Talking to Manjula Martin on the Life and Death of Scratch Magazine
What you probably don’t realize is that Scratch Magazine helped get me this job.
I first discovered Scratch, a magazine about the business of writing, through The Billfold. Meaghan blogged about it under the headline “Women Launch Magazine Relevant To Our Interests;” that same afternoon (October 22, 2013), I sent Logan the following pitch:
After The Billfold posted the link to Scratch, I noticed this quote in the Web Editors’ Roundtable:
“They’re like great hacks, in the age-old tradition — you can give them basically any topic and an hour later, they’ll have something smart and interesting to say about it.”
That’s exactly what I do, and I would love to write about it for The Billfold.
And that led to my first Billfold piece, “I’m a Hack Writer Who Writes 5,000 Words/Day for $20/hr,” and that led to my Billfold column, and now I’m here. (I no longer write 5,000 words/day, and I make much more than $20/hr. Thank goodness.)
It took me until May 2014 to pay for a Scratch subscription, which surprises me, but I reported the date in my Tumblr so it must be true. I pitched editor Manjula Martin one idea that she did not accept, but I ended up getting published in Scratch twice; once in October 2014 with “How Writers (Actually) Get Paid” and once in May 2015 with “Beyond Pitching.”
I also constantly referred other writers to Scratch, and sent out numerous links to Scratch’s Who Pays Writers section. (“An anonymous, crowdsourced list of which publications pay freelance writers, and how much.”)
But today’s issue of Scratch will be its last. After running quarterly issues for nearly two years, editor Manjula Martin is ending what she calls “the grand experiment that has been Scratch,” and making the last issue free for everyone to read.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation about Scratch’s life and closure.
ND: So did you actually start out thinking of Scratch as an “experiment?”
MM: Sort of, yeah. I started it in partnership with Jane Friedman, and she’s since moved on to work on her day job, but for the two of us it was an experiment. The idea was to start small and put something up there, and see if there was an audience for it on the “content” side.
On the tech side, we were definitely experimenting with this idea of a digital or iOS magazine. Have you read Craig Mod’s article “SubCompact Publishing?”
No, but I’m pulling it up right now.
He wrote this article that was like “iOS and tablet magazines will be the next huge thing!” So we were like, let’s try this and see how it goes. We were using the model of publishing a magazine that only exists in digital form, that doesn’t have ads and relies on subscribers for its revenue.
So yes, it was an experiment.
Did you quantify your goals, then? Did you say at the beginning “this is what success looks like?”
We didn’t really know what success would look like with this format and this platform, because no one had really done it before. The closest was The Magazine, which also closed recently.
Yeah, I was thinking about The Magazine! [I’ve also written for The Magazine, and was equally sad to hear of its closure.]
We did have a goal when we started. If we could get 1,000 subscribers in the first year, we would consider that a success and keep building. We almost got there. Overall, we’ve had 1,000 subscribers, but with renewals and people dropping out, the highest number we’ve ever had was, like, 900.
That’s pretty close! Were you thinking of the 1,000 True Fans theory?
We were, and that also seemed like what we could handle financially, in terms of making enough money to keep paying people a semi-decent rate for internet work. I always like to say that “we don’t pay as much as we want to pay, but we at least pay as much as Condé Nast pays for a blog post!” That was a goal, obviously; that was very important to us.
What we didn’t factor in was the labor costs, on both of our parts. I’ve done the math, and I think on average I’ve been working 15 to 20 hours a week on Scratch for the past two years. Unpaid.
Which sort of seems to be, I mean, it feels like the startup model. Did you also seek out sponsors or what you might consider “startup funding?”
That was something that was pretty unique about what we did with Scratch. We didn’t have any outside funding. We pretty much ran it like a blog, in terms of having low financial stakes from the get-go. We didn’t put any funding into it; we paid for what we need to pay for as we went along, whether it was hosting or graphic design or writing.
We’re also paying 29th Street Publishing [the platform that hosts the actual magazine] a percentage of our income. They get a cut of each sale.
Other than that, we haven’t had a lot of hard expenses, so we didn’t get investors to start with. That was something that was intentional on my part; not only am I not a venture capitalist, but also I wanted to keep it independent and have a chance to really iterate my editorial vision for the magazine and try and create something before asking other people to buy in on it.
So your income source — it was just subscriptions, then? Because you didn’t have ads.
Right. We didn’t have ads, but the past couple of issues I’ve started to do issue sponsorships. One issue was sponsored by Submittable. This upcoming issue, the last issue, is sponsored by the National Writers’ Union.
Okay, that makes sense.
Both sponsorships and investors are ideas I could take farther, if I had the resources to do it. Now is definitely the time in the life of the magazine where you would go and seek more funding, or you would expand your revenue sources.
So that was the choice. Do you go all in, or do you stop now?
Why did you decide not to keep going?
It was a torturous decision.
Anyone who is a friend or professional acquaintance of mine is probably super-sick of hearing me ask them about it and talk about it over the last, like, six months to a year. Definitely over the last six months.
You know, it wasn’t easy. There’s still a really committed readership for Scratch, and I think that it could grow. I can see several different possible roads that it could take.
I’m trying to think back to when I actually decided. Let me put it this way. I am also a writer. I started Scratch because I was asking these questions for myself, the “how do you make a living” and “if you are getting paid, how is that working” questions. Compensation in creative professions. I think those questions are still relevant, but for me, basically on a personal level, I haven’t been doing much other work besides Scratch.
It came down to “do I want to be a magazine publisher, or do I want to be a writer?”
So that’s on the personal side. On the business side, it takes time and resources to do things like find a new platform or relaunch a website or offer more services or get investors, and I just haven’t had them. I’m not entirely convinced that would earn me enough money to pay people and to pay myself.
And nobody’s figured out how to make money on a digital publication. The people who have figured it out are running ads, which is basically the same model as print was.
I was talking to an acquaintance of mine, saying “it’s so good, I don’t want to close it, it’s so hard,” the usual woe is me, should I close my project talk, and he was like “just because it’s good, you don’t have to keep doing it.” And that stuck with me, and I was like “you know, I think it might be time.”
The main thing that I think Scratch has been really, really amazing at is this: I think we’ve changed — there’s no other way to say this — I think we’ve changed the conversation.
You absolutely have!
This beat, if you can call it that, of talking about compensation in the publication and journalism industries, is now pretty much a beat at a lot of publications. And it wasn’t, three years ago. I feel pretty confident that we’re all going to keep talking about this stuff, whether or not the Scratch app keeps updating on your phone.
For me that’s always what it’s been about. I didn’t set out to create a publishing empire, I just wanted to ask these questions, and talk to other writers about them, and share information.
I think you were completely successful in that way, and you’ve also given us Who Pays Writers, which I reference all the time. Is that going to stay live?
Yes. Who Pays Writers is not closing. I intend to keep Who Pays Writers open as long as there’s a need for it.
It’s such a useful database, really. Whenever I consider a new publication I start there!
I do too!
I have a couple more questions. Did you keep track of engagement on the free Scratch articles vs. the subscription-only articles, and was there just a ridculously higher percentage of people reading the free ones?
Yes! Let’s talk about the paywall. I’m going to make a bold declarative statement and say: I don’t think paywalls are working.
Not too bold!
I don’t have actual stats on pageviews, but I can tell you that when you go to ScratchMag.net and you’re not a subscriber, you have to create a login to read the free articles. The last time I checked, which was in May, 6,000 people had created a login. Obviously more people are reading the free articles.
I’ve encountered a lot of resistance to having to sign in to read free articles, and that’s a change I’d make if I were continuing to publish Scratch.
Where do you see digital publication going? I know that’s a huge, huge question. I’m thinking of all the good writing I’ve seen come out, even in the past year, and the way good writing is showing up on sites like BuzzFeed which were previously known for different kinds of stuff. And then suddenly everyone’s looking to publish great writers. I’m spilling my thoughts, but I’m curious what your thoughts are.
I don’t think anyone’s quite figured out the golden ticket for making financially sustainable digital publications, other than advertising.
I think people are tired of the content stream, and I think people are overwhelmed by the amount of stuff there is to read. I know I am. There are just so many articles, every day, and at least a quarter of them are really good. There’s only so much input that our brains can take. I feel like whatever happens with digital publishing is going to be something that responds to that.
There’s going to have to be some way for us to pare down and just read the things that are really good.
Well, Facebook would love to solve that problem for you.
So, here’s a fun fact! I’m not on Facebook, and I can tell you that it has hurt my career ZERO.
But that’s a good point. Publishing is so linked with social media now.
I treat my friends as an RSS feed now. I read what they link.
Me too. If something is that important, eventually somebody is going to tell me about it.
So we were talking about ads earlier. Are ads the only system that works? We’ve had ads for hundreds of years; since the first newspaper, probably. Is that the only model that works?
Well, I don’t know that I’m really qualified as an expert in revenue sources…
I’ll say that I think ads could work for a publication like Scratch, but it would entail publishing daily [instead of quarterly], which would be a much bigger volume of content, which means less in-depth stuff. I’m not interested in publishing that kind of website.
So what comes next for you?
I’m writing a new column for The Toast called “The Dough.”
Oh, d-o-u-g-h. I get it!
It’s going to be interviews with women in creative professions about money. Opening up beyond writers into talking to people who do all kinds of creative work, primarily people who are self-employed.
I am going to keep reporting, writing, and editing on this theme. I may do projects under the Scratch brand, or on the same theme as Scratch, it’s just not going to be a periodical anymore.
That’s all I can say right now! I’m also starting a TinyLetter called Three Cents about writing and money, and I’m finally getting back to my own writing and fiction.
Yeah, I remember that piece you put on Tumblr like a jillion years ago, about how we’re all working so hard that we’re not working [on what’s important to us].
That’s the question of the hour, I think, for most people I know in these businesses.
The other thing I should mention, that Scratch readers might be curious about, is that when I started Scratch I was a full-time freelancer. Now I have a part-time job and do freelancing on the side. That was a decision I made in order to give myself enough financial stability to do Scratch, since Scratch was started as a side project and has always been a side project, for myself and for Jane too.
The last issue of Scratch is free for the people. And we’re not going away, it’s just that Scratch is going away.
Which makes sense. If you’re going to make money in this business, you should focus on the things that make money, as practical as that sounds.
You should focus on the things that make money, or you should only do the things that you really, really fucking want to do.
Scratch cover image used by permission.
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