Are they nuts? Pals launch literary journal in a bad economy

October 22, 2010

Paper Darts“Paper Darts” is a Minneapolis literature and arts magazine. When I say magazine, I mean words and pictures on paper.*

The featured authors and artists are obscure at best. There are no “10 Ways To Please Your Man” or “Ultimate Smart Phone Buying Guide” articles in this ‘zine.

Yes, it’s true the latest issue features a woman on the cover, a tried-and-true tactic to generate sales. But this is no scantily clad “it” girl … it’s a somewhat disturbing (though beautifully rendered) half-human, half-rooster creature.

So who’s crazy enough to launch a print product during a rotten economy and the media industry’s mad dash into digital?

The windmill tilters are three college friends, unabashed artsy types committed to incubating and promoting artists, writers and poets in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Meghan Suszynski, Jamie Millard and Regan Smith put together the first issue of “Paper Darts” by hand last year. They had the second issue professionally printed.

They distributed about 500 copies of the first issue and about 1,000 copies of the second. They’ve been selling Vol. II for $12, aiming to cover printing costs, but they remained coy about how many of the 1,000 magazines distributed were actually paid copies.

Curious about how a trio of young publishers set out to gain a following for a lit rag in the age of Twitter, I sent them a few questions.

* Paper Darts” Vol. II is available in an iPad compatible version.

How hard has the journal’s first year been?

Though we’ve certainly had our moments, overall the first year has been a giant success. We started “Paper Darts” after graduating from college into a poor economy where it was very difficult for us to find “real” jobs, so we dumped our love of literature and art into the magazine instead.

Meghan Suszynski

Meghan Suszynski

After launching “Paper Darts” online, we published two magazines and hosted two successful launch parties, including a weeklong celebration in a storefront we rented in uptown Minneapolis. We’ve continually grown our web presence throughout the entire process and have published nearly 100 artists online since the magazine’s inception.

Our first issue was hand printed and sewn in our living rooms and the second was professionally assembled and shipped in full color through a print on demand business model; we’re pretty proud of that growth. The three of us have become extremely close through the process—we bicker on a regular basis and can finish each other’s sentences; it’s definitely like a three-way “business marriage.”

How are you trying to build a following? What tools?

This is such a great question, and something we’re always thinking about. We started off relying heavily on our own circles and networks, identifying creative people we knew and getting them to tap into their own networks in turn.

Jamie Millard

Jamie Millard

Facebook has been a key tool in helping us build our following from the very beginning. It’s a great medium to promote our new content and engage our audience and it consistently drives traffic to our website. In order to build up our Facebook followers we started doing monthly flash fiction contests on our Facebook page and would give away free books from local publishing houses, copies of the print issue, cash prizes, and the opportunity to get published as incentive.\

Contestants would post their submission on our wall and the piece that received the most “likes” within a certain amount of time won the prizes. This was especially strategic because in order to “like” something on a business fan page you have to actually be a fan of that page. So contestants would encourage all their friends to vote for their submissions and we would end up gaining roughly 50-100 new fans each contest.

Facebook isn’t often, if ever, used as the actual medium for creative writing submissions, so it was really exciting to see so much creative activity on our page each month. Our whole wall would be covered with these great, easy-to-read pieces. It was wonderful.

Twitter has also been an extremely important asset for “Paper Darts”, especially in terms of networking. Whenever there is a person or organization that seems inaccessible in the real world, we’ll try to establish a connection with that person or organization on Twitter instead. It’s much easier to bypass gatekeepers on Twitter. Some of the most important opportunities and connections we’ve made have been because we reached out and interacted with people on Twitter.

As we make these Facebook and Twitter connections, we always try to take them offline and build real relationships. This step has been the most important in building our following and has led to some great partnerships and helped us make friends in the Minneapolis/St. Paul literary arts circle. It truly is a thriving, supportive community and we couldn’t ask for a better place to build and develop our little magazine.

Do your peers think you’re crazy to try to get an old-school literary journal (on paper!) off the ground?

Yes. People think we are crazy. We are crazy because we care very much about the dying breed of literary and art focused magazines. We are crazy because it takes a considerable amount of time to curate and hand-illustrate our content.

Regan Smith

Regan Smith

We are interested in creating a unique and memorable document. The form of the printed magazine is a fascinating medium to play with. Each issue offers us the opportunity to be creative and engage with the reader on a level of intimacy you just can’t reach through a web browser.

It’ll be exciting and interesting for us to consider new business and printing models in the future as more publishing tools become accessible to us. While we believe in print, we also believe in adaptation and hope to expand our content to all mediums whether it’s print, the web, e-publishers like the iPad, or mobile. We just want to reach as many readers as possible, and that means we have to be flexible and forward thinking — something the publishing industry has definitely struggled with in the past.