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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

New Feedback Guidelines & Query Timeframes

From Thursday, January 16, 2020 going forward, we have new guidelines for our feedback option. For flash and poetry, please submit only one piece for critique. This will allow us to continue to do the feedback option, and give more detailed, in-depth critiques to each piece when considered individually as opposed to within a suite of flashes and poems. We will be adding a note to the Submittable forms soon. All feedback submissions received by Wednesday, January 15, 2020 will be reviewed in their entirety, but going forward, if we receive a feedback submission with more than one flash or poem attached, we will critique only the first one. The $10 paid for feedback is not for the length or amount of work submitted, but for the time all three editors invest in critiquing the work. We appreciate your understanding.

We also have a new timeframe for submission turnarounds. Since setting the query mark at eight weeks, our submissions volume has quadrupled. Please allow three months before querying.

— Tamara Burross Grisanti, Editor-in-Chief

Call for Poetry Editors

Coffin Bell Journal is currently seeking two poetry editors for immediate start. Poetry editor duties are as follows:

Duties and Responsibilities of the Poetry Editor

1. Reading submissions. Poetry Editors will read between 5-15 poetry submissions per week using Submittable, casting votes on each and leaving feedback where appropriate.
2. Proofreading. Poetry editor may be assigned light proofreading duties prior to issue launch in place of weekly reading assignments.
3. Feedback. Poetry editor will be required, on occasion, to provide written feedback on assigned reading.

Interested? Please send your CV, any relevant experience, and a paragraph summation of why you would be a good fit for Coffin Bell to tbgrisanti@gmail.com. Editor positions will be filled as soon as possible.

To Keep the Sun Alive and the Threat of a Story

Catapult $25
272 pages
460 words

Review by Lauren Hakimi

tokeepthesunalive

 

“All that remains of us are the stories we tell,” Rabeah Ghaffari told Bustle upon publication of her debut novel, To Keep the Sun Alive. Indeed, for the novel’s protagonist, Shazdehpoor, life as an exile from Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution means still trying to piece together an important story. Over the course of a single day in Paris, the widower reflects upon his and his family members’ lives in Iran at the brink of revolution—indulgent meals and afternoon siestas on the ancient family orchard, young love, and family drama that comes to parallel the struggle for the soul of the nation.

 

People today tend to misunderstand—or be entirely ignorant of—the turning point in 1979 that transformed Iran into what it continues to be to this day. Images of burning US flags and bearded men in turbans may come to mind. Ghaffari, herself an Iranian immigrant, sheds light on the history surrounding the revolution by giving human faces to different sides of the struggle.

 

Where one character simply would not do the trick in representing such a complicated history, Ghaffari recruits a whole cast of compelling and multi-dimensional characters, a set of opposing pairs that represent various interrelated battles taking place at the time. Akbar-Agha the judge and his brother Habib-Agha the mullah characterize a battle between law and religion. The matriarch Bibi-Khanoom and her delightfully racist niece Ghamar characterize contemporaneous culture battles and discussions about morality. Shazdehpoor’s opium-addicted son Jamsheed becomes radicalized while his other son Madjid realizes, only once he is in prison, how the revolution got taken away from the people who’d supported it. When the ancient Zoroastrian holiday Chaharshanbeh Suri and the Muslim day of remembrance Ashura fall on the same day, the opposing pairs that animate the novel are brought to a climax.

 

Among the many dichotomies of the novel, the culture battle between European and Islamic influences is portrayed against a backdrop that can only be Persian. The author, who is also a filmmaker, honors the culture’s long literary tradition with rich imagery and a sometimes fable-like tone. Mirza, the lonely storyteller, interrupts the main narrative to tell Madjid stories that flash back to Iran’s history. And of course, no Persian literature could be credible without a character who accidentally eats his pet chicken.

 

When Madjid, one of the ‘suns’ to which the novel’s title refers, is released from prison, Mirza tells him a fable about an apothecary-poet. When a general comes to kill him, the poet says, “You can hack my body into a thousand pieces, burn my remains, and bury the ashes deep beneath the earth—but I will live on… I am a story. You cannot destroy what you cannot grasp.” Such is the threat that literature like Ghaffari’s is capable of posing.