The Empire Strikes Back: The Editors of Flatmancrooked Speak
Last week, I posted about how Flatmancrooked is now offering expedited submissions, where they will read and respond to submissions within 14 business days, for a fee of $5. A pretty interesting discussion followed with a wide range of responses. Flatmancrooked Executive Editor Elijah Jenkins and Senior Editor Deena Drewis took some time to answer some of the questions about the program, the discussion here, and independent publishing.
Most magazines I’m sure, have considered monetizing submissions as a means of generating some revenue and also, perhaps, cutting down on the number of submissions. It’s a very tempting option. In fact, several magazines have adopted submission fee structures including American Short Fiction, The Missouri Review, The New England Review, Brevity, The Colorado Review, and of course the progenitor of this movement, Narrative, whose $20 submission fee remains the highest. Flatmancrooked is by no means the first magazine to implement such a program and the tiered approach ensures that those who don’t want to pay for an expedited review of their work don’t have to, which is nice. How did you come up with this program? How did you settle on the $5 price point? How much money do you think this program will generate? What do you hope to use that revenue for?
E: To be honest, I’d not realized so many magazines had monetized their submission process though I knew about Narrative. When we decided on this it was more about an opportunity to give writers a direct route to a senior editor and a means to acquire a quicker response. The money for the submissions was a component but it is there as a deterrent so that everyone wont expedite their submission. The message seemed simple enough to me: “If you need a quick answer from someone who can make an instant decision, here’s a way to get that. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Just send your work the standard fashion.”
The reality is, if this ever generated enough money to be notable, we’d have to shut it down because I’d be spending hours everyday reading submissions. Because, I read each of the Expedited submissions personally. Last month, the expedited monies came out to, I think, about $40. We’ve not dogeared these funds for anything specific. We put it into the general fund, with which we pay for our site.
D: We had our reservations about it, and we knew there would be some backlash. But it was something we wanted to try out. The big difference to us is that it’s not required, and the slush pile has remained unaffected. I won’t go into great detail on my opinion on Narrative’s model, except that I do think their reading fee is absurdly high. They’re also one of the best paying venues (and I know there’s a lot of debate about who actually gets published there, but I know someone who won 2nd place in one of their contests. It does happen!) On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with American Short Fiction’s reading fee for two reasons: 1.) The money is going into their operational overhead, and that’s stated up front 2.) They consistently put out a really, really strong product. I’d hate to see ASF go under. And if they have to charge a $2 reading fee to help sustain their web platform and help with printing costs–if that’s what’s keeping their doors open, I think that’s totally reasonable.
Do submitters get personal feedback for the $5 fee or does the fee only cover the expedited review process?
E: I don’t entirely know what you mean by “personal.” I’ve been asked before if we give personal feedback. That’s misleading, in my opinion. I wonder if the real question is, if I pay $5, am I just going to get rejected with a form letter.
The answer is if you do get a rejection letter it is absolutely going to be a form letter, unless your work was “in development.” We don’t write letters detailing the problems of a story because it opens us and the writer up to dramatic showdowns. It’s happened before and looks something like this: We (FMC) say we’re passing on your story because of A. We receive an email from the author asking what about A was it we didn’t like. We respond, it’s the pacing (or language, or contextualization, or not in keeping with the arc; whatever). They offer to change it. We say there’s more than just A. They ask what. All of a sudden we’ve been drawn into developing a story that we simply didn’t want to work with.
D: It’s also important to note that the $5 is for an expedited reading and that’s it. Some of the concerns raised on the comment board were in regards to preferential treatment for those that paid the $5. You’re not paying for feedback. The submissions are treated in the exact same fashion as regular submissions. You just get the response quicker and directly from a Senior Editor.
How do you feel about magazines who enforce a fee for all submissions? Is that something you have considered for FMC?
E: If they can continue to get an acceptable number of submission, more power to them. Flatmancrooked is in a bit of a gray area in that we’ve only been around for 3 years so publication with our house does not, arguably, bestow upon the author the same amount of respect as publication in, say, American Short Fiction.
And, let us not kid ourselves, in the world of literary fiction, respect and prestige count for something. One of my friends commented yesterday in a conversation that I handled myself with great restraint in addressing our detractors on the HTML Giant comment board yesterday. But, that said, let me unleash a bit of my frustration.
The same juveniles who’d turn their noses at the respect of the literary community are same that would complain about not getting paid enough and simultaneously proclaim that they are craftsman or artists above all else. This sort of stance is maddeningly contradictory. You cannot simultaneously put art and money at the top of your proverbial pyramid. You’ve got to decide. I absolutely think authors should be paid for their work but the literary journal is not the ideal place for monetary gain. That’s what published single-author collections are for. And, the literary journal community (writing or publishing) is not a money game.
Are you surprised by the response to FMCs Expedited Submission program? Did you anticipate the range of reactions you have received?
E: I was surprised anyone noticed. I was surprised anyone gave a shit. You can send your work the standard way. That’s what bugs the shit out of me. We’re not requiring it. We’re simply saying, here’s another option. If we wanted to make money on this we would have advertised the new program, required reading fees for any submission. We didn’t even announce it in our newsletter. We just noted that we switch our submission manager to Submishmash (by the way, a great institution and platform, free to lit journals).
But, truthfully, the reaction from HTML Giant has been the first reaction we’ve seen at all. And, you are right in noting that it was a mixed reaction but our hearts have been warmed more than anything else by our fans coming out in our defense. We’ve been attacked a number of times about a number of things, always areas of little relation to the quality of work we publish. We know that our motivations are true and that we do this out of dedication to a medium we cherish. If any readers of this haven’t heard, our staff work for free. We all have day jobs. My day job helps support my book house. And, our staff work their asses off. We have world class editors, designers, and marketing personnel who get off work at 5 and start at FMC at 6, putting in four, six, sometimes eight hours of work on our titles. It is, admittedly, tough sometimes to get a beating on a blog when we’re doing this for free.
D: I wasn’t surprised that there was some backlash. We discussed possible repercussions before implementing the program. What disturbed me the most, though, was that there seemed to be a number of people who were ready to believe we were constructing this elaborate scheme in order to pocket the money ourselves and screw over the impoverished writer population. Beyond that, the other thing that was disheartening was the suggestion that $5–the price of a beer, for godssake–was going to buy your way into our publication. We’ve accepted one expedited submission. One. Because it was good.
Do you pay the contributors to your literary magazine?
E: To the website, no. To the lit journal we used to do profit sharing. But, there was rarely, if ever, profit. Beginning with the next issue we’ll do token payment but this is just out of appreciation for the authors. We don’t want authors to get nothing, in terms of monetary compensation. That said, we ask only for single print rights, all rights reverting back to the author after publication. We don’t pay what, say, Esquire or Harpers pays because we don’t buy stories. We, I don’t know, rent them? Our single-author titles have a boiler plate contract that does not allow for advances, but has a very generous royalty rate. But, that is for another discussion.
In your comment on the original post on HTMLGIANT, which I thought was quite eloquent, you note that you are a very small press with a very dedicated staff working for free while trying to put out well-designed and promoted books. As I read the comment, I couldn’t help but think, “That describes most independent publishers.” I don’t really have a question here but I guess I wanted to point that out, that we’re all in the same boat, making these difficult choices, supporting these endeavors with money from our day jobs.
E: Sure. We’d just prefer not to get spat at whilst doing it. (Laughs)
D: Yeah. Absolutely. The personal time and money spent goes to reinforce the idea that no one does this for any reason besides the love of it.
You also note that literary journal sales are abysmal. As an editor myself, I can attest to this. People always say very nice, flattering things about our product and rarely buy what we have to sell regardless of who we publish, how well we design or what we charge for the magazine. Why is it so hard to sell literary magazines? Is it possible to turn a profit while publishing a magazine? Is publishing a literary magazine that consistently loses money sustainable?
E: No, it is not sustainable. Our single author titles, our prize offerings, our special events, and special products support the literary magazine. Literary magazines and journals are important in that they are resume builders for writers. They are the places where writers are vetted and styles are developed. They are necessary. But, they are not profitable. We get closer and closer with each issue as our readership builds. In an issue or two, the lit journal may support itself, but we sell no advertising, get no grants, etc. The thing that is maddening, like I noted in a post about the original article, is when writers don’t support the very institution into which they are attempting to gain entry. I’ve seen the application fees for MFAs for instance. And, in that instance, you are paying to apply to something you have to then pay for, in order to gain a degree that is becoming less and less marketable. Don’t get me wrong. I think MFAs have the right to charge if they’d like. I’m just trying to contrast our model, one that offers a speedy response for a tiny fee but is, apparently, controversial, with the MFA app model which, regardless of how people feel about it, is very widely practiced.
Are you angry (or perhaps simply frustrated) that more writers don’t support literary magazines and independent publishers? Is it reasonable to expect that writers should support literary magazines given that, often times, they are allowing their work to be published without compensation? Isn’t that support enough?
E: Absolutely not. Look. We love our writers. We really really do. But, it is that sort of attitude that frustrates me. Writers, inherently, are looking for a readership. Without a readership, without a following, they cannot build a career. It can’t be done. That is what publication in a literary journal offers. Readership. And, validity. Last semester, Flatmancrooked journals and titles were taught at 9 universities. That’s serious validity. That means others are talking about and examining our author’s work. Put it this way, if they like the story they read, they are not going to come to FMC to look for more books, they (the reader) are going to look for more work by that author. That’s the reality of the cost/benefit relationship.
I ask this question, primarily in the role of devil’s advocate because I share many of the frustrations you vocalized in your comment on my original post. Earlier this year I wrote a post about how people mostly support literary magazines by talking instead of buying as I addressed the shuttering of the print version of Triquarterly. Many of the commenters noted that writers cannot be expected to buy every magazine to which they submit. Oftentimes it seems that editors become really resentful of writers. How do we move beyond relying solely on writers as a customer base? Is such a thing even possible?
E: I don’t buy that. That’s a cop out. Magazines are indicative of the editors tastes. If you don’t regularly read the magazine to which you are submitting then how do you know you are sending your work to the right place? Not only do I hope our submitters will read our work, I think it is entirely necessary. You’ve got to know your audience and your first audience is the editors your asking to consider your work.
D: I agree, though I don’t know if any amount of lambasting is going to do the trick. Writers want to be published. That’s the priority for most. If you are blanketing 20 publications with a single submission, of course you’re not going to have time to read every magazine. But I think that’s a much less gratifying way to build a publication record. If you’re serious about a writing career, you’ll find the publications you’re dedicated to. You’ll find ways to read them. And you’ll try to write stories that are good enough to be in them.
E: Well said, Drewis. Well said.
Your comment [on the original post] made things seem pretty hopeless. Are you losing faith in independent publishing?
E: Yes. But, there is nothing more intoxicating that a well designed book. I am a book junkie. If I ever kick this addiction, I’ll see ya’ll later.
D: Elijah is underselling himself. We get burnt out here and there, sure. Journal sales, I imagine, will always be an issue. But then at the same time, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of support for our debut author program, Launch, which has been very encouraging. It’s basically just pre-sale–the difference is the way we’ve asked the community to participate. It’s more involved than simply saying “Hey, pre-order this book!” There’s a level of intimacy with the author that people are responding to, and that’s something we’ve been able to nurture because we’re an indie.
How much would it take for FMC to be able to pay its staff and publish 8 books a year?
E: Well, now you’re asking me to talk about the integral components of our budget, which I can’t do. That said, I will give you this. I did this math last night. Last year we had about 3k submissions for our literary journal. We make about $2 in profit off every copy of the lit journal sold. If we cleared 6k in profit from a lit journal it would be earth-shattering.
You have a new approach you are rolling out on Monday. Tell me about it.
E: That’s still under development. I don’t know. Maybe nothing will change, maybe some stuff will. We are, at very least, going to offer an option whereby you can purchase our lit journal and then expedite your submission with your receipt number instead of paying the $5. Deena is trying to get me to allow a receipt for any book from an indie house. I don’t know how I feel about that. I am, for instance, a huge fan of The Paris Review, but I don’t think I should be able to purchase a Paris Review and get direct submissions privileges with Harpers. I really do want folks to read what we put out so that they know whether or not their submission is right for us.
D: The thing is, this was never meant to be a campaign about supporting certain publications, whereas the Tin House thing was making more of a direct statement that way. But since a few commenters raised the issue of $5 being unfair to those who can’t afford it, we wanted to think of something they could do in place of paying the fee. As I mentioned earlier, some of the criticism we came under for the program was that it was bribery. While I agree that ideally, everyone who is submitting to FMC should be familiar with the work we put out, I think it’ll be viewed as a sort of insular self-promotion of the house. The indie world isn’t some big commune, but the overall health of the industry is dependent of the survival of a number of houses. If you buy a book from Dzanc or Featherproof or Hobart, that’s great, too.