifted to the magazine and I turned on the tape recorder.
Eric Rosenfield: Let's talk about magazines. You come from a magazine background, right? So, how are magazines sold and marketed and gotten into stores? How does that work?
Maribeth Batcha: I can't really talk about getting magazines into stores, because I worked for a long time in subscriber-only magazines, and then I worked for a while at Lingua Franca, and we were a small literary magazine, and getting into bookstores wasn't really possible for us. We didn't have a big name, and it was hard, you have to go through the books— like we went through Ingram who's the big distributor, and they would tell us how many copies they wanted and we would print them for them and we would sell them to them and they would tell us how many they sold and they would send us a check eventually. But it was always a loosing proposition. We made a little bit of money, but as a smaller magazine they kept cutting our draws, and they kept saying 'you aren't selling that many.' But there was no way to actually get ahead, there was no way to get necessarily gbetter placement on the shelf. It was very difficult.
ER: Well, it sounds insane because you send them magazines and the ones they don't sell they destroy and you don't get any money for them. Sounds like, why would anybody go along with this?
MB: It's pretty cheap to print a magazine. It's different when you start with a journal. It's pretty cheap to print a magazine so if you're making forty percent on forty percent, you're actually doing fine. For most of these people newstand distribution isn't that unprofitable. If your cover price is four dollars you're maybe making a dollar for every one you send out. And you're probably spending thirty or forty cents to print it or maybe more. It's not that bad. For a big glossy magazine it's not that bad. It makes sense for like People, and they even pay to do the pocket at the supermarkets, which is where the big glossies make all their money. That's what you want. With a literary magazine it's completely different. And they even keep databases, the whole process of managing it, it takes a lot of energy and time to actually keep track of what's happening with your issues. It wasn't anything I wanted to ever do again. Some people ask me, "Do you know about newstand distribution?" I just say, "No." I won't do any consulting about it, I won't do anything with it because I don't think you can be good at it. I don't think there's any way to win at it.
ER: The question then is, if you're not in the newstands, how do you get the word out? You worked for these magazines that were subscription-only, how did they find people to subscribe?
MB: One of them was a health publication, and they did direct mail. And it worked for them. Lingua Franca was on the newsstand and that was how they expected to reach people but, you're not going to really grow your circulation by being on a newsstand. I think most literary magazines will say, "We see it as marketing. We're out there but we don't expect anything to come back from it." And that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Your issues are not your advertising thing. If you have money, you do direct mail, if you have money... there are a lot of ways. We got press, we did well at One Story. People wrote about us. So the way we got out there was by word-of-mouth.
ER: How did you get the press? Did you send them sample copies?
MB: We sent sample copies to magazines, and we got an article in Time Out. That was our first bit of press. That lead to, we had a little piece in O, The Oprah Magazine, a little piece in Newsweek and then a big huge one in The New York Times. And that allowed us to stay where we were for a couple of years. We have to do more marketing. We have to do more of a push. We have to find money to do it, because we never go below a certain number, but we're not growing to where we need to be to make enough money for us to have a publicist. We'd like to get to a certain point where we could pay ourselves a salary, because we don't take them, and we could have an office.
ER: I assumed you and Hannah are not making a living off of One Story.
MB: We make no money off of One Story.
ER: Are you making a profit? Is it paying for itself?
MB: It pays for itself. It pays for the cost of printing and mailing itself, it pays for some other small things. It doesn't pay—like we go to the AWP conference once a year, it doesn't necessarily pay for that. We're in the process of becoming a non-profit and we put little bits of money in every year. But it's not gigantic, like we don't have trust funds, we don't have large amounts of money that we're putting in. But it basically pays for itself. For little extras we like to throw a little money in, like we should all go to AWP and we should stay in a reasonable hotel.
ER: What's AWP?
ER: What do they do there?
MB: They sit in workshops for about...
ER: Wait wait wait, so it's all the people who are in the MFA programs?
MB: People who are in the MFA programs, people who teach the MFA programs...
ER: And they all get together and have a meta-MFA?
MB: (laughing) A lot of the workshop programs are a little academic for my taste. Hannah can tell you more. Hannah did four panels last year about the short story. She was doing non-stop panels.
ER: If you're not in an MFA, are you allowed to go to the AWP conference?
MB: Oh, yes. A lot of the schools if you're in an MFA program, or in an English program where they teach writing, they'll send you for free, or as part of your travel stipend. A lot of people just go because it's the one place they get to go all year.
ER: Well, the MFA thing is really a fascinating sort of phenomenon...
MB: We might want to wait until Hannah gets here to talk about the MFA thing. Because we both have them, but the business stuff is mostly what I do.
ER: I think you're right, let's table the MFA discussion until Hannah gets here.
MB: I did the business model of One Story to break even, to not lose money, because I didn't want to start something that I couldn't afford to keep up. But a smart person would have made a business model that made money, so now we're sort of re-working it. I thought it was very clever to say, "You don't really have to lose money." You don't have to lose piles of money but it'd be nice to make some money. We could charge more for subscriptions. We're awfully cheap right now. We started at the same price we're at now, we haven't had a price increase.
ER: The price point is good though, it's one of the things that's really attractive about One Story. So, wait, how did you come up with this format? How did you say "We're gonna do one story a month as an individual thing"?
MB: A couple of things were happening at once. Story Magazine folded right at the time we were starting out, and I was thinking about publishing a short story and I was really mad about their folding because there weren't a lot of places to publish short stories. And I said, someone has to do something about this.
ER: I really liked Story Magazine. I was the one magazine I subscribed to back in the nineties.
MB: It was a really, really good magazine. So when it folded I was sad. I was going to call them and try to buy it, but they didn't really want to sell it. I thought about it for a minute. Because I have a business background, and I thought, "If anyone can do this"... And then at Lingua Franca they were doing another magazine, and they were doing newsletters for it so I was really involved in newsletter budgets, the budgets to send out something small, frequently. It was a lot cheaper than printing something that was perfect bound or something that was four-color. And I was also in a writing group after Columbia where we were sending stories to each other in the mail for workshops. And I thought it was a really great way to get a short story. Because no matter what I read it, and I read it in a different way. And so I was just doing a budget one day and I thought, "Oh, I wonder if anyone's done this?"
ER: Why hasn't anyone done this?
MB: Well, I started calling around and I called John Hodgman, who's a mutual friend of Hannah and I, and I said, "Someone must've done this, and they must've failed, so why?" And he said, "No one's done that. I don't know why." I don't know why. Because it seems like a pretty obvious idea.
ER: It really does. Because it used to be that people would buy magazines, and every magazine had a short story in it. In the heyday of the short story, all these magazines had short stories in them, they payed large amounts of money and people made livings off short stories. Which isn't the case anymore...
MB: Well, no. Magazines don't sell ad space opposite short stories. That's why short stories don't exist, it's not a thing that advertisers want to pay for. Magazines make most of their money from ad sales, a lot of them, and advertisers aren't that exited about short stories, readers of glossy magazines probably aren't that exited about it, so it falls by the wayside. You have to keep a certain percent of pages out of advertising just to make a go of it.
ER: Why don't advertisers want to advertise opposite short stories?
MB: Because people don't read it.
ER: What happened? People read novels. This is the thing is that the short story...
MB: Maybe people have just gotten more sophisticated about asking people what they read, and they said they didn't read short fiction and so advertisers are less interested in it as opposed to being able to sell the whole product. I mean, The New Yorker does just fine and they publish short stories and no one has a problem about it.
ER: This is my question, and I'm not expecting you to have some quantitative, scientific answer about it, but what happened to the short story? It's becoming more and more like the short story's going into the realm of poetry, and it's getting to the point where the people who are publishing short stories and writing short stories all have these specialized degrees, the MFA, so it's like a science journal.
MB: I feel like part of that is that, I don't know how many people really read short stories in the past. I don't know that there was this great passion. I guess people loved short stories in like The Saturday Evening Post
(Enter Hannah Tinti)
ER: We were talking about how people don't read short stories to the same extent that they read novels, by the numbers, and why is that and what happened and why is the short story sort of falling into the realm of poetry where it's being so marginalized.
Hannah Tinti: I think there could be a lot of different possibilities. I think one of things is that people enjoy reading novels a little bit more because they get to stay in a place for while. People keep talking about how people aren't reading fiction because of the way that media and culture and everything's so fast, I feel like novels are still doing so well because people actually enjoy checking out and becoming part of a world. I think that's the success of the Harry Potter books, for example. People are reading these 800-page tome novels that you seem them lugging around everywhere because they're really into it, and get to sort of escape into this world. With stories it's a different kind of art form, and I think it's sort of fallen out of appreciation, which is too bad. What we're trying to do is really make it more accessible. Particularly because the one place where people are publishing short stories is mainly literary magazines, besides Harpers and the New Yorker... Atlantic stopped. And that's pretty much it as far as larger media magazines.
ER: And Playboy. I remember reading an article in Harpers in the late nineties about how it used to be possible to make a living as a short story writer, but now there are so few markets that pay any kind of money, that you just can't do it anymore. It's not possible. F. Scott Fitzgerald used to get astronomical figures for his short stories, and people would say that it was ruining him.
HT: The money was ruining him?
ER: He was wasting his talents writing these populous short stories rather than doing his great novels, that was the argument. And then they said the same thing when he went to Hollywood, and the same thing when Faulkner went to Hollywood. Anyway, how did you two meet? How did you two hook up for this project?
HT: We hooked up through a mutual friend, John Hodgman, who ended up being our first issue, actually. I worked with John for a number of years at a literary agency called Writer's House and Maribeth was a friend of a friend...
MB: Of a friend of a friend...
HT: Yeah, so we sort of knew each other at parties and things like that and Maribeth came up with the idea and she approached me. She has an amazing background in marketing and crunching the numbers and actually making something financially feasible for people who don't have any money like us to put something out. And she came up with the idea and I thought it was a great idea and I said I would help her any time she wanted to get it started, and it was maybe a year later, it was after September 11th, that she gave me a call and was like, "Are you ready to go?"
ER: Were you guys worried? Because right then people were saying "Nobody's reading fiction anymore." After September 11th there were all these articles that came out about how nobody was reading fiction...
HT: There's been a trend since then that the numbers for publishers are that fiction isn't selling as much. I guess in part because people want to educate themselves on what's happening in the world more. At least that's what I'm doing. But it didn't worry me, we wanted something to pour our energy into and also when The Atlantic deciding not to publish fiction, with Story Magazine closing... we're still small and we're still finding our footing, we've been out for five years in April...
ER: That's pretty good. A lot of literary magazines close before that. Has it been okay coming out with an issue every month?
HT and MR: It's every three weeks.
ER: Every three weeks. Has there been times when you're like "We can't get an issue out"?
MB: We've never gotten to four weeks. We've had some issues take a little longer in the mail.
HT: We've never resorted to a double issue or anything sneaky.
MB: We're never ahead of the game, or never phenomenally ahead of the game.
HT: Both of us have other jobs, and we do other things.
ER: You were saying that One Story gets into the black but it doesn't...
MB: It pays for itself, but it doesn't pay for us.
ER: But you were saying [before the interview] that you have an assistant. Does One Story pay the assistant's salary?
MB: I have an assistant who gets paid and Hannah's having an assistant soon.
HT: They're getting paid but we're not getting paid. I guess 'cause we feel like we're really doing it for the love, and they're going to have to do more of the crappy work so we feel like they should get some money. It won't be a lot of money.
MB: It's a lot of the stuffing of envelopes, and I guess I could call that an internship but that's not actually an internship. I wouldn't feel right.
ER: But are these full-time jobs for them?
MB: Oh, no. They're not making a living off of One Story either.
HT: It's hard for us to do it for free. It's really hard to ask other people to do it for free. Like our interns come and go because they're like our readers and they're all doing it for free, so they'll do it for a semester or maybe a year, some will leave, some will come back. It's hard to crack the whip on a staff that's not being paid.
MB: When I have my daughter it's sort of my alone time I can spend working on things that pay. So it actually makes more financial sense for me, because I do some business consulting and some copywriting, it makes sense for me to help pay for an assistant to do One Story stuff so that I can do other things. We have to do other things. We should be focused on the bigger questions now and not the little questions. Envelope stuffing.
HT: We do bills and renewals from my house.
MB: We act like a big magazine, we don't act like a literary magazine. You say "bill me" on the website and we'll send you a bill. Most literary magazines won't do that. We do it, but that means more envelope stuffing every week.
ER: So what are your long-term goals for One Story? Where do you see One Story going in the next 5, 10, 15 years?
HT: I think what we'd like to do is increase the circulation.
MB: We're also in the process of becoming a non-profit, we're just filing our final documents today.
ER: The incentive for doing that is that you get tax exemptions?
MB: And grants. And people can donate money to us and it'll be tax deductable, they can write it off. It also allows us to bring other experts in under the One Story umbrella and have them on our board and look for other people to be experts and give us their advice, to be an official part of the structure. As a non-profit, there's a very specific structure to it, I think it makes sense for us now.
HT: And we could like hire someone to do marketing for us or something. All the marketing has come catch as catch can, or friends of friends have written an article about us or something like that.
ER: I was asking how to get the word out. Which is the real question, when you're not in a newstand, people don't see you. And whether being in a newstand is even worthwhile as a form of marketing at all.
HT: I think right now the majority of new people hearing about us has to do with events that Maribeth and I are doing, just because I do a lot of guest speaking and guest teaching things at different colleges, or organizations or conferences. As a result I'm sort of preaching to the choir, because it's all creative writing students or professors who are looking for this kind of stuff.
ER: But the goal is to get people reading the magazine who aren't writers and teachers.
HT: Right, absolutely.
MB: Every Christmas we do our big Christmas promotion, and we get a surprising number of Christmas gifts, and most of those are going to readers. From our subscribers who are maybe writers, I think our subscribers now our pretty balanced. We have a lot of writers but I don't think we're mostly writers.
ER: How many submissions do you get?
HT: We get about a hundred a week.
ER: So that's four hundred a month, three hundred every three weeks. How many subscribers are there to One Story, if I can ask?
HT: We've got close to 3,500 subscribers*.
ER: So those are pretty good numbers, your subscribers are more than your submissions.
HT: Just about.
MB: They're about the same. It's not bad. Christmas, as I said, we get a lot of subscribers, that's sort of our big push.
ER: This is the question for literary magazines, have they become just this thing where the people who write it publish it and read it all have these specialized degrees, and how do you make the short story into a popular form again, like the novel is, hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Is it even possible? Some people are like, "You can't do this," with TV and movies and video games, people just don't want this kind of thing anymore.
HT: I think it's possible.
MB: I mean, if we had unlimited funds, or even more funds than we have, we could have a circulation between ten and twenty thousand.
HT: I think Story Magazine at its height was about fifteen thousand.
MB: I think we could do that.
HT: And Story Magazine was mainly read by average readers who subscribed to that magazine, just lovers of literature for the most part. I think a lot of agents and people in publishing read it, but my mother's friends, all these people I knew subscribed to it and were really upset when it folded.
ER: I was upset when it folded. It was one of the magazines that you could actually read. Another question is that there're so many literary magazines, and there's so many people on top of that trying to get into these literary magazines. All literary magazines talk about how they're inundated with submissions. So why is so much of it so unreadable? It's loaded question, I admit.
HT: Why are so many literary magazines so unreadable?
HT: Because I thought you were asking why so much of what comes in the door is unreadable, which is a whole different question. You don't like the stuff that's getting published?
ER: Yeah, I don't. Other than One Story and a few others. I mean, I really do like One Story, and I really do like the fact that it comes out with stuff that I can read.
HT: I think a lot of that comes down to a question of taste, what the driving force behind the magazine is. For me, for choosing stories, I don't try to choose just one style, I try to get different styles of writing in there, but the one thing that I'm really attracted to are stories, stories that I find really compelling and aren't just "My boyfriend broke up with me" stories. Which, I'm just like "Groan." I want a guy wrestling a ghost, an African-American living in North Carolina before the Revolutionary War wrestling a ghost for his land. That's interesting and that's what I want to read.
MB: You see she finds 'em and I have the last call, but I always know that it's a story that I'm going to publish when she finds something and she goes, "Oh my God, I found this great story and it's about—" Our stories tend to be about something. Not that all stories aren't, but there's always something exciting after the "about," I'm always like what's this one gonna be about?
HT: A lot of that just has to do with our taste. Something meaty.
MB: I think a lot of journals that are coming out of an MFA program, a lot of journals are much more about conferences. There's good and bad to this, but they're much more about conferences about which pieces are getting into which issue. [With One Story] Hannah is the judge and we don't do things necessarily by conference.
ER: So a lot of these things are by committee.
MB: It's by committee. You're working at an MFA program on a journal, of course it's by committee, because part of the job of that journal isn't just to publish fiction, but it's to teach people how to publish, teach people how to be editors.
HT: So it's usually by a vote of ten people which stories are getting in and which stories aren't.
MB: And you can certainly lobby for a better story, and there's lobbying, and their editorships change every year because they're usually a third year MFA student who will be the head of the journal. Some of the bigger journals have permanent editors. It's different for everybody. But if you're looking at a journal coming out of a smaller MFA program or a smaller journal, they probably have a different editor every year or two, so you're not going to get the same level of skill and you're not going to have the same level of consistency year after year. So they scrabbling to finish their MFAs, do everything else, and put out a journal which isn't something they're great at. They're trying to figure out how to get it in bookstores, all the things that I have some expertise in, these are kids who don't have any expertise in it and people in the administration don't. So you're asking a lot of them to also find incredible stories and editing them and a lot of them are used for learning, learning how to become an editor. That's a good thing.
ER: These journals are teaching tools?
MB: Some of them are. Some of the smaller ones. They're more about teaching, and it's great that people read them and that the university publishes them and the university should publish them because otherwise... it's a great place to get your start as a writer, it's a great place to get your start as an editor, and some of them are publishing great stuff. But you do find ones where you might agree with the editor and then the next year you might disagree with the taste of the editor. So that's maybe why it seems more hit-and-miss.
HT: I think it's also for some of the larger magazines like Zoetrope or McSweeneys and stuff like that, they have a specific sort of style or thing that they're going for. Zoetrope is very much looking for stuff that can be turned into film, and so it's going to be heavy dialog, something that can be easily adapted to a screenplay, so they're not going to do anything that's too experimental, anything that's too stylized. And McSweeneys has its own mark, it's like you read a story and say, "This is a McSweeneys story." It's mainly men, the new issue that we just got, we opened up this cigar box thing and there's not a woman in the whole magazine. And it's a specific taste, and that's fine that's what they're doing, but it's a specific kind of thing that you're going to find there.
ER: So can you recommend for our readers literary magazines and writers? Like who are you reading?
HT: Well, gosh, I read so much for One Story it gives me little time to read other stuff.
MB: (laughs) I read the people who submit to One Story.
HT: And most of the new books that I've read that are coming out are all books by people we've published.
MB: Now a slew of our authors are having their books coming out.
HT: This year it's one every month.
MB: It's been a good year.
HT: A while ago I read Calvin Baker's novel Dominion, and we've never done an excerpt before, I'm really anti-excerpt. But this book blew me away so extremely and I really thought we could take this first section and turn it into something on its own, and it's amazing. It's about African American free men before the Revolutionary War carving out a home. And there's this amazing section all about New York that takes place down on Water street, this guy's shopping for a peg leg. It's wild. It's really really great. And that's just coming out with Grove Atlantic I think this month.
ER: Are a lot of the people who are published in One Story coming out with short story collections?
HT: Some are. Scott Snider, he just came out with a collection called Voodoo Heart and it got an amazing starred review from Publisher's Weekly written by Francine Prose, it was a signed review which they usually don't do. Stephen King did a huge amazing blurb on it. So I think that book's going to do really well. It just came out like a week ago.
ER: Are people buying these short fiction collections? Is the fact that these people get published in these literary magazines, in One Story and other places, does that have an effect on their sales?
HT: That'd be really hard for us to say. I think if anything it helps them get book deals. So it sort of starts the process for them. A lot of people have found agents after publishing with us or book deals, I think it helps bring their noticeability up.
MB: Agents do read literary magazines. They're out there looking for new voices too. It helps.
ER: (To Hannah) I heard you have a short story collection coming out.
HT: I had one come out in 2004.
ER: Somebody told me that you had some kind of bidding war over it or something?
HT: Yeah. Yeah, it was very exciting.
ER: How did you pull that off with a short story collection?
HT: I did a two book deal, so that's one of the reasons why.
ER: So it was also for a novel?
HT: A novel that I'm finishing right now. The story collection was finished and I had about a hundred pages of the novel, so people already knew what the second book would be. It's harder to sell a story collection on its own. Most of the time first-time writers will do a story collection and either an excerpt, a first chapter or a proposal for a novel. But my agent suggested that I write as much of the book as I can, 80 to 100 pages and we'd be able to get a much more solid deal, and she was right.
ER: How did you get the agent?
HT: My agent is Nicole Aragi. I published stories in magazines as I was working on the collection, and I published two stories in Story Magazine before it folded and Lois Rosenthal who was the editor-in-chief there said whenever I was looking, because I didn't want an agent until I had something finished, and she said whenever you are you might want to look at Nicole Aragi. So on her recommendation, which was old, like five years before or something, I just sent her the manuscript line and just said, "A long time ago Lois Rosenthal said I should try you and thought we'd be a good match." And she liked it.
MB: Short story collections don't sell as well as novels for anybody.
ER: I know! Which is why it's so unusual to hear about a bidding war over one. And also you see a lot of authors who will be able to get their novels with major presses and their short story collections they have to publish with minor presses. You mentioned once to me that there was going to be a One Story anthology at some point?
HT: We've had a lot of interest. We've had about six publishers approach us about doing one, and really the only reason why it hasn't happened is because we've both been too busy to pull it together. We're just barely covering the ground to get the magazine out, and I'm under deadline to turn in this novel, and I haven't had the time to devote to pulling together the project and Maribeth was having a baby and finishing her novel.
MB: I have an 18-month-old.
HT: And she's finishing her novel, and she just got an agent too.
MB: So now we're like in that process too. So we've both been really busy and we just want to keep One Story going. There are times when all we can do is keep it going.
HT: I think once I turn in this novel and get it off my plate, I'll probably start working on a proposal and send it out. I've talked to my agent about it and she's really excited and I think it would be pretty easy to find a home for it.
MB: We've got almost eighty stories now to choose from or that an editor can choose from in some form of anthology. So I think we're at a good place to be going non-profit and to be looking for an anthology because we've established ourselves.
HT: We won a lot of awards this past year, too.
MB: It's been a really good year.
ER: Has that helped your publicity at all? Have you noticed spikes in your subscriptions?
HT: I don't know about subscriptions, but we have gotten a big spike just from people cruising our site, people writing to us, people contacting us. And people are noticing, and editors are noticing, agents are noticing. It just shows that we're publishing some of the top stories.
MB: One thing we haven't addressed is that we publish stories on the longer side of what is being published, we publish between three and eight thousand words and a lot of magazines will cap it at around four thousand. We get a lot of longer stories that are really pretty fantastic, because our format allows us to publish a longer story and it feels more like a little book.
ER: That's what so great about this format is that people can buy these individual things and it feels like they're getting a single product. Would it be cheaper for you to publish shorter stories?
MB: Yes it'd be cheaper. Every signature we go up costs more, and we sort of limit it.
ER: Did you come upon this page count number or this word count number...
MB: I thought I'd be publishing closer to 20 pages an issue, because that's about what people publish, but most of our stories are around 32 pages. So we publish longer stories for the most part. I don't know if people send us their long stuff, or we're getting people's better long stuff, or maybe we like longer stories.
HT: I think people do send stuff that other magazines have not been able to devote the space to. Particularly commercial magazines.
MB: They're not going to dedicate 32 pages to a short story.
ER: Talk about the slush pile.
HT: I started reading slush at The Boston Review, and then I read for the Atlantic Monthly.
ER: So what was the slush like for The Atlantic Monthly, because they must get inundated.
HT: Not anymore, but at the time the readers had this office, and every day the mail would come and they'd drag three giant mail bags of manuscripts down and just dump them. We had to read them all that day.
MB: They turned them around in one day.
HT: [Editor] Michael Curtis didn't want any backup ever. So the day it came in it either had to be rejected or we had to do a synopsis and a write-up and then send them upstairs to his office. Everything had to be taken care of that day.
ER: So did that put pressure on you to read something very quickly and be like "this is no good."
HT: You couldn't read the whole thing. But you can tell, and at that time I wasn't as skilled as I am now, I can pretty much do it in a paragraph, I can tell whether or not it's going to be worthwhile for us. But at the time I would read five or six pages, and then you kind of know whether or not it's going to be worth your time, and if it is going to be worth your time you set it aside and keep going. And then you take that special pile of stuff that was strong and go through it more closely.
MB: We're looking for stories that work for us. People think it's horrible when you say you can figure it out in the first paragraph, but it's not necessarily.
HT: A lot of that is that I know what will work for us. Anyway, I worked for the Atlantic Monthly, then I moved to New York and I got a job at this literary agency, Writer's House, and then I was reading first chapters of novels and also short story collections and doing the same thing, with enormous amounts of slush. And then I was the editor of a magazine called Washington Square, which is NYU's literary magazine, and I was doing slush for that. And I've been reading slush for us for five years.
MB: We publish a lot of stuff out of our slush pile. We don't have a ton of time to ask people to submit to us. It just comes to us.
ER: How much do you request stories?
HT: We don't.
MB: There are magazines where someone has time to send letters out to authors. We just don't have the time to do it. So whoever finds us.
HT: I've requested stuff, like for example with Kelly Link, some years ago I was at a reading that she was doing for her first book and I was like "Oh my God, this is great" and I went up to her and introduced myself and said if you ever have anything let me know. Eventually, a year later she sent something to us.
MB: We don't have a policy of going out, but if someone excites us a lot...
HT: If I go to a reading and hear someone I really like, I'll go up to them, but that's pretty much the extent of asking for stuff.
MB: If anything is a "job" we probably don't do it.
HT: There's a lot of authors I really admire that I'd like to try to pursue, but it's just not a job I have the time for.
MB: It does keep us looking at our... we publish a lot of writers for the first time, and we publish people who haven't been in MFA's. I haven't looked at the list in a while, but we have published a lot of people who haven't been in the MFA machine.
HT: With Austin [Bunn]'s story, I read the first paragraph, and it was when I was really trying to push through and clear the desk, I read the first paragraph and I was like "I have to read this later." I put it aside. And after I was finished with carrying all that out, then I went back and read it. I think by the time I got to the second page I knew we were gonna take it.
MB: Hannah does edit stories, she works with writers on editing. We do a lot of editing.
HT: We do do a lot of editing. On all the stories.
MB: A lot of magazines don't necessarily do that. Some do.
HT: Yeah, I do a lot of editing with writers. Going back and forth, doing a couple versions. Doing copy-editing.
ER: How long is the process usually from when you accept it to when it's fully edited and ready to go?
HT: Depends on the story. Some stories are really tight and don't really need that much beyond tightening a few lines here and there, doing some copy-editing on it and then it's a very fast process. Some writers we've gone back and forth for like six months or longer, even a year before finally coming up with a draft that's something we could work with. So, it depends on the story. There's always something in it that's really great that we want to put that work into it, but we can't do that with every story because it's so much time.
ER: Anything else you want to say about the slush pile?
HT: I suggest to anyone who wants to get out of the slush pile to get a job reading the slush pile. It helped me with my own stuff, sending my short stories out, after I'd read so much slush and saw how it was dealt with from the other side of the magazine, I knew immediately how to make my stories get past that first level. It just gives you incredible skills for being able to move your stuff into that special pile that someone's going to read later.
ER: Anything else about submissions?
HT: Don't send us anything right now. We open up again September 1st.
ER: You do that because you get backed up on submissions?
HT: I didn't realize that that was why most magazines take the summer off, and I thought it was because they're university magazines. People take the summer off because they almost always get backed up about three months.
MB: We're not actually taking the summer off. We're still reading like crazy. We just needed three months where nothing comes in.
HT: So we can catch up and then in September we'll be on top gun. I feel so badly, it happens to us all the time, I just got an email today from someone like "I sent my story long ago! Why haven't I heard back from you guys?" Sorry, it just happens because trying to run the day-to-day business of the magazine, a lot of times the slush is the last thing we get to.
ER: Literary magazines take longer than agents and editors to get back to people, but that stands to reason because that's agents' and editors' job, so they have a lot more time to dedicate to it. But it can be a little frustrating for people sending stuff out that they have to wait three or four months...
HT: That's why we always say, we put on our website, "Please simultaneously submit." My feeling is, don't just send to us.
ER: It'd be insane to be doing exclusive submissions.
HT: I know. Some people do. My feeling is first come, first serve, so if another magazine gets to it first, that sucks for us but then I'm always happy for the writer and I write them back saying "thanks for letting us know" and "try us again," or "next time we'll try to get to it sooner." It's just impossible. We're only two people and we're trying to do these other jobs. Pretty much for my vacation, which I'm going to be taking in two weeks, I'm going to be sitting down and trying to catch us up.
MB: It's hard to read outside books when you're reading.
HT: That's why I don't read much outside stuff.
ER: How did you initially get the word out for submissions, before you had a magazine?
HT: I think we both know a lot of writers. She'd done a lot of work in publishing, I'd done a lot of work in publishing, we had a lot of contacts, I know a lot of agents and editors and scouts and people like that, to spread the word. So we sent this mass email out and it pretty much built from there. We started off mainly with people who were friends like John [Hodgman].
ER: Right, John was your first.
HT: I know and now he's the famous Apple/PC Guy.
MB: He's the PC Guy.
HT: You know, those commercials...
ER: Oh, he's the guy that's on The Daily Show. I know him. I mean, not personally, but I know him from television. He's a celebrity.
MB: I know, he's a brand new celebrity.
ER: I didn't know he wrote fiction.
HT: He was our first issue.
ER: Does he write novels too?
HT: He writes humorous books now. He's finishing his second book, he had a great book of humorous, fake essays about fake things called The Areas of My Expertise, which is very good.
ER: Here's a question. How much does it cost to print up a single issue of One Story?
MB: See I'm not as open as [Charles Valle] is about my financials.
ER: You don't have to reveal anything you don't want to.
MB: Well under a dollar, I'll say that. Printing and then postage is a bit more.
ER: Because it seems like a comic book, in terms of format. With the comic book, as long as you're printing up one or two thousand copies of a comic book you can get it under a dollar and then because the distributor takes a third and the comic book store takes a third you don't actually end up making that much money.
MB: Yeah, no one else takes a third.
ER: That's the great thing about the distribution that your doing on the Internet and everything.
MB: We can be small and pay for ourselves. A subscription roughly pays for itself to get in the mail.
HT: You have to front all this money for the printing, you're constantly having to front money for different things. It's hard to figure out exactly how much it is.
MB: But if we did bookstore distribution we would then be fronting money to print things and we wouldn't see a check for another nine months, and the check would be... like I said I don't ever want another job where I have to do that. It was horrible. It was soul crushing. I couldn't do it for a literary magazine. You see the numbers come back and you're like, "That's all we sold?" And you can also just say, "Well, how can we do better?" And we wouldn't have a good answer for you.
ER: So the Internet is your primary means of distribution.
MB: Primary means of sales. The majority of our new subscriptions come in by the Internet. The second one is probably our Christmas promotion, so they come in through the mail.
ER: And you have those little fliers that say "Renew your subscription!"
MB: We have the renewals. We did a mother's day promotion which did alright. Our renewals are a big source, we have a pretty good renewal rate. People renew. But if we weren't on top of them regularly, we would have almost none. So that's another thing that literary magazines have a hard time doing is getting on top of sending out your renewals. You have to do it. There are very boring workshops on this about how you have to do your renewals, you have to bill people, you have to ask for money.
ER: Right, don't be afraid to ask for money.
HT: That'll be our new mantra once we become a non-profit.
MB: Asking people for money, calling people up and saying "We need money."
ER: And on that note...
* This article previously stated that One Story has 500 subscribers. The correct number is 3,500. Resume reading.