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Starting a Magazine, by Maryanne Mohanraj

Today, editor and publisher Sean Wallace, directs his readers to an editorial by Maryanne Mohanraj from 2001: So You Want to Start a Magazine. Since magazine pay rates are a current topic on this blog — and people on Roxane’s thread were specifically asking about how donation models work — it seemed like this article might be a pertinent to the ongoing conversation.

Maryanne Mohanraj holds an MFA from Mills College, and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short story collection, Bodies in Motion came out in 2006 from Harper Perennial. She is also the co-founder of Strange Horizons, an online science fiction and fantasy magazine that pays professional rates (in this case, that means rates that will allow you to count their sales toward admission requirements into the Science Fiction Writers of America or SFWA) and includes as part of their mission the mandate to publish work by people from traditionally underrepresented groups such as women, people of color, and LGBTIQ people.

Mohanraj no longer works with Strange Horizons, and I’m not sure she’s still available to answer questions about the editorial — but if she isn’t, probably one of the magazine’s current editors is.

Mohanraj writes, “since Strange Horizons launched in September, the questions I’ve gotten most often are: How do you do it? How do you plan to make this work? Where does your money come from? Can I do it too?” She starts out talking about print versus online venues, but quickly starts in on pay rates:

How do you get quality fiction? By paying quality rates. Three cents a word is the current minimum rate for ‘professional sales’ by SFWA standards. [Note: the SFWA pro rate is currently five cents a word, which is what Strange Horizons currently pays.]

If that’s beyond your budget, then consider semi-pro; Talebones is an example of an excellent semi-pro magazine, proving that it’s possible to get good stories without paying pro rates. And if you’re not able to pay anything, then you’ll need to be purely amateur; be aware that that will cut down on the quality of the submissions you receive. Writers need to eat, after all. You may still be able to publish good stories — but it’ll be tougher to find them.

We knew we wanted to at least take a shot at becoming one of the best spec fic magazines out there, so it was important to us to be a pro market from the beginning… we believe that spec fic authors and artists are drastically underpaid — so we’re translating that money directly into a little more money for our creative talent. . .which will hopefully mean better material for you to enjoy. Writers may be able to survive on a crust of bread and stone soup, but it seems unlikely that they’re doing their best work that way. Hunger pangs are distracting.

She goes on to tackle other issues, like where the money comes from:

That’s the big question online. Here are some possibilities:

Charging readers for access: This is the equivalent of the cover price of a print magazine, really, and it may seem reasonable to ask readers to pay it. But the plain truth is that people aren’t willing to pay much, if at all, to read fiction online. While micropayments (tiny payments, e.g. a quarter cent per story, easily deducted from a credit card or bank account) may eventually address this, right now I’d argue that charging for access will likely kill your magazine…

Advertising: Plenty of print magazines subsist primarily on advertising revenue, and it’s tempting to believe that online magazines can do the same. But I ran Clean Sheets for two years before starting Strange Horizons, so I knew just how difficult it was to make money from advertising. Ad money on the net comes and goes; it’s very erratic, and often requires you to place ugly banners all over the place for very little return…

Affiliate sales: You’ll have noticed that we have a bookstore with links to Amazon and Powell’s. When readers click through from our site and buy a book we’ve linked, we get a small percentage of the sale; we get a smaller percentage even if they buy a book we didn’t list (or computer, or whatever), as long as they started with our site. Affiliate sales do bring in some money, and of course, that’s directly tied to readership — the more readers you have, the more you’re likely to make from such sales. That can be a significant amount — one of the Clean Sheets readers bought her med school textbooks starting at our site, and spent enough that our percentage bought a month’s worth of fiction. But affiliate revenue is erratic, hard to predict, and will likely be very very small for many months…

This is all sounding pretty discouraging, I know. You can’t charge the readers, you can’t make enough from ads or affiliate sales — where does the money come from? Your own pocket?

That’s one approach… If what you want to do is simply publish a good small amateur magazine, a few hundred dollars annually would do it. Even a semi-pro probably wouldn’t cost you very much, and if you think that you’d be willing to spend a thousand or two a year to publish a semi-pro magazine, then your magazine could soon be competing with Talebones — and that’s good company to keep.

She goes on to discuss the “museum model” which provides the financial backing for Strange Horizons:

Strange Horizons is a non-profit organization. We started with $8000 pledged in donations from people who love science fiction and fantasy, who wanted to do something good for the field (and maybe put a little more bread in the mouths of those starving writers). We’re applying for IRS tax-exempt status; that’s a slow process, but if we get it, future contributions will be tax-deductible, which will hopefully encourage more people to donate.

This all sounded a little odd when we first started talking about it — a non-profit magazine? — but when we did some research we found that some of the literary and mainstream magazines we read, including Ms. Magazine, were also non-profit organizations. Part of our purpose in creating Strange Horizons, as stated in our Articles of Incorporation, was to “. . .increase public interest in speculative fiction, to explore and expand the potentials of the genre, to bring readers the best of the established authors and to foster the work of emerging authors of diverse perspectives and backgrounds.” Those are the kind of goals that seemed very consistent with a non-profit philosophy.

The difference between for-profit and non-profit really comes down to a question of what your goals are. Either type of corporation can run a magazine, and even theoretically pay salaries. If it’s important to you to try to make an actual profit off your online magazine, then you don’t want to go the non-profit route. But if your main goals are to publish some good stories, to create a beautiful magazine, to do good work in a field you love. . .then there’s nothing in there incompatible with a non-profit model.

Read more about her process in the Strange Horizons archives.

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

8 thoughts on “Starting a Magazine, by Maryanne Mohanraj

  1. This is really informative and interesting.

    I think the existence and influence of the SFWA adds a nice wrinkle to the conversation — how do the expectations of a powerful professional association shape the expectations of folks in the field?

    It seems to me a critical distinction between the SF and literary fiction fields is the quality of SF publications’ submission pools is drastically reduced by the absence of payment, which is far from true for literary fiction. My impression is even many very established, professionalized literary fiction writers are often willing to appear in lesser-known and non-paying publications in order to help bolster those publications’ reputations.

    I think my concern is literary fiction writers — esp. indie lit folks — simply demanding compensation, absent a concurrent plan for distribution and marketing of small press publications, would only result in the collapse of publications I care about.

    Soliciting donations from individuals is a valid and perhaps sustainable approach, but I am somewhat hesitant about 501c3 models, not only because they involve some really obnoxious administration and mandatory structures like boards of directors, but also because I think we should all be very careful, for a number of reasons, abt allowing the arts to become any more dependent than they already are on foundation funding.

    1. As I said in IM (and which is probably useful to have in public conversation) I think that the donation model has tended to work by getting lots of small donations, from like $5 to $500, rather than a few $1,500 donations. So it’s kind of like subscriptions, but with a sliding scale.

      (The now-deceased SF magazine Helix apparently received one large donation each issue, and very few other donations, and even though the sponsor was steady, I was given to understand this was one of the reasons the magazine eventually folded.)

      1. (I don’t know if Jed or Susan or Karen or any of the dozens of people who would know better than me is going to stop by, but if they do, perhaps they can correct me if I’m wrong.)

        1. Wasn’t Helix the magazine where the editor got all crazy and racist and that’s why they folded? I read his letter and all the response to it at the time. It’s a shame though, as they published some good stuff.

          Also this graph blew my mind-
          “Strange Horizons is a non-profit organization. We started with $8000 pledged in donations from people who love science fiction and fantasy, who wanted to do something good for the field (and maybe put a little more bread in the mouths of those starving writers).”

          To that I say- holy crap! That’s a nice amount of money! More power to you people.

          1. Actually, the crazy racism was orthagonal to the folding. The decision to fold the magazine had already been made before the crazy racism occurred.

            The timing does make it look like the crazy racism was what closed the magazine, and I know a lot of people believe that. But having been involved, I do occasionally feel the need to set that record straight.

  2. Hey — a Google note that my name was mentioned brought me here — I’ll try to check back periodically to see if folks have any specific questions for me.

    I do publish in the little literary mags myself, including ones that don’t pay. But, y’know, I generally do prefer the ones that pay, and generally submit to them first. If I’m publishing a story in a magazine that doesn’t pay these days, it’s usually because it’s a special case, i.e., a former student of mine is running the magazine and asked me for a story, or they’re doing a special local Chicago issue, and asked me for a story, etc.

    So if I were starting a literary magazine today, I’d at least try pretty hard to come up with some cash and a plan for more cash, from the get go. Especially considering how very many literary magazines there are — paying real money is one way to distinguish yours from the crowd.

    And to clarify the SH funding; we were never dependent on an outside funding organization; that’s obviously problematic. Our plan was to start with a budget pledged to be covered by a few individuals, and every year, raise more in small donations from the community. So for our initial $8000 annual budget, in the first year, we aimed for $1000 in community reader donations (usually in the $5 – $30 range). The second year, $2000. Third year, $3000, and so on.

    In theory, that would have let our big donors entirely off the hook by year 8, but somewhere in there, SFWA raised pro rates, so we did too, raising our actual budget to closer to $11,000, I think. (I wasn’t actually on the magazine anymore when this happened, so I’m guessing a bit). So we’re reliant on the big donors somewhat still. But long-term, the plan does seem to be working. SH was founded in 2000; this September will be our 10 year anniversary. Still going strong!

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