Ellen Million (ellenmillion) wrote in crowdfunding,
Ellen Million

EMG-Zine, Cyberfunded Creativity in progress...

I'm coding in a new model for subscriptions in at my 'zine, and thought I'd pause to talk about what I'm doing and why. When people ask me how to 'do what I do', I generally tell them: 'not the way I did.' This project is no exception.

What's EMG-Zine?

EMG-Zine is an electronic magazine (e-zine) aimed at writers and artists of fantasy and speculative topics. It is produced monthly, and always has 4-7 columns, a feature or three, some themed fiction and poetry, an art gallery and desktops for download. We have frequent art walkthroughs, and talk about the business end of things a lot - publishing, printing, how to keep an art director happy. Useful stuff. Each month has a theme (Wings, Fire, Celtic Mythology...), and though features and columns don't always stick to that theme, the art gallery and fiction are always on topic.

December will mark three full years, 36 issues. We're up to 468 written items.

A Brief Not-So-Brief History:

I started EMG-Zine in January of 2006. I planned it with a friend, who intended to do the coding for it, and be my editor as well as a contributor, but bailed on me before the first issue. So, I hand-coded each page of the first 6 odd issues in html, because that was the only thing I knew how to code at that point. (I am proud to note I was only late with a single issue - and that was because of a major power outage the night before...)

Enthusiasm for the project was high at first - we had decent amounts of content, and a good solid handful of subscribers. I, however, felt wretched, because I was completely incapable of coding in the subscriber features that I had promised. I did not follow up on expired subscriptions, so very few of them were renewed. Most of those subscriptions were a bundle that included the printed anthology that was intended to be released at the end of each year.

I took what money had come in from the subscriptions and put it towards getting the site coded in php so that updating the content could be more automated. This was done in good time, and simplified things greatly. I cajoled the lovely Megan Myers into being head editor and taking some of the workload off my shoulders in September. She quit to have a baby a year later, and after some frantic bribing and searching, I was able to persuade the amazing Jennifer Broschinsky to take over - I knew that I would not be able to juggle the 'zine editing tasks in full myself.

Initially, although each monthly issue was free for anyone, the intention was that archives would only be available for subscribers. The new site allowed this perk to happen automatically. Unfortunately, it generated some complaints - older articles were still desired, but people seemed unwilling to pay for the privilege, let alone register. (I had the ability to set each article as free for registered or subscriber only once they went to the archives. Readers still griped about having to register.) I didn't like that people couldn't comfortably link to the articles - links create more traffic which is good for all of us. So, I opened up the archives.

I played with advertising at the site, as well - a very cheap $5 per month got you a banner in a limited rotation. This met with some success and a handful of sales. The banners continue to rotate in the issues in the archives, so these advertisements are a continuing investment. I completely failed to follow up on this, still struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with subscriptions, and how to make them worthwhile, now that archives were public.

Payment for the content and staff of the 'zine is made in EMG credit - good at any branch of EMG. (EMG, btw, stands for Ellen Million Graphics, a fantasy art business with several distinct operations and more than 200 member artists.) The cost of these spent credits (in supplies and products and shipping) is directly out of my pocket, as was the cost of the webcoding and the upfront cost of the anthology printing. The subscription fees and advertising purchases we got were gone pretty quickly, particularly since most of the subscriptions were anthology bundles and the cost of that was significantly higher than expected.

The first anthology was a comedy of errors. I went with a printing company who made a whole host of promises they couldn't keep. They finally got me a proof - 6 weeks late and too late for any of my shows - that was printed entirely out of order. After that, they stopped answering my emails and phone calls. I had to find another printing company, a much more professional one that unfortunately had higher minimums and higher costs, so the price of the book ended up quite a lot higher than I had originally budgeted. I also had to relay the book for them. They look great and are stuffed with awesome information, but at $30, are out of the impulsive buying range. I have boxes of these left.

In an attempt to sweeten the deal for contributors (let's face it, credit isn't the same as cash! And we've never paid for fiction submissions!), several months ago, I put a sponsor system in place, hoping to tempt people to tip those authors that they particularly enjoyed.

This was a spectacular failure. A total of one sponsorship was made, for a whopping $1.00. The system itself was pretty clunky and required a lot of individual work on my part to accept that whole dollar and get the author paid their .50. (They got .50 of the first dollar and .90 of each additional, because of the fee structure of paypal).


Never let it be said that spectacular failure stops me, in any fashion.

My solution for the second anthology has been to trim the volume back to the non-fiction only, because a lot of the cost was in the color pages showcasing the artwork from each issue. I am finalizing the files to go to print now. The disappointment of the first issue has been a bit of a dampener on my enthusiasm to get it done, understandably, but I am a little more optimistic this round. I hope to have it available in January, and it should only cost $20. Hopefully this will be more attractive to purchase. I will be offering a special deal with copies of the first anthology, too.

My solution to the expense of getting web coding done and working in subscriber benefits has been to teach myself .php and shamelessly frankenstein the existing code to do what I want.

This weekend, I got a new system up and running at the site. It still needs some polish, but essentially, the subscribers packages are back and better than ever, and I have neatly solved the problem of how to reward the authors the readers enjoy the most.

While the archives are not precisely closed, non-subscribers get a nice heckle-y little note before they can read old articles, reminding them that subscriptions help support our authors, and wouldn't they like to subscribe so that they don't have to read this reminder? Ads are randomly cycled through this note, as well. They can click through to read the entire article, but it is an extra click!

In addition to the no-hassle archive-reading, subscribers also get a banner of their own in the ad rotation for each month they are subscribed (our target audience is writers and artists looking to sell their work, so it makes sense that subscribers would also be interested in advertising). I'm still working on the backend of this, but they will be able to upload their banner at the site for approval. They'll be able to change it as they desire, though each banner will be approved for suitable content. Subscribers can also turn off ads, if they don't want to view them.

But coolest of all (imho), subscribers get a large portion of their subscription fee back in credits. Not EMG credits, just EMG-Zine contributor credits. They apply these credits directly to the authors (and eventually artists and staff, too) that they choose. Each of these credits is $1 into the contributors pocket. The whole dollar. The subscriber can give all their credits to one author, or put one dollar here, one dollar there.

I do not intend, right this second, to cancel paying the contributors their EMG credits - these new credits are in addition to what they have been paid. I intend to give all previous and current subscribers the month of December free as a bit of a 'thank you' perk while I load test the changes I've made. (They don't get any credits to spend, but they'll get the access and the banner ad.) I'm hoping they'll love the new system enough that they won't want to give it up and will renew in January.

So, that's where I am now. I do not particularly care if the 'zine is a moneymaker for me personally, but I would like it to be worthwhile for contributors, and I would like it to not lose me quite as much as it is right now. I think these are good steps in that direction.

Input very welcome!

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