Notes From The Un­der­ground

Narang, Ni­tant. 2015. “Notes From The Un­der­ground: A Case Study of sub­Ter­rain” SFU Mas­ter of Pub­lishing Pro­ject Re­port, Fall 2015.

Presentation Notes by Monica Miller
January 18, 2016

Narang’s report is a case study of subTerrain, particularly in regard to their financial stability and the changing publishing landscape for magazines. His purpose was to identify the decisive factors that subT used in its rise to prominence, as well as “ongoing attempts to augment [subTerrain] for online consumption”.

It’s noted that lit mags help shape literary trends and conversations as well as giving unknown writers a chance to develop their voice. But while smaller lit mags can boast that a writer who is now a bestselling author got their start in the mag, they are also limited by this factor. Small lit mags, by their very nature, don’t have the clout to pull in current bestselling writers—they can’t compete with large literary magazines for big name writers. You wouldn’t catch Margaret Atwood writing something experimental for subTerrain nowadays.

What these small literary magazines provide for readers are “literary and cultural niches existing beyond the horizons of mainstream media” (Narang, 2015, pg. 9). This also means they provide a venue for smaller literary publishers whose books wouldn’t get excerpted or reviewed by large literary magazines, and can’t afford the cost of advertising to compete with multinational publishers.

Lorimer’s BC Magazine study (2005) also notes this circumstance in regard to newsstand prominence. “Canadian magazines have problems in common such as competition for space on magazine racks. This wasteful method of reaching readers favours those companies with the largest print runs, the most titles, and the deepest pockets to purchase favourable presence and placement” (Lorimer, 2005, pg. 4).

subT’s factors of rise in readership:

  • Member of Magazines Canada
  • Online website for collecting subscriptions and renewals
  • Writing contests
  • Involvement with creative writing programs
  • New USA distributor (as of 2014)

The importance of this paper for our ongoing discussion (in PUB 800 & MPub at large) is understanding the grant structure and how it affects magazines.

Narang is looking specifically at the Department for Canadian Heritage, and the Canada Periodical Fund (CPF) which is now in existence. Narang details the history of the granting bodies prior to the creation of the CPF:

  • 1849 – Post Office Act – how postal subsidies were distributed
  • 1994 –General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade became the World Trade Organization, affected the Postal Subsidy Program
  • 1996 – creation of the Department of Canadian Heritage
  • 1998 – creation of Publishing Assistance Program (PAP) – developed from the Postal Subsidy Program.
  • 2004 – PAP announces new formula: from reference-tariff regime (published payed a fixed subsidized postal rate) to percentage-based (on the % of your total annual circulation). Rate of subsidy decreased 2%
  • between 1999-2008 – average mailing rates for magazines using Canada Post increased 4 times faster than inflation. (report by Magazines Canada, attributed it to the loss in letter mail being transferred to increase cost of publications mail).
  • 2005 – PAP – slashed funding to magazines by $7 million
  • 2006 – Canada Post notifies Canadian Heritage of its intent to stop funding the PAP. Mandated to continue until 2009.
  • 2009 – Canada Magazine Fund & PAP combined to create CPF

First, the CPF now has three components: Aid to Publishers, Business Innovation, and Collective Initiatives. We’re talking just about the Aid to Publishers, which provides funding to eligible publications and publishers can use these funds for whatever they deem fit—distribution, editorial, business development, online activities, etc.

Narang did a decent summary of how the change from Publishers Assistance Program (PAP) and Canada Magazine Fund (CMF) to an amalgamation of the Canada Periodical Fund (CPF) affected small magazines. But it is important to know other things the CPF changes brought.

The new changes in 2009:

  • Didn’t just mean a 5,000 paid circulation minimum for small publishers
  • Capped total grants to any one title at $1.5 million, and the biggest magazines in Canada lost thousands (sometimes a million) dollars in funding. While this may not seem like a problem for a big magazine like Chatelaine or Maclean’s, this was done in one fell blow, meaning that these magazines had little to no warning to make up the funding losses.
  • Titles published by professional associations are now ineligible. Even if they used to receive funding under the CMF, PAP, or both. This means that if you belong to a society for mechanical engineers and they produce a magazine for their membership, they are not But a non-profit society that collects membership and produces a magazine, such as Canadian Geographic, is eligible.
  • Amid all the doom and gloom of the 2009 changes, some magazines actually benefited. Aboriginal, official language minority and ethno-cultural magazines had lower criteria. They must sell at least 2,500 paid copies annually. They are also exempt from the criteria of having at least 50% of total circulation copies through paid circulation.

The problem Narang raised with the CPF’s criteria for small magazines, is the misguided idea that smaller is synonymous with not successful. Just because a publication has a niche audience and narrowly-defined readership, does not mean that it is of poor quality.

Proving you have a readership is one thing, but many questioned how they came to the number of 5,000. Paid circulation is defined by CPF as “number of copies of a magazine or non-daily newspaper sold through subscriptions and/or single-copy and newsstand sales.” But the emphasis on paid circulation is a quantitative requirement, which Narang points out creates a “dissonance between literary publishers and funding bodies” (pg. 39).

According to Lorimer’s Benchmarks report (2015), “With respect to subcategories of titles, while sales to readers make a fairly consistent contribution to revenue (average is 13%), ad sales, fundraising and donations, and other income contribute more than 10% higher percentage for arts titles as contrasted with literary titles” (Lorimer, 2015, pg. 4)

Grants are not the only source of revenue, but when you have a niche product with high production values, you are still operating in a system that values economies of scale. The more you print, produce, circulate, the higher visibility to have. How can the smaller scale endeavours compete? Also, these magazines are running a business, so having an investor (in this case government funding) change support without warning affects their bottom line. Around the same time , there were some other issues with arts funding (not just magazines):

  • 2009 – BC Arts Council budged was slashed, cut 53% from 2008/09 levels.
  • 2009 – despite receiving three-year funding commitments from 2008-09 to 2010-2011, Gaming grants were frozen without prior warning
  • 2010 Provincial Budget – BC Gaming Commission contributions to the arts have been cut 58% from 2008/09 levels.

As Lorimer’s Benchmarks report (2015) attested, “Arts and literary magazines are branching out in their revenue-generating activities as shown by increases in participation in “other earned revenue” and in the overall amount earned” (Lorimer, 2015, pg. 3).

In light of the CPF criteria and the changing online landscape, Narang identifies some interesting ways subT is changing:

  • Selling copies to literary festivals at $1/copy, and giving the festival the equivalent dollar value in ad space (to increase their paid circulation numbers)
  • Increasing profile through social media, especially new ventures like Line Break on Tumblr
  • Renewal of their web presence (in progress) to better utilize 27 years of backlist content. Their website has already proven to be an important site for subscribers and writers.
  • Other grants (less reliance solely on CPF) – Canada Council for the Arts, BC Gaming Grant, BC Arts Council, City of Vancouver, etc.

One thing Narang doesn’t address, is that if the 5,000 paid circulation criteria is harmful to smaller magazines, what alternative could CPF use? Is there a quantitative figure they can look at? A magazine’s percentage of sales to revenue? Or perhaps their print circulation numbers as a whole, instead of strictly paid circulation? How can you quantify and convince the grant committee “that the magazine is indeed an art and cultural producer that serves and benefits the community … but subTerrain’s content, which is edgy, literary, and not to mention, niche, is often lost on the committee” (Narang, 2015, pg. 26)?

Leave a Reply