Doing Different: A Conversation about the Shabby Doll House Reader with LK Shaw
Lucy K Shaw founded Shabby Doll House back in 2012—publishing a all kinds of interesting writing and art online. Over the past three years the team has grown and the output has evolved from near-monthlies to quarterlies to mixtapes to all video issues and more — always finding news ways to bring attention to great work.
In February of this year, LK and friends launched the Shabby Doll House Reader—a subscription-based monthly email publication that costs readers $4/month. It is something interesting and new and different, so we thought we’d sit down with LK and talk about it. Only we didn’t sit down, we emailed each other. And then we made a Google Doc (her idea, but I’m so glad we did it that way—I’m a freak for Google Docs in my dayjob) and then that became this blog post.
The new issue of The Shabby Doll Reader is out this Sunday and features exclusives from Mira Gonzalez, Juliet Escoria, Bob Schofield, Alanna McArdle, Susie Anderson, Sarah Jean Alexander, & more.
Jamie Perez: Why did you decide to do the Reader as an email? What inspired you?
Lucy K Shaw: For most of last year, I felt uncertain about the future of Shabby Doll House, disconnected from the wider literary community and I think I had lost confidence in my original vision for what Shabby Doll House could be, so I tried out various new things, like doing the video issue and editing Everyday Genius in April. When I think about it now, with hindsight, I feel like maybe I had reached some kind of glass ceiling, but who knows.
Then all the scandals happened last Fall and it was horrible and painful and difficult for everybody. A really strange and disorienting time. But there were also these moments of clarity, in the days and weeks that followed all of that, when you really got to see how brave so many people were. And you got to see how beautiful they were. And I can remember feeling so impressed and so moved by so many people and it was really incredible.
Then there was then this rush of people writing essays and think pieces and it was confusing and overwhelming and of course I wrote about fifty of them in my head every day, trying to figure out where I stood and how I felt. Though I didn’t feel like talking about it publicly.
Then one night in early November, I was out in London with two of my closest friends, Crispin Best and Emily Horn. (Emily and I used to live on the same street when I lived in Toronto too. She was one of the people who really helped me to develop Shabby Doll House in the early stages, and she has done countless illustrations for the website since).
Anyway, about two years earlier she had actually illustrated a story by Crispin and that piece went on to become really popular, but this was the first time that the two of them had ever met in real life. So the three of us ended up having this drunken conversation about that story and the images Emily picked out for the illustrations and my experience with editing all of it, and the conversation felt really valuable to me. I was reminded of why I had started doing all this stuff in the first place and how cool it was that these people from all over the world had collaborated because of Shabby Doll House.
The next morning, I woke up really early and I was very hungover and feeling terrible and I walked across London to the TATE Modern to see a Louise Bourgeois exhibition that was showing there at the time. Then while I was at the gallery, serendipitously, this article by the Australian poet, Emmie Rae appeared online. And I read these words,
‘I cannot accept the female voices in this community as ‘token.’ I cannot accept the bloody death of this community when so many intelligent, supportive people, and most importantly, intelligent and supportive women are creating, editing and publishing some of the most exciting new writing in existence. These women are what keep it alive.
Shabby Doll House, run by two women, Sarah Jean Alexander and LK Shaw is a constantly evolving online publication. In March this year Shabby Doll House released a surprise video issue inspired by Beyoncé’s recent visual album. Doll Revolution is a collection of seven videos about loneliness, distance and longing. Yes it’s an online, video poetry issue inspired by a mainstream pop/R&B queen, and the result is understated, ghostly and incredibly beautiful. Shabby Doll House continues to create change in the community, challenges the expectations of the genre and supports Shabby Doll Alumni online, creating a microculture in itself.’
We started working on The Re-Up that week.
And then we were back on track. I started figuring out how to make conversations, like the one I’d had with Crispin and Emily, into something that we could all share. Three months later, the first issue of The Reader came out.
So what do you use to put it together? To send it? (How do you maintain your subscriber list, what platforms do you use, etc.) Are there costs? (other than you time / blood / sweat / tears)
I just make it in a google doc and save it as a pdf. I have a spreadsheet, (also on google drive) with all the subscribers and on the first Sunday of every month, I copy the email address column into the bcc of an email and send it to everyone with a short message. As people subscribe throughout the month, I add their details to the spreadsheet and send them the latest issue.
It’s very DIY and very simple and I know there might be much more professional ways of doing things, but for now at least, this system works. I think there’s something intimate and personal about it, which is important to me. The only hidden cost is that paypal takes a small fee, which I think is unavoidable. The rest of the money goes back into Shabby Doll House.
I think that is great, and refreshing to hear. I do web shit for a living and I see all kinds of people doing all kinds of things professionally and otherwise. I think that’s why the Real Pants people asked me to do this interview. But hearing that you are cobbling it together, and keeping it simple—while doing something really real—that’s the kind of thing I love. It’s the something that matters, not the technology. You had an idea and have worked to make it happen. There’s no magic. Just hard work. And anyone that’s ready to work hard can do these things.
Yeah! I mean, the technology is simultaneously the most and least important aspect of all this, in the sense that, I would love to just print it out and staple it together and hand deliver it to all of the subscribers if I could, but they live all over the planet… so that’s impossible. We have subscribers from everywhere and they all receive each new issue at the same time, no matter what. And I think that’s something that’s really appealing to a lot of people, especially because if you’re not in New York, for example, it’s really easy to feel left out of ~whatever is happening right now~, and then for everyone outside of the U.S., it’s so expensive to have a lot of indie press stuff delivered to you… so it’s great that we can distribute to everyone on equal terms. But yeah, the most important thing will always be the content. There’s no need for us to become extremely fancy, technologically, at this point. It might be nice to have an app in the future, but I wouldn’t be able to make that myself.
What was your goal number of subscribers when you started / what were you hoping for? Where are you now? Have your goals changed?
I guess I had no idea of how many people would be interested at the beginning, and I still don’t really have an estimate for the possibilities.
I just thought of that line where Jay-Z says, ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’ Except, ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m just a writer and an editor and I have good intentions and follow my instincts and hope for the best.’
When the first issue came out, we had just done The Re-Up, which had been very popular online, but there was no real precedent for a monthly subscription magazine, that I could see, in this kind of niche. So I researched things like Emily Books and The Rumpus Book Club and The TNB Book Club to try to get an idea of how those things work, but those are all entities that deal with actual books (whether they’re electronic or physical). The closest thing that I could see, that was sort of similar, was The New Inquiry, which has a very different mission and audience, I think.
I mean of course the idea of a monthly magazine is not a new one, but the idea of it being electronic and centered around online literature and not free? As far as I know, we’re the first one of our kind. We currently have 180-something subscribers and that number is rising steadily.
Did you have any concerns when you set out to do the Reader? Any new concerns since?
Yeah, it was really scary to say, okay, this isn’t all going to be for free anymore, but doing The Re-Up gave me a lot of confidence. And I also felt like the playing field had shifted a lot, in the wake of the scandal stuff last year. It suddenly felt easier, as a woman, to just stand up and say, this is what’s happening now – I’ve made a decision about my own publication and I think I know what I’m doing. I decided I wasn’t going to take any shit anymore, or to let anyone hold me down. Now, my only concern is that the magazine continues to be innovative and informative and entertaining and inspiring too.
Has the not-free-ness changed your approach? We talk a lot about how incentives change systems — often in unexpected ways. Yeah, I don’t know what “we” I’m talking about there and I don’t know where I’ve had those conversations… maybe work. But anyway… has the reader’s delivery method and the fact it isn’t free… has that changed how you approach editing? Production?
Hmm, I mean, The Reader is a different kind of magazine to anything I’ve ever made before, so in some ways, yes of course, but I feel like my approach to doing all of this has always been to give everything that I possibly can, so that continues. I definitely have to be extremely efficient, but luckily I’ve worked enough shitty admin jobs to feel confident in that skill. I feel like one of the main reasons why Shabby Doll House is successful is because we don’t try to appeal to whatever is popular at the moment. We’re just doing our own thing. So I think probably everything around us could change, but we’d be okay, so long as we kept on being faithful to ourselves.
You’ve done three issues and are about to release your fourth — any pieces in particular really hit home what you wanted to do with this?
A friend visited me in Berlin a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about The Reader and specifically an interview I did with a Romanian editor, about the work that young, contemporary writers are producing in Romania right now and how it relates to what we’re doing in English. My friend told me that it reminded him of that Frank O’Hara poem, The Day Lady Died, when O’Hara picks up a copy of New World Writing to see, ‘what the poets in Ghana are doing these days.’ And I was so happy that he made that connection because that was exactly what I had been trying to do.
The potential audience we’re writing for is obviously a lot smaller than it is when something is published online, but I don’t feel like that even matters because our audience cares specifically about us. It’s like the difference between doing an open mic night and headlining your own gig. You can play album tracks and experiment with new stuff and the people who already like it, will like it more. I feel like everybody who has written for The Reader so far has tapped into that sensibility. We’re writing for people who trust us, so we’re willing to give more of ourselves.
So you have 180 subscribers. Nobody is getting rich off the Reader. But I’m always inviting people to a better world or a better version of themselves at work so here you go. You just blew up and have 180 thousand subscribers. After you take out your rightful salaries (and get matching Range Rovers for the editorial staff) you still have a few million in your pockets, annually. Great job on getting all those subscribers. You really outdid yourself. What’s next?
I’d open a real life Shabby Doll House, obviously, employing all the brilliant people I know and others I don’t know yet, and we’d continue to run the website and publish new writing and art, and we’d run a residency where people could come and work on their stuff, for free, and I think we’d have a camp in the summer for teenagers who already care about writing, and we’d come up with some kind of initiative to teach kids in schools that literature and art is probably a lot cooler than they’ve been led to believe. Maybe open a couple of new Mellow Pages locations in places where they could be really appreciated. Have lots of readings where people can meet their new best friends or fall in love. Just simple stuff like that.
That’s all for now. And everybody, check your inbox for the new issue of the Reader this Sunday—because I know you are a subscriber!