Labor & Letters
Brief History of a Small Office
n+1’s first employee was Isaac Scarborough. It’s hard to recall just how he became an employee: he was an NYU student in political science and had been our second-ever intern, and then new interns arrived, so Isaac could no longer be an intern, but he stuck around, doing things — most importantly, entering subscriber information into our FileMaker database. At the time, the n+1 office was located in an apartment shared by two of the editors in Brooklyn, and Isaac would come a few days a week, we would make him some coffee, and he would do his work. Isaac knew, since he saw how much money came in, that we couldn’t pay him, and occasionally we would ask whether he was OK with working for free. He claimed that he was; that he liked taking the subway ride from his dark basement apartment in the East Village to the larger and sunnier n+1 apartment in Prospect Heights. In early 2006, two years after we started, we moved to a small office on Chrystie Street in Manhattan — one of the editors, having earned money on his first novel, offered to pay the rent for a year in exchange for freedom from administrative tasks, just as Northern merchants used to hire people to serve their tour of the duty in the Civil War. Though the place was no longer roomy or sunny (in fact it was tiny and dark, even after we painted the concrete floor bright blue), Isaac continued to work there. He now had a paying job as an internet consultant of some kind, and he said that if he could use the office to do his paid internet work, he would continue doing his unpaid n+1 work. That suited us fine.
Throughout this early period, everyone was a volunteer. The six founding editors, who before Isaac did all the mailing, subscription management, distribution, and of course editing (and arguing over editing), were unpaid, as were copy editors, designers, and our photo editor, though if someone from the outside did a lot of work for the magazine, we would buy them a medium-nice bottle of whiskey (at some point we settled on Johnnie Walker Green Label). Editors who wrote pieces did not get paid for them, but outside writers received between $100 and $200. Elif Batuman received $200 for her twenty-thousand-word masterpiece “Babel in California,” from Issue Two, which comes to exactly one cent a word. When, for Issue Three, James Wood wrote a long reply to our criticism of the New Republic, we had the pleasure of sending him a $200 check as well. The only people who were paid anywhere near market rates were the printer and the post office.
Was the magazine exploiting everyone? It sure felt like it. Those years were a constant exercise in begging, cajoling, subtly threatening, and otherwise getting people to do things they didn’t necessarily want to do. When asking for help we tended pretty systematically to underestimate how long it would take to perform a particular task — in short, we lied. As a matter of principle, we tried to do the most onerous tasks ourselves, whether that meant lugging cartons of magazines to the post office, or carrying cases of beer to launch parties, or calling bookstores, or reading unsolicited submissions — but we also always had interns (our very first intern, who is now a corporate lawyer with Skadden, Arps, came to us before the magazine even existed and was tasked with calling a list of three hundred bookstores), and as time went on the interns took on more and more of the worst tasks.
Was the magazine exploiting everyone? It sure felt like it.Tweet
And yet of course we weren’t being paid, either, and neither did we expect to be paid — there was no endgame in which we sold the magazine to Random House or Condé Nast or Google. We just wanted to build this thing and get it out into the world, and we were willing to sacrifice a lot of time and effort to make that happen. And so were all the people who worked with us, even though, as I say, it sometimes felt like we were involving them more than they would have liked. I still remember the first person who quit — our copy editor, who said after Issue Four that he was only going to work on things that paid him from then on. That made sense. A year later, he founded an online magazine (Triple Canopy) with some friends. He worked on it, a ton, for free.
Why were people helping us? It couldn’t only have been because we were lying to them. In truth, they must have been doing it for the same reason we were doing it — because they wanted to. They were lonely people who wanted to get out of their apartments; they were skilled people whose skills were being channeled into corporate or otherwise uninteresting work. We were all in our mid- to late twenties — we had seen a bit of the world and knew we didn’t like it. We had seen others make things and knew we could make them just as well if not better. We had seen some of the people we most admired come out in favor of the invasion of Iraq, or get hoodwinked by various transparently phony cultural projects, or start writing down to some imagined audience, rather than up to the audience that actually existed (or so we believed). We did not have a clear political project (we were “leftists,” but there were many things we didn’t agree on), but we did have a clear cultural project, to try to connect our politics with our literary tastes. It’s not clear, though, that the specifics of this project were what interested other people, or us. Often it felt like simply the idea of a project — any project — was enough. It was fun and interesting and sometimes incredibly frustrating to work with these particular people. And it was interesting to try to build an independent cultural institution where one had not been before.
Reading an earlier draft of this history, one of the younger editors asked about the possible reasons people may have gotten involved in the magazine that were not entirely due to goodwill, such as “literary career advancement, academic career advancement, book deals, not directly monetizable but still very real cultural capital” — also “sex, parties, and social life.” Definitely, one of the nice things about starting a magazine was that you got to throw parties, though we didn’t realize that until we threw our first party. As for career advancement, my honest answer is that I think all of us would have advanced more quickly and easily in the careers we had set out to follow — as writers and academics, mostly — by pursuing those careers, rather than working for a decade on n+1. But that may not be true.
In late 2006, Isaac Scarborough left n+1 to move to Turkmenistan; we scrounged together $500 as a parting gift for all his work, so he could buy some warm clothing for the Turkmen winters. He was replaced by our first paid employee, Alexandra Heifetz. Isaac had been “circulation manager,” in charge primarily of distribution to bookstores and keeping track of subscriptions (including mailing them from the office); Ali became the “business manager,” which meant that in addition to circulation she did our bookkeeping and our taxes. We paid her the most we thought we could, and it was a “publishing salary,” but it was really not enough to live on. Ali was incredibly brave and devoted — she lived in Greenpoint and would walk across the Williamsburg Bridge to the office to save money on subway fare — but with Ali we were faced with our first truly painful dilemma. Here was a person as committed to the magazine as we were, but who, because she was working on it full-time, couldn’t pick up freelance work the way the rest of us did, and was running out of money. And yet the magazine too was running out of money. We had begun to pay our designer small amounts, at random intervals, but the writers were still writing for the print magazine for $100 to $300, and for the web for free. Editors remained unpaid.
What to do? Maybe we just weren’t profitable enough to employ a full-time staffer. We had grown to two thousand subscribers at $20 a year, which came to $40,000 in subscription revenue. We also sold about $6,000 worth of ads per issue, and took in about $4,000 in bookstore receipts. Issue parties were another source of revenue — we would find a big, cheap space, charge nonsubscribers at the door, and somehow clear around $2,000. And sometimes someone would give us some money, even though donations were not, back then, tax-deductible. In sum, we earned around $75,000 in annual revenue — and it cost $40,000 to print and mail two issues, and another $16,000 to rent our office, for a total annual expenditure of $56,000. That left just under $20,000 for Ali’s salary — which is what her salary was. In New York! But the only way to earn more money would have been to come out more often, which was hard to do because the editors all had other jobs, but would also have been impossible without a full-time employee handling subscriptions, bookkeeping, and distribution.
Why were people helping us? It couldn’t only have been because we were lying to them.Tweet
The situation was intolerable and eventually it ended. With our blessing, Ali left to work for Norton. A little while later, in early 2008, n+1 moved to a cheaper office, across the river in DUMBO, and for about six months didn’t employ anyone, with the editors and interns doing their best to carry out Ali’s old functions. (Ali stayed in touch and helped as much as she could.) After saving money in this way, we were finally able to hire a “managing editor” — that is, a business manager who also kept track of the editorial calendar. The first person in this role, Kate Perkins, did a solid job for a year under very difficult conditions, and was replaced by Ali, again, just before Ali went to law school.
We were now big enough to pay an almost living wage to one employee, but over and over that employee became totally miserable, because she had to carry out all the most onerous tasks of the organization and very few of the fun ones (which were basically reserved for the volunteer editors). We decided to make the managing editor position more attractive by making it more editorial. This more or less worked, but it meant that we had to hire a business manager as well, and the first two people in that position — Kathleen Ross and Ian Epstein — did excellent work, but eventually left, because the job was no fun and underpaid.
And yet through it all the magazine was growing. Some combination of the publication of our book on hipsters, a change in frequency to three issues per year, and then the publication, by one of the editors, of the best-selling novel The Art of Fielding, along with excellent, efficient work by our business team, produced a rise in subscriptions and fund-raising revenue. (We had become a nonprofit, which made us eligible for tax-deductible donations and government grants.) And yet we were spending the money as quickly as we earned it — in three years we went from one full-time employee to three and a half (two on the editorial side, one and a half on the business side). We also tried to improve our writer payments — finally instituting small payments for web pieces, and higher, though still not really competitive, payments for print pieces. We instituted a “transportation stipend” for our interns, an unlimited monthly MTA MetroCard, though this was still a long way from paying them minimum wage. There were now two full-time editors, Carla Blumenkranz and Dayna Tortorici (both former interns), in the office daily — their duties included typesetting, event planning, fund-raising, and much other noneditorial labor. The rest of the editors, including the founding editors, remained volunteers.
From the moment we ceased to be an all-volunteer organization, we began to have the sort of problems you have when some people are paid and others are not. The volunteer editors began to feel, willy-nilly, that all the unpleasant tasks should be done by the people drawing a salary. After all, doing things you don’t want to do is what having a job is all about! (Thought the volunteer editors.) But of course one way people are convinced to do work that they don’t want to do is to be paid a lot of money, which we have never been in a position to do. And if people are unhappy, eventually their enthusiasm for the project of n+1 will wear off, and they will go to grad school, or Turkmenistan.
After ten years, what has all this volunteer or underpaid work accomplished? I hope it won’t seem insanely immodest if I say that I think it’s accomplished a lot. n+1 has published twenty issues, nine interesting books, and hundreds of web pieces, spun off an art magazine (Paper Monument), and hosted dozens of sometimes boring, sometimes really interesting readings and events. We’ve published what I think is some of the best American writing of the past decade, and given a squadron of new writers an opportunity to publish in a magazine that takes them as seriously as anyone has taken them. We continue to have an office in DUMBO, where we host meetings, reading groups, film screenings, and long proofing sessions for volunteers. While writing up this history I came across an old email from Ali Heifetz, who back in 2006 had her paycheck blocked by her bank, which had decided that n+1 may be an illegal front of some kind. In her write-up of the incident, over email, Ali described traveling to the bank’s “onsite investigation center” to try to convince the investigator that n+1 was real. She showed him our, at the time, awful-looking website, and he was skeptical; he asked if we had a listed phone number, and Ali was forced to admit that it was under Isaac Scarborough’s name (the phone company gave a better rate if it thought you were a residence). Pressed to explain what exactly this place she was supposedly working for was, she said: “Well, sort of a literary magazine, but much more.” A better definition has not been proffered. Eventually the investigator relented, and Ali’s meager paycheck was unblocked.