Comes With a Free Subscription!

Posted by 
Sierra Skye Gemma

This is the first post in a series on how writing contests function in the Canadian literary community.

Why does it seem like every Canadian literary magazine—whether online or in print, or both—sponsors a writing contest? Because most do, and here is why.

There are two major sources of operational funding for small literary arts publications: federal funding through the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial funding through the arts council in the province where the magazine is published. In Room’s case, our two major sources of operational funding are the Canada Council for the Arts (Canada Council) and the British Columbia Arts Council (BCAC).

The Room Collective is full of proactive members of the literary community and we’re always thinking of new and different ways to give the literary community a richer experience, like making contact with readers at literary events in Vancouver and Toronto, and providing online workshops for writers across the globe. Room’s side projects, which are outside of regular operations, require special funding sources—at least to get off the ground. For example, Room could not use our operations grants from Canada Council and BCAC to fund last year’s Growing Room Festival, so we sought out sponsors such as the City of Vancouver, the Access Copyright Foundation, SFU Creative Writing, and many others.

But before Room can participate in or lead any events in the community, first Room must secure operations funding to finance the day-to-day business of running a magazine. Without the magazine, nothing else is possible. So how does the financial management of a magazine work?

Typical revenue streams for a small literary arts publication in Canada include:

  • Operations funding from The Canada Council
  • Operations funding from a provincial arts council
  • Royalties from the Access Copyright Foundation, which is battling big universities on the behalf of writers and publishers in Canada to end the unfair copying and distribution of copyrighted material by post-secondary institutions
  • Employment grants or space and resources from a university, if the magazine is associated with a university. For example, PRISM international is associated with the University of British Columbia, which provides them office space and office supplies, and The Malahat Review is connected to the University of Victoria, which provides labour in the form of internships by students in the Department of Writing. Room magazine is independent and has no post-secondary backing.
  • Donations
  • Sales: subscription sales, single issue sales, advertising sales, and merchandise sales

Typical expenses for a small literary arts publication in Canada include:

  • Editorial: salaries or honoraria for editors, contributors’ fees, art and photo royalties
  • Production: layout and design, web/e-commerce costs, printing
  • Distribution: postage, shipping and handling
  • Marketing and Promotions: cost of advertising the magazine, subscription drives, single copy promotion (e.g., launch parties)
  • Overhead: staff salaries or honoraria, professional development, office rental, office supplies and equipment, phone and internet

As the former Executive Editor, Finance for PRISM international and a current member of the Room Collective, I can assure you that expenses far exceed income for each and every Canadian literary magazine. The struggle is real and it is constant. Magazines tend to fall upon two tried-and-true methods for reducing costs and increasing revenue. Magazines rely upon volunteer labour to edit and produce the magazine (reducing costs) and they run literary writing contests as a proxy for subscription drives (increasing revenue).

Subscriptions lead to increased revenue in two very important ways. The first is rather obvious: the subscriptions cost the reader money and that money is revenue for the magazine. But the other way is that federal and provincial arts councils base the grant funding of small literary magazines heavily upon their circulation numbers (i.e. their subscriptions). But magazines can’t just give away copies to increase circulation in order to receive funding. No, a certain percentage of circulation must be paid subscribers.

How does a small print publication get paid subscribers? More specifically, how do literary magazines get by in a global society that has come to devalue words (think “alternative facts”) as well as those who write them (salaries for writers have stayed stagnant since about the ‘70s—that’s my entire lifetime, or about forty years)?

In Canada, the answer is contests. If you are a writer, or even a committed reader of literary prose and poetry, you will have probably noticed that writing contests across Canada come with a “free subscription.” But writing contest entry fees are nearly always identical to the cost of a subscription. That is because writers who enter contests are not really buying an entry and getting a free subscription in return. In actuality, they are buying a subscription and getting an entry to the contest in return. Writing contests ARE the subscription drives. Writing contests fuel increased subscriptions, which improve paid circulation numbers, which lead to grants from arts councils, which pay for the day-to-day operations, which make it possible for literary magazines to exist at all.

Without writing contests, small literary magazines would never get enough paid subscriptions to ensure stable operations funding.

This summer, our Fiction and Poetry Contests did not get as many entrants as last year, so our paid subscriptions went down, and we are trying to make up for this loss with a traditional paid subscription drive. If you have the means to support the arts, if you have the drive to support feminism, if you want to see more writing from women (cis and trans), trans men, genderqueer, non-binary, and Two-Spirit writers, please consider buying a subscription, extending your subscription, or gifting a subscription in Room’s current subscription drive, on now through September 30th.

Sierra Skye Gemma is a writer and journalist, as well as a numbers nerd. She has worked in small magazine publishing since 2011, previously as the Executive Editor, Finance for PRISM international, and currently as the Contest Coordinator for Room magazine. Sierra is also the winner of the 2015 National Newspaper Award in Long Feature and the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer. She lives and writes in Vancouver, BC. Find her online at www.sierraskyegemma.com and on Twitter at @sierragemma.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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