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September 29, 2010

USP / ESP

It isn't normal to be putting out a specialist literary magazine in print these days. Everything is online. Supposedly. And online is cheap, gets more readers, can be nicely designed, etc. It's especially not normal to be doing this in the surrealist/absurdist tradition, which is exactly why it needs to be done. (I'll save raving about why surrealism needs to come back into the public eye for another blog.)

We have to think about where our edges are. Being in print isn't unique, but can become so if done well enough. Most printed literary magazines fall into a small range of sizes, the primary two being A3 folded or royal octavo, roughly (bigger than A5, not quite A4), saddle-stitched (that's stapled in lay terms) or perfect bound (with a spine). These formats are standard for a reason – printers have the equipment to put these out at a reasonable price, with less hand-finishing. Prose magazines like The Idler or Granta actually look more like books than magazines, but they're called the latter instead of compendiums or anthologies because they're published regularly.

So Polarity's shape and feel was an important distinction to be made. Our models have beautiful looks – magazines like The Believer, with its slightly-off standard shape, retro-vibe, or McSweeney's, published by the same independent team, which has a unique design every issue, from mock-broadsheets, to a travel-case shape complete with haircomb and a story by Robert Coover printed on one suite from a deck of cards. We went for a solid 21cm x 21cm for two reasons: firstly, it came to me in a dream that Polarity was a square magazine and secondly because the width allows us to fit the magazine in standard A4 envelopes, without fussing around with larger sizes and postage costs.

Since starting, we've found a few closer competitors than we imagined were out there. I've not yet looked it up properly, but there's a Leeds-based magazine called Phosphor, run by people connected to the Leeds Surrealism Group. Also something we found on a recent foray to Foyles, called Patricide – a new, Wales-based mag, printed roughly royal octavo with spine. It's long, intense and produced somewhat on the cheap side, with a colour cover, but black and white inner pages and thin paper stock.

Patricide's an interesting case because it employs some of the USPs Polarity went for, but in slightly different ways. It runs thematic issues with the material graded through the magazine under chapter headings, with little emphasis on the contributors' personalities, as it's about the content. They also use quotations to intersperse the new content.

Polarity has two themes per issue, and the material is graded according to how closely each piece of writing or art fits one theme or the other, with a grey area in the middle where the work loosely fits both or neither of the themes. We also have 'provocations' – quotations from various sources (newspaper articles, stories, essays) that suit the themes. And we have archival material – longer extracts from out of copyright texts to add a wider, pre-surrealism scope to the magazine.

One place we differ from them, and from most magazines out there, is in not including biographical  details for our contributors. Most magazines are an ego-fest of fame and famished, mouldy gratings from the cheeseblock of contemporary celebrity culture. Polarity is designed to try and look like the content is more important than the people writing it – we can celebrate (thank) the (unpaid) contributors in other, better ways, such as by making the magazine gorgeous and not letting any typos slip through. At the same time, readers are a curious species, and we've chosen these people's work for our first issue for a reason, so we went for a 'Further Reading' list at the back instead. This means people can read other work by our contributors and hopefully chase up more surrealism-connected work.

USPs are a business point, something I personally tend to refer to ironically when talking to creatives about Polarity. Yet these have all been important factors in getting the magazine noticed – we mentioned Tenderproduct, and we've another place stocking the magazine in London, the independent and thoroughly exciting Intervention Gallery, based in the middle of Kilburn Cemetery, near Kensal Rise Tube. Without any hard work on our parts, they've both shifted copies of the magazine to people wandering in. Ditto feedback from word of mouth: everyone who's picked the magazine up to look at has said good things about the design. It's making it much easier to build up early  interest than it was for previous lit-mags I've been involved with.

But at the same time, the real reasons for thinking Polarity is a good idea, in the middle of a recession, is based on gut instinct. I've been asking people for years if there's anything in the UK like The Believer, or anything which publishes the kind of weird stuff that the surrealists were into. Everyone says no, which doesn't mean it's not there, but that whatever is there isn't quite right for what we want to read.

So, like most literary movements and manifesto groups, if no one else is putting out the work you want to see, you create it yourself. These groups – the vorticists, the imagistes, surrealists, situationists and all the other little private clubs – have had little more to ride on than the shared sense of being 'different', coming from a sense exclusion or disillusionment with existing magazines,  before diving in to the world of publishing. There's a degree of ESP about it, a gut feeling that there are other people out there who feel the same way. So far, I'm being proven right, it's just finding out how to reach all those people we haven't yet.


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