Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

tbnl Magazine – rates experiment for the first issues

Posted by shannonclark on February 11, 2009

This past weekend I led a small discussion about tbnl Magazine and the process I’m undertaking to publish a new print magazine today at BIL 2009.

One of the ideas which I’ve been thinking a great deal about is how to set the pay rates for tbnl Magazine – for the first issues and for later issues. How can I do this in a manner which is fair to all, sustainable as a business model in the long term, sufficient to attract (and reward) great writers, and inclusive of the rights of photographers and illustrators as well as writers?

First some background based on rates based on my research so far – please update/correct this in the comments below!

Fiction Rates:

  • Over $0.05/word is considered fairly “high” with few publications offering >$0.07/word
  • Many fiction markets pay a small, flat per story rate or pay only in copies of the publication
  • Even with these low rates, open submission policies garner 1000’s of submissions to many publications
  • Rates for poetry considerably lower than for short fiction with a per poem fixed rate most typical
  • Few markets accept stories of >7000 words

Non-fiction Rates:

  • “Low” is, at least in some markets, considered $1.00/word with $1.50-2.00/word more “normal”
  • Flat per-article rates are also not uncommon for smaller publications but are often something like $500 for a ~750 word column
  • However there are also many markets which pay $10-50/article for non-fiction (yes ~10x less than “low” rates)
  • Unclear how rates vary based on wordcount, many current publications have very low wordcounts for most articles (<1000 words, often <700 words) with long form articles being exceptions
  • Rates for web only writing (“professional” blogging) considerably lower than print non-fiction rates

Academic Rates:

  • In general academic writers expect to PAY (not be paid) for publication (costs typically born by research grants)
  • Academic “payment” is more accurately in the form of peer review which in turn leads to more grants and tenure
  • Some academics may be restricted from accepting payment
  • Others (business school professors, economists etc) may be paid for non-academic writings (for business publications etc)

Photography & Illustration Rates:

  • Varies considerably by genre of publication and use of image i.e. cover photos pay more, fashion photography pays more than music or sports, news photography/photojournalism varies widely
  • Competes with stock photography which is often used for illustration purposes – and which can be as low at $1.00/image from online stock photography sources
  • Online image rates tend to be lower than print image rates (at least for photography)
  • Different categories here – photography, illustration (artistic), and illustration (charts & informational graphics) with somewhat varying rates (but which I need to research in greater detail!)

So where does that lead tbnl Magazine?

I think the typical approach today is to have highly variable rates based on the type of content, though often publications focus on just one (primarily) type of author (only fiction w/small selection of reviews or other low rate non-fiction for example). I suspect, but do not know for sure, that magazines such as Granta pay for fiction & non-fiction at similar (relatively low) rates.

The relationship between rates and the number of a given issue which is printed is also unclear to me at present – other than the obvious that high circulation publications typically pay among the highest rates, low circulation publications pay among the lowest rates.

Ideally I would like to pay all contributors at a relatively similar rate – though I also recognize that the word counts for great writing differ from type of writing – I’d rather reward a non-fiction author for writing a short but very compelling story over an overly wordy article which is less compelling to read. Likewise I want to get fiction which is the length needed to tell the story – but also short enough to be read comfortably at one sitting – i.e. tbnl Magazine will not, at least initially, be publishing novellas or other longer forms of fiction writing.

I also feel strongly that one of the virtues of a great magazine, of the magazines I prefer to read, is that the images in the magazine enhance the experience of that magazine – they add to the stories they are a part of and serve more than just a design portfolio purpose.

At the same time I also want to focus on great typography and a consistent look and feel from page to page and issue to issue – if reducing the amount of photography & illustration helps to achieve this I consider it a worthwhile decision. My goal is NOT to have a heavily “designed” magazine – ala Wired or indeed many current magazines which offer different layouts and visual design for nearly every story and feature they publish.

Instead my model is magazines which have a more consistent, focused on the text, look and feel but where illustration and images used spareingly do serve a valuable purpose for individual stories.

Keeping all this in mind here is my current – and very much subject to change – thinking about rates for tbnl Magazine’s first few issues (at least issues 1 & 2, perhaps also 3 & 4)

  • All contributors will receive one payment based on the first 2000 copies of tbnl Magazine to be printed
  • All contributors will then receive further payments (royalties as it were) based on additional sales of that issue (print-on-demand or digital) in multiples of 1000 copies (or on a pro-rated basis each year until the issue is no longer in print)
  • Contributors can choose not to be paid (either at all or after some amount) directing instead those payments either to a charity or back to tbnl Magazine
  • This will apply to all contributors regardless of genre of submissions

So what rates is tbnl Magazine going to pay for the first issues?

My current thinking is as follows, this is based on an assumption of ~30,000 words of writing in each of the first few issues (for an approximately 80 page, magazine sized publication).

Base rate of $0.10/word for Fiction & Non-Fiction (i.e. $100/1000 words) with a $75 minimum (so even articles shorter than 750 words will get $75) + 5 copies of the magazine for all contributors.

Base rate of $200/image for photos or original illustrations (including info graphics) we commission. If we decide to use images on the cover (I’m considering a typographic design) then that work would likely be paid at a higher rate, probably at least $400.

This means that for a typical issue of tbnl Magazine the words in the issue will cost us ~$3000/issue and assuming at least one image per article another $1000-2000/issue for images & cover artwork. Thus, roughly speaking, a per-issue content cost of about $5000 for the first 2000 copies.

This is a very high rate (relatively speaking) for typical fiction markets, it is a low rate, relatively speaking for at least some non-fiction markets. For a given issue I may rethink my balance of types of stories based on what has been submitted or proposed – some issues may have more than 1/3 of the magazine as fiction for example. For non-fiction I realize this rate may not be high enough to cover some of the expenses of covering a given story or the time and research certain stories take – we will welcome writings on topics a writer has published about elsewhere – provided that what is submitted to tbnl Magazine is original and not restricted by that prior sale (i.e. the research was not done as work-for-hire for example).

For every 1000 additional copies sold (print-on-demand or digital) we would then pay an additional $0.05/word to all authors and $50/image to artists.

This is, of course, assuming that the margin we can fetch on a per-issue basis for print-on-demand (as well as the net proceeds from each digital copy sold) allows for those payments. For this to work the net margin per issue sold will have to be at least $4.00/issue most likely.

Unfortunately this likely means that though I like their model in many ways the numbers don’t add up to use magcloud. An 80 page publication at $0.20/page (assuming they do charge per side of a page) would have a base cost of $16/issue, to net at least $4/issue would require that we sell each issue for $20 + shipping as print-on-demand. My gut tells me that the price needs to be closer to $10-12/issue with probably an upper limit of $15 to be workable.

I am also assuming, at least for the moment, that advertisers will not pay us on a per 1000 additional copy basis, though that when we consistently reach higher per-issue numbers and have more detailed demographic details about our readers we will be able to raise rates for advertising.

As I said, these are only initial thoughts – I welcome feedback and reactions. My underlying goal is to be able to publish a magazine every story of which I would want to read myself – and which as a whole tells a story every issue – one which rewards reading the issue cover to cover and which stands a test of time – being interesting and relevant for at least many years.

I do not expect tbnl Magazine to pay anyone enough to make a full living, but likewise I do want it to be a part of a comfortable living on the behalf of every contributor – I want tbnl Magazine to garner great works from many contributors.

Based on an estimate of $5/copy short print run costs, a 2000 issue initial print run, and $5000 in content costs, this suggests that we need to raise around $20,000 to publish issue #1. Suggesting a price of $20/issue and a target of 1000 issue #1 subscribers. (this only leaves about $3000 for design & other startup costs assuming ~$1500-2000 in shipping costs). ~100 issues would be given to contributors leaving about 900 issues for promotional purposes (or sale at select retail or at events we hold in the future). $25,000 would probably be a better initial target (very achievable with 1000 subscribers at $20/issue for the first issue + 5-15 advertisers at ~$500/ad.

Of course I will be researching printing costs in greater detail and will be looking for <$5/issue options and we could look at even lower initial issue numbers (both for cost of content & number of copies printed) to keep startup costs even lower.

What are your thoughts about these numbers?


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