non-fiction by Nicole Brewer
We started words(on)pages on a whim, essentially—a “fuck it, why not?” kind of naiveté that admittedly got us pretty far. Within seven months of discovering that “micropresses” were a real thing in Toronto, we researched, planned, and lucked our way into creating one. Some of our good luck came from amazingly generous supporters of our early launches, shows, and issues: established members of the community graciously sharing our news, or donating their time and talent for a tiny honorarium. Their generosity generated a lot of our first several words(on)stages audiences, and drove submission numbers up. And every single person who sent us their work for the first issue of (parenthetical)—it still astonishes me, to be honest. Sixteen issues later, and I am still blown away and honoured by how many talented writers want their writing to find a home in our pages.
It’s too easy for me to talk about all the elements of words(on)pages at once, because they are so inextricably entwined for me, but I want to be clear: words(on)pages is continuing, full force, with a second annual Blodwyn Memorial Prize, a complete 2017 lineup of chapbooks, and words(on)stages programming through to July, as of now. Currently our plan is just to pause production on this and only this, (parenthetical). Issue 18, coming out in March, will be the last issue before the hiatus with content from submissions; we are excited to be preparing an editors’ choice issue for our three-year anniversary in May.
So why pause? Behind the scenes, (parenthetical) has been getting harder and harder to run. As with any new project in this digital age, the need to produce more, the need to continue to be new, is overwhelming—somewhere along the line, it felt like those perceived needs to be new, to be more, were starting to get in the way of what we wanted the magazine to be. We want it to be a place for truly new writers to see their work in print, to be able to add a publication to their bio, to feel the long-awaited vindication of getting published. We have a core set of ideals for (parenthetical) that we don’t want to let go of: there is value in print; writers must be paid; merit is not in a name; books (for better or for worse) will be judged by their covers.
Maybe this predestined us to remain small and to barely break even forever, I don’t know—but what we weren’t expecting was for print sales to dwindle despite rising views online and rapidly increasing submission numbers. When I say our sales dwindled, I don’t mean we went from selling out print runs of 100 issues to selling only 40 or 50 copies. No, we mean we went from selling 12 or 15 copies—from launch sales and online sales combined—to selling 8, maybe 10. Looking at one set of figures—site visits, online readership, social media followings, submissions statistics, etc.—might lead you to believe we really were growing (parenthetical). Looking at another set of figures—our bank account, our launch sales, our online sales—might lead you to propose a hiatus.
So there’s the business end of the truth. We want to be a magazine that pays our writers—we refuse to be a magazine that doesn’t—and we’ve been pocketing the cost of a $15 payment (or $5 and an issue) per contributor for just about three years. When we dreamed this up in early 2014, we hoped we’d be able to increase that amount by now—even just by $5 or $10. But the reality we face is that the grants, donations, sponsorship, or crowdfunding needed to increase any aspect of the magazine take more time than we can manage right now, running an entire micropress in the spare time around jobs, social lives, our own writerly ambitions, and being partners outside of this whole micropress thing. One purpose of this hiatus is to look more calmly into grants, sponsorship, and so on, so we can come back stronger than ever for us and for the writers who make our magazine possible.
There is one obvious solution to the business end of this truth: reduce our costs by moving to online only. This is logical and relatively straightforward, but removes a huge part of who we are, not just aesthetically, but idealistically: we want emerging writers to be able to see and hold their writing in print, because many of Canada’s print journals are so established and so popular that the competition for space is fierce. Changing our format so drastically feels like too severe a compromise, for us and for the writers we want to support. Rather than strip ourselves down too quickly, we want to take this break to slow down for a second, and really consider what the future of (parenthetical) looks like—literally.
The amount of work, although a lot, isn’t really a factor in wanting to step away from the magazine. Because the work is always worth it—it will never not be worth it to put in our 30+ hours of work to have someone’s poem or story in a beautiful publication and share it with even just a handful of attentive readers. Occasionally people will ask us how we’ve kept going this long—often other young writers and publishers who are looking to start their own projects—and it’s taken me a while to land on an answer. I think, mostly, it’s because I’m selfish: I don’t want to stop reading the hundreds of amazing submissions we get; I like the little high that comes from being someone’s first publication; watching people’s hands delicately trace the binding will never not be flattering. I like what words(on)pages allows us to do for amazing young writers out there, and I like how that makes me feel.
But it’s difficult not to let the financial reality of a project interfere with your enjoyment of it. With our own shrinking finances, we started to feel a lot of bitterness, plain and simple: instead of being able to look around Toronto’s literary scene in excited solidarity, we found ourselves starting to compare ourselves to people and groups we had no business comparing ourselves to. Just like I should not compare myself to Holly Holm just because I box recreationally twice a week, a three-year-old micropress should not compare itself to Canada’s most revered literary magazines. In addition to being ridiculous, this new outlook just felt bad—it was in direct opposition to why we started words(on)pages. Community and encouragement are supposed to be at the heart of what we do, and here we were, simmering jealously instead. This break is as much for our hearts as it is for our bank account. We drifted too far away from being able to enjoy CanLit for what it is, instead of what it is in relation to us. Does CanLit have problems? It sure does. Loads of them. But it also has heaps of talented writers, dedicated publishers, and attentive readers, and we want to take some time to focus on them.
When I first pitched this hiatus to Will last fall, I didn’t pitch a hiatus. I wanted to close down (parenthetical). I was stressed, I was tight on money, I was tired as hell. The very real, very uncomfortable financial pressure of running a literary magazine like this was going to my head, and I put on a business hat I didn’t like having to wear. It made my hair look stupid. It started running into the parts of the work I really loved. And we hashed it out for weeks, debating and agreeing and backpedalling and conceding, until we arrived at this, our hiatus. Because there are solutions, and because we love this little magazine, and because a handful of other people love it too. So (parenthetical) pauses. We’ll still be doing all the other things we do. We’ll still be on the lookout for amazing writing from new writers, new publishers, other micropresses and small publishers, but we’re taking some time and distance to appreciate it in a new way—or, maybe, to relearn how to appreciate it in the way that made us want to start a micropress in the first place.
*This was intended to be a working title for this piece, but when I typed it out in my Word document I liked how wrong it looked—I use all uppercase in Word for titles, so it looked like this: “ON OUR IMPENDING (parenthetical) HIATUS.” Isn’t that just perfect? If there is any magazine suited to pause, wouldn’t you choose one whose name inherently demands an aside?