Ten Things That Really Worked to Help me Set Up a Literary Magazine

We (myself and Steve Nash) are currently reading submissions for issue five of Spelt Magazine, the magazine I founded just over a year ago. Spelt is a print magazine in which we seek to celebrate and validate the rural experience through poetry, creative non fiction, author interviews, columnists and writing prompts. We’ve made it through a whole year, which is a huge milestone, and we are excited about our second year, which will involve further growth, more platforms and, hopefully, some extra funding. Starting and running a magazine, especially a print magazine, is definitely a labour of love. But It is also incredibly rewarding. It’s a thrilling feeling to be part of the writing and publication journeys of other writers, and to provide a platform for people, and to create something that is so very aesthetically pleasing, it is a great source of joy for me, and something that we are very proud of. It seemed crazy to start this magazine during a pandemic, but it really has helped to give purpose and stability in times when there was none. if you are thinking about starting your own lit. mag, here are ten things that really worked to help us reach our goals and stay motivated.

  1. Have a Plan

Not everybody is a planner fan, but I am. Having a solid plan helped to make this a reality, was something to refer back to when it got a bit overwhelming and helped me to take the magazine seriously. I’d been thinking about starting a magazine a few years before I actually did it. I got some experience editing other magazines, got myself into a position of feeling competent as published writer, an editor of manuscripts and an editor of magazines, then started thinking about what was important to me in terms of values and ethics. Running a magazine can be a long term project, especially if you decide to take subscriptions, so it’s important to have a magazine that you are in love with. Then I started planning out the logistics of the magazine. Here’s my original plan:

I’ve blurred out a lot of it, but you can see I’ve put the name of the magazine in the middle, then split my plan into four. One of those sections is costing for the initial set up, one is a rough five year plan, one is a mission statement for the magazine and one is a step by step list of what needs to be done and when. This was a rough plan, and I grew other plans from this seed once I had worked out where I wanted to go with the magazine. But this was the plan that I referred to most, because it was the place at which I was really passionate and committed to getting the magazine off the ground.

2. Be Unique

Anyone can start a literary magazine. Especially with the growth of online magazines, some of which are very very good, but anyone can start an online magazine on a free wordpress site. There are many, many literary and poetry magazines out there, so what will set yours apart from the rest. Is it enough to ‘just’ platform really good writing? I wanted to do something special with Spelt, something that would reflect the community that I come from as a working class rural person, something that was not elitist, but also not dumbed down. What is the gap that needs to be filled? don’t be afraid to be a bit niche.

3. Print or online?

This is an important question. I thought a great deal about whether Spelt would be online or in print. There are up sides and down sides to both. The main one is cost, Spelt costs money to produce, and where that money comes from has to be factored in. I am always on a treadmill of raising the funds to produce the magazine which is a job in itself, but the magazine looks amazing, it brings me joy to think of it on the bookshelves of the British library, in bookcases up and down the country and abroad. And as a poet I know the absolute thrill of seeing your name in print in a high quality print magazine. However, online magazines can be equally high quality, but with reduced start up and running costs. You still need to put the time into running the magazine, but don’t have the stress of the money and printing and delivering and postage and all of the other things that take a lot of time.

4. Where is the capital coming from?

If you’re going for a print magazine you will need to have the funds to get the first issue off the ground. This might come out of your own pocket, but most of us don’t have bags of magazine money lying about the place. We crowdfunded £1600 to start Spelt and that got the first copy to the printers, ensured the second issue would be partially funded and helped us fund some bits and pieces like zoom (for launches and further down the road workshops etc) and some of that went into launching our first competition. You might try the Arts Council, or you might try getting small companies to help fund it for advertising space. Make sure you cost everything out so you know exactly what it is going to cost. We run Spelt on a shoe string, but every bit of money we have in the magazine comes from somewhere. Use the capital well, grow it to help you keep your magazine going.

5. Partner Up

Running a magazine is very hard work. I asked Steve to be my Co ed because he is a brilliant poet and communicator, a really nice and genuine person and he is really good with tech. We make a good team because we have different skills, but some of those skills over lap. He has an excellent eye for layout too. It is such a relief to have someone there on the journey with me, someone who I get on well with and who has the skills to do all the complicated techy stuff from the off. He’s also someone I can moan to about magazine stuff. Steve is great and I know that I can rely on him. He copes well with my caffeine fuelled early morning messages about what we should do next with Spelt. Having a Steve is essential to any magazine. Not just because I can hand over bug chunks of work to Steve, but because I have someone to celebrate with too. Steve works as a teacher, and I am self employed and being able to move work between us when we have more or less time is a life saver.

6. Be realistic with your time

A literary magazine will eat your ‘free’ time. Be realistic, right from the start about how much time you are willing to spend on it. I spend around ten to fifteen hours a week, sometimes in the daytime, mostly at weekends, getting the magazine put together. It is a huge commitment, but that’s because of the type of magazine we produce. If you don’t have lots of time to spend on it a smaller, easier to manage magazine is probably the way to go. If the magazine takes more time than you expected or had budgeted for it will quickly become a chore rather than a joy, and that’s not what you want.

7. Protect your mental health

This is a biggie. Once you are on your magazine journey you will find a whole range of stuff to stress about. Mostly I stress about letting people down. I had to work really hard to place boundaries around my time and to tell myself that no one will die if I am a week late getting a submissions response to them. Also, and this pains me to say, be prepared for the nasties. My little rural themed magazine often gets weird and nasty submissions. In my previous role editing another print magazine for someone else, we had racist hate mail directed at the previous editor. With Spelt there is sometimes a sense of entitlement over submissions. I’ve had a couple of angry ‘Don’t want to be in your shit magazine anyway’ responses to rejections (par for the course, it’s an emotional time for some writers to be rejected, if a writer is unable to moderate their emotional response to a gentle rejection that really is their problem to work on, not mine) but I’ve also had accusations of racism over a misspelt name, (turns out the guy is a well known literary fraud so unfortunately he is now blacklisted. ) I had one person furiously rip us to bits on twitter because we hadn’t sent the zoom link for an event for which the person had got the wrong day. No apology, over it, which is just rude. I’ve also had the most hideous rape and murder based poetry submissions, which took the form of threats directed at me, and when I told the writer to stop sending them as we wouldn’t ever accept his work, and that his ‘poems’ could be construed as direct physical threats against me he retaliated by calling me an ugly c*nt. This was the only time I felt unnerved enough to feel slightly unsafe. I was pro active and involved the writing community, kept a log and was ready to inform the police about this. I also did my own research so I knew exactly where this person was from and who had published him previously. What can you do? Twats are gonna twat. Perhaps it is because I am a woman editor. I wonder how many male editors receive rape threats? But I do know that all editors whatever their sex receive shite from people. Remember to feel sorry for the person who feels so small in their own life that they have to make themselves bigger by attempting to reduce another person. Being able to be safe and aware whilst not letting these tiny instances of atrocious behaviour spoil the enjoyment of running the magazine is key, but do be prepared, as you grow and become more well known, to draw weirdoes and twats towards you, like a magnet. Just so you know, for every one person being a twat, there are thirty odd having their day made by what you are doing. It’s really easy to focus on the bad, being prepared and armoured and actively thinking about the good stuff is the key to not getting beaten by it.

8. Be prepared for things to go wrong.

They will. Mistakes are made, we are human. People will pull their work from you at the last minute because it has been taken elsewhere, despite you specifically asking for no simultaneous submissions. Printers will be delayed, paper stocks will change price, the whole flipping fiasco of sending stuff to Europe, all these things. But they are just things, they are not your fault. See above, it is a literary magazine that you will mostly likely be running for free, so don’t stress about it too much. Just do your best.

9. Be humble

Difficult to do when you run the world’s best rural themed magazine *inserts winking emoji*. What I mean by that is, if you make a mistake, admit it, do something about it. If you upset a contributor or reader, apologise. Remember that the magazine isn’t really about you at the end of the day, it’s about the work that is in it, and you are in a unique and humbling position when you take people’s hard won poems to put in your magazine. If you think something would be better slightly edited, suggest it to them, but don’t just change it. The editor’s role is to work with the contributors. This is where being a published writer yourself comes in handy as it means that you can really see things from the contributor’s point of view. We always give a date of when we should have a submissions response and ask people to chase up if they haven’t heard, usually it’s because we’re late getting through the inbox and I welcome being able to tell people that. Treat your writers as people, and remember that there will be other magazines they’ll want to submit to if it’s a no. While I am wary of very quick turnarounds in literary mags (I like to sit with the poems for a few days), I hate to be waiting for more than twelve weeks myself as a writer, so we try and get responses out in no more than eight weeks, but life has a habit of scuppering plans. This month, for example, I’m dealing with my dad’s oesophageal cancer diagnosis, which is very serious and has obviously reduced my hours to spend on the magazine, but also I’m quite emotionally drained so the magazine is getting less attention. We don’t always get Spelt right, because we are human beings learning as we go, but I hope we always apologise when we get it wrong.

10. Know where you are going and how to get there

I have a five year plan for Spelt and it keeps me motivated. Treat your magazine as a business, even if it makes no money, work out how to grow so that you don’t sink or disappear. One mistake I see a great deal in the literary magazine and publishing industry is being too reliant on blocks of external funding. Spelt is self sustaining, as long as I sacrifice my time to it. I’d love to be paid for that time, but that will take years and I want the contributors to be paid before I am, which is also taking time. Spelt isn’t a vanity project, but it’s got to grow into its boots, the magazine has to be sustainable and safe before i can start reliably paying people. We do offer contributor copies, but we’d like to go further. We’ll be applying for ACE funding this year expand and to add to the platforms already in place, so that we can speed up that growth, but we have absolutely no intention of being reliant on being funded every year. It would make the magazine too vulnerable and I feel we have a commitment to the contributors and subscribers to make sure the magazine is robust. We’re in our second year now, so still right at the start of our journey, but I do feel we are doing ok, more than ok, we are doing some good work here, we are more than just a literary magazine, we are a kind of movement. And it feels great to be a part of that movement.

Want to help us grow? Subscriptions are available on our website: Spelt subscriptions

Until next time


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