September 17th, 2010 / 11:00 am
Web Hype

Shelf Unbound — “Unbound” being a play on bindings online

Anybody got the skinny on Shelf Unbound?

A few months ago I started receiving press releases from them. They’re a new electronic magazine that promise to “feature the best of small press, university press, and self-published books.” Okay, cool, I was excited that a group I had never heard of was doing something that could be so monumental for indie lit, which is like my main deal. And they’re thinking big, I noted from the first of the three points they said would interest me, which was that they’re offering a free copy of the first issue to the first 10,000 people who request them.

To break that down, the two things that impressed me are (1) just one free copy of an online magazine? (2) first 10,000 people? Well, nice, that is some reach. The subscription price for 12 issues (which you can read on your computer or Apple device) is $15. That is $5 more than my print subscription for Esquire and Wired, both of which I let lapse. It’s $10 less than my New Yorker subscription, but that gets mailed to me 46 times a year.

Shelf Unbound also included an ad ratesheet for my consideration. 1/4 page costs $1500 for one issue. A full page is $5000. For one issue. My enthusiasm for the magazine started to wane.

They also included their schedule through January 2011. There are features in the works on the following topics: Baseball, Michael Jackson, Road Trips, After Katrina, Barefoot Running, Charcuterie, Cocktails Remixed and a few more of the like, which all seemed uninteresting and lame. The closest thing of interest to me is something coming up on John Waters.

Oh, they are accepting something called “courtesy submissions” though. No payment at this time.

I responded to that first press release with a few questions.

Will Shelf be available for Nook, Kindle, etc?
Because we have such great visual content in addition to text, Shelf will not be available for text-only devices such as the Nook and Kindle. Shelf can be purchased and downloaded to your computer (Mac or pc), iPad, or iPhone, via the digital newsstand
What platform does it use, ie. is it a Flash site?
I believe Zinio has a proprietary platform.
What is a “courtesy submission”?
We have already invited hundreds of small presses to submit review copies for consideration for review and coverage in Shelf.
Are your ads really selling at those prices?
We’ve just started selling ads, and, yes, we are selling them at the prices listed on our media kit. We’ve got a special two-for-one deal for small presses who advertise in our first issue.
If so, and if you’re charging a price for the magazine, why not pay your writers?
Good question. For our launch and first few issues, all of our writing is being done by the Shelf editorial staff. Once we grow to a size where we are well-financed enough to use freelance contributors and pay them a good rate, we will do so.
I’m surprised there is so little content on your editorial calendar that seems to relate to independent publishing. What gives?
ALL of our editorial content relates to independent publishing — the topics are ones covered in the books we are reviewing and excerpting and in our interviews with authors and celebrities.

The first issue came out and was available to me (and 9,999 others) for free, but I never got around to downloading it in the week they made it available. Now I’d have to pay $15 to read it more closely, but I was able to preview it at Zinio, and even on the screen it is glossy. The platform is not unlike Issuu, but it works a little easier.

I was happy to see that in “The Best of the Book Blogs” section they had reprinted reviews from friends like Bookslut and New Pages (about two books I wrote about as well, Cotner and Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks and Joe Riippi’s Do Something!), and their articles were about independent presses like Ammo Books and Ivan R. Dee. Then I ran out of page preview zooms, so I could only view the page in a format so small that I couldn’t tell what I was looking at. I stayed diligent though, squinting, and saw some presses more familiar to me like Melville House, Replacement Press and Press 53 (who just awarded Jen Michalski first prize in their novella contest). I also noted that the links for the books they write about lead to Powells, not Amazon, so they’re doing something right and good there.

And I believe that a magazine’s content should be about what I’m not already interested in and what I haven’t heard of. I’ll give you 3,000 words, you sell me on Bespoke Fashion. So, yes, give me an article about Detroit crumbling or “At War,” and filter it through independent literature, and I think I’ll come out ahead. And sure, charge $15 for the subscription. I am pro-money and if that is how Shelf has determined they will be able to exist, good for them. I won’t be an early adopter, but I hope that their slick approach will appeal to wealthier, more iPad-owning vacationers than me. I expect people who will get the most out of Shelf are the sort who don’t already know a great deal about small press stuff, and their model seems set up to reach those people. Plus I’ve got my hands full trying to keep up with Blip, formerly Rick Magazine, which is free.

I guess my feelings are split on Shelf Unbound, which means it must be pretty good. Anybody subscribe? What’s the straight dope?



  1. Margaret Brown
  2. Sheer Blog

      Plus Size Shelf…

      […] y consideration. 1/4 page costs $1500 for one issue. A full page is $5000. For o […]…

  3. Stephen Stark

      At the risk of pissing off a very good friend… I’ve known Margaret Brown, founder AND publisher of Shelf Unbound since 1992, when, just after Second Son, my second novel, was published and I had moved to Houston. I walked into a BookStop store to see if they had my novel. She was clerking there — sort of between jobs — and did the customary, ‘Can I help you?’ thing. I showed her my novel. She read it [said she] loved it, and then hand sold the remaining copies, and tried to get the big corporate daddy to send them more. They could have sent her 100 and she would have sold them all. They wouldn’t send her any, if I recall correctly. Forward thinking. She left there for a job as an ed asst at Southwest Art, and left there as Editor in Chief. She’s been at another magazine in Dallas for the last eight years and is now all in with SU.

      She knows glossy magazines. She’s a complete book lover. She’s incredibly savvy. I think she’s got a terrific vision here with Shelf Unbound, but is completely realistic and will likely be willing to tweak what she’s doing as is necessary to meet the market.

      But I think the thing she’s doing with this magazine is totally worth it and necessary. The big trade publishers have their heads so far up their asses they can’t see past their teeth where publishing is going. I was talking with Margaret the other day and she said that since she’s been immersed in nothing but indie books she hasn’t been so happy in years as a reader. This is stuff that is getting covered in some places but not in others, and mostly on line. With so many newspapers folding their book coverage, and so many really good indie presses — and good stuff being self-published — we need people like this to make the drumbeat louder, stronger for the best in literature. I’m pretty much convinced that what (I think it was) Mike Shatzkin said about the next Random House/Knopf is probably currently in its nascence as we speak is right, and that people like Margaret who get that and are committed to making the great books being published by indie presses known — or the great stuff being done by people doing it their way like Seth Harwood (Margaret — talk to him). I don’t know yet if she’s a visionary. But she’s doing good stuff. All out of love for books. And isn’t that what we all do it for?