Monday 21 October 2013

Behind the Scenes at a Literary Journal: What Do They Actually Do?

Running a literary journal is labour of love.

You think it’s going to be easy-peasy when you start it up. People submit their work. You read. You choose the vignettes you want to publish. You publish them.

Four steps. Sounds simple, right?

It’s not, really. But it’s certainly rewarding, and somehow, the more Vine Leaves grows, and the busier we get, the more hyped about it we become. Every time we send an acceptance letter out, it’s like a drug high. But it lasts so much longer, and we never experience that period of “coming down.”

Today, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into our world. Some things might get a little technical, but it doesn’t matter. I want you to see how this all works, so that when you submit your writing to a magazine, you can do so with a bit more assurance that it’s not just going into some random slush pile that barely sees the light of day. There’s a lot of work involved, and we care about you.

I’ll also break down the costs, so you can see for yourself, that any money we make is like giving water to a man stranded in the desert. Though we’re not suffering. So maybe that analogy doesn’t quite work. Let’s try this: It’s like giving water to a man stranded in the desert, though he’s still able to survive on the water of a little oasis called “We Love Our Job.” There ... that’s better.

Okay, this post is long. So if you’re out of time, maybe you’d like to bookmark it, because it’s worth coming back to when you do have time. Even if to read in short bursts.

First, let me tell you that Vine Leaves Literary Journal has just surpassed its second year anniversary. We’re still going strong and have every intention of getting bigger, bolder, and better every year. We want to last. A long time.

A few facts before I get into the nitty-gritty:
  • It’s FREE to submit.
  • It’s FREE to read.
  • We pay contributors for their work.
  • The only thing we ask a submission fee for is a contest—but this is because we need to earn enough money to match the value of the prize. Most of the time we don’t even do that and have to dig into our own pockets, but that’s okay and to be expected.
  • The anthology isn’t free. But it’s a paperback. It costs money to make, print and ship. It’s also in COLOUR, and therefore more expensive to produce. The prices we have set, however, we believe are very reasonable, and do not actually earn us much of a profit, as you will see below.
  • All staff are volunteers.
  • We receive, on average, 400 submissions every reading period.
  • Every quarter, Dawn and I spend about 50+ hours each considering the shortlist of submissions, an extra 30+ hours designing the journal, and another 20+ hours taking care of administrative tasks. We also have two readers and an assistant editor who spend time reading submissions and doing editorial tasks. Let’s add on another 20+ hours to each of their input. That’s a total of 210+ hours every three months spent keeping Vine Leaves alive. All combined, that’s a whole month of full-time work. We wouldn’t put in this amount of time without pay if we didn’t love it. Trust me.

Without further ado, let me give you a breakdown of some of the costs and tasks involved in running Vine Leaves. The reason I’m giving up all this information is because we want you to see that we’re willing to do the very best we possibly can to maintain a venue that showcases and celebrates excellent literature and art.

The Website

Cost to date: $360. This includes the annual costs of the domain name, and the use of Weebly, our webhosting service.

Tasks: Initial design and creation. Then, regular updates with every new issue, new editor, new feature, new cover art, new links, new etc,. We want to make sure that the information on the website is always comprehensive and up-to-date. There’s nothing worse than having a question and not having the answer at the place it should be. We log into it at least once a day to make a change, or a tweak, or to update something. We spend about five to ten minutes on the website, three to four times a week. That time triples when we have a new issue coming out.

Cost to date: $480. Call for submissions adverts.
Tasks: These are online avenues where we advertise
all call for submissions, and any contests we may have running. There’s no use running a literary journal if there’s nowhere people can find out about you. These ads are written, sent to the appropriate people, and paid for, all on particular scheduled dates.

Submishmash & The Online Journal

Cost to date: $120. Submishmash membership fees.

Tasks: Submishmash is a service provided to literary magazines to make receiving, reading, and accepting/declining submissions easier to tackle. But that doesn’t mean there is no work involved in setting it up. Every submission period we rewrite the automatic responses: Thank you for your submission; Default Decline; Default Accept; Default Made Our Shortlist. We also make sure these are done on a particular date so that people who start submitting work for a new reading period do not receive an email thanking them for submitting to an issue that has already been published.

In addition, once submissions have been read, we:
  • accept all the submissions we want to publish.
  • decline all the submissions that made our shortlist, but didn’t make it in, with a personal rejection.
  • decline all the submissions we don’t want to publish, and send constructive feedback to at least 20% of them. (This is important to us as part of our mandate to help writers.)
  • extract all the accepted pieces and compile them into the manuscript which will become the new issue.
  • extract all the author bios, format them, and post them to the website.
  • extract all the PayPal addresses, compile them into a separate document so we know who to pay once the issue has gone live.
  • archive all submissions, so they don’t get in the way of any new submissions coming in.
  • design the journal and upload it to the website.
  • upload all the issue’s art/photography to our Vine Leaves Facebook page.
  • write and send out a newsletter announcing the new issue and any other information we want to relay.
  • pimp the issue on social media.

The Annual Anthology

Cost to date: $882 (this does not yet reflect all the costs for this year, however). Typesetting and interior design (I just don’t have time to do this myself, though I would if I could), Lightning Source title set-up fees, ISBNs, printing costs, galleys, postage and handling, sample copies for reviewers, giveaway copies for promotion.

Tasks: Dawn and I read through all four of the year’s issues and choose our favourites, which is not an easy task considering we published them online in the first place because they were ALL our favourites. Narrowing it down to the best of the best is time consuming, and requires repetitive reading and discussion of choices. But it’s totally worth it. It always brings a smile to our faces reading all the pieces again, and it’s certainly a great reminder about why we do this.

This is how it all goes down:
  • Choose the best pieces.
  • Compile a manuscript, proofread it.
  • Assign an ISBN.
  • Send manuscript and photography to designer with house-style instructions and an idea of our “vision” for its appearance.
  • Calculate retail costs, input the data into Thorpe-Bowker, and Lightning Source.
  • Design the cover.
  • Edit the designed first proofs, and compile the contents page, send edits back to the designer.
  • Create a page for the anthology on the website.
  • Compile a list of emails for all the anthology contributors and email them to let them know that they’ve made it in.
  • Set up a public pre-order system and add it to the website.
  • Set up a deep author discount link and send it to the contributors. (We can’t afford to give copies away to each contributor at this time but we hope to be able to do this in the future.)
  • Send second proofs (PDF) to contributors to check we have spelled their names correctly and nothing has gone awry with their work.
  • Input any changes that the contributors spot.
  • Give it one last proofread, put changes through, and send to designer.
  • Upload the interior and cover to Lighting Source, hit submit, and wait for them to approve it.
  • Once LS approves it, we order a print proof, and if it's all ok, we approve it so that LS can start distributing to retailers, if not we go through the last two points again.
  • Pay all related fees.
  • Input all pre-orders into the Lightning Source system so they can be shipped to all who purchase directly through our website. These have to be done one by one. It’s quite the task!

Contest Prizes

Cost to date: Last year we awarded a spot at the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop that was worth 1550 Euro. Next year we’re giving away $500 + publication for a vignette collection. This contest will end up costing us anywhere between $700-$1000. You can’t have a contest without an awesome incentive to enter, right? If it’s not appealing to us, it’s not going to be appealing to submitters, so we do the best we can to make the prize the best possible within our means.

Tasks: Setting up the contest, acquiring judges, sending out adverts, reading—lots of reading, discussing—lots of discussing. We have to be totally sure of our choices, and we don’t just want to skim people’s work. They have paid good money to enter the contest. We give it the attention it deserves. Then comes the tasks involved after we’ve announced a winner (which is a task in itself) and will follow much of the same pattern as what is done for the anthology.

Facebook Ads

Cost to date: $190.

Tasks: Inputting the necessary information into Facebook for anything we feel could do with a little more exposure. Fiddly, and a little time consuming, but worth it, even if just to get our writers a little more attention than usual.

Contributor Fees

Cost to date: $614. We pay $5 USD to each author whose work we publish. This adds up to about 125 - 150 every quarter. From next year we will be paying in Euro as it makes more sense for me being in Greece. Though, it will still be the equivalent of $5 USD.

Tasks: Gathering authors’ PayPal emails and depositing their cash ... ONE BY ONE. Yes, it takes time. Quite a bit, actually. But I like to imagine the tiny thrill at the other end. It’s always nice to be paid for your writing, even if it is just the cost of a coffee.

The Pushcart Prize

Cost to date: 2 x standard postage to New York.

Tasks: The Pushcart Prize is for little magazine and small book press editors (print or online). Come November, we read through the "best of" anthology. Again. And choose our Top SIX pieces of work. This is even harder than choosing for the anthology! But what a great way to show appreciation for an author's work, huh?


As you can see we haven’t made much. We aren’t even close to breaking even. But we hope to change that soon. Though really, any money we make will just go straight back into the journal. And one day we hope to pay contributors professional rates. And hopefully our volunteer editors and book reviewers as well.


Costs: Well-spent time.

Tasks: Emails, emails, emails, emails, emails, coffee, emails, questions, emails, emails, praise, thank yous, THANK YOUS, emails, coffee ... ACCOMPLISHMENT ... lots of it, smiles, laughs, emails, vignettes .... and there is: A HUGE LOVE OF THE WRITTEN WORD.

We love our job. We love our writers. We love our supporters. To date we have published the works of almost 350 authors and artists. THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY. Can you believe it? We are so proud of that. And we love the work of each and every single one of them.

If you’re a fan of Vine Leaves, and feel like offering some water to the man stranded in the desert, you can do so HERE. Any amount, big or small, would be very much appreciated! Alternatively, you could purchase our 2013 annual anthology, and get some great literature and art to boot!

So how did this all way up with your expectations? Did you have any idea that this amount of work went into running a literary journal?


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  1. Really interesting to read what goes on behind the scenes. Hard work, but I love that you love it so much - and that as a writer, you understand the value of feedback for rejected stories. Feedback from editors was the main reason I was confident enough to continue submitting.

    1. Yes, that was one of the things Dawn and I really wanted to take control of. Very rarely does a magazine offer feedback. At one point the submissions started getting overwhelming and almost dropped the ball. But we took a step back and asked ourselves, why are we really doing this? That's when we hired more staff so we could still manage it.

  2. Each time we chat (or I visit here) you amaze me. You and Dawn have done a wondering service with starting up, maintaining, and nurturing Vines. I still can't believe how much you've been able to accomplish in such a short time. You both work so hard. Thanks for sharing this inside view with us!

    1. Thanks so much, Sheri! It really has been great, but I don't think we would have accomplished this much if our hearts weren't in it. Thank you for your support!

  3. Far more work and detail than I realized. Should make any writer who is accepted, at any level,, that much prouder. My humble appreciation to you, Dawn and the entire crew for ALL that you do. Where DO you find the time?

  4. You and Dawn are amazing. You've not only accomplished much in a short period of time, you've earned a reputation for producing great stuff. But, on my end, I've learned Google's new email format now puts so much of what I'm interested in under "Promotions." *sighs*

  5. Wow, you and Dawn are definitely amazing. That's so much work! I give you both a ton of credit.

  6. I love seeing behind the curtain like this. You definitely have great business sense.

    1. Can't run a business, especially a non-profit, if it isn't something you love. Thanks, Michael!

  7. Wow, I am in total awe. That is a ton of work. When do you and Dawn sleep?

    1. Ha! I could ask you the same thing, Alex. :-P

  8. I never imagined it was easy but that sounds like a mountain of work, most of which you're doing for free. I'm with Alex, in awe.

    1. Thank you! It's fun though, so most of the time it doesn't really feel like work. Only tedious things like excel spreadsheets and such feel like work, but with every good come the bad, right?

  9. As a fellow lit mag editor, I definitely appreciated reading this post. It always takes more time, effort, and money than you think it will! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you for allowing me a peek behind the curtains. You guys are amazing.
    Your are driven by passion... it shines through in this post!
    Writer In Transit

  11. As a regular reader, admirer and prospective contributor of Vine Leaves, I think you do a great job of putting together each issue as well as the anthology. I hope to feature Vine Leaves Journal among my publication credits soon!

    1. Cheers, gargimehra! And we look forward to reading your submission!

  12. Jessica, Dawn, and Staff,

    Thanks so much for the investment in time, money, quality control, and enthusiasm that you put forth to nurture your baby--Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

    Sue Ann Connaughton

    1. Sue, you are a darling. Thank you so much for your support. And we are SO proud to have "Lamentation" associated with our journal. How's that for memory? :-)


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