Answering the Call for Litmag Financial Transparency – A Note from Tamara Burross Grisanti

Taking a cue from this post by Buffalo’s Peach Mag and the below tweet by Foundlings Press–and wishing to help dispel some of the misunderstandings people have about litmag financial operations–Coffin Bell would like to make known its model for the sustainability of its independent publishing project.

Foundlings Press tweet

 

Coffin Bell Journal‘s 2018 operating budget was $3500. The following is a breakdown of what was spent, the rationale behind the expenditure, and who paid for it.

Coffin Bell began with a budget of $0 in late 2017. Around Thanksgiving of that year, I decided on the name, designed a logo, started the journal’s social media accounts, and built the website–which is where the first expense was encountered: in order to be able to have a custom domain and to customize the site’s appearance, in December 2017, I paid $96 out of pocket for one year of WordPress’s premium site plan. However, by June of 2018, the print anthology Coffin Bell ONE was underway, which required the web site to have the capability to actually sell merchandise–shopping cart functionality. So I paid another $204 out of pocket to upgrade to WordPress’s business plan mid-2018, bringing the total WordPress operating expense to $300.

The journal initially accepted submissions via its free Gmail account. However, as the journal grew and the number of daily submissions climbed, it became an exercise in frustration to navigate between batches of fifty submissions at a time using Gmail’s labels and stars. We had three editors at this point, and were all signing into the one account, trying to keep track of who was assigned what, who needed a response, and so on. In February 2018, I paid $187 (reflecting a 50% discount given to literary magazines by the company) for one year of basic Submittable submissions manager service. The basic plan allowed 100 free submissions per month, gave me five editorial seats (counting my own), so I had the ability to add up to four different editors to whom I would route particular categories of submissions. But because our submission rate continued to grow, I was faced with another problem: we ran out of our 100 free submissions very early each month–around the sixth–which meant we were open for submissions six days a month, and closed for the remainder of the month. This was not working, so I investigated buying the plan one tier up, which was–at that time–prohibitively costly. Submittable only caps free, unpaid submissions, however, so if any money is charged for a submission (they institute a $3 minimum charge), you may accept an unlimited number of such paid submissions. I didn’t want to charge for submissions at all, so instead I opted to create the “Tip Jar” submission category, in which the submitter may choose to “tip” Coffin Bell $3 when they submit their work, as a way to construe to the journal that they appreciate what we’re doing. To my great surprise, Coffin Bell made enough in Tip Jar submission revenue to completely offset the cost of Submittable, despite the fact that Submittable takes a whopping $1.14 out of every $3 Tip Jar submission. (I did not reimburse myself, but kept the Tip Jar proceeds in the operating account.) I have since then had to pull the trigger on buying the next tier of Submittable service so I can now accept 300 free submissions per month, and have ten editorial seats, which is useful, given that the growth of the journal has necessitated my taking on more editorial staff.

When I instituted the Tip Jar submissions, I needed a business checking account to receive the payments into. In order to open a business checking account, one needs an Employer Identification Number (EIN), which is only given to business entities. In order to form the business entity–Coffin Bell Media, LLC–I paid LegalZoom $289 to file the necessary paperwork to get our EIN. Once I had that, I went to the bank and opened the account so we could start receiving payments.

In order to promote the journal, I paid out of pocket for a logo tablecloth for book fairs, and 200 Coffin Bell buttons. I paid out of pocket for the journal’s membership dues for CLMP. I paid for an Adobe Stock Photo subscription for issue cover art.

By mid-2018, I already knew I wanted to print an anthology of highlights from the 2018 publication year. As luck would have it, I knew a book designer from high school, and pitched her on a barter agreement to design the first anthology. She agreed, which saved us roughly $2000. I paid $175 for an ISBN and barcode for the back cover, and covered the cost of the $800 print run, plus the $395 in postage it cost to send the free contributor copies. The revenue generated by sales of the print anthology came nowhere near close to paying for the print run and postage. I knew by mid-2019 that I wouldn’t be able to afford to finance Coffin Bell TWO, so I brainstormed ways to generate revenue. Like most journals, I settled on selling the unpaid labor of myself and my editors. For a flat $10 fee, submitters would receive feedback / critique from three different editors on their flash, short story, or poem (minus the $1.49 cut Submittable carves out of that). Before launching this new option, I sent a mass email to the editorial staff and asked if they were willing and able to participate–I didn’t want to go forward unless support for the strategy was unanimous. Luckily, it was. During 2019, Coffin Bell made enough in Tip Jar and Feedback submissions to cover the $1100 cost of the print run for Coffin Bell TWO. It did not cover the postage–that, again, fell to me personally–but this is a major step towards sustainability.

None of our editors (or myself) have ever been paid by Coffin Bell. Our staff of editors is 100% volunteer powered. I know I will not ever be reimbursed for the expenses I’ve covered for the journal, but that’s okay by me. Coffin Bell doesn’t come close to showing “profit,” and I doubt it ever does. Which is fine, because litmags don’t exist to make money. They exist to promote literary art, and raise up the voices of the writers they publish. And, of course, they hope to generate enough revenue to cover the base cost of existing at all.

NOTA BENE: While the pay-to-play objection is 100% valid, it has been vastly overblown into the insidious oversimplification that when a litmag charges for anything, it is an evil, unethical act. My plea to the voices spreading this misconception is this: educate yourself on the amount of unpaid labor and personal expense involved in keeping a litmag afloat, understand that some income is necessary for any publication to survive (and especially so for indie litmags who aren’t backed / funded by universities), and recognize that the uninformed opinions surfacing again and again on social media of late about the ethics of litmags who charge entry fees for contests with paid guest judges and cash prizes serve only to do harm to the indie publications who struggle, who sacrifice, in order to promote the very writers these skewed opinions allege they seek to defraud. Literary publishing can in no way truthfully be construed as any kind of a money-making scheme devised to cheat authors out of their paychecks.

I hope this post has been illuminating and has served to dispel some misconceptions about litmag operational expenses, and I am hopeful too that my posting this–along with Peach Mag and Foundlings Press–will motivate other editors to share the financial details of their own publications with the interest of transparency in mind.

–Tamara Burross Grisanti, Editor-in-Chief

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