Our Role in Indie Publishing + Why We're Changing Our Publishing Schedule
We value independent publishing because we aren’t held back by the same structures that control mainstream mags. It’s the reason we work so hard and have devoted the last nearly-10 years to our magazine, even though we don’t get paid for it.
Even though we don’t select contributors based on race, experience level, etc. We know that by showing more transparently that we pay contributors, it will incentivize people of all backgrounds to work with us. It’s more important than ever that we’re putting a spotlight on POC and Black viewpoints in every single issue we put out.
Our biggest problem as a community-funded indie publication is raising money. It’s made worse by our previously tight timelines and our core value of sticking to our ethics. (The latter of which isn’t changing!)
So we’re moving from publishing 4x/year to 2x/year, for us to sustainably make this work, and to be able to afford and promote a wide variety of perspectives on the regular.
A note from Cara here: My apologies if this is too long, but I wanted to express all my feelings and show the realities of what we're doing, in order to be more transparent than most food publications right now. Feel free to read through, or just skip through.
01. our beginnings 02. the money part of indie publishing 03. the never-ending struggle to ethically raise money 04. what it means to be an independent publication 05. what we're changing + why 06. becoming a bi-annual 07. what this means for readers 08. going forward
So many businesses have been sharing how they’re taking action to make their companies more inclusive and fair, and we wanted to be transparent about this too. I don’t just want to say “we’re small and have no money” – I want to take you through where we’ve been, what decisions we’ve had to make, and how we’ll be moving forward starting today.
I don’t want to go too deep into the years of stress, financial problems, and burnout we’ve experienced through the history of the magazine. I’ll go into the details of how we work as a business below, showing how we operate on a shoestring budget because of how tenuous money is in independent publishing. A lot of the struggle we have is around our ethics, and around how much we don’t know about business.
We’ve been playing it safe and small over the last few years, to be able to survive as an indie mag, but it is imperative that we change how we function, in order to amplify the voices that the world needs to hear. It’s been in our mission statement since we started, that we are a community-based publication. We’ve always had our proposal inbox open to everyone, regardless of experience or status. Over the past few years, though, it’s been extremely difficult to hire on contributors, and I wanted to address why.
Since the start, we’ve had an open submission box for anyone and everyone to submit to – we just pick out the pieces that are the strongest at the time. We’ve had mostly women contributors, spanning from all over the world. But, we do understand that you can only have true diversity when you pay everyone fairly. It’s so important to show that we can pay people for their work, even when we’re small, independent, and community-funded. So I’m going to go through what our financials look like, from idea to finished product in hand, to give a background on what I mean when I say “community-funded”.
In the very beginning, we started out more like a zine, where it was a community of people that followed our blog and that we had somewhat of a relationship with. There wasn’t really much of a discussion around getting paid – it was more of a fun little thing we all put together. But as we grew and got more attention, the power balance changed, and we felt it was indefensible to not pay the people we worked with. (Despite the fact that we had never made a profit on this – actually, we had lost money on every single issue, through a combination of our own financial ignorance, the high cost of production/shipping, our relatively small readership, and our core value of refusing to include advertisements.)back to top
Since then, we’ve struggled to pay our contributors. We rely 100% on the sales of our magazine to make money, whether directly through our website or through stores that sell our magazine.
For those of you not familiar with what it takes to make a magazine, here’s a bit of a primer.
- Advertising how most magazines pay for all of their expenses is advertising. With every full page ad, thousands of dollars are added to their budget. We don’t have that, so we are at the very start at a disadvantage financially. This is a choice we’ve made, that’s at the core of who we are, so this isn’t to complain, but just to explain why we’re in such a different position than most magazines.
- Printing after months of work making the actual content of the issue, we pay a printing company to print our issues – usually entirely up front, which can reach into tens of thousands of dollars. That’s why we have a pre-order period for each issue, to be able to pay to print it. The more issues you print, the lower the cost – that’s why you see mainstream mags sell theirs for $5-10, or a whole year for $1; they have hundreds of thousands of copies printed for each issue. And for many years, we needed a minimum number to print at all. We would print the minimum 1,000 copies, and pay for it up front, even though we only had 500 subscribers, then sell the rest to stores. We would start out each issue already $10,000+ in the hole, not counting what shipping or packaging cost.
- Shipping we’d then ship out all our pre-orders, subscriptions, and store orders. Shipping, unlike what you see on amazon, is not free, far from it. Some issues would tally up $3,000 just in shipping for one day, not counting materials needed to ship. This is not always a problem, but is if we don’t get enough pre-orders.
- Payment stores would then send us checks for those issues, but not until 3-6 months after we shipped them (which costs hundreds/thousands for us to ship up front), if at all. Stores have a way of not paying, especially the biggest ones, which is why we only work with boutique stores now. Or, stores would drop us after we printed 500 copies specifically for them, so we were left with thousands of dollars in debt after each issue. (Mainstream mags, by the way, survive in stores because they print so many. Every magazine you see on store shelves that are not sold before the sell-by date are sent to the trash, and that company has to eat that cost. A huge waste, and another reason we can’t sell at big stores like barnes & noble or wegmans.)
So, we would tell contributors we would be able to pay them several months after printing, once stores paid us, but the more we put out, the worse and further back these payments would get. We have to trust stores to pay on time, but most don’t, and by the time we learned that, we were already in a hole. We would get so many angry emails from contributors. As a fellow freelancer myself, I completely agreed with them, after years of getting the same treatment by companies who hired me. I internalized the guilt and anger and the unfairness of the industry on myself, even though I knew that there were real reasons it was happening that we couldn’t change directly. I wanted to change it, but didn’t know how. And when the whole point of your publication is your ethics, it’s hard to use conventional tactics to make more money.back to top
We’ve tried so many avenues of increasing revenue and eyes on what we’re doing, but with a hectic publishing schedule, and trying to actually afford things right away, it was hard to experiment with bigger initiatives. Again, it’s just the two of us, shipping out of one of our bedrooms.
We try our hardest to raise the money to print, even if we didn’t get enough pre-orders right away. So we’d fill in with our own paychecks to get the process started, that way people wouldn’t send us angry “where’s my issue?!” emails. Trust me, nothing destroys your spirit more than shooting three 12-hour weddings in a row, in between creating all the content of the issue yourself, to have that money go into printing the magazine, where we only got complaints about the price and time it took to make, and made zero profit in the end anyway.
So we reached out to the people around us, to get their input about how we could make ends meet.
The first thing people suggest is unpaid interns. It’s the first and quickest fix suggestion we always get, and doesn’t solve any of the ethical concerns we have. Labor deserves to be paid, full stop. And there’s a reason most unpaid interns are white – only those with significant resources can afford to do this verging-on-illegal work. And our entire ethos was that we wanted work from all sides of our community, not just the ones who could afford to do it.
The next was including advertisements. The #1 reason I wanted to start this magazine was to create a magazine without ads. It’s a core value that I would do anything to prevent more advertising in this world. This magazine wouldn’t exist without that value.
There were many more suggestions that made my skin crawl: advertise our work using facebook and instagram ads, utilizing amazon affiliate links, collaborating with bigger (and problematic) food influencers, relying on SEO for content, and much more. Sure, there are some variants on these ideas that might work, and we’re always looking for ways to make them work. (I’ve toyed with the idea of being sponsored on instagram, or finding an ethical way to do recurring subscriptions, but haven’t found a good way yet. Please send feedback on our ideas in our new reader survey here!)
But the concepts don't fit what I want this to be, which is just making good original work from all voices in our community, well-designed and meant to last, in a way that follows our mission statement.
So we relied on word-of-mouth and our own hard work, contacting stores every week, tabling at in-person shows, contacting peers to get mentions in larger publications, putting out consistent social media work in the hopes of growing our following and getting more sales.
It worked for a while, but didn’t make us financially stable. The more issues we made, the worse it got. Then in 2016, we were hit hard by many unexpected life changes, and it threw our entire mission off track. We had to make the extremely hard decision to either shut down, or switch to not including contributors until we were able to afford it again. We went with the latter, because we firmly believe in what we’re putting out into the world. And since I was doing (nearly) all of the work myself, we had to slow down our publishing schedule due to the sheer amount of work it took. It was actually somewhat of a welcome relief, to be able to have control and fully direct us on a new path, into more of a helpful guide than just a mix of stories and recipes. It also gave me time to reflect on what I really wanted out of this. (More on that later.)
But me doing the work (nearly) alone is not sustainable. Over the past three years, I’ve also taken on freelance work and teaching to make up an actual income. (The magazine has never paid me – we’ve only entirely ever put money into it.) After ten years of making chickpea – I was burnt out, and I still am in many ways. But that doesn’t mean that I’m any less passionate about it. I still feel most connected and called to do this work, and it’s still the most satisfying work I do.back to top
Why go through all of the stress, anger, and financial problems of making this? This mission to create a beautifully-made, completely independent publication is the culmination of everything I’ve ever worked on in my life, and we know that what we’re making is worth getting on coffee tables and bookshelves and countertops all over the world.
Independent food writing is important, we know this now more than ever. We can’t rely on Conde Nast to be the end-all be-all of what food is.
We don’t have to answer to a board of complacent-at-best, actively-hurting-people-at-worst rich white powerful leaders. We don’t have to answer to advertisers pushing to profit off our audience, or directors relying on seo to drive our content to the lowest common denominator. We aren’t held back by rigid production teams and office politics. We run stories based on their strength, not because the writer is from an ivy league school.
We are home cooks, the people who are cooking in home kitchens every single day. (It’s just the two of us – a person in charge of shipping & customer service, and a person in charge of putting the rest of it all together. ) We don’t buy new clothes every season, splurge on weird expensive tech gadgets, or have a professional kitchen we can make pop rocks in. As entertaining as that is to watch, there need to be other perspectives. Ours, generally, is a mostly-whole foods, minimalist but sometimes decadent, entirely vegan, low-waste, capitalist-critical perspective. Within that, there are so many voices we want to help promote.back to top
This quarantine, and this global police-state, have made this more imperative than ever, and have helped us focus our vision, pick out what our problems are, and just move forward. So here’s what we’re doing (and have been doing) to become better, every time we publish.
Only print as many issues as we sell. That means, if stores don’t order before we print, they don’t get copies. Same goes with subscribers – you have to subscribe or pre-order to get an issue.
Be transparent with contributors about our process and mission. We are not vogue or bon appetit, and we can’t afford to pay thousands up front. (Though we’re always aiming for that goal!) In another way, we are not like mainstream mags in that we are paying contributors – many don’t because ‘exposure’, and worse, others straight-up steal content.
Continue to keep our proposal inbox open. This is something we had to shut off during our lowest points, but we don’t want to just rely on my work and perspective. So we will keep working as hard as possible to be able to afford all work we include.
Experiment with new ways of fundraising that do not affect our ethics or the reading experience of the magazine. This is not to make a profit for ourselves (although it would be great to be paid fairly for the huge amount of hours I work on this!), but to be able to sustainably afford to showcase all types of creators. Again – we currently just pick the best proposals we get, and aim for the widest range of voices we can get – we just know we would get more diverse proposals in the first place if writers know we’ll pay fairly and on a reasonable schedule. We have our own list of ideas, but if you want to chime in, please feel free to share with us on our new reader survey here – we’d forever appreciate it!
We will be officially moving from a quarterly – something we haven’t actually been able to keep up with financially, mentally, or logistically for years – to publishing twice yearly.
The decision to slow down our publishing schedule is not an easy decision at all, but it’s something we know will help ease the stress and demand of what we’re doing. We don’t want this to come off as us being forced to do this, or us taking our foot off the gas – it is entirely the opposite, and truly works to strengthen our core mission. Ever since getting into minimalism (really, it was when I was making our scaling back issue in 2016) I’ve felt more and more driven to slow down.
One of the biggest goals of Chickpea is to create work not meant to just be tossed in the trash shortly after reading, and to not include little bits of random information that have no bigger meaning. This is made real by our print quality, and the evergreen quality of the writing and concepts in each article. The more I worked on issues over the past few years, the more I wanted to make them even more packed with information, less like a magazine and more like a book. I flipped through other magazines, and even cookbooks, and found them inspiring, but they lacked a bigger purpose or overarching ideal.
- we can put more time and effort into each issue
- we can do longer/ more involved pieces that have deeper conclusions, and ultimately, make more impact on our readers
- it gives us more time to raise money for the printing
- it gives stores we work with more time to sell them
- it gives us more lead time to pay contributors
- it allows us to share the issue's concepts more deeply on social media to help promote the issue, exploring them even further and bringing more value
We have already been unofficially slowing down our timeline, to try and alleviate our money problems and stress and overwork. And this is the first time in the almost ten years we’ve been making this, that we have enough money to go to print on our next issue TODAY, before we’ve even finished making it. This shows us that the slower schedule will work in a way that our timelines have never worked for us in the past. And with the possibilities that a bi-annual gives us, we’re more excited than we have been since we started this so many years ago.back to top
Nothing changes for you – you still get the same amount of issues you’d normally get!
Except, they’re going to be better than they could have before. We have to iron out all the details still, so none of these are entirely guaranteed right now, but we’re looking into including more pages per issue, more printables, a subscriber-only newsletter with exclusive recipes, phone-optimized issues, and much more. And, it means that we’ll be able to pay people fairly and more transparently, as well as get a better, more well-rounded contributor base, so the work will in general be higher quality. We’d love to know what you want to see out of this new phase of our work – please share your thoughts here!
And if you have any questions about your subscription, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org – we’ll be monitoring our inbox closely this week!back to top
We are specifically looking for anyone who wants their work in our issues. We want all voices – whether you’re a beginner cook, a seasoned pro, a non-white perspective, young or old – we want to deliver a truly diverse spread of pages for our readers to flip through and experience. Our inbox is open for our next issue right here.
And since we are entirely community-funded, if you or someone you know would love our work, consider sharing what we do or grabbing back issues or a subscription. Share photos of your issues on social media. Let us know the articles that had an impact on you, or inspired you. Anything to get the word out in an organic way would help us so much.
And most of all, we're hoping you have a better understanding of where we’re coming from in our work. We hope you will continue to support truly independent publishing. We hope you’ll love the higher quality work we’ll keep coming out with, in each and every issue.
Thank you so much for your support, we mean it. <3
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