Q&A: How to Run a Successful Online Literary Mag

In a world where "starting an online literary magazine" often involves nothing more than changing your subheader to read "…a magazine of dreamers and poets, full of flights of fancy," the online literary magazine Guernica stands out like, well, the intimidating cultural, artistic, and political force it is. The magazine has been around for 10 years — a century in Internet time — and after a decade as an all-volunteer staff, Guernica just hired their first full-time, paid employee, publisher Lisa Lucas. This summer, they're busily putting together their first-ever print edition to celebrate a decade of being the baddest online-only lit mag on the New York City block.

But running a literary magazine — even a highly successful literary magazine — isn't easy. Co-founder and editor-in-chief Michael Archer has "never been paid a nickel" during his decade-long tenure with Guernica, and although the magazine is doing well (see: first full-time paid employee), not even Guernica is immune to all the literary woes that everyone in the industry is wringing their hands about: Nobody reads! Print is dead! What happened to the novel? Why is James Franco publishing poetry? Where in the world is le mot juste?

Archer isn't worried, though. Guernica was built to appeal to a small but passionate group of readers, and those folks aren't going anywhere. I talked to Archer and Lucas about where the magazine's been, where it's going, and how they kinda sorta finance it all.

BUSTLE: Can you tell me the story of Guernica? How did the magazine come about?

Michael Archer: My friend and co-founder Joel Whitney and I were both living in New York, getting our MFAs. In the MFA scene, it's almost a requirement to attend readings — and they are, for the most part, pretty boring. You find yourself just waiting to get to the part where you can have wine. So we started our own reading series with the idea of trying to make readings fun, something people actually look forward to. We had a cocktail hour before the readings, and if you wanted to get a drink while someone was reading, no one would take offense. Afterward, we would have live music. The readings were in the basement of a bar called Guernica.

Guernica was downtown in Manhattan and — this is the part that people always love about our story — the bar is now defunct. This was shortly after Bloomberg passed the smoking ordinance, and somebody was smoking in the bar, and the bouncer took umbrage and was stabbed to death.

So we had this idea of trying to start an online magazine. I'm not sure at the time we were thinking it would be around for 10 years, but we had things we wanted to say. Beth Onusko and Josh Jones came on, and the four of us knew we wanted it to be about our general interests, which included art, politics, longform journalism, reportage, personal essays, fiction, poetry, etc. We chose the name "Guernica" because we had somewhat of a following, at least in New York, from the reading series, and the name made sense in terms of art and politics.

Today, everyone's starting online literary magazines. But in 2004, it had to be a totally different feeling. Did you feel like you were the only ones doing this? Was it exciting? Did it feel crazy?

Because all four of us were writers, there was this sort of urge at first, like, “Oh, maybe this is a means to do print.” Obviously Salon, Slate, and the older online publications were there, so there was some online presence, but they were so different than us in a lot of ways. Certainly it was exciting. Partly what was exciting was this idea of, "Here's a forum where you get to place content that matters to you, things that you think are important." We had a lot of support from our mentors and friends, so Guernica also became a way to be able to talk to people we admire — or ask people we admire for work. I believe for our very first interview, Joel was able to get Howard Zinn. A lot of our early contributions were coming from people we knew — Joel had studied with Richard Howard and Billy Collins in grad school, so we had early poetry translations from Billy Collins. That part was super exciting; it gave you an excuse to talk to people you admire.

Why has Guernica survived? So many online mags have folded over the past 10 years. What makes you different?

Well, I think Guernica is good. [Laughs] Part of it is persistence, obviously, especially because since we're an all-volunteer-run organization, you have to love it. I've never been paid a nickel in 10 years of Guernica, so in order to have that kind of stamina, you have to care.

I also think it helps that we've never been a content factory. Some publications feel like they have to have 30 pieces up a day, and we just didn't have the bandwidth for that from the start, and then it never became our top priority. Our top priority was telling stories well. I think that has something to do with the quality, which has something to do with the longevity. Everybody that volunteers for the magazine cares. It can be exhausting, because everyone has their own jobs and is writing their own things, and still taking the time to write and or edit for Guernica for free. It's a lot of persistence.

Our top priority was telling stories well. I think that has something to do with the quality, which has something to do with the longevity.

What have you seen change in the publishing world over the past 10 years?

I think it was our 3rd year when we had this notion of putting together an anthology of our first three years in print. The reason that we ended up not doing it was because our advisors were saying, "What the hell are you doing? Publishers and magazines are going broke, everyone's sprinting to have an online presence, and here you are, already ahead of the game and doing something really well. Why are you thinking about doing analog?"

So that's one thing — today, every publication places a much bigger importance on their online presence. Ten years ago, there was more of a debate about the legitimacy of work that was published online, whether it was said out loud or not. I remember if you got a piece accepted by a magazine (as a writer), you wanted to know, "Is this going to be in the print edition or online?" In some writer's minds — and mine at the time, too — if something was just going to appear online it was somehow less legitimate.

Now — and I'd like to think Guernica has had some small part in this — this isn't a debate anymore. I think anybody who says that would be laughed out of the room. Come on. Some of the best writing that we read every year, not just in Guernica but all over, has appeared online. I don't think anybody today can make a case that work that appears in print is better.

The one thing that people would say, though, is that print can still pay $2 a word, etc. Do you think that makes online writing somehow unsustainable in the long term?

I suspect all of that is going to catch up. Ultimately, the writer is being paid for the amount of readers he's bringing in, or the advertising that's generated, etc. The pieces that get read on Guernica get notes from all over the world, letters from readers and so on. Depending on a given print run and where the print is being distributed, I don't know that that's the case for print, in terms of reach.

I feel like those things tend to work themselves out. It just seems inevitable.

[I asked about Guernica's financial side, and Michael directed me to Lisa Lucas, the publisher — and Guernica's first full-time staffer — who said:]

Lisa Lucas: We're been risk averse for a really long time, and my coming on as a full-time staffer was the biggest financial risk we've taken in awhile. See, we're from a very clear tradition of magazines, but also — we're a nonprofit. Instead of thinking about being a successful or sustainable magazine or literary journal, we're really trying to become a sustainable nonprofit. Sometimes we don't talk about it in those terms, because we're a magazine, but — we're a 501(c)(3).

Everybody talks about sustainable literary journals, but the marketplace doesn't support this stuff. Foundations do, and individual donors do, and bodies like the National Endowment for the Arts do. These are the things that have kept a lot of organizations like us alive.

Why is a donation to Guernica tax-deductible? One, we're providing content for free, but two, we have a really strong social justice bent. We're engaged in the work of making the world a better place.

On a day to day basis, Michael, what does your role as editor-in-chief look like?

Michael Archer: During the school year, I teach English and Speech at City College, both undergrad and graduate. During the summer, I freelance. And then I run the magazine year round, obviously.

Guernica takes up 35 hours a week, I'd say. The majority of my hours go to editorial. We have the Guernica Daily team, which is terrific, and they're putting out something five days a week. Generally when I get up, I'll read through what they've put out, and give them feedback.

We publish on the 1st and the 15th of every month, unless those dates fall on the weekend, in which case we publish on the following Monday. For the four to five days leading up to an issue, that's when the managing editor and I will be reading through every piece and making any last-minute tweaks, while the art directors are choosing art and that sort of thing. Once the issue is published, I'm already reading through pieces that other editors have sent for us to consider for the upcoming issues. There's a lot of meeting and talking.

We have a small office in Manhattan. Editorially, none of us go in there every day — we all work online and by phone, so there's a lot of phone calls, talking to editors about what they have in the pipeline. Managing editor Hillary Brenhouse and I are in a platonic marriage. We probably speak 10 times a week.

I'm curious what your MFA experience was like. Did you enjoy it? Are you supportive of MFA culture? I just finished reading MFA vs. NYC , and you've had a foot in both worlds, so I have to know.

It's interesting that you said “culture,” because to me, the best part about an MFA program — which is the best part about NYC — was the culture, being surrounded by writers. I came from L.A., where I was freelancing for magazines, and it was great. I sat in a Hermosa Beach apartment and typed up profiles on Lucy Liu and went to the beach and had my lunch. But in terms of a culture, a community of writers, it's really difficult to find in L.A.

Writing can be so isolating, so it's nice to feel engaged with the MFA community. Another thing that that the MFA does — that NYC can do, too, once you're in the community — is it helps you understand how the industry works. It gives you access to published writers (your teachers) and teaches you how to get an agent, how publishing works in general, the business aspect. To me, those are the most beneficial parts of a writing program. But I certainly do not think that a writer has to go to an MFA program to be a good writer.

I would imagine that Guernica really depends on good, smart readers. Do you worry about people not reading anymore?

Not really, no. When Joel and I started the magazine, we were just publishing stuff we liked, and stuff we thought the people we knew and talked with and drank with would like. So like any baby, it was born with a certain genetic makeup.

We just weren’t born for clickbait. Even stuff that we think is sexy, that will get a lot of readers, is based on an already smaller audience of people who would be interested in Guernica in the first place.

When [we] started the magazine, we were just publishing stuff we liked, and stuff we thought the people we knew and talked with and drank with would like.

Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between reader and text? Do you think it changes significantly if the reader has to pay or subscribe? Is there something special you get out of subscribing, or something special you get out of having it for free?

Even though like I said before, I don't think anybody debates the quality of writing in the arena that Guernica is in, there's still something permanent-feeling about a book or a magazine, and I think that that matters. It's a different kind of experience. I feel that way, despite running an online magazine. If I had a choice between reading a book or a magazine on a Kindle and reading a physical copy in bed, I would choose the latter.

I think a lot of literary people feel that way.

Yeah, it's just an experience that feels more intimate.

This is the second installment of an interview series in which we explore how writing, editing, and publishing are functioning in the Internet age. Read the first installment, featuring big-time self-published author Terri Long, here.

Image: Guernica/Facebook, Lisa Lucas