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How Do Lit Mags Make Money, Anyway?
There are only 44 Lit Mags who pay writers, don't charge fees, use a paid manager, and have survived 20+ years.
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There are a few problems we obsess over at Chill Subs.
How can literary magazines mags and writers get paid for the work they do?
How can the industry as a whole start to attract more readers?
Why is money so inequally passed around by bad actors within indie lit?
I wrote about that third one for Lit Mag News last week in a piece called “Are We Eating Each Other Alive in the Indie Lit World?”
Today, I am going to focus on the first one.
In an ideal world, writers would be paid by literary magazines. In an ideal world, literary magazines would have the money to pay them. Some do. Most don’t.
So, I took a look at the magazines that have been able to pull it off. What follows is an unnecessarily detailed breakdown of how that went and what I found.
All of this research was done through the Chill Subs database. So the research was limited to the 3,200 magazines we list (a significant majority of the market). The goal here was to come out with some actionable information that could be useful to anyone starting or currently running a literary magazine.
How I chose the magazines
1. Publishes primarily fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Why? The public has a much greater interest in reading about the news or humor than they do in literary works. Most literary magazines do not publish these sorts of pieces, so it would be an unfair comparison if this piece were to have any hopes of being useful. "Publish news on current events!" is not helpful advice for a lit mag.
2. Pays writers and uses a paid submission manager without charging a fee for submissions.
Why? A dedicated individual or small group could sustain an indie magazine for, well, forever if they had the time and volunteer manpower. But to be able to cover the cost of paying writers AND a submission manager, a magazine would actually have to make money.
3. Magazines more than 20 years old.
Why? I wanted to try to see what long-term sustained funding efforts magazines found useful. A quick crowd funder or short grant might keep a magazine alive for 5-10 years but 20 years is a long time to keep a magazine up and running.
4. Removed household names.
Why? Basically, I removed ones like The New Yorker or The Paris Review. At this point, these are brands as much as they are magazines. Having me tell you, "spend decades building a household brand with your loads of famous friends throughout a time period with 1% of the competition you have," would just be a dick move.
I also removed a few of the better-known long-standing genre magazines like Asimov's, Analog, Ellery Queen, & Alfred Hitchcock because they are all part of Penny Publications which is a whole company:
Penny Publications is recognized as North America’s leading puzzle magazine company and is dedicated to providing family-friendly puzzle entertainment of unsurpassed quality.
Final count: 44 Magazines
*(vs. 71 who’ve done it while charging submission fees)
First, some unrelated insights:
Australia has some brilliant (and beautifully presented) lit mags.
The best way to get attention as a magazine is to publish loads of famous writers and then list every single one of their names on your About page.
One of the websites to review the finances of nonprofits costs thousands of dollars a month to access. This...seems wrong.
Second, some unsurprising insights:
Nobody had ONE source of funding.
Nobody was majority funded by readership.
** If you’re only interested in the results, feel free to scroll through all of my breakdowns until you see “STOP” **
So, 44 magazines -
4 United Kingdom
Funding categories can be split into the following (several had overlap):
University Support: 25
Grants/Government Funding: 21
Fundraising Events: 5
Readership & Subscription Revue: vague, with only 5-10 even referencing it.
Let's trim this down.
I am going to cut out university-affiliated magazines. These magazines have built-in connections, labor, access to funding, and experienced academics and educators to rely on. Simply writing, "I am from X university," gives you more established credibility, than, "Hey, so I started a lit mag, what's up?" A university magazine has name recognition, student volunteers, and opportunities an independent magazine doesn't. It really cannot be stressed enough how having a self-filling pool of student volunteers alone could sustain a magazine for ages. Also, what use are these insights to someone running a university magazine?
So, here are those we're cutting (15/25 American, 2/5 Australian, 5/9 Canadian, 3/4 United Kingdom).- The Yale Review, The Susquehanna Review, So to Speak, Shenandoah, OxMag, Mizna, The McNeese Review, The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Blackbird, INSCAPE, Illuminations, The Emerson Review, The American Scholar, Terrain.org, The Westerly Review, Griffith Review, Qwerty, Existere, EVENT, Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Wasafari, New Writing Scotland, Poetry Wales. (I’ll note that The American Scholar is funded by a Fraternity, and Terrain.org has only loose ties to the University of Kansas but is additionally funded by a foundation.)
In total, that cost us 25/44 magazines. More than half. What's left are often referred to as "Independent Magazines." So, 19 magazines have survived twenty years who don’t charge writers. They pay for contributions. And they still afford a submissions manager without any University funding.
Now, let's trim this a bit more. As a regular bumbling human, the closest affiliation I have to a governing body is waiting in line at the DMV. Several magazines are always trying to get government funding and grants. There is a lot of competition especially since most governments have "Funding for the Arts" so you're being tossed into a melee with all other forms of art PLUS fending off all other players in the literary industry before you can even hope to compete with other magazines.
What is interesting here is that… 4/4 of the remaining Canadian magazines all receive government funding (ROOM, Grain, Broken Pencil, Contemporary Verse 2). 3/3 of Australian magazines receive government funding (Overland, Island, Cordite). And The Stinging Fly from Ireland. And our remaining UK lit mag: Poetry London.
Now, for American Magazines, there are only two that receive national funding (One Story, BOMB). And two who receive state funding (Circumference, RHINO). This then boils down to 6 remaining magazines. Two are funded by (and a part of) large organizations offering all sorts of things (Poetry Magazine: Poetry Foundation, Poet Lore: Writer’s Center).
This leaves us with 4. Now, I enjoy digging through websites looking for answers, but two magazines made their sources of funding exceptionally vague. Pedestal Magazine & River Styx. River Styx is connected to a larger nonprofit, but their financials were paywalled. Pedestal's website has terribly little information on it aside from the masthead. So, I'm sure if someone wants to dig more into them, you'll find something. But they are being lumped into a 44 magazine research binge and so I'll give them a pass.
** STOP **
And then there were two. Two magazines that pay writers, don’t charge fees, pay for a manager, and have survived 20+ years without the aid of universities, government funding, endowments, patrons, or affiliations.
Here is how they did it.
Rattle. - Poetry
"Rattle is a publication of the Rattle Foundation, an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the practice of poetry, and is not affiliated with any other organization."
So, yes. Rattle is connected to a foundation, but it appears that the foundation's sole focus is Rattle. The Rattle Foundation has one employee on LinkedIn and it's the editor of Rattle: Timothy Green. Though says there are 2-10 employees (there are 3 editors total for Rattle Magazine).
Rattle also lists out its numbers and they're impressive: Print Run: 11,000, Total Circulation: 10,000, Paid Subscribers: 8,500. And you can see, via Guidestar, what their expenses are:
The rattle foundation published four issues of rattle magazine; four individual chapbooks; livestreamed 150 hours of literary programming and podcasts; and maintained the rattle.com website, which received over two million page views in 2021.
Program 2: awards given to poets for their writing.
That's close to $400,000 being covered by contest fees and subscriptions.
Get readers and run contests. Seems simple enough. Right?
But what else is going on there?
Advantages: Rattle (seemingly) has a barebones staff. The EiC (Alan C. Fox) is a well-known and seemingly wealthy Philanthropist, though there is no mention of him personally gifting Rattle any money. Other than him, there is just Timothy Green and his co-editor Megan. From what I’ve seen in interviews, Tim & Megan review every poem then Alan makes the final decision. So, three people.
and Tim Green seems to be very growth-minded. He said in an interview with The Review Review:
“Quantitative analysis is just something I’ve always found interesting, so I tend to dig into any numbers I can find. Poetry doesn’t often lend itself to hard data, but we had our own “VIDA count” years before VIDA, for example. I made a big Excel spreadsheet once breaking down submissions by state and zip code, comparing it to the Poets & Writers author database, so that I could figure out the regions where we were “underperforming.” That’s actually why we did tributes to Southern Poets and New Yorkers—those were two areas where our submission ratios were lower than expected, given the number of poets there.”
That is some outside-of-the-box thinking right there.
SmokeLong Quarterly - Flash Fiction & CNF
SmokeLong Quarterly was established in 2003 by our founder Dave Clapper. We are dedicated to bringing the best flash narratives to the web, whether written by widely published authors or those new to the craft.
Not only does SmokeLong Quarterly manage to make enough to keep its own operation running, but they also help to fund other organizations. They have a whole page dedicated to it.
They do run a few contests. They have a lot of workshops. And you can donate on their website.
All of their work is online and they don't have ads anywhere. If running a few contests, and workshops, and accepting donations were enough to keep a magazine running, a lot more would be around from this time.
So, what sets them apart?
Advantage: Flash fiction grew in popularity alongside the magazine. i.e. they were there first and did it well. They were around for a long time before they started paying writers in 2018, but never charged a fee. But there is more when you start to examine what these two magazines share.
What do these two magazines have in common?
There are some things they have in common that may or may not matter.
Both are open for submissions year-round.
Both, as far as I can tell, don’t ever solicit submissions.
In interviews, both editors mentioned an anecdote about rejection:
“One poet was rejected 57 times and then sent us one of my all-time favorite poems (I won’t say who it is, because I don’t want to embarrass him)” - Tim Green, Rattle.
“A few months ago SmokeLong accepted a story from a writer who had submitted to us 43 times. Never stop.” - Christopher Allen, SmokeLong Quarterly
I don’t think that means much, just nice that both editors made a point to say it.
And both magazines run some contests that are specifically geared toward funding the magazine and paying writers, not just for the sake of doing loads more contests.
But here are three important things that I do think have set them apart:
1. They became popular before they became profitable.
If you go to Timothy Green’s website, there is a bit about how Rattle changed when he came aboard:
...Taking over as editor in 2006, Green introduced several innovations, including the Rattle Poetry Prize, which offers $5,000 for a single poem, the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor, and the highly successful slam poetry issue.
That’s 12 years after Rattle was founded.
Similarly, SmokeLong Quarterly has been around since 2003 but only started leaning into workshops in the past five years.
Both increased writer payments as they grew. Rattle has only made it to $200 per poem in recent years (starting with $50, then $100, and so on). And SmokeLong only started being able to pay writers in 2018.
This requires long-term thinking and strategic planning. And spending a shit-long time doing a load of financially thankless work.
2. All of the content is quick. Poems are quick. Flash is quick.
This not only appeals more to the modern reader (everything needs to be quick and bite-sized in the age of the internet) but it also makes reviewing submissions much more efficient. You only need readers who know one thing. You can go through 5-10 flash fiction stories in the time it would take you to review one long story.
And despite having only 3 editors, Rattle’s rejection letters say, “Megan and I read everything we receive without delegating that task to any interns or other readers, but we're whittling 100,000 a year down to the 150 that we publish, so the odds are always long.”
Two editors, 100,000 submissions.
That would not be possible with longer works.
Most importantly, both magazines narrowed their focus to ONE thing and they did it really really well.
I don’t think #3 can be stressed enough. And I don’t know if I would have thought much about it before diving into all of this. But specializing is not a bad avenue for any magazine.
People looking for poetry and having to sift through six different genres are going to default to the place that gives them only what they want.
People hoping for a quick story are going to default to the place that offers only those stories rather than sift through ‘fiction’ until they see one with the ‘flash’ label.
It might seem counter-intuitive to limit what you publish, but these days there are SO many more styles and genres for lit mags to explore that were not acceptable in the past. Hell, flash fiction and all sorts of experimental poetic forms have only really become popular in the past 25 years.
You wouldn’t often see, for example, a concert with Taylor Swift opening for Metallica. Or a gallery opening with [insert artists doing something Ben doesn’t understand] alongside [insert another artist Ben doesn’t understand that does something different than the first]. Or, OK, let’s say sculptures vs paintings.
These two aren’t the only magazines to do this, simply the only ones who didn’t have outside funding (as far as I can tell) and have managed to do it for a very long time.
This also does not have to be limited to style. It could be location, genre, topic, or who knows! But if you can become the place for something, it’ll pay off in the end.
Not sure if this is insight or if I’ve been reading too much into it, but for those considering how to start a litmag who don’t have the connections or means to receive external funding, here are some practices that seem to help based on all this research:
Don’t charge until you can pay writers (at the very least).
Make donations to your magazine an obvious option on your website.
Build connections within the community.
Limit the scope of what you’re looking to publish.
OR: Do one thing really, really well within a larger context.
Be prepared for slow steady growth over many years.
Be kind to writers and engage with audiences.
Evolve as you grow. Neither Rattle nor SmokeLong popped into existence and were immediately popular. They grew, adapted, and built new things, always keeping writers in mind and communicating well.
Experiment with transparent contests where the funds get put back into funding the magazine’s growth with fair compensation for writers.
I wish, at the end of this, I had found something like, “Aha! So you just have to sacrifice a goat on the next full moon!” But, for the sake of goats, I am glad I didn’t.
As with anything, if you don’t have connections or money, the only option is the long way around. But a few magazines have shown that being aware of this, planning for it, not sacrificing your principles, and getting lucky (yep, that’s always at least 30% of everything) pays off.
Keep in mind that this report is on English-speaking magazines. When we have the resources we plan to expand to expand our database to include more languages.
The Yale Review - Affiliation: Yale University. Funding: Donations, high circulation. Founded in New Haven, Connecticut, USA in 1819.
The Susquehanna Review - Affiliation: Susquehanna University. Funding: University support, possible grants or donations. Founded in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, USA.
So to Speak - Affiliation: George Mason University. Funding: University support. Founded in Fairfax, Virginia, USA in 1993.
Shenandoah - Affiliation: Washington and Lee University. Funding: University support. Founded in Lexington, Virginia, USA in 1950.
OxMag (Oxford Magazine) - Affiliation: Miami University. Funding: University support. Founded in Oxford, Ohio, USA.
Mizna - Affiliation: University of Minnesota and various foundations. Funding: National Network for Arab American Communities, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations, F. R. Bigelow Foundation, Mardag Foundation, and donations. Founded in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.
The McNeese Review - Affiliation: McNeese State University. Funding: McNeese State University Foundation, endowment established by Mr. and Mrs. William D. Blake, Mrs. Violet Howell, and Howell Industries, Inc. Founded in Lake Charles, Louisiana, USA.
The Kenyon Review - Affiliation: Kenyon College. Funding: Donations, workshops, sponsors, university support, and subscriptions. Founded in Gambier, Ohio, USA.
Bennington Review - Affiliation: Bennington College. Funding: College support, donations. Founded in Bennington, Vermont, USA.
Blackbird - Affiliation: Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and New Virginia Review, Inc. Funding: University support and donations. Founded in Richmond, Virginia, USA in 2001.
INSCAPE - Affiliation: Brigham Young University. Funding: University support. Founded in Provo, Utah, USA.
Illuminations - Affiliation: College of Charleston. Funding: University support. Founded in Charleston, South Carolina, USA in 1982.
The Emerson Review - Affiliation: Emerson College. Funding: University support. Founded in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
The American Scholar - Affiliation: Phi Beta Kappa Society. Funding: Advertising and donations. Founded in Washington, D.C., USA in 1932.
Terrain.org - Affiliation: Kansas State University and parent publishing house Terrain Publishing. Funding: Donations and occasional academic institution funding. Founded in USA.
The Westerly Review - Affiliation: The University of Western Australia. Funding: University of Australia, donations, government funding from the Council of Australia and Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. Founded in Australia in 1956.
Griffith Review - Affiliation: Griffith University. Funding: Australia Arts Council, sells issues, hosts events, support from patrons. Founded in Australia in 2003.
Qwerty - Affiliation: University of New Brunswick. Funding: Issue sales, contests. Founded in Canada.
Existere - Affiliation: Founders College Council, York University (formerly Vanier College Council). Funding: University funding. Founded in Canada in 1978.
EVENT - Affiliation: Douglas College. Funding: British Columbia Arts Council, Canadian Council for the Arts. Founded in Canada.
Malahat Review - Affiliation: University of Victoria. Funding: Canada Council for the Arts, British Columbia Arts Council, Government of Canada, University of Victoria. Founded in Canada in 1967.
The Fiddlehead - Affiliation: University of New Brunswick. Funding: Contests, donations, advertising, Canadian Council for the Arts. Founded in Canada.
Wasafari - Affiliation: University of Kent (formerly Queen Mary, University of London). Funding: University funds, donations, contests, events, and workshops. Founded in the United Kingdom.
New Writing Scotland - Affiliation: University of Glasgow, Scottish Association for the Teaching of English Language and Literature. Funding: University funds, classes, donations, etc. Founded in the United Kingdom.
Poetry Wales - Affiliation: Swansea University. Funding: Advertising, competitions, issue sales, Books Council of Wales. Founded in the United Kingdom in 1965.
Room - Affiliation: Independent, West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society, Growing Room Collective. Funding: Canadian Arts Council, Fundraisers, contests, grant sponsors, issue sales, advertisements. Founded in Canada in 1975.
Grain - Affiliation: Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. Funding: Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, Sask Lotteries, Saskatchewan Arts Board, The Canada Council for the Arts, The Canada Magazine Fund. Founded in Canada in 1973.
Broken Pencil - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Government of Canada, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Arts Council, advertising, events. Founded in Canada in 1995.
Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Advertising, workshops, contests, Canadian Arts Council. Founded in Canada in 1975.
Overland - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Contests, supported by several grants and government funds, support from patron Hon Barry Jones AO. Founded in Australia in 1954.
Island - Affiliation: Independent, Nonprofit. Funding: Australian and Tasmanian Arts Council Funding. Donations, contests. Founded in Australia in 1979.
Cordite - Affiliation: Independent, a part of Cordite Publishing Inc. Funding: Arts Council, Creative Victoria, other government funds. Founded in Australia in 1996.
The Stinging Fly - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Grants from The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon, T.S. Eliot Foundation, donations, courses. Founded in Ireland.
Poetry London - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Arts Council England, contests, donations, advertising, Fenton Arts Trust. Founded in the United Kingdom.
One Story - Affiliation: Independent, registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Funding: Earned income, individual donors, grants from funders including the NEA and the Whiting Foundation. Founded in Brooklyn, New York, USA.
BOMB Magazine - Affiliation: Independent, Nonprofit. Funding: Advertising, events, donations, and grants from foundations like Lambent Foundation, Mellon Foundation, NYC Cultural Affairs, New York Council of the Arts, National Endowment for Humanities, Humanities New York, Andy Warhol Foundation, etc. Founded in USA in 1981.
Circumference - Affiliation: Independent, a sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Funding: New York State Council on the Arts, donations. Founded in USA.
RHINO - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Illinois Arts Council, Poets & Writers, Inc, The Poetry Foundation, The MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, donations, fellowships, and prizes. Founded in USA in 1976.
Poetry Magazine - Affiliation: Poetry Foundation. Funding: Established and perpetually funded through a major gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly. Founded in Chicago, Illinois, USA in 1912.
Poet Lore - Affiliation: The Writer's Center. Funding: The Writer's Center and its programming. Founded in Bethesda, Maryland, USA in 1889.
Pedestal Magazine - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Advertising and donations. Founded in USA in 2000.
River Styx - Affiliation: Independent. Funding: Not openly stated but they do run contests that may generate income. Founded in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in 1975.