“Happiness Has Never Been My #1 Priority”: A Chat with Leigh Stein

The author comes out of the Binders to talk books, business, and how an interesting life is worth the debt

Leigh Stein at BinderCon. Photo credit: Nicol Biesek

This conversation with author and BinderCon co-director Leigh Stein has been edited and condensed.

You’ve written three books?

My first two books were published by Melville House. I received $2000 for my debut novel and $1000 for my poetry collection. The good news is, I earned out my advance! So that looks good on paper. My third book comes out this August from Plume, which is an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and I got a $20,000 advance. That was an exponential increase over my first book, but it’s still not enough to live on.

Are they sending you on a book tour?

Yes. They at first were just going to send me to Chicago and I really pushed for a couple more cities. I was strategic about it because I know book tours are really expensive and they’re dying out; authors are organizing their own and funding their own. [Editor’s note: true!]

Because of BinderCon LA I’ve connected with hundreds of people in LA; I did a panel in 2015 on writing memoir and then I organized this most recent conference in March. I made a push to say, “I know I can get people to come out for this if you can send me to LA.” So I’m going to be in conversation with memoirist Wendy Ortiz at Book Soup. I also made a case that they should send me to New Mexico because my book is set there, even though Albuquerque is a tiny market.

Talk to me a little about the Binders and BinderCon. Is this the first time really pressing that button since you set up that button?

That’s a good way to put it! So, I co-founded Out of the Binders, which is a non-profit organization, in 2014. We were inspired by a Facebook group that someone else started, not me, but I was so impressed by the magnitude of the community that I wanted to start a conference and then the conference became a non-profit. This fall will be the fifth conference that we organized in two years. We turned two on July 5th.

How many people go to these conferences?

In New York, we have about 550. In LA, we have about 450.

Do they pay to go?


So, how much money has been generated? Not necessarily profit, just … cash?

Well, I can tell you it costs about $85,000 to produce one, and we’re bringing in at least that much money. New York is $75,000. LA is more expensive because we provide meals; it’s on the UCLA campus and there’s nowhere you can go — you’re in the middle of this beautiful movie set and there’s no food to eat. So we provide meals.

I think a lot of people think the school is donating their space but we’re actually paying as a private event to rent it. We have not had any luck getting a university or a school to donate to us, and my suspicion, though no one has said this to me, is that it would in some violation of Title IX because we exclude men. Because we’re only for women, we have to be private.

Have you seen attendance rates go up, and have you had any luck attracting sponsors to defray some of the costs?

Yes. 2016 LA had a 25% increase in attendance, which is great because we were competing with AWP, which is the biggest writing conference in the country two weeks later in LA. and we still had more people come to BinderCon than the year before, so that was great. We do have sponsors: the Harnisch Foundation, which is a philanthropic venture to support women and girls. They’ve been our sponsor now for the fifth time in a row. Bustle has also sponsored us a few times.

The demographic of our conference is that we have a lot of emerging writers who are breaking in. We also have a lot of older writers who are coming to writing as a second career, or maybe they took a break and are starting their career again. So we’re really trying to do programming around that. This fall, Bustle is doing a “How To Pitch” workshop. Last year it was so popular, we got feedback like, “I think this is a fire hazard, you need to do this in a bigger room.” We’re going to put it in a big auditorium this year. We’re also going to do a panel on writers coming to writing after 50.

I really want to focus on the Business of being a Writer. What makes us different is, we aren’t talking about craft; we’re talking about how to make a living. We’re having a “How to Make Writing Your Business,” “Tax Write-Offs for Freelancers.” “Branding, Working on Your Personal Brand and How To Turn Your Brand Into a Book Proposal.” We want people to get paid for their work. We aren’t teaching you how to write. We assume you know how to write, that you learned that somewhere else and you’re coming to us because you want to do that professionally.

We aren’t talking about craft; we’re talking about how to make a living.

Speaking of getting paid for your work, how much have you personally made from being an Idea Woman?

I’m happy to talk about this because we are a 501(c)3, and we do file our taxes. You can look up the tax records of us and any other nonprofit. I am on the board of directors. The board does not get paid, but I can get paid for my organizing work, if the board votes it’s not a conflict of interest and if I reach a certain benchmark, so last year for NY BinderCon we made enough money over our expenses that I received an $8,000 honorarium. In LA, we did not.

About how much work was that, for the $8,000?

That’s a good question. I don’t even want to know how much that is an hour. I worked probably 20 hours a week in low times and 40 hours a week in the month of the conference.

For roughly how long were you devoting that time?

I just took my first vacation in two years. I work basically seven days a week.

So how do you make this fly financially?

I make a little money from my book. I make a little money freelance writing. I just started a new proofreading gig in March. Our LA conference, we didn’t earn enough to pay me anything, which was a huge blow, because I was counting on something, and I worked 175 hours in March on BinderCon. For nothing.

For love!

For love and passion. But you know, I’ve been racking my brain, I’ve been meeting with so many people, taking ideas from so many people, from the community. The community said, “Sell merchandise! People would totally buy merchandise.” We got our advisor Roxane Gay to give us permission to use a quote from something she said on our podcast, “I’m just a girl who likes to write.” We put that on coffee mugs. I printed a few hundred, less than a thousand. The way I calculated was, if we sold these mugs as a fundraiser, we could make, like, $3000. I think we sold less than 100 mugs between BinderCon and in person at AWP, where I stood at a table for three days, trying to sell these mugs. It was a flop. It was a failure.

image via tuanrius.com

The big mental shift I’ve had this year is that going back to my community of writers and saying, “I need you to donate, we’re a nonprofit, it’s tax-deductible, please give us money” is not effective. Writers are like me: we don’t have any extra money. When I get a little burst of money, I go to McNally Jackson and buy my friend’s newest book. I give back that way. But I don’t have the money to contribute.

So I’m shifting the focus and changing the pitch. We raised ticket prices for the first time. It used to be, when you bought a ticket, it included Speed Pitch, which is meetings with agents and editors. Comparable conferences are charging up to $200 for that. So instead of including that, that’s now $75, and we’re selling more tickets than we ever sold before and not a single person has complained. I was braced for all these complaints, but I think people the value, the added value.

This is my mental shift: I’m not asking writers to donate, I’m saying, “Invest in your career and buy a ticket to the conference.”

We’re also working on our outward-facing pitch, which is honing our vision and our mission. We have a grant-writer; I’m working with someone on strategic planning, saying, “If we get more women writing film, TV, all media, we can really change the stories that are being told.”

How many people are in the Facebook group that accompanies this?

Currently we have 36,000 people.

Have you thought about asking for some kind of … tithe? Something in exchange for everything they’re getting?

That’s definitely been one of the ideas. We’re not doing anything with it, but it’s an idea. I would want to really offer value for that subscription or membership fee. One way I thought of doing it was like MediaBistro, where you have [paid] membership. Like, what’s valuable to writers? Editor contact information, talking to agent, listening to experts, advice from their peers. There are lots of resources in our FB group but …

Charging for that feels icky?

It’s not even that! One of the problems is that it goes against the spirit of the community, which is grass-roots. It’s organic. That’s what makes it so special. It’s not top-down, it’s from the ground up. Also, part of our mission is to be accessible and inclusive. If we’re cutting out writers who can’t afford our resources, it goes against our mission.

I can tell a success story of a woman named Stephanie Land. She’s a member of one of our FB groups, and she was living in a homeless shelter with her two young children. Her baby learned to take her first steps in this homeless shelter. Through the FB community, she learned how to pitch, she got a Vox piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project that went viral, she got an agent from that, she wrote for the New York Times, and now she’s living in an apartment and supporting her family on her freelance income. In her book proposal, she credits the Binders community with her career. I should also say she’s educated; she has an MFA. But she was in dire economic straits and the community stepped up and said, “We’ll read your pitch for you, we’ll send you the editor’s email.”

It’s a little bit of a microcosm of the Internet problem in general: there’s a lot of great content and great community feeling out there, but unless there’s some way to monetize it, some way to get people to say, “I value this, so I’m going to put a little money towards it,” the people running it go out of business. What sacrifices have you made in order to keep doing this instead of, say, getting a real job somewhere in content marketing?

Well, I can also credit my boyfriend, because he pays the mortgage. That’s the only way I can continue doing this. We recently moved to Connecticut for his job, and he’s very supportive. My writing career, too! How could I be a writer? I don’t make enough. We aren’t 50/50 at all. I’m not someone who has a secret trust fund or an inheritance, but I do have a partner who pays the mortgage, and that’s what has allowed me to keep going.

I’m not someone who has a secret trust fund or an inheritance, but I do have a partner who pays the mortgage, and that’s what has allowed me to keep going.

It’s hard to work all the time. It’s hard to take a break, because FB never takes a break. We have community members all over the world, I have a team of moderators, but if there’s a crisis, I’m the one who gets called. The bigger we get, the more people I’m managing. They’re all volunteers.

You’re not the only one making sacrifices, to be clear.

Right! This isn’t a one-woman show. I have a co-founder, we have another board member, we have volunteers in LA and NY. But it’s just a lot of plates to keep spinning in the air.

Unless something materially changes, how long can you envision continuing?

That’s a great question. I don’t know.

A year? Five years? Can you imagine doing this for five more years?

I would love to get it to a place where I’m paid, let’s say, $40,000 a year to run a nonprofit, which is not crazy. If we could get it there, that would mean there would be something else for someone to take over someday. But my fear is that in the current status, who would want to work 175 hours a month [for nothing]? Who could afford that job?

As long as there’s no one to take over for you, everyone has to live in fear of your burning out.

That’s right. On bad days, of course I go into this fantasy — and with writing too! — of “Why am I doing this? Why am I running this organization on nothing?” To make $5,000 a year? I should just go work in Finance. But would I just be so unhappy?

On the other hand, how much is happiness worth?

This is the other thing: happiness has never been my #1 priority. Since being a teen! My #1 priority is still my teen #1 priority, which is to be interesting. To have an interesting life. To be different. That’s what I’m doing, but the cost of that is, like, wow, I’m almost 32, I have no savings, I have honestly like $5000 in credit card debt since I started BinderCon. I do have expenses: I have student loan debt. So I’ve just been living on freelance income and credit cards while I try to build this organization.

My #1 priority is still my teen #1 priority, which is to be interesting. To have an interesting life.

Have you done any research into how other nonprofits manage? How nonprofit CEOs make money? Because a lot of nonprofit CEOs are paid.

Yeah, totally. I think in part it’s having patience. We’re two years old. We’re such babies. And who wants to pay for feminist activism? Bitch just did this whole campaign because Bitch is reader-funded, so that’s how they make their money. VIDA — thank god for VIDA, I wouldn’t have started BinderCon without VIDA, and they have no money. They can’t even pay their poor readers who are tabulating thousands of data bits. We need these watchdog organizations like VIDA, like the Women’s Media Center, which also collects a lot of data.

Our fundraising is going to come from multiple different streams, and that’s what we’re working on now. We have to work on cultivating individual donors, we have to work on grant-writing, strategic fundraisers. We Kickstarted our original conference, we set our goal at $40,000 and we raised $55,000, which was great, but we said, we can’t do this every year. It’s only cool the first time. And a lot of that money was ticket sales.

The conferences are sustainable but there’s no base. A lot of grants don’t give money for operating expenses. There’s supposed to be a certain percentage you use for operating and a certain percentage you use for programming, but currently, we’re at like 97% programming: all of our money is going to the conferences.

Breaking into these foundations who have been awarding X amount to Y organization for 30 years … They aren’t taking us on. We’re the new scrappy kids on the block.

Had you started a nonprofit before? Did you have any background in this?


This all just kind of fell on you, like the house on the Wicked Witch of the West?

I threw the house upon myself! When I have an idea, and someone says, “I don’t know, that’s going to be really hard,” I go, “I’m definitely doing it.” I’m really motivated by rebelling. If my boyfriend says, really gently, “You know, that’s going to be a lot of work,” that lights me on fire. In a good way!

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