June 2022


How to make it in business

By Robert Skinner
Succumbing to the Ponzi scheme of publishing a national short-story magazine

For four years we ran what was then Australia’s only short-story magazine. We washed dishes to pay writers and plundered stationery from universities where our siblings had access to office supplies. Everyone knows that magazines don’t make money in the beginning, but we were surprised to find it didn’t make money in the middle or the end, either.

When sales of the first issue started coming in, Andy mentioned that he might like to spend his share of the proceeds on a snorkelling holiday on the Great Barrier Reef. I was all for it until someone asked, “Don’t we need the money from the first issue to pay for the second one?”

“Oh God,” I said, “it’s a Ponzi scheme…”

In the beginning, we couldn’t afford an office, so we rented the corridor leading to someone else’s. Most of it was taken up by a large immovable workbench that was impossible to sit at.

“It’s more of a standing desk,” said the guy renting it to us.

Harriet joined the magazine when it was still in its corridor phase. Me and Andy had tried to solve the problem of the immovable workbench by arranging our furniture on top of it.

“I like it,” she said. “Two storeys!”

Other people joined the magazine and brought with them talent, energy and ideas. It was our copyeditor Kate’s idea to check the magazine for mistakes before sending it to the printer.

“Maybe we could do this every time,” I said.

For a while, we, or really I, experimented with interns. After our first issue, everyone else went away on holiday and the office was getting lonely. I began hiring as interns anyone who expressed an interest in the magazine and several who didn’t. Soon we had six interns and only five chairs, and it was a constant battle to keep people busy enough that they wouldn’t notice. In something of a role reversal, I couldn’t stop offering to make everyone coffee, so I was still alone, but in the kitchen, and it was only once everyone had gone home that I was able to get any work done.

When Harriet came back, she took a look around and said, “Maybe we should be hiring interns on more of a one-at-a-time basis from now on.”

One of our finest inventions was a fake accountant called Linda McMackerson. Bookstores were often tardy with their payments, but we loved them and wanted to remain on friendly terms. If a bookstore was late with a payment, it was Linda who sent them a series of stern and increasingly disturbing emails. We tried to create an aura of fear around her. We spread rumours that she was an Olympic silver medallist in the javelin. And that she was still angry about coming second. And that she still had her javelin. Nevertheless, our greatest financial achievement in that first year was being paid 30 dollars by our landlord for catching the office mouse.

Chloe, one of our editors, said that the closest she’s come to the experience of putting out an issue of the magazine – in terms of stress and logistical mayhem – was being evicted from her house. We were trying to put out four issues a year.

But the magazine was much more impressive than the circumstances it was created in. We published our heroes, and sold to bookstores, newsagents and subscribers all over Australia. There is a country town called Taradale in which, according to our sales figures, 5 per cent of the population read The Canary Press.

Somehow, without meaning to, and without really knowing that such a thing existed, we became part of the Melbourne Literary Scene. It was like running joyously along a beach and accidentally joining up with a triathlon. Suddenly you find yourself jostling for space, measuring your progress not against the beach but against the people around you.

I was on a camel trip once and overheard two cameleers talking. One of them said, “The New South Wales camel scene could be so much fun… if only it wasn’t so bitchy.” And I thought, Ye gads! Even in the camel world!

I struggled with our technocratic age. I had never had an office job; I’d barely worked indoors before. People were always recommending fancy software that would make our lives easier. You’d go to install it and then find out you were missing some sort of plug-in, so you’d download that and it would say you need to install a new operating system first and would you like to back everything up? But you didn’t have a hard drive and pretty soon you’d be standing in the long, lonely aisles of Officeworks again when all you’d wanted to do was schedule a lunch.

One night, trying to meet a print deadline, I was up late doing last-minute typesetting changes. In InDesign, there is a shortcut – “shift + W” – for toggling between full-screen and normal view. I was toggling away, and it was only when we got 3000 copies of the magazine back from the printers that I realised I had littered the text with capital Ws.

I lunged into the office with a dozen bottles of white-out, and said, “We can fix this.”

Beth, our assistant publisher, put her foot down. “The only thing worse,” said Beth, “than receiving a magazine filled with Ws, is getting one where some clown has tried to cover them up with liquid paper.”

In the most shameful episode of my literary life – a revelation with which I never found the courage to break our copyeditor’s heart – I discovered that I had somehow deleted two paragraphs of a story by the late, great J.G. Ballard and replaced it with one of my heinous Ws.

There was always the problem of money. We put huge amounts of energy into applying for grants. The problem with grants, apart from not getting them, is that after writing an application you no longer want to make art or magazines or love or babies ever again.

We attempted all sorts of things – from wild launch parties to homelessness – in an attempt to keep the magazine running. Bede suggested buying mice at wholesale price, releasing them in the office and then recapturing them at 30 dollars a pop. But with our landlord away on holidays they would have just been more mouths to feed.

Running a magazine (or any other business) with so few resources is like driving a car with its suspension shot: you feel every bump. When it got too much, I lay in my swag at night and wrote resignation letters, but I never knew who to send them to. I sent one to my mum, who said she liked the characters but didn’t understand the ending.

We began striving for new heights of professionalism. I’d even started living in a house.

One night, working late, I found some photocopied pages from a management guide. It was written in the collective first person from the point of view of one’s staff.

“We are pack animals,” it said. “Treating us as your friend is not always an act of kindness. We need to know our place in order to thrive and be happy.” I was thumping the table and saying, Yes! Yes!, until I turned the page and realised I was reading from Chloe’s dog-training manual.

I told her about it the next day and she said, “Man, that stuff doesn’t even work on dogs.”

The magazine went from saddle-stitched to perfect bound. We began selling in airports and train stations.

And then we were awarded one of those grants. The grant covered the printing costs for the next three issues, but it did little to improve our circumstances. As we laboured on, we realised that it had cunningly locked us in to making at least three more issues. Previously, we had been working for literary glory, for the idea that we might help expand our country’s sense of itself, for the short story, for each other. And with the persistent dream that we might one day generate for ourselves a modest income. But a creeping shift had taken place: it had begun to feel as though we were unpaid employees of the Literary Industrial Complex.

People wrote emails thanking us for “providing a home for writers”.

“We’re not an orphanage,” said Bede. “We’re doing it because we believe in something.”

We were frequently asked to provide mission statements – for bios, panels, grant applications – and they were becoming harder and harder to write. I was constantly on the phone to our general manager, Susie, asking: “What is it we believe in, again?”

As we approached our 10th issue, we began running out of steam. Normally we would all go home for the summer holidays and come back refreshed and rejuvenated. But when I arrived back in Melbourne, the well had failed to fill up again.

For a long time, I couldn’t work out if the magazine was a success or a failure. Couldn’t work out if our 10 issues were like flowers that had bloomed in the desert and disappeared to memory, or corpses littering the road of literary ambition.

Years later, I was invited by one of our prestigious universities to give a talk to prospective arts students. I was one of three speakers. We were speaking to an auditorium of about 100 high-school graduates, and we were meant to persuade them to take up an education in the arts. I did some rough calculations. If we succeeded in convincing all of them, then Melbourne University stood to make about $4 million in revenue. We, the speakers, weren’t being paid anything. It was a Ponzi scheme alright, but we weren’t at the top.

I stood up and told the students more or less what I have told you, thinking I should warn them off. But halfway through the speech I found myself getting overexcited, buoyed by the sight of all those fresh, shining faces. Forgive me: I had no desire to warn them off at all. I hoped, instead, that they would leap boldly off cliffs and, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, grow wings on the way down.


A version of this story was originally read at Murphy Live Magazine.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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