Starting and Running an Ezine in a Few Simple, Soul-Destroying Steps
So, you want to start a SFF e-zine? Part publisher, part genre commentator, e-zines are as hard to start as they are fun to run. When I first mapped out Grimdark Magazine as a company, I was specifically told by two well-known e-zine managers that it would be a brutal black hole of time, creative attention, and money, and the chances of achieving financial success were about the same as me opening the bowling for Australia. I thanked them for their time and advice, closed my laptop, and pulled out pad, pen, and beer, and decided I was going to show those defeatist bastards how it was done.
That was the start of Grimdark Magazine. That was the start of four years of hard slog, of epic highs I thought I’d never come down from and merciless lows I thought would never end. It was the start of friendships, nearly ended my relationship, created financial hardship, and let me help shape some of the conversation around a new genre. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I’d like to share a few tips with you, budding editor in chief who is mentally noting how wrong I am about the e-zine market and how you’re going to show me how it’s done.
Have a long-term plan for everything
Start with a plan for where you’re going to be in a few years and it’ll help make your early decisions clearer. For example, when I first started I knew I’d only be publishing an e-zine, but I knew I wanted those stories to end up in print. So, even though I didn’t know how I wanted to do it at the time, I knew that I needed the right to reprint—in print—in the contracts I used to purchase fiction from the outset. And while it took four years, I finally managed to put out our first reprint collection. It drops in June and its name is the tagline I came up with when working out who my target market would be: Knee-Deep in Grit.
This same forward thinking needs to apply to everything. If your budget is 12,000 fiction words per issue at a pro-rate, then what will you do with 16,000 words? 20,000? At what point do you put in a pay rise? Are you planning on selling in audio? At what point do you pay your team? Or yourself? How much do you need to scale your first reader team if your submissions inbox becomes a very popular destination for authors?
Know your target market
Know which market you’re going to sell to and know the customers that will be in that market. Be specific. Understand it and love it and want to grow it. Know that you’re going to push its boundaries and have a good ponder on how to do that. Your starting point has to be a market (eg. Grimdark SFF) and your avatar (eg. Adrian the 33-year-old male from Australia who loves reading Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and Anna Smith-Spark while drinking whiskey and having Netflix fantasy movies playing in the background).
Find your niche and the people in it and research the hell out of it: are you about a genre or a niche (like grimdark)? Is that genre waxing or waning at the moment? Are you doing or saying something different to the other e-zines out there? An important part of this process, I think, and there are likely examples where I’ll be proven wrong here, is finding a niche that isn’t yet saturated with competing voices—e-zines, podcasts, websites, etc—so people can come to your media publications to read something new that they haven’t already got a rock-solid opinion on. Essentially, find a gap in the market and get going like the Bloody Nine killing Logen’s friends trying to fill it.
Finally, keep an eye on that market and avatar as you grow. One of the things we tried to do as an e-zine is drive the discussion on what defines grimdark. Well, that didn’t go too well, and there are more definitions of grimdark than points-of-view in a George Martin novel. We’ve done our best to keep up with how customers define it, but we certainly lost our grip on directing that horse a long time ago.
Have multiple streams of income, but know where your bread and butter is coming from, and understand that you will very likely not make money
Okay, this one is the stinger. You aren’t going to make money straight away. Probably not for a while (years). If at all. The payment heirarchy of your business goes like this:
- international money transfers;
- incidental business costs;
- and then, finally, you.
Get used to it and accept that you’re going to feed money into this beast and not see much in the way of financial return. In fact, based on the advice given to me, and on the experience I’ve had over the last four years, if your goal is to make money out of a small business fast, go sell lemonade or something. E-zine publishing is purely for the love of it for a long while, and it takes a lot of effort and commitment to get to a level where you’re living from it—like a Clarkesworld, for example.
Having said all that and put a bit of a dampener on your reading experience, there are a few platforms I’ve tried out in our four years, but the three that I’d like to focus on are:
- Patreon: This is what I’m currently structuring Grimdark Magazine on—have a gander, here. When used as a subscription service and then also for exclusive subscriber content, it’s an excellent way to have a pretty good idea of the money you have coming in and when, and allows some forward planning. It’s still fairly new in the non-serial publishing game, but with our current uptake I’m confident it’s going to be a solid platform going forward. As an added bonus it’s also the platform that takes one of the lowest cuts of your income when compared to the other major distributors.
- Kindle Direct Publishing: This one is a no-brainer. Largest book market on the planet. If you’re not on it, get on it. For Grimdark Magazine, this plugs the gaps between our Patreon income and our minimum running expense requirement.
- Kickstarter: This is where you get to play at the big end of town. Done right, a Kickstarter can pull in some serious cash and let you create products you previously wouldn’t have had the capital for. It allowed us to create our 2017 Stabby Award-winning anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective and benefit from the post Kickstarter sales. If you want to read up some more on using Kickstarter, check out this article on SFF World. While the rewards are great, the flip side of Kickstarter is that you’re no longer playing with a few hundred dollars—you’re in the tens of thousands of dollars and when things go wrong they go wrong at the ball/ovary-punch level. I’m a prime example of this, which you can see through one of our Kickstarter posts from last year where I ended up sinking thousands of my own money into the project to make up for a contractor that went broke.
There are plenty of other platforms you can try, and I’m sure other publishers have better models than I do, but this is what’s working for us in the current market.
Know your strengths; recruit to cover your weaknesses
This can be hard for people to do, but you’re going to (a) do some self-reflection on what you excel at and what you don’t, and (b) trust people to do jobs better than you can. For example, I know I’m an okay line editor, but I recognise my strengths lie elsewhere in the running of Grimdark Magazine. Mike Myers is a fucking genius editor, and consistently delivers excellent editing jobs to top-tier authors accustomed to working with the best from the big publishing houses. He does it better than I could even if I trained for a decade to do it. And that’s okay. We work well as a team because of it.
Once you’ve done that and identified the roles you need to fill, it’s time to put the call-out for people to jump on board and become a part of your team. Be open and up front about what you’re offering. GdM team members are all volunteers, and they’ve known that from the outset. They receive ARCs, free books, and whatever GdM puts out and I can scrounge for them, but from day dot they’ve known there isn’t a pay check. It’s something I’ll deal with further down, but never bullshit your team. They are also your customers (spending their time and passion to support you), and they are passionate fans of whatever you’re publishing. They are your advocates and they deserve the best of you.
Finally, get the right people on board. Ask questions. Ask them to do test pieces, or reads, or marketing posts, or whatever it is. You want people who are as passionate as you are about what you’re doing because that passion is reflected to the market in every interaction—slush pile rejections, social media comments from their personal profiles, discussions with randoms in the pub. Everything.
This, I cannot stress enough. Customer service and the customer experience is the spine of any company. If your customers would rather stick their head in a bag of sweaty dicks than deal with you, then you’re going to struggle to build a positive brand, and the authors you want aren’t going to touch you with a barge-pole.
In addition, remember that customers are not just those people who pay for your e-zine. Your team are your customers. The authors and artists you buy from are customers, too. How you interact with these people matters, and can be the making or breaking of your online reputation in just the same way that your e-zine purchasing customer base can be. You look after them in any way you can, and I guarantee you they’ll do their best to help you succeed faster than you could by yourself.
Shoot for the fucking stars
When starting Grimdark Magazine I wrote a list some 50 authors long of all of the names in grimdark / dark SFF I wanted to publish. I put them in order of how much I loved their work and how badly I wanted to publish them. The top three were George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence. From there, I wrote a pitch email. Now, I’m a bid manager by trade, so when I spoke earlier about focussing on your strengths—this bit is my jam.
There are probably a stack of resources you can Google to find information on best practice for pitch emails, but in short, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and for every sentence you write ask yourself these questions:
- Why do I give a shit about that?
- Why should I trust this person?
Write a pitch email that answers those two questions in a clear and concise way with no bullshit, no vagueness, a clear message, and fair commercials, and you’re off to a flying start.
For Grimdark Magazine, that pitch email netted us a “No, thank you” from George, something similar from Joe, and a “Tell me more” from Mark. Mark Lawrence then headlined our first issue with a story about Red Kent, one of my favourite characters from the magnificent Broken Empire series. Honestly, whether it was my email, or he just had a story burning a hole in his pocket and we were the only pro-paying market to put up our hands at the time, I don’t know, but a solid pitch email gives you a good base to work from for years to come and if you can get that right author on board you can set the tone and very quickly build trust within the community.
Know when to pull back and maybe call it a day
This is the hardest part. Sometimes, you need to be able to look at your business—your pride, your happiness, your self-torture instrument, the hole your poured thousands of hours and dollars into—and say, “righto gents, let’s hang up the boots, have a pint, and move on.”
I can’t tell you when this moment is. I can’t tell you how to plan for it because fuck knows I’ve stood on the kerb and watched those moments drive on past. I probably waved at them and gave them a knowing nod as I reached into the back pocket and pulled out my credit card. But, and pay attention because it matters, apart from once with our Kickstarter I have never put more into Grimdark Magazine financially than I have been willing—and more importantly, able—to lose and never see again. So, if you have a financial line, just like when you go have a gamble on the pokies or at the footy, you’re going to need to find the fortitude to understand when you’re on the verge of plunging into a hole you’re going to struggle to get out of, and pull the plug.
What I can advise you on is, if you’re like me and when you get obsessed in something you forget there is a world around you, listen to people when they say you’re on your phone or laptop too much. Find a way to recognise when you are spinning your wheels and not achieving anything (even when you have a million things to manage this week and an inbox fifty unread emails deep). For me, it was saying to my (now, fortunately) fiancée, “I need you to grab my arm and pull me up when I get that way. I need a reality check.” In the end Grimdark Magazine, even if it achieves glory, can’t replace a loved one I’d lose by giving her only ten minutes of my time a day. Does that mean I’ll never be the Elon Musk of the publishing world? Yeah. Does that matter? No.
Now get out there and kick some arse
If the two editors who were kind enough to give me their advice all those years ago read this, I tip my glass to you, gents. I thought I could show you, and I’ve fallen short. But I’ve loved it, and I’ll keep loving it as I run out of mistakes to make. Finally, if the literary gods smile on us and we continue to deliver engaging content, and our fans keep supporting us, maybe we can even make a dime or two doing what I’ve happily paid to do for so long.
You too, can be a part of this glory. Go on. Start an e-zine.
Adrian Collins is the founder and editor-in-chief of Grimdark Magazine. You can pre-order GdM’s latest short fiction collection, Knee-Deep in Grit, here.