Foreword Magazine is the only national magazine that serves and reviews and promotes small presses and self-published authors exclusively; a publication that does not review titles from the Big Five Conglomerates or major University presses. It’s not been an easy road, but an honorable one, and Victoria Sutherland tells her story about its ups and downs, and ultimate survival and success.
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“Foreword Magazine’s story begins in Traverse City, Michigan, in 1998, when three women writers and magazine professionals launched a trade review journal to cover the rapidly growing independent, alternative, university, and self-publishing industries. We were employed by a book packager who bought Small Press Magazine, birthed by R.R Bowker in 1983—a literary journal exclusively devoted to the great work of the burgeoning small press community. Well, it was a great concept in theory, but we three had a different idea of how it should be carried out, and we left Small Press (now an e-zine called Independent Publisher) April 1, 1998, to start Foreword when our offer to buy was rejected. We quickly established a network of skilled reviewers around the country and connected with hundreds of publishers to access review copies of books and then, like most small businesses, the long slog to financial stability commenced.
“As an entrepreneur in an industry that holds tight to its traditions, inspiration came from a healthy work ethic and sage business advice from my husband’s gumptious brothers.
“What began as a partnership quickly became a company led by myself as my two co-founders moved on to new projects. One of the women, Mardi Jo Link, authored a couple of true-crime books, and recently released her bestselling memoir Bootstrapper through Knopf. Another, Anne Stanton, became a busy freelance journalist, as well as research assistant to her NY Times bestselling author husband, Doug Stanton. I like to believe that had their personal financial staying power been as fluid as mine at the time, they might still be here. But after a few family loans and a second mortgage on our home I suddenly became majority owner. Since 2003, I’ve been the primary creative force, publisher, and chief bathroom cleaner.
“Foreword Magazine, Inc. has first and foremost featured a print magazine that was delivered free to booksellers and librarians across the country and supported by advertising revenue. In addition to the reviews and feature stories highlighting great titles from indie presses, we also recognized books from independent and university presses annually with our awards program. In 2003, we introduced Clarion, the industry’s first fee-for-review service. Currently, we also give publishers their first taste of foreign rights business by showcasing their books in a co-operative stand at book fairs in Frankfurt, Bologna, Shanghai, and Beijing.
“As you can imagine, we have faced a number of financial challenges. In our early years, we were monthly and largely supported by ads from the tech industry as well as more established independent publishers. When the first bubble burst in 2000, it became necessary to re-strategize: we increased our page count, but reduced the frequency of publication to bi-monthly,
“We also got caught up with a “phantom” investor in early 2001 who came frighteningly close to pushing my hand toward closing our doors. When I realized after many months this money was not going to materialize, I spent some incredibly long days and nights considering my personal commitment and the continued potential of the independent press sector from whom we needed support. It was hard to turn away from the exponential growth in small press numbers, even back then. I borrowed funds from family “one last time” to get us through a tight spot in August of 2001. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted, and it happened at precisely the right moment...a month later, after 9/11, those funds probably would not have been available.
“In 2003, we partnered with Overdrive.com to introduce the industry’s first fee for review program. For a few years, they managed the backend and we took care of sales and providing the same quality reviews to new customers who couldn’t seem to land a review in a trade journal, primarily due to lack of space and overwhelming submissions. Of course, many industry leaders wanted to believe we had sold out, that Foreword Clarion would be providing great reviews to everyone who paid. I never understood why they thought we would jeopardize the trust of our readers and the good name of our magazine by doing this. In hindsight, it was an idea ahead of its time, and now most trade review journals offer a similar program.
“We also suffered a fire in our offices the weekend before the London Book Fair in 2004. Miraculously, we had adequate insurance and our computer hard drives survived, but the smoke damage ruined everything else and very nearly broke our spirits.
“At about this time, some great hiring decisions in sales and editorial began to coalesce and we began to see a shift that gave us the ability to correct our cash flow direction. We continued to deliver lengthy, quality, free reviews in the magazine despite the fact that we also had a separate fee service. I am especially pleased that we provide robust reviews as opposed to annotations or mere book summaries. More and more librarians are buying books from indie presses due to these reviews. Publisher ad support continues to expand. We aren’t going away anytime soon, and publishers look to us as a profitable investment for their shrinking ad budgets and publicity efforts.
“Traverse City has a rich literary history with notable contemporary authors like Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber, Doug Stanton, Anne Marie Oomen living nearby (Harrison and Gerber left a few years ago). Michael Moore also lives here, and hosts a Film Festival every August. The Interlochen Arts Academy, a world-renowned high school, teaches students from around the world in music, theatre and literary arts.
“Foreword calls home the third level of the Traverse City Cigar Box Company. It was built in 1920 and refurbished after our purchase in 2011. It overlooks the Boardman River, and is a couple blocks away from The Ladies Library built in 1869, a Carnegie Library built in 1902, and across the river from our landmark Traverse Area District Library built at the turn of this century.
“Lucky to have Lake Michigan as a backdrop, our resort community in Northern Michigan is as beautiful as any place in the world. A higher than average number of intellectuals, cultural creatives, and the occasional Silicon Valley 30 year old “retiree” now call Traverse City home. I am able to hire a very talented team locally, and we have an excellent regional airport that provides affordable service to Detroit or Chicago hubs in 30 minutes.
“Since 2008, as other review journals fold or contract due to shrinking ad sales, Foreword continues to experience double-digit growth. Today, my co-conspirator and husband, Matt Sutherland, and I continue to haul suitcases of independently published titles to the aforementioned book shows around the world. In 2012 we acquired Children’s Books USA, a concierge service used by larger established publishers to maximize their foreign trade show presence. We currently employ 10 full-time staff members, a handful of freelance editors, and over one hundred reviewers.”
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