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The Fog Horn

An Interview with The Fog Horn's Quinn Emmett

05/10/14

LaTanya McQueen: What was the impetus for starting The Fog Horn? Who else makes up The Fog Horn and what do each of you do for the magazine?

Quinn Emmett: I was lucky to be raised in a family where reading was a fundamental part of everyday life. My parents, brothers and sister were the original Goodreads community, if Goodreads was like Fight Club and you were willing to bleed to get your hands on a novel before anyone else. Flash forward twenty-plus years, and I found myself doing digital product development, and then becoming a working screenwriter. I wanted to find a way to merge the two worlds. I worked at ESPN for a number of years and they do a great job of hiring folks within their demographic. We were the first to use a new product, and were tougher than anyone else on it. In tech, it’s called dog-fooding. So last year I considered the growing pile of New Yorker mags in my home and decided to build a reading experience I would use: curated, consumable, no murdering of the rain forest.

Next thing was finding great help on the tech and creative side. So we have Conor Britain, a young, smart, SUPER attractive developer who built our app on top of the TypeEngine platform, and Bryan Flynn, our art director. Bryan drew our masthead, creates all of our covers and handles our images. He and I worked together previously on other, more inappropriate (but charitable!) projects, and though we’ve never met or even talked on the phone, I trust his eye and instincts completely. Lastly, Chris Starr (one of our original writers) contributes with a careful and thorough copy edit that gets things up to snuff and preserves the author’s intention.

LM: How are you distinguishing yourself from not just other literary magazines, but also from similar digital platforms like Kindle Singles, for example, or Narrative that use a subscription model?

QE: It’s not easy. There’s a boat load of websites, magazines, journals and other writing outlets out there. Which is awesome for new writers. The issue is, very few of those places pay writers, or pay writers well. Maybe readers don’t care about that as much, but it does affect quality, and we wanted to both pay writers really well, and find a way to stand out. So we offer $1000 a story, and we accept submissions from both Hollywood screenwriters and the general public, and then we publish them together like some sort of crazy literary pro-am.

We can never offer the volume that an Amazon best-seller does, but it’s also getting incredibly difficult to make a dent in those ranks. Look at the top ten right now: David Baldacci, Sarah Dalton, Lee Child, Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, etc. I’m positive that a well-reviewed Kindle Single could fetch more than our $1000, but we guarantee that dough, a small but growing audience and a fun publishing experience. We’d love to become a beacon for quality short fiction — for writers and readers, the same. That said, anything that gets writers paid and readers interested is a positive for us, and the new world order. Traditional publishing (like TV and movies) is broken. You’re a blockbuster, or you’re nothing. Viva la Revolution!

LM: Can you explain a little bit more about how The Fog Horn works (someone downloads the app then purchases the subscription? If someone subscribes can they get back issues as well? Do all four stories each month come at once or once a week over the course of a month?)?

QE: Absolutely. We’re actually very similar to Netflix (name dropper). You download our app for free, and then after a 7-day free trial, you pay $3.99 a month for access to both new and back issues. We publish four original stories a month, and twelve issues year. Sometimes there’s a theme (like our Valentine’s Day issue), sometimes less so. But we spend a lot of time curating a quality reading experience — always our number one goal. Everything we do — the app, the website and the content — serve that objective.

You didn’t ask, but the business is very transparent and tied into the model above. We treat The Fog Horn more like a bootstrapped tech start-up than a literary journal, because that’s what it is. None of the three of us gets paid until we get into the black. More subscribers equals more revenue, and with more revenue we can keep paying for original stories. We keep our costs streamlined and predictable and say no more than we say yes. Hopefully that gets us to sustainability.

LM: Your submissions system is a little different than from literary magazines. Along with a few questions, you ask for a pitch of a person’s story. Why the decision to have writers submit pitches and not submit the story itself?

QE: You can usually tell if someone can write pretty quickly. But yes, it’s a bit strange. More than anything, it lets us really get to know the writer and see if they’re a good fit for The Fog Horn. We’ve received very few complaints, if anything just a little confusion because it’s not standard practice. But we don’t want to be a story factory or just a mysterious email address on the world wide web. It’s impersonal. Nobody actually expects Santa Claus to respond to their letter. But if you knew he was checking out your cooking blog and getting to know you from afar, you’d feel like maybe he was gonna bring you that lizard for Christmas. . . . What was the question?

LM: Based on the pitches how do you decide if you’re interested in the story or not?

QE: More than anything we look for voice. It could be a well-developed voice, or a kernel of something special, but short stories leave very little room for heavy plot. I want YOU to tell me a story, and I want it to burn a hole in the page. Which isn’t to say it needs to be horror or action; those are, in fact, two of the hardest to pull off. It can’t just be about scaring people or writing gore — that doesn’t work quite the same as it does on the screen. You need compelling characters, and what’s what we want. Otherwise, there needs to be an unpublished, existing draft, and it’s gotta be good writing. We typically do one or two passes of my notes, and then it’s off to copy edit. If it doesn’t seem like two passes will get it done, we’ll pass. We don’t have a full time editing staff or the resources to develop stories for months on end.

LM: What kinds of stories are you hoping to publish in The Fog Horn? For writers looking to submit what do you suggest they do to get a sense of what The Fog Horn is looking for?

QE: Again — we’re looking for a voice. Be your own voice. If nothing else in the story works, make sure it has an opinion. Whether you’re established (you wrote a movie or write for a TV show) or not doesn’t matter. Sure, big names help sell subscriptions, but those people are extremely busy making actual money (haha), so they’re much more difficult to wrangle. That said, writing screenplays is a fairly miserable existence and the format blows, so we provide a nice alternative to endless studio notes. I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, so the classics do it for me — they say something about present day, the future and society. But when you read George Saunders, you realize the devastating potential in a very personal short story. The potential to live in the life of a person (or animal, or vegetable — anything goes!) for a very brief moment and experience their love, or pain, or terror, or even a downward spiral. It’s incredible. For examples, I’d read what we’ve put out so far. Read the greats. And then say something.

LM: How do you curate each issue? Do you imagine each story working together thematically or are they meant to play against each other?

QE: We generally work 1-2 issues ahead. It’s none of our primary jobs, and we don’t have a crack team of editors, so we work with the bigger writers that are interested and the public submissions we receive and try to think about what fits together, or what makes for a compelling contrast. If a theme emerges or makes sense on the calendar, great. Otherwise we look for a variety of lengths and try to keep making sure it’s a magazine you’ll look forward to every month.

LM: You’re one of the few literary journals that pay for work accepted. How do you imagine keeping that model sustainable in the future?

QE: We definitely make it harder on ourselves by paying so much for content. But we wouldn’t have such great writing if we didn’t. And nobody wants to pay for subpar writing. We also don’t have much of a marketing or advertising budget, so quality and word-of-mouth are going to be our biggest helpers. We’ve done some selective advertising on Facebook and with a few podcasts (totally different audiences, and totally different measurability), but it’s hard to make a real impact with the equivalent of your lunch money.That said, we’re converting downloaders-to-subscribers at over 40%. The digital mag standard is about 3.3%. So people are loving what they’re reading. They’re choosing to stick around. We’re super proud of that. We just need a push for downloads. More downloads = more subscribers = money to pay the bills. There’s nothing better than publishing someone’s hard work, except sending them a check.

LM: Do you foresee opening up The Fog Horn to other genres in the future?

QE: Not right now. There’s other great mediums for non-fiction (Epic, Longform, etc) and we love this format. If people know the structure of what they’re getting every month, they can better imagine themselves spending time and money to fit it into a busy lifestyle (and busy home screen).

LM: Are there any other features for The Fog Horn that you’re working on?

QE: We say no more than we say yes, but I’d say our next goals are web subscriptions and audio versions of our stories. Web subscriptions enable us to be a little more device agnostic, and allow people to read more discreetly at work. I’ve got a lot of friends that haven’t read a page since kindergarten, but they listen to a book a week on tape. Commuters, our bread and butter, are part of that group. Audio reads are easier to implement technically, but the actual recording requires a little more effort and money. Nobody wants to listen to me hack and cough my way through a robot love story. It’ll ruin it.

LM: So are you the only reader that goes through all the submissions?

QE: We have some volunteer slush readers, but it’s fairly manageable at this point. We considered hiring an editor early on, but to keep the business streamlined and efficient, I retained most content curation and editing duties. Once the stories are in our development queue, we all read them and talk about how they fit the overall scope and design of what we want.

LM: Once someone subscribes to The Fog Horn which of the stories do you suggest they check out first?

QE: I just want to preface this answer by saying it’s like picking among my children. So the blood’s on your hands. We love every one of the twelve stories we’ve published to date, and the four we have coming up soon. I think any reader will love NOISE (Issue #1), THE RED WHEELBARROW (Issue #2), or DREAM ME (Issue #3). They’re not similar, but all feature killer new voices. That said: because the stories and issues are so consumable, we feel like new readers can start with either Issue #1 or the newest issue and enjoy the same awesome experience.

LM: What is the average response time for those thinking about submitting a story?

QE: We say on our submission page, and in a message after you submit that if you haven’t heard from us in 30 days, consider it a pass. We feel like that’s fair. We’d love to process submissions quicker, but extra staff is expensive. And I’d rather keep paying for great stories, instead.

LM: Do you think you’ll ever in the future do a print version (like a print anthology or a special print issue) of any of your content?

QE: Great question. We’ve got the ability through the app to produce single issues that are Best Of, or themed, and we definitely have plans for that, once the content builds up and it becomes appropriate. I have a very special place in my heart for print and would love to put something out there, but it’s not cheap. Our first goal is keep the business alive and profitable by providing a killer core reading experience. Once we’ve done that and hit our subscriptions goal, the world’s our oyster.

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