The Cost of Running a Literary Magazine
The team behind Midnight Breakfast discusses Patreon, the literary community and why $50 is so important.
In a world of paywalls and subscription services, where sites as beloved as The Toast can fold due in part to a lack of revenue, it can sometimes seem like a mystery how free online literary mags can even exist. This is especially true when they actually pay authors.
I reached out to Rebecca Rubenstein, editor-in-chief of Midnight Breakfast; Nevan Scott, its art and design editor; and Taylor Pavlik, the site’s managing editor, to discuss the realities of running a literary magazine in 2016 and how doing the impossible — paying authors — is easier with a little help from your friends.
Can you give a little background info on Midnight Breakfast? How did the idea come about?
Scott: I think the seed is a weekly online magazine we all worked on together in college, called Sadie Lou. That was such a great learning experience for me, figuring out even just the mechanics for publishing something on the web. I’d started work on that project in 2005. Publishing on the web was still fairly novel, and blogging was gaining traction, with increasing attention being brought to what I think of as “serious” blogging as opposed to published journaling.
At first I had started Sadie Lou as more of a blog, and intended it to have posts of interesting things on a rolling schedule. I was chasing a sort of “if you build it, they will come” mentality and I think something that Midnight Breakfast has benefited from are a couple of lessons learned from how poorly-planned Sadie Lou as a magazine was. After the first couple of years, I got some funding from the school, hired on editors (including Rebecca as the Blog Editor, and Taylor as the Fiction & Poetry Editor), and adopted a publishing schedule that was closer to my experiences working on the campus newspaper in print.
By 2009, Rebecca, Taylor, and I had all moved on to other things: Rebecca went to grad school for film in Ireland, Taylor was paying the bills with a Starbucks job and freelance publishing work, and I found a job building websites for a small marketing company out in LA. Rebecca and I, with a couple of other friends who had been involved with Sadie Lou, started a group tumblelog as a way of keeping in touch. After a brief meeting over Skype, we landed on a name, and Midnight Breakfast was born.
Similar to the early form that Sadie Lou took, with no real direction or sense of purpose apart from “keeping in touch,” that first version of Midnight Breakfast quickly turned into an abandoned corner of the web. Eventually the idea of a new literary magazine emerged. That idea probably batted back and forth between Rebecca and myself for two or three years; every time we discussed it, I wasn’t convinced we were ready to make something like this. I really didn’t want to just publish writers we already knew, and I wasn’t convinced that we could get off the ground with a unique voice. … It eventually became clear through Rebecca’s work with Wholphin and The Rumpus that she’d had the opportunity to meet and even work with an increasingly diverse range of extremely talented writers.
During a visit to New York, Rebecca and I arranged to get together with Taylor, laying out what we were hoping to do, and he enthusiastically got on board. It was just what we needed to kick things into gear. Between the three of us at that point, we were able to start finalizing some of the editorial vision and launch plans. We decided to start on a monthly format with six pieces per issue, with a focus on fiction and personal essays. We knew we wanted to be able to pay our contributors from the start, and determined to use our own resources to pay for and launch an “Issue Zero” before starting a fundraising campaign.
Along the way, we had batted around the idea of illustration being a part of the magazine, and at some point we decided we would incorporate it very deeply as a way to stand out. I’m thrilled that we made that decision, despite the extra costs and work involved in the production process. I love it every time I hear from a writer that she’s been in touch with the illustrator after a piece has been published, and the two connect and bond over their shared creation.
How did you first generate funding for the website? What were the main challenges of acquiring funding?
Pavlik: We created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in 2014 with a goal of $12,000, which covered the costs of paying writers and artists for twelve issues. To promote the campaign, we decided to create a self-funded sample issue, “Issue Zero,” that would serve as a proof of concept, demonstrating the kind of writing and art we were hoping to publish at Midnight Breakfast and the aesthetic of the site. We chose Indiegogo over Kickstarter because it allowed us to accept partial funding. If we couldn’t fund twelve full issues we’d still be able to publish in some smaller way.
The biggest challenge in raising money in this way is that it’s hard to convince people that this non-corporeal thing we planned to produce required any funding at all. Issue Zero helped because it showed we were serious and already invested in what we were doing, but if we already had the design and the website, what were people funding? People are happy to spend money on a physical object, even if the cost of producing that object is a fraction of the amount they’re paying, but we’re all still struggling to ascribe value to a digital product. In the end, I think our commitment to paying our contributors and Nevan’s incredible work on the design of the site gave us the edge we needed to stand out as a worthy investment.
How important was it for you to pay writers?
Rubenstein: It’s always been one of the foremost things in our minds. We initially posed it as an idealistic goal, in the vein of, “How amazing would it be to start a publication and pay people right from the get-go?” And the more we talked about it, the more it became a baseline for what we were doing. I specifically remember a meeting we had, during the summer of 2013, where we sat down and said, “We need to be able to pay our contributors or we’re not doing this at all.” At the time, I’d been doing a lot of freelance work, and I could directly see how income from my writing, no matter how small, affected my ability to pay my bills, buy groceries, etc. So from that point onward it was just a matter of how we were going to make that a reality.
What has been your response from writers/readers?
Rubenstein: The response to both the magazine and the fact that we pay our contributors (not just writers, but artists, too) has been overwhelmingly positive. And it’s because of that, I think, and continued enthusiasm, that we’re still around.
Can you talk a little bit about your Patreon? Why did you choose Patreon over Kickstarter or another subscription service?
Pavlik: We were very close to launching a Kickstarter to raise funds for Volume Two, but we decided that what we needed more than another one-time cash infusion was a sustainable funding model. Patreon’s been gaining traction as an alternative to crowdfunding for creators looking to support ongoing work. Its model, at least the way we’re using it, reminds me a lot of the kind of fundraising you see for PBS or NPR. If those institutions were just getting started today, I think you’d see these donor drives going through Patreon.
It’s much harder to get people to make an ongoing financial commitment to a free publication, but once we do reach our minimum funding goal, we’ll have much more stability than a single Kickstarter would allow.
Midnight Breakfast will now be putting out four issues. Why the change?
Rubenstein: When we initially started the magazine, we came up with a monthly publishing schedule, both out of sheer excitement and because some of our favorite publications were publishing at that rate, if not on a much more rapid timeline. Also, I’d been working with The Rumpus as their interviews editor, and I was already editing on a daily basis, which included publishing at least three interviews a week. So at the time, I had a very adrenaline-fueled way of working, and was somehow already able to juggle a full-time editorial workload at The Rumpus (for which I was a volunteer) with paid freelance work and whatever temp nonprofit work I was doing at the time. (I feel like I read at least one thinkpiece a month harping on millennials, but one thing we’re exceptional at is being able to do a million things at once — on deadline, no less.)
Publishing monthly made sense to us in terms of our goals and wanting to highlight as much good work as possible during our first year. The caveat to publishing monthly, of course, is that it is an extraordinary amount of work, and because our staff is small, and because we don’t have the kind of budget where we can pay ourselves, and because we’ve all gone through major job shifts and life shifts and the like since launching, that kind of schedule felt untenable in the long-term, especially if we wanted to continue to publish the strong magazine we’d worked really hard to build.
What has been the response to the Patreon?
Pavlik: Our Patreon subscriber base has been slowly growing, but we still have a way to go before we’re able to fund a full issue. Part of the problem is that a rolling donor drive doesn’t have the same immediacy as a thirty-day Kickstarter. It’s not an event that people can rally behind.
We’ve been framing donating through Patreon as a kind of subscription to Midnight Breakfast. While we’ve received some great support from members of the literary community, who are used to subscribing to lit mags, it’s been harder to convince our wider audience, who are used to reading literary content for free, to become subscribers.
Are there any other ways you’re looking to monetize the site?
Rubenstein: Sometimes I’m asked why we choose to keep the magazine free to read if we’re also trying to fund it, and my answer is always that we remain in deference to economic diversity. If you’re able to afford internet, you’ve already overcome an economic hurdle that is almost never acknowledged anymore. There’s an assumption that now everyone can afford to have Wi-Fi in their homes, or has access to the internet when they need it, and it’s a classist notion that simply isn’t true. So in order to reach the widest readership possible, our goal is to remain paywall-free. There are so many times I’ve read something that’s felt life-changing and has inspired me, and I’ve had access to it because the publication remains free, with an option to donate or subscribe, and it kills me to think a similar experience we could provide might be hindered by someone’s inability to afford it.
At the moment, it costs about $1,200 to run an issue and cover our overhead costs, which on one hand feels like a lot of money to me, as a writer and editor whose day job is selling books at an independent bookstore. But I also live in San Francisco, where startups are regularly given millions by investors, with a product of some kind as an end goal, and so there’s also a large part of me that doesn’t feel like our per-issue goal is unattainable. We’re not there yet, but we ran some numbers, and figured out if even half our Twitter followers (which account for a sizable portion of our readership) subscribed through Patreon at the $1 level, we’d be able to publish indefinitely. We would also be able to pay our editorial staff stipends, which would be amazing. Everyone works so hard and it’s the next thing on our list — to be able to compensate our staff with more than an emotional paycheck.
I remember going to a panel at AWP in 2015, where Lisa Lucas, the current Executive Director of the National Book Foundation and Guernica’s publisher at the time (and someone who’s also supported us tenfold from the very beginning), said that if Guernica’s monthly readership all chipped in a dollar, the magazine would theoretically have a million dollars, which would make paying their contributors and editorial staff that much more feasible. I don’t know what their budget is like now, but that really resonated with me: it’s the hope that your readership will understand that while you’re giving free access to a publication, that publication isn’t free for the people making it and is often incredibly labor-intensive, and if you can afford to give even a little bit, it goes a long way toward creating this thing you care about.
Will you still continue to pay writers the same rate ($50)?
Rubenstein: Right now $50 is about the max we can afford to offer, though we often talk about how it would be incredible to offer a higher level of payment. Unless some kind of funding miracle happens, we’re never going to be able to pay anyone’s rent, but we feel fortunate that we’re able to support our contributors in some small way, even if that means footing someone’s grocery bill for the week or most of the cost of a public transportation pass. If you don’t make a ton of money, not having to worry about those kinds of costs for a month, or even a week, can mean the world. If our rate ever changes, we’ll certainly make that information public, but for now we’re sticking with $50. (And that goes for everyone — we’ve published National Book Award-winners alongside writers with their first publication credit, and everyone gets the same offer.)
As for why we settled on $50 in the beginning: it felt like a good way to offer what felt substantial, in terms of literary magazine payment, and also remain sustainable. When you offer payment, it’s a lot harder to go down than up, and we didn’t want to find ourselves in a position where we’d either run out of money or have to lessen payment because we were in danger of running out of money.
If someone were to use crowdfunding in the future to start their own literary journal, what advice would you give them? Is there anything you would change about the early days when you were acquiring funding?
Rubenstein: Map out all your goals and figure out what needs funding and what doesn’t. This seems really obvious, but it’s the most important thing. I can’t tell you how many meetings we had about our budget before we set up our first crowdfunding campaign. Beyond paying our contributors, we had to figure out what everything looked like in the short- and long-term: how many pieces we wanted to feature per issue, how many issues we wanted to do over the course of our first year, how much it would cost to host the site and pay for other web-based services, etc. Featuring original art was a fairly last-minute decision, and so we had to reconfigure our budget based on that.
Another big thing: recognize and embrace the fact that you are part of a larger community. If there’s something crucial I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the literary community is full of countless individuals who make it a priority to support other members of that community. Prior to Midnight Breakfast, I’d already connected with a lot of writers and artists through The Rumpus and a smaller, short-lived magazine called STET, which both have/had such expansive, wonderful communities behind them, and so it was imperative for us to not only embrace whatever community we were able to develop, but to build bridges between us and other literary publications, as well as presses and imprints we love. Bottom line: we would not exist without our readers, but we would definitely not exist without the kind of support we’ve received from other magazines and presses and the amazing humans behind them.