Well, it looks like it's that time of year again -- time to reflect on how the last twelve months went, that is, and to look ahead to the next twelve -- although in good nerdy "Getting Things Done" style, in my case this manifests itself not as vague "resolutions" that are usually forgotten by Valentine's Day, but rather as an actual quantifiable plan I can put into place, and especially as it concerns the arts organization I own, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, or CCLaP for short (because let's face it, my personal goals for 2011 are the same unstructured things as everyone else -- eat more healthily, keep exercising as much as I did this year, do a big summer project that will keep me outdoors a lot while still generating a ton of online content, etc). And in fact, after spending the fall mulling over my options, I've finally decided on a confirmed plan for CCLaP in 2011; namely, to concentrate mostly on more publications and the center's first merchandise, things I can do in relative solitude and that have proven track records now of making small but reliable amounts of money, even while continuing to do a handful of small local live events, both social and literary in nature, and of course the 150 book reviews and 24 podcast episodes currently posted at the blog every year, hopefully adding up by the end to a profit of at least $1,000 for the first time in the center's history. (And by "profit," I mean literally the take-home money that CCLaP gets to keep at the end, after paying all the bills and royalties owed to everyone.)
But before anything else, perhaps I should first describe how CCLaP's first big live Chicago show went, my talk a couple of weeks ago with AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin, for which I spent several hundred dollars renting out a 150-seat theater; because in a nutshell, although the talk itself went great, audience turnout was lousy, only 25 people and with half of them comped in for free, which when all is said and done caused me to officially lose $220 on the whole thing, or pretty much every penny of profit CCLaP had generated in the last two years. And yes, there are a number of external factors beyond my control that I could point to, to mostly rationalize the low turnout -- it needed to be held in the busy month between Thanksgiving and Christmas to sync with Rabin's existing tour schedule, was done on a Monday night for cost reasons, with me only having a month to promote it because of my first theater deal falling through at a relatively late date, and of course with the eight-hour freaking ice storm Chicago saw that actual evening not helping things at all, thank you very much, God! -- but as my friend Carrie indadvertedly reminded me, while talking about her and her late husband's own forays into producing artistic events in their youth, even if you can come up with half a dozen legitimate reasons why it's not your fault that your show lost money, it still remains that your show lost money, which means you either need to get smarter about how you're doing them, or give up on the idea of making money in the first place, and simply accept the loss as the cost of doing something impressive and fun.
And that's brought up a larger, more existential issue this winter, which has had a big influence on CCLaP's plans for 2011 -- that plainly speaking, the best way to guarantee success at your own live literary social events is to become active yourself in the local literary social scene, to attend everyone else's shows and talk with everyone there, make friends and generate interest in your own upcoming event. I learned this lesson in a profound way during my time in the performance-poetry scene of the 1990s, and is simply something I'm going to have to get involved in again if I want to pull off more expensive "Evening With..." events; but as I've learned with dismay this fall, as I indeed started attending a scattering of readings and open mics again for the first time in years, I now find such events to be for the most part fucking intolerable -- partly because of burnout from when I was a writer, partly because I'm a decade older and have a lot less tolerance for such things, partly because of my hearing losses over the years, partly because I'm no longer using such events as tools in a constant attempt to get laid. Whatever the reasons, though, when I look honestly at the situation, I realize how much of a chore all these things this fall have felt like as I've begrudgingly taken them on, making me realize that my time would actually be much better spent doing things I find fun but that will still hopefully generate attention and revenue. That was the entire point, after all, of opening my own arts organization instead of working for someone else's, so that I would never have to blindly adhere to what is "traditionally" done in arts administration to the detriment of what's more practical; and so if I need to put off regular programming of the center's bigger live events for another few years, until I can simply hire someone young and enthusiastic who's actually into all this social stuff I now find a chore, then so be it, because I certainly have lots and lots of other things to keep me busy.
In that respect, then, one of the things it's looking more and more likely that I can count on is surprisingly enough CCLaP's electronic books -- the three I've now published in the last three years have respectively made $200, $200 and $300 (making for a total take-home profit of $350 for the center), with I think it being entirely possible to get these numbers even higher, if I get more serious about marketing specifically to the Kindle crowd. So that's a no-brainer, then, to finally up the number of ebooks CCLaP is putting out to the four per year I've envisioned for awhile. And hey, what do you know, I already have four books lined up for 2011! And that's the side-effect of course of CCLaP simply being open for awhile now (three and a half years), and getting out some books that have impressed others: so coming up next, for example, hopefully at the end of February, will be science-fiction author Mark Brand's day-after-tomorrow novella Life After Sleep, regarding a device that can immediately trigger constant REM sleep, so that people now only need two hours of bed-rest each night, and how such a thing would change the way that society works; then after that (end of May?) will be a still-untitled project by local flash-fiction author Jason Fisk, a story collection about the skeleton-closets among a group of neighbors in a bland Chicago suburb, which interestingly is going to be presented "hyperfiction" style on the web (think "Choose Your Own Adventure" for grown-ups), including lots of multimedia elements like photos, videos, audio clips and text animations, and with a mobile EPUB version that contains the same hyperlinked layout. Then in September will likely come a new anthology called American Wasteland to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in which a group of writers pen stories set in a shared alt-history US, one in which McCain and then Palin became President after Bush and turned the country into a quasi-fascist state, where the squatter poor live anarchic Mad-Max existences in far exurbs full of crumbling McMansions, none of them able to escape because driving a car regularly is now an expensive privilege that only the rich can afford; and then to round out the year, in November will be Ben Tanzer's new collection of stories regarding small-town life in upstate New York, a companion piece to his 2008 Repetition Patterns which right now is without a title. And so if history is any indication, I should be able to make $400 to $500 of profit just on these four titles alone (or $800 to $1,000 total revenue).
And then speaking of Ben's stories, my long-discussed plan to put out CCLaP's first paper book is still on for next year too; because at the same time I'm releasing the second ebook, I also want to release an extremely high-end, handbound "fine-art" edition of the two volumes combined, simply called "The New York Stories." You can think of this exactly like a musician releasing a fancy limited edition of an album -- featuring full-color illustrations on vellum overlays, archival-quality paper, a signature page, hand-numbered sequencing and all kinds of other bells and whistles, it'll cost $75 and is designed as a coffeetable piece for Tanzer's most diehard fans (and collectors of handbound fine-art books), with people otherwise able to read the contents itself for free electronically, cutting out the middle layer of trade paperbacks where small presses seem to be literally bleeding money these days. That way, you only need to sell a minimum of books for a decent amount of profit; say for example that you spent ten dollars on materials for each copy and five dollars mailing it, that's $60 in profit for each sale, which if you only sold twenty copies would still be $1,200 after costs, leaving $400 apiece for Ben, the center, and the illustrator. And since I'll be making them myself, technically I only have to invest in material for small batches, say ten at a time and not bothering with the next ten until the previous ten have been sold.
And in fact I have a good idea for hopefully selling around ten such books next year to people who maybe wouldn't have otherwise bought them, at least guaranteeing that the project would break even, which ties into what I was talking about before; that even if I'm not going to be doing more big expensive "Evening With..." events next year, I still definitely want to continue doing some sort of live events in 2011, just to at least tread water with what I've already established instead of going backwards, if for nothing more than to mark time until I'm ready in the future to finally try expanding the program again. And so this coming March, for example, I was thinking of finally holding the center's next smaller themed event, which like last May's show in Hyde Park would feature a group of local writers doing new pieces based on a common subject for a show with no cover, done just for fun and to create goodwill among the local lit community; then in June I'm thinking of sponsoring some sort of city bike tour that would tie in with the arts somehow, maybe for example a ride up the entirety of Lincoln Park specifically to check out public sculptures, ending at a bar next to an el station up in Rogers Park, so that people can drink and take the train home at the end; then in September, I'm thinking of having an honest-to-God release party for the American Wasteland book, since anthologies tend to guarantee a big and varied turnout for such things; and then for next New Year's Eve, I'm thinking very seriously about establishing a new tradition for CCLaP, an annual New Year's fundraiser, designed to generate significant revenue from just a small slice of the center's most financially comfortable fans, essentially $150 a couple for a private party full of free food, liquor and entertainment, and with each couple getting a free copy of The New York Stories to take home with them. If I could get ten couples to go to something like this, that would pay off all the book's upfront fees, leave a couple hundred dollars for Ben, pay for all the party's expenses, and still leave a good $400 to $500 to stick in CCLaP's coffers, to apply to the upcoming projects of 2012.
Now, of course, it'd be nice to actually have something to sell at these events as well, which is where the next part of the plan comes into play -- after months of hemming and hawing, I've decided to indeed start up in 2011 this new hipster photography magazine I've been endlessly talking about at Facebook, entitled Imago and which I'm planning on putting out four times next year (January, April, July and October), featuring five artists each issue all collected around a common theme (the first issue will all be intense or cutting-edge portraits...and yes, there will be boobies), heavy on images/design and light on text in order to cater more to a global audience. The reason I've been on the fence about it for so long, frankly, is that I've wondered if the world really needs yet one more impeccably-designed minimalist hipster electronic photography magazine, and whether starting a new one might be an exercise in throwing a lot of effort into a bottomless cavern of no returns, much like how it currently is with all those endless thousands of online literary journals that now exist. (And by the way, when I say "bottomless cavern of no returns" to refer to these ezines, I mean financial returns, not the simple emotional satisfaction of publishing the work of people you admire. Don't forget that all of today's conversation is deliberately geared towards the bottom line.)
That's why I'm only doing four issues next year, as a test run that I can accomplish literally in my spare hours on the weekends; and that's why I'm planning not on making much money on the magazine itself (because frankly, you can't, not with the glut of sharp free hipster e-magazines already on the market that fucking no one is reading either), but rather on a series of print-on-demand merchandise that I will set up with each of the five photographers in each issue -- basically, a series of postcards, posters, refrigerator magnets, mugs, t-shirts and buttons concerning all twenty photographers I plan on featuring through Imago next year, each image branded with the center's name like you would find in a museum store. Then I want to do some t-shirts just for the center itself as well, something sexy and cute and anime-ey that people will actually want to wear, a bad example seen above and appropriated from of all things an ad campaign this year from the Wyoming Public Library system, but will be much better when I actually do the t-shirt; then all I have to do is order a small amount of all these items myself at cost from these POD places, which I can then have on hand to sell at retail price at CCLaP's local events in 2011, as well as any conventions or fairs I might end up attending, or if I go in with some others to rent a table at next year's Printers Row Book Fair, which I had a chance to do last year but now this year am seriously thinking of actually doing.
Then the magazine itself will be free in electronic form, both as a PDF for mobile devices and as an incredibly cool onscreen embedded "flip-through" version sponsored by Issuu.com, a central database and feature-rich service for electronic magazines that I've become a big fan of in the last six months (and seriously, try the "full-screen" option of the Issuu interface I've embedded above, and tell me if it doesn't feel exactly like flipping through a glossy paper magazine); and then speaking of a paper version, there will be one of those available as well, at $18 a pop over at yet another print-on-demand company called MagCloud.com, which I will purchase with each issue and perhaps not a single other person on the entire planet, which of course is the great thing about POD merchandise that makes up for it being so freaking expensive. So how much will all this make in a year? Sheesh, who knows? $20 in merch sales for each artist would be $400 for the year, or a take-home profit for CCLaP of approximately $100; or maybe this will make twice as much as that, or perhaps only half. Like I said, everything with Imago is basically a big experiment for now, which is why I'm treading only lightly next year; but I have to admit, I'm glad to be finally doing something through CCLaP that primarily supports the photography side of things, and can absolutely guarantee if nothing else that at least the magazine will look slick, and get people talking more about the artists being featured.
So, all said, that gives CCLaP something now to do or release every single month next year; and in a world where a whole lot of things go right for me, that could potentially mean a realistic top revenue of around $3,000, which after bills and royalties would mean a take-home profit for CCLaP of around $1,500. But of course, we don't live in a world where a whole lot of things go right for me, but rather one where a vindictive god pisses ice on my head for eight hours on the day of my first big event, so who knows what this number might actually be by this point a year from now? I mean, more than zero, that's at least for sure, which is the main justification for doing it in the first place, and certainly I'll be very happy if CCLaP was to have its first year of four-figure profit next year, which I think under this plan is absolutely a realistic goal that I have every right to shoot for, and especially now that I own my fancy-ass 27-inch quad-core Mac with fully functioning copy of Adobe Creative Suite 5 (thank YOU, bike-accident settlement check!), and can now put out electronic publications that will blow away in sophistication all the CCLaP books I've been putting out before, and that will let me produce actual interactive editions for iPads and the like. As always, we'll see how things pan out; but for now, at least I have a plan for next year in place, which of course is always the most important thing.
Oh, and speaking of all this, I imagine some people have been wondering how I might be able to do all these new things next year and still crank out 150 book reviews; and the answer is that I can't, which is why I'm happy to announce that CCLaP next year will finally be taking on its first outside writers, definitely at least one and maybe up to three or four, depending on the quality of the applicants. Yes, I am looking for suggestions and submissions, although please be concretely aware right off the bat that these contributors will not be paid in the traditional sense; instead, I'm hoping that each contributor will bring with them an idea for a funny, unique year-long essay series, much like the existing "CCLaP 100" or "Naughty Netflix" series that currently run at the blog, which at the end of the year we can put out as its own ebook that will hopefully generate the standard couple of hundred dollars, and that will serve as that critic's "paycheck" for the year. And in fact, to be frank, the perfect situation would be to find a young, smart writer who is eager to use this as a jumping-off opportunity for their own career -- to do maybe one book review a week and one chapter of their ongoing essay series, to generate and nurture their own core group of fans through supplemental outlets like Facebook or Goodreads, and then use all these things two or three years down the road to get themselves promotions to paid positions elsewhere, like at bigger publications or maybe an industry job. Given that these are essentially volunteer positions, I'm certainly not expecting anyone to stay long, and am of course more than happy to see a person use an opportunity like this for their own personal gain.
Anyway, as expected, it's a very certain kind of writer I'm looking for, one who matches the "ethos" of what I've already established at CCLaP: someone who brings a sense of history to their reviews yet still weighs contemporary factors, someone comfortable with blending high-art with low and mainstream lit with genre, someone who can add an academic sensibility to their reviews while avoiding academic language, someone who can sometimes court controversy with their opinions but isn't a controversial figure themselves. As with everything related to the center, just because it's an unpaid position doesn't mean I won't be exacting or demanding over who I'll bring on, since in this case content literally is king; and that's all the more reason for me to get exposed to as wide a pool of potential writers as possible, so that I can eventually find the handful of ones who best fit this decidedly narrow slot I've just described. Just drop me a line at [ilikejason at gmail.com] if you have someone in mind, or would like to apply yourself. As always, I look forward to hearing from you.