Interview with Josh Melrod about financing a literary magazine

Issue 2Tonight The Land-Grant College Review holds a fundraiser for the third issue at The Tank in Manhattan.

Beer and cigarettes are free. And there will be, editors Josh Melrod and Dave Koch have agreed, no readings.

I’ve been a fan of Land-Grant since its first issue, so I tracked Melrod down this week and asked him some questions about the fundraiser, the logistics of financing a literary magazine, and what readers can expect in the future. In the interview below, he answers my questions and talks about the magazine’s new Board of Directors (which includes Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and Nelly Reifler) and a forthcoming short story contest that will be judged by Aimee Bender.

Let’s start with the free booze and cigarettes: it’s a brilliant plan for bringing the kids out on a Thursday night, but given the way people drink and smoke in this city I’m wondering how you guys manage to break even.

Well, the first part of the plan is to get a handful of people to donate a few dollars each for beer. After that it’s just a matter of being a smart shopper. If you look around you can buy a lot of beer without having to pay a fortune. (We buy the cigarettes out of state to save money, too.)

Before I moved here, I imagined going to readings every night. Then I moved here, and there were readings every night — some of them outstanding — and I discovered the sad truth that too many readings spoil the fun of going. That’s especially true when eight or nine readers get on stage back to back and all read a highly experimental story in a monotone.

Nowadays I try to limit myself to two or three readings a month, so I can enjoy the ones I do see. (It was different in Florida, where readings were a rare occurrence and had a lively community feel, and based on Mark Sarvas’ reports I think it’s different in L.A., too.)

So, anyway, for this fundraiser you guys have dispensed with readings altogether, replacing them with a band, and the free drinks and smokes. You did this for the second issue launch party, too. How’d it work out?

There’s a lot of reasons that we stopped having readings at our fundraisers and launch parties, the main one being that we want a lot of people to come. We learned from experience that more people show up when there’s beer and music instead.

We wanted our launch party to be a party. We had a good crowd and people seemed to have fun, and we were able to raise a little money, so it was a good time all around.

For the record, we’re not anti-readings. All of us like to read our work in front of an audience. You’re right though, most aren’t that great. And great writers aren’t always great readers. We tend to see a lot of the same people over and over again – to the point where I can practically recite some of their stories. But there are very good readings, very good literary events in the city, I just don’t think that because we’re a literary magazine we have to hold one at all of our events.

Hear, hear. If it’s not too rude to ask, approximately how much does it cost to design, print and distribute an issue of a literary magazine like LGCR?

It costs a lot of money. Several thousand dollars per issue. And it’s only costing us more as time goes on. We’re doing some new things with the artwork for the next issue, giving it a more sophisticated look, and that’s costing us. We think it’s going to be worth it, but we have to do a lot of work to cover the cost. That’s why the fundraiser.

And we’re doing other things to raise money. Over the last six months we’ve been putting together a Board of Directors, which we haven’t really announced yet, that includes Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Stephen Clair, a musician and freelance fundraiser, Susan Isack, who ran a successful not-for-profit group in D.C., Nelly Reifler, writer and contributor to the magazine, as well as Dave and I. They’ve already been a huge help in getting us serious about raising money.

That’s a formidable board. What kinds of fundraising suggestions have people been making?

Well, the kind of fundraiser we’re having tonight (Thursday night) was endorsed by our board members — they gathered volunteers to help out and provided small donations for the beer, etc. We’re going to have a short-short story contest in a couple of weeks, which Aimee Bender’s going to judge, and they helped put that together. And we’re going to hold some smaller fundraisers early next year which board members will host. That kind of thing.

Lots of writers consider launching literary publications of their own. What are some of the unexpected pitfalls, money-wise and otherwise?

Unexpected Pitfalls would be a good name for a literary magazine. One problem with being a small non-profit organization and having no prior business experience is that there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there looking to take advantage of our naivete. But that aside, everything cost more and was harder than we thought it would be (printing, layout, distribution). The only thing to do is learn fast and try to think like a real business person.

Did you guys have a model in mind when you launched LGCR?

Story Magazine was great and it’s a shame that it’s not around anymore. They published stories and not much else and you could count on reading something really good in every issue. That’s as close to a model as we have. But we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we started this. Any nonprofit that’s sustainable and does something interesting or worthwhile, is a model as far as we’re concerned.

Have you accepted any stories for the next issue? And if so, can you talk about them?

We’ve accepted some great stories for Issue No. Three, which is going to be really excellent all around and a little different from what we’ve done before. But, no, I can’t talk about them just yet.

Have fun, Josh. Wish I could be there.


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