Interview: Portmanteau – Starting A Literary Magazine

Interview: Portmanteau – Starting A Literary Magazine

Portmanteau is an independent literary magazine based in London that publishes fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction and visual arts. They are dedicated to making changes within the creative industries. I interviewed their founder and editor-in-chief, Ruby Lizon-Walker, who kindly answered all my questions, to learn more about their work and to give some of you who might want to start a literary magazine or learn more about literary magazines an insight into Portmanteau.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your teammates and Portmanteau?

Sure! I started Portmanteau just after finishing my publishing master’s degree, during the November lockdown in 2020. It only took a couple of months to realise I needed help with the massive number of tasks I didn’t know I’d need to do. Luckily, Shona had offered her assistance already, and she’d been on the publishing degree with me, so I knew I could reach out to her.

Phoebe is a more recent addition to the team, having just finished her degree in illustration. By the Body & Form issue it was very apparent we needed someone with a more design-intuitive eye!

How did you decide to start a literary magazine?

I’d just finished my publishing degree, and the degree (particularly my dissertation) had brought up a lot of things that really got me angry at the publishing industry.

From my own background, I know how impossible it is to break into the cultural and creative industries (CCIS), thanks to unpaid entry-level jobs, art and literature elitism, and the fact publishing is massively based on social connections. At the same time, I’m also aware that others experience these hurdles threefold and that I still speak from a hugely privileged position.

I wasn’t working in publishing yet and decided I didn’t feel able to create effective change from the inside. All the things I didn’t like about the industry, the Portmanteau team has sought to do differently from the very beginning – we focus on solutions and tangible results.

How did you come up with the name of the magazine?

I came up with the name and the logo at the same time – and loved how PTMN.TEAU looked so much I thought, I have to go with this! Since portmanteau is a literary word (meaning: a single word that mixes the meaning of two others), I really enjoy how well it suits the content of the magazine. The aim is that it helps people understand what the mag is all about before they even pick up a copy.

What kind of steps did you take to start the magazine? How much did you know before you started and how much of the work you learnt as you went along?

Not to tell on ourselves, but we had no idea what we were doing when we started. It was this whirlwind of enthusiasm and passion-driven anger that was keeping us going (in my opinion, far more important than knowledge anyway).

We know a lot more now – 1 year in – but we’re honestly still learning as we go! For example, we’re constantly discovering bits of very boring business maintenance through HMRC and Companies House we didn’t know about, and innovating more ways we can help support our contributors.

The only steps we took to get the ball rolling were to secure our domain names on social media and the URL through Google, found a free website builder that had a payment transaction portal (Big Cartel), and then got searching for people to feature!

What do you look for in submissions?

Our number one concern is to not judge writing on the “quality” of the piece in terms of grammar, spelling, etc. It’s easy when your inbox gets overwhelmed with submissions to look for an easy way to cull the numbers, but in my opinion that completely reduces the chances for those who don’t have a high level of formal education in the English language. That could be because it’s not their first language, or because they didn’t study English at an undergraduate level.

We’re looking for the creativity of the piece, the subject matter (whether it fits the issue’s theme) and the writer or artist’s unique point of view.

What are your favourite and hardest parts of working on Portmanteau for you?

My favourite thing is working with our creators. I love the community we’ve managed to build with our contributors – I sometimes see them follow each other on Instagram and that makes me so happy. It’s so important to help people build connections in the arts – since that’s how so many opportunities get shared – and it feels wonderful to help people do that.

The hardest part is definitely the financial restrictions. In meetings, we constantly get carried away thinking about the things we could do with a bigger budget. It’s still in the planning stage, but we’re branching into in-person events, and our ideas are constantly growing past what our budget is. I can’t wait until Portmanteau gets bigger so we can increase the production value, pay our contributors more, hold workshops, and finally host a launch party!

Is there anything you wish you knew before you started?

The answer here is – not really!

The biggest problem for everyone who wants to start any kind of business is money. Are sales enough to cover expenses? How else do you monetize your business?

Sadly, no. Our sales just about cover the contributor costs, which is great! But everything else – the print costs, postage of the free copies, the PR parcels – all comes from my personal salary. For me it’s a worthwhile investment; I get a lot of joy out of it and our long-term success will mean we get to be a platform for hundreds of talented creators to get their start.

When we first started I was in a different job with a much lower salary, and we still made it work! The production costs are the thing that we were able to keep low enough to make ends meet during that first issue.

For anyone reading this because they want to start a magazine, there are plenty of ways to monetize – particularly through crowdfunding and arts grants (and advertising when you get big enough). Also, depending on what you’re pricing your magazine at and how much you pay contributors, there are plenty of ways to balance the books so you’re at least breaking even.

Printing is very expensive and online platforms are becoming more popular. Why did you choose to publish a printed magazine rather than a digital one?

You can say that again!

The great thing about print media is that it does its own advertising for you. Once it’s on someone’s shelf, they’re being reminded of you every time they look there. It also means that other people can see someone reading the magazine, or copies of it in a shop: that exposure is invaluable. In comparison, once someone’s exited out of your website tab, there’s nothing to remind them of you unless you’re paying for exposure and digital advertising.

That being said, we are looking to expand into digital soon. The old-fashioned book lover in me is stubbornly sticking to publishing in print, but now that we’ve got Phoebe on production and design we’re confident we can create a digital product that’s good enough quality to sell. Before we had Phoebe, I’d have felt like a fraud trying to get people to pay for anything I could create digitally – the extent of my talent is a plain text PDF doc.

You also have another job; how do you balance the two?

Honourable mention to my “real job” – I got very lucky working with the people I do. They’re very supportive of the fact I run a business. Not that I get any special allowances at work, but for comparison, my previous job had the HR team call me and VET the business in case I was starting a rival company – there wasn’t really any encouragement there.

To anyone starting a business while employed: remember to check your contract about that sort of thing, because it could be in violation of your current employment.

Regarding time management, I’ve always said to the team that your real lives and responsibilities come before the magazine. We work on the magazine when we feel like it and when we’ve got time. In my worst nightmares, we all burn out and don’t want to carry on with Portmanteau anymore, so we ride those bursts of energy and I find we produce better work that way! For example, I finished work the other day and stayed at my desk working on the magazine until 11 pm, put my laptop away, and didn’t re-visit it for the rest of the week! Sounds counterintuitive but it actually works really well.

Are there any other literary magazines that inspired Portmanteau or simply ones you like to read?

Yes, I adore reading magazines! Not just literary ones, but any style of short-form content. Honourable mentions are Aurelia, Mad About Doin’ Zine, Postscript, Hope Valley Journal, 212 Magazine, Bad Form Review, and King Kong Magazine. Sorry, I know that’s a massive list, but I’d say those are a great range of magazines that span small magazines that are doing something similar to us, to bigger publications that I really aspire to.

Any advice to anyone who wants to start a literary magazine?

Please, do it! If the number of submissions we get is any indication, the market is not as saturated as it seems. There are an endless number of talented people that deserve a platform, and I can personally vouch for how rewarding it is to work with those individuals.

Of course, it’s daunting and there are plenty of hurdles, but you’ll also find that the industry is full of plenty of lovely people who are keen to help out. As long as you’ve got a Twitter account and an email address, you can reach out.

Feel free to get in touch with us, too! We love getting emails and will always be keen to help in whatever way we can.

What are your future plans for Portmanteau?

We’ve got massive expansion plans that definitely straddle the worlds of the possible and the impossible. In the near future, we want to move into digital, including audio, expand our platform, and get to meet some of you in person at an event. In the long term, we want to put pressure on other magazines and publications to make a change towards class inclusivity – including better pay and more open opportunities.

Is there anything you want to say to potential readers and writers who might read this interview?

We can only continue doing what we do because of you, so first of all, thank you! Your support (which includes trusting us with your art and writing, and buying the magazine) allows us to do what we love, allows us to support working-class writers, and allows the industry to make strides in the right direction! With your support, we can also pay our contributors more – something which is the ultimate signifier we’re achieving what we set out to do.

I’d like to encourage you to engage with our content and contributors both in and outside of the magazine – follow them on social media if you love their content and let them know you enjoy what they do! They’re a wonderful bunch of people.

We’re on Twitter and Instagram at @portmanteauldn and you can find our website here.

Thank you so much Ruby for this amazing interview! We wish Portmanteau all the best and can’t wait to see everything you’ll do in the future.

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