Brevity is a small online magazine that focuses on literary flash nonfiction, as well as book reviews and craft essays. The magazine has a wide audience of readers and submitters, with work coming in from places such as India, Japan, Malaysia, Spain, Ireland and Egypt. The magazine publishes both well-known and emerging writers, and has been around for more than 17 years. The staff is almost entirely volunteer based.
Could you begin by sharing what exactly you would consider to be Brevity’s mission? Do you believe the current magazine accomplishes this mission?
Our mission has evolved in the past seventeen years. Originally, being small, unknown and on the internet only, we saw our mission as giving a publishing opportunity to writers early in their career and to help define the emerging genre of creative nonfiction, especially flash nonfiction. As we’ve grown in stature, our mission remains the same, except we are able to publish some highly accomplished writers alongside the writers who are just notching their first or second publication. We’ve also begun the Brevity blog, which discusses trends, writers, magazines, and other aspects of the writing life. Amazingly, that enterprise has thousands of regular readers as well.
As a purely digital magazine, Brevity is unique from the traditional literary press. What are the consequences and benefits of having this form of online content? Do you believe it is more accessible to the average reader?
One of the unanticipated benefits of our online presence is that we are a truly international publication, with readers from all of the inhabited continents, and work submitted and published from Korea, Egypt, Ireland, Central and South America, and Australia. We know that upwards of 10,000 people visit Brevity every four months (the period between new issues.) That’s astonishing, and well beyond what most paper and ink literary magazines can dream of. The downside, of course, is that we are free, so our revenue stream is a mere trickle. Almost all of the staff are volunteers, and though I’ve put 17 years and countless hours into the 47 issues we’ve published, I’ve never earned a cent from this venture.
I noticed that you encourage readers to donate a small, self-determined subscription fee on your website. How much of that money goes to keeping Brevity out of the red, and how much goes to paying the authors? You’ve mentioned that most of the staff are volunteers, so how much does it cost to keep this online magazine alive?
We are entirely a volunteer organization, in fact. Our managing editor is a graduate student and gets a small additional stipend from Ohio University for the hours she puts in, but trust me, it is not a lot of money. I have volunteered, unpaid, for 17 years now, and the rest of the staff is all volunteer as well. We do it for love, not money. Our major costs are payment for the authors, and our donations don’t even cover that expense (roughly $2500 per year). Our second highest expense is technical help on the website, coding, hosting, mailing list service fees, things like that. We’ve thought about charging a small fee to access the site, but we know the audience numbers would drop greatly, and we hate to lose audience because the work is so good.
If each instructor who used Brevity in the classroom asked each students to donate $1 (as in, paying for the textbook), we’d be solid, but how do we make that happen? Believe me, we’ve had long discussions about this, and we always come back to square one.
I love how Brevity is focused on literature apart from the business model that is evident in a lot of literary magazines today. Does Brevity have any outreach programs that could encourage donations? Do you receive any profit from your bookstore?
The problem with being an all-volunteer enterprise comprised of folks who have other jobs, other duties, their own writing lives, is this: Who has time to launch a real fundraising campaign? But we are making small strides, and hope to launch something in the new year that is both organized and comprehensive. Meanwhile, when a professor uses Brevity in the classroom, we encourage passing the cup among the students, saying something like, “Think how much you saved on a textbook by using this free resource?” It isn’t working, but it’s all we have for now. The Brevity Bookstore doesn’t generate but a few dollars each month. There is an old saying, “It takes money to make money.” Unfortunately, that is often true even in the non-profit world…
Do you mind if we switch gears for a moment? I’m interested in Brevity’s editorial process. How do the editors decide which pieces to publish? Is there a screening process or slush pile?
Unlike many other journals, we don’t directly solicit work from authors. Nearly everything we publish comes in through our Submittable link, and in fact, we receive hundreds of submissions for every issue (in which we end up publishing only 15 essays). So we do a lot of reading, and we reject (unfortunately) a lot of good work, looking for great work, or the perfect fit. Frankly, not to harp on fundraising again, but what keeps us from publishing six times per year instead of three, or twenty essays per issue instead of 15, is not that we don’t see enough good work, it is that our volunteer staff is already slammed. We just don’t have the resources. In any case, how we decide is very particular to our editorial taste, but we favor “Tight, crisp language. An immediate and consistent voice. Carefully shaped structure.”
Could you please tell me how the magazine has evolved over time, be it form, content, or design?
We have evolved in so many ways, from the look of the magazine (you can see our original look back in the archives (very crude), to the range and quality of the work. I think our aesthetic is wider as well. We certainly have evolved in terms of readership and reach.
How has the quality of work evolved as well? Did this result from more submissions or did the editors take a more proactive stance on the standard of work published?
The change is both because we now receive 1,000+ submissions per issue, as compared to maybe 40 or 50 in the early years, and because flash nonfiction has become a form more and more writers recognize and want to try. Ten years ago, people were, “Flash nonfiction, what?” No more. There is even a book now, exploring the form, used in many classrooms, put together by myself and numerous Brevity contributors: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.
How did you get involved with Brevity? What are the struggles and joys of being a volunteer editor?
I got involved with Brevity by starting the magazine in 1997, when the idea of an online journal was not new, but still pretty rare. For seven or so years it was a one-person operation, and then grew to two people (myself and a volunteer from a low-residency MFA program.) Now, in Fall of 2014, there are seven of us working on the magazine, all part-time, still volunteer, though our Managing Editor does get a small stipend as part of her graduate assistantship. The joys are bringing out new writing that people value and admire. The struggles are enumerated in just about every other question I’ve answered; finding time, working for free, handling the staggering increase in submissions.
What advice do you have for aspiring editors hoping to make it in the business?
My advice would be to start gathering experience while young, or as soon as the idea hits you. Volunteer for the magazine(s) at your school, for instance. With digital connectivity, however, you are not limited geographically, so look for other magazines that have a literary mission or aesthetic that appeals to you and volunteer to work with them. If you really want to make yourself valuable (hint, hint: get paid someday), learn skills such as Adobe Pagemaker, WordPress, HTML, or Flash. And read voraciously, not just for pleasure, but to study how excellent writing accomplishes what it does on the page.