The Economics of Starting a Literary Journal

(Even if the fiction contained therein can not really be considered literary)

I’m still considering launching a fiction ‘zine. I spent several hours over the past few days considering what it would really cost to do it right. I built myself a spreadsheet with every variable I can think of to see at what point it could become profitable. Now, I understand many of these type of projects are run purely for the love of the craft, but I’m a dad with four growing kids, so I’m not interested in just dumping a lot of money into a hobby. But I am willing to spend some.

Also, I would want to do this thing right, I don’t want it to look like crap.


I’m going to start with my goal of 10 stories averaging 3,000 words each. That’s 30,000 words of fiction needing to be paid for. Professional rates start a $0.06 / word. That can get expensive fast. This would be $1,800 in author payments. Another option would be to offer less per word or perhaps some kind of flat payment per story. I’ve seen a couple of journals offering $15 or $20 for a story, so I’d at least offer $25. I’m not going to ask a bunch of authors to let me run their work for free. (However, I would totally help put together some kind of short story anthology where authors donated works for free and basically use the collection as advertising…)

Author costs: about $250 (for flat fee) to $1,800+ (for pro rates)

There are some other more static costs, like buying an ISBN (or block of them), paying an artist to do a cover, a new domain and hosting, and a couple more of probable administrative costs. All in all, I figure it to be in the neighborhood of $500.

Fixed costs: about $500

There are several ways to fund this sort of thing, and I’m going to consider two. Crowdfunding and self-funding. If I crowd fund, then I’m going to make the assumption that about 30% of backers will go for the print version, and 70% will go for ebook only.

Considering how to price the magazine is a whole new beast. I’d want to keep the cost down as much as possible. After all, It’s not likely to be a large page count. After all, nobody knows me or my magazine, so if I lower the bar to entry, maybe they’d be willing to take a chance. I’d love to get some feedback as to what people would be willing to pay (especially for the print version). For now, I’m assuming low, $2.99 for an ebook and $6.99 for printed.

30,000 words laid out at 300 words per page is about 100 printed pages.  POD magazine printer MagCloud quotes me $20-$21 per copy as a base fee for a mag of that length. So, you know, that’s right out. So if I want to be able to have a variable amount of copies printed, that means createspace or lulu. I love them both, but createspace’s pricing is a little better, and between my own stuff and some people I’ve helped, I’ve already published a dozen titles there, so I’m comfortable with the process. For a 100 page book (which I’ll call a magazine) with black and white interiors, it costs $3.55 per copy to print. Now, if I did a larger print run, I know I can find magazine printers online that would charge from $1.85 ~ $5.75 per copy. So that could come down a bit if I had a large enough crowdfunded campaign. There’s also printers that would do paperback books similar to the createspace ones near that same cost. SO I’ll use createspace’s numbers as a starting point then.

Printing costs: $3.55 per copy


Now that I’ve considered all of that, it’s time to answer some financial questions.

What would my crowdfunding goal need to be?

Let’s assume the 30% physical backers I mentioned earlier, and include some fulfillment costs (shipping) and other fees (most crowdfunding sites take 5%, plus Credit Card processing is 3-5%)

To pay the authors, the fixed fees, and printing costs, the goal would need to be a hair over $4,000. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, if the only rewards offered are the two levels, $2.99 and $6.99, then this calculates out to 368 physical book backers and 856 ebook only backers. (1224 total backers). The only campaigns I’ve seen that hit those kind of numbers for a literary journal are run by an established player, namely Lightspeed magazine. Raising the ebook price to $4.99 and the printed to $9.99, I’d only need half as many backers (615 total). That starts to look sort of reachable. And if I could come up with some higher dollar backing plans? Well, that’s be even better. If I self-funded the endeavor, I’d need 5-7% less of starting capital, but still need to sell that many copies.

What if I cheaped out?

Well, if I pay less than I had budgeted for art and do the $25 per story thing, then I could make the magazine happen for about $550 dollars. That is definitely in the range of self-funding possibility. I would need to sell 262 ebook copies at $2.99 and only 157 at $4.99 to break even. Possibly a few less if I crowdsourced. I’d pick up the crowdssourcing fees, but I could deliver ebooks for free, meaning I don’t need to pay 30% in royalties to amazon kdp on a sale.

Maybe I could do a campaign with a sliding pay rate for authors based on goals met.

So what have I decided?

Nothing yet. I still have more to research and think about. It is somewhat helpful to put it down in words, though, so maybe I’ll keep blogging about it.

1 thought on “The Economics of Starting a Literary Journal

  1. The plot thickens. Interesting points. I kind of run into this every time I start thinking about magazines and stuff too; or even self-publishing via CreateSpace or whatever. I want to create a handful of hardbound books but I’m scared witless of the process of making a PDF which looks good in print. It comes across as fussy, touchy work. Even my beloved Scrivener requires a LOT of playing with to get it right.

    Still, maybe you can do it. It’s a great fun idea, but how will you sustain it? Remember Absent Willow Press? Yeah, no one else does either, probably.

    Keep blogging about it. I like reading your thoughts. I don’t know if I write in this genre or not, but if I ever write again, I’ll consider donating a story or two to help you get going.

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