Tag Archives: publishing

“Can you help me start a magazine?”

Many times in the past 22 years I’ve received messages like this one:

“I am currently in the process of exploring an opportunity to publish a magazine and hoped you might be able to provide some insight, advice or guidance in taking such a big step….”

The most recent one came earlier this month from a working mom who was looking for a new direction following her recovery from surgery. She is thinking about starting a magazine. She asked if I could “find some time to either chat by phone, or meet with me (and my friend who may join me in this venture) to answer a few questions.”

Messages like these always make me squirm. I hate to squelch someone else’s enthusiasm or dreams but the truth is that it’s hard for me to recommend magazine publishing as an attractive option. Especially when the person who contacts me is looking at it as an opportunity to “provide a positive balance for my health, my kids and my livelihood.”

The mom who wrote to me sees publishing a magazine as “the possibility of being my own boss and doing something with more flexibility.” That is important to her, she wrote, because she’s a single mom.

I like to be a nice person. I like to be a helpful person. But I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that this woman pursue her plan. Not because I wish I hadn’t done it; but because I know I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had any idea how hard it would be.

Here is what I will tell this woman she should consider before deciding to start her magazine:

• You need to be realistic about the financial model of publishing, especially in this economy and this time in history, when technology keeps changing the game plan. If you don’t have a way to pay for at least a year of operating expenses before you get started, you probably shouldn’t get started.

• You need to thoroughly research the competition and figure out how what you want to do fills a need that’s not already being met. There are obvious competitors (i.e. other magazines targeting your audience) but don’t forget the impact of an increasingly  diverse and stratified range of media delivery systems all vying for pieces of the same pie when it comes to advertising dollars.

• You must have a reliable source of household income. It could be many years before you can put yourself on the payroll regularly. I could never have persevered past tough times if I didn’t know my family’s basic needs were going to be met by my husband’s steady income.

• You must have people on your team who can do the things you can’t do. My background is in journalism. Though I have an MBA in marketing, I have never worked in sales and I don’t have good instincts for it. I would have been lost but for the knowledge, experience and professionalism of my founding and current marketing director, MaryAnn Ortiz-Lieb. Then, a year ago, I turned over management of the business to Operations Director Debbie Davis. She has a much better head for business than I do and it has been a relief to know she’s got everything under control while I focus on the part I really love: content development.

• You must involve people who believe in your publication and see their role in its mission as “more than a job.” Never did I appreciate that more than in the last two years, when the heavy impact of the recession meant every person on my staff had to do more for less. Only people who know their work has a higher purpose than making money can put up with that without resentment.

• Forget the fantasy of flexibility. The only flexibility you will have as the owner of a magazine (and, I’m guessing, any business) is when you choose to work. I never missed a performance or game when my sons were growing up. I volunteered in the classroom, chaperoned field trips and served spaghetti and meatballs to the team at noon each Friday when my sons played high school football. But I worked a lot of late nights, rarely took a full weekend off and always had my laptop on vacations (even the rare ones on other continents). When there is too much to do and not enough people to do it, you have to carry the slack. And if you’re someone who truly cares about the quality and the integrity of your business, you are constantly working on ways to improve it.

If she listens to all that and still wants to move forward her plan, then I’m guessing she already has some of the personal qualities it takes to last in this business: resilience, tenacity and sheer stubbornness.

The agony of uncertainty

I get it now. I understand what I’m doing to people when I dawdle and drag my feet and wring my hands and don’t get to it. When the pile is too high or the queue is too long or I’m just not sure what I want to do.

When I procrastinate, avoid making decisions, delay responding and keep other people in limbo because I’m overwhelmed, distracted, tired or uncertain. When the effort to make a decision — and communicate that decision to someone who’s waiting with bated breath — just seems like more than I can manage.

Now I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the writer/editor equation. To be the person who’s not in charge of the decision but the one who offers herself up to be judged. To be the person who carefully does the research, learns everything she can about a magazine, reads the writer’s guidelines, spends a full day writing a query letter and offers up her story idea for publication.

And then waits. And waits. And waits some more. With nary a “we are in receipt of …” message in return. To wonder if it’s okay to write again (perhaps the email didn’t make it through?) or if that will be perceived as pushy. To take a deep breath, wait a month, write again and still hear nothing back. To repeat that process two more times.

To give up. To wonder why she tried in the first place. To question her goals, her ability, her basic worth as a human being.

Sometimes editors ignore writers because the writers aren’t very good — or have so blatantly failed to respect published guidelines for submission that the editor feels no sense of obligation to respond.

But sometimes, sometimes…editors are just busy.

And finally, five months later, the writer gets a message saying, “We want to publish your story.” And the floodgates of doubt fling open, completely overrun by the sheer joy of affirmation.

Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

Want to impress an editor? A follow-up…

When I wrote last week about the “Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story,” I got a comment from a local author who asked that I expound on two of my points.

“The writer’s perspective of interesting topic/compelling story may not be the same as that of the editor — hence the query,” she wrote. “We can only do so much research into the magazine (and, yes, read the guidelines). But it inevitably becomes a judgement call for the editor. And…when do we find out? What is the typical time period for acceptance/rejection?”

I listened to a webinar recently in which book agent Irene Goodman (founder of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency) spoke about the challenges writers face getting attention for their ideas within a vast sea of queries. What struck me most about her response was her emphasis on the role of serendipity.

Editors (and apparently literary agents) are human; we have good days and bad days, high-energy days and low-energy days, days when we feel receptive to taking a chance on a previously unknown writer and days when we prefer the security of proven relationships. There are days when we feel inundated and resistant and days when we feel somewhat on top on things and open to something new. On a good day, we may make an effort to respond thoughtfully, in the interest of helping a writer grow. On days when we are exhausted, drowning in emails and feeling like everyone is clawing for a part of us we may respond with a curt “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” — or simply ignore the message.

So unfortunately, a lot of it is timing and happenstance, neither of which offer much help to a writer who just wants an answer. But an editor’s job involves triage; whatever is most pressing for the next deadline is what gets the time and attention. That said, when I see something truly fresh and exciting it rarely gets lost in the queue.

Which brings me to something else Goodman said: “Maybe equals no.” Or perhaps it should.

Like many people who want to be thought of as considerate human beings, I struggle with the challenge of saying “no.” So sometimes I’ll sit on something mediocre for too long, with the good intention of getting back to the writer with some guidance and direction, when I should have trusted that squirmy sense in my stomach that was telling me “just say no.” And then, because each day brings its own ensuing avalanche of messages to consider, I may never get to it. Not because I intend to be mean or thoughtless or arrogant, but because I’m only one person and I only have so many waking hours in the day.

Jana Bommersbach addressed this question in the Piper Writing Center class I took in November. If you haven’t heard from an editor after a month, she suggested, send a follow-up email to ask politely if your query was received and to check on its status. (It’s always possible that the editor never got your email, after all, or that it got lost in the shuffle.)

If another month goes by and you still haven’t heard, I would suggest one more respectful contact. After that, wait another couple of weeks. If you haven’t gotten anything in response by that point, you should probably move on.

What Goodman says about book pitches certainly applies for magazines: “If two months has gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it’s probably a ‘no.'”

In the lightning-fast world of communication, the gears of editorial judgment and feedback still grind painfully slowly. I’m getting a taste of my own medicine lately as I pitch stories of my own to other publications, so I know how discouraging it can be.