Innovators in Lit #13: BOMB Magazine

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Cover art for Volume 1 Issue 1 of BOMB Magazine

BOMB Magazine was founded in 1981 as an artists’ and writers’ quarterly dedicated to presenting work in its own light, and artists’ and writers’ conversations in their own words. BOMB has since grown to become an international magazine with an editorial board of over 80 professional artists, writers, actors, directors, architects, and musicians serving as Contributing Editors. I’ve long loved BOMB for their singular interviews, compelling design, and wide-reaching editorial vision. In short: I can’t think of another magazine that does what BOMB does. General Manager Paul W. Morris chats about the secret to the magazine’s longevity, the evolution of marketing, and his sexiest, geekiest moments with BOMB.

Laura: BOMB was launched in 1981, and it goes without saying that 30 years is a major accomplishment of longevity. What has allowed BOMB to not only survive for three decades, but to remain current and vital? 

Paul W. Morris: If the magazine’s early editors ever thought in terms of decades—as opposed to months—the magazine would have never premiered. In fact, the name BOMB is partly inspired by the belief that the magazine would literally bomb after only a few issues. And yet, here we are, against the odds.

Despite our longevity, BOMB has retained a very grassroots feel. It was launched by a group of artists and writers with a $1,000 loan, and it’s still staffed today by painters, poets, novelists, musicians, and filmmakers. It’s a truly collaborative act to get each issue out, and it takes all our efforts to produce, market, and distribute it. As a nonprofit, the magazine survives due entirely to the dedication of its staff, contributors, donors, subscribers, and, perhaps most importantly, to its Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Betsy Sussler, who is also one of the co-founders.

BOMB’s is a very simple model, and it’s one you can see being mimicked more and more frequently in our culture today. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to navigate the economic hurdles. We’re mindful of the precarious nature of publishing a print magazine, which is why we’ve tried to complement what we do with an online component, exploring new ways to keep the conversation fresh and the formats inventive.

Laura: I struggle to think of a magazine with a better interview series than BOMB. Perhaps because you feature artists in conversation with fellow artists, they seem far more in-depth and spontaneous than a lot of interviews. Can you talk about BOMB’s vision for these interviews?

PM: The peer-to-peer interview pairings are essential to BOMB’s success. BOMB has over 90 contributing editors from all over the world who advise us on the emerging artists they come across. Interview ideas are also generated in-house by the magazine’s editors. We look for a combination of under-the-radar works and big releases of shows, books, and films by more established figures. The editors will often discuss who should conduct the interview with the interviewees directly.

The editorial process begins with a transcript that gets sent back to both interviewee and interviewer for them to elaborate on, with BOMB’s editors playing the role of the third participant by inserting queries, suggestions for expansion, and such into the text. There is a lengthy back and forth as all parties go deeper and deeper into the conversation, finessing the exchanges and allowing for more complex expression of ideas to emerge. As the word count of the original transcript comes down, new areas of text are inserted into the discussion. This process makes BOMB interviews incredibly in-depth and substantial, usually clocking in at over 5,000 words after multiple rounds of editing.

In 2007, we began manually digitizing these interviews, a two-and-a-half-year process. They’re now all online as part of The BOMB Digital Archive. Check them out; they’re free!

Laura: I’ve also long admired BOMB’s design—you guys have great covers! Could you speak to BOMB’s design ethos and how decisions about the look of the magazine are made?

PM: We love our covers, too! They’re so iconic. The magazine’s aesthetic has changed dramatically over the years, with 11 different logos, five different trim sizes, and a range of stocks. The reasons for these shifts have as much to do with our design teams’ aesthetic sensibilities as with commercial concerns, like increased paper costs, the rise of retail giants, and the demands of newsstand visibility.

The early ’80s issues were designed by several of the magazine’s contributors, so those issues have a very DIY feel as they were all just trying to figure out how produce a magazine. Then in the ’90s you see more attention being paid to magazine design, the introduction of color in the interior, glossier paper, and traditional layout and production elements like pull-quotes, wrapping text, blow-in and bind-in cards. The covers during this period catered more and more to newsstand sales and featured photos of the artists and writers being interviewed in the magazine, like Michael Ondaatje, Sapphire, Helen Mirren, Chuck D., Frances McDormand, and Abel Ferrara. As a result, advertising reflected this more commercial approach, and these issues included full page ads dedicated to fashion, alcohol, and cigarette companies.

As BOMB formalized its departments into four distinct sections—Interviews, Artist-on-Artist essays, Editor’s Choice reviews, and a 32-page literary supplement of fiction and poetry called First Proof—the magazine became increasingly defined visually. There was more space on the interview pages to allow for art, and First Proof became more distinguished with a texture all its own.

Not too long ago, we redesigned the magazine with a new look yet again, which has been getting a lot of critical response worldwide. You will soon see that same aesthetic reflected in our web presence when we relaunch BOMBsite in 2012.

Laura: Every year BOMB puts together an “Americas Issue” focusing on art and literature from a different part of the Americas. A recent “Americas” issue was dedicated to Colombia and Venezuela. What was the impetus behind publishing these special focus issues?

PM: BOMB has always published work in translation from Central and South America. As early as 1984, BOMB included a tag line on the cover of issue #9 that read: “The Americas, Art, Poetry, Fiction, Film.” Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, readers were encountering interviews, poetry, and fiction by a variety of Latin American writers, artists, and filmmakers in the pages of BOMB. But it wasn’t until the late ’90s that the magazine’s editors decided to produce an entire issue dedicated solely to the Americas, as they felt it was a shame how many seminal artists were not better known in the U.S. This decision was really just an extension of BOMB’s mission to provide a platform for artists to be heard, so it was entirely natural that one issue each year be focused in this way. It also fit with our commitment to cross disciplines whenever possible, crossing borders in the process.

The first Americas issue in 2000 featured a broad spectrum of Latin American artists, such as Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría and Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, to name a few. Each subsequent issue highlighted a specific region or theme: Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico and the Border States, the Caribbean Basin, and so on. These issues were tremendously successful. They included interviews with important novelists and painters who had never before been featured in an English language publication—we published the first-ever interview with Roberto Bolaño in English, for instance—as well as first-time translations of Latin American fiction and poetry. Whenever possible, we also published the interviews in Spanish simultaneously on the web.

We recently made the decision to fold all new Americas material into the magazine as a matter of course, so that readers would come across this material integrated into the overall make-up of every BOMB issue. This way is in keeping with how the magazine originally featured this work.

Laura: What does an average day in the BOMB offices look like for you?

PM: I wish I had average days! We’re a nonprofit, so we all wear multiple hats, and nothing is ever the same from day to day. The web work and our digital efforts create a fast-paced frenzy at times, trying to make sure that our web and blog content is not only fresh and well-conceived, but also up to the same editorial standards as the print mag. We also take care to publicize every piece as thoroughly as possible, which means lots of outreach.

Usually, on any given day I’m working on partnership and audience development initiatives, creating sponsorship opportunities, and leveraging BOMB’s formidable Digital Archive through licensing deals with various third parties. I’m always trying figure out how to attract more readers to the site so they’ll stay longer and share the material with their communities. I try to strike a balance between web and print by ensuring BOMB’s interviews and literary supplement are getting the attention they deserve by promoting them in creative ways. I don’t do this alone. It’s a collective effort, and BOMB could not do what it does without its dedicated junior staff and volunteer interns. They are the new group of emerging artists, writers, and filmmakers who are inheriting the role of creating new formats for talking about art and literature.

Laura: How has the “digital media and marketing” aspect of your job title evolved during your time with the magazine?

PM: For me, digital strategy and marketing go hand-in-hand. Developing new channels for distributing BOMB’s content means expanding BOMB’s audience across demographics and disciplines. When I came on in early 2005, marketing meant something very different to me than it does now. We were limited back then in our ability to reach new audiences by the technologies at our disposal, mainly fax, phone, and email. Even our website was little more than a landing page providing details about how to subscribe to the hard copy magazine. Within two years, we had rebuilt our website as a database-driven CMS that could house BOMB’s growing digital archive, adopted an email marketing solution, and launched our Facebook page. A year later in 2008, we launched BOMBlog, featuring daily content like Q&A’s, reviews, and multimedia features.

All of this helped attract new readers, people who may not have ever heard of BOMB, or if they did, had not read us in years. I also signed us up early for every free social media service I felt would help us reach audiences. This was key to our success. As a result of these and other viral marketing tactics, subscriptions increased, traffic on the site went up—as did advertising revenue—and suddenly our events were being attended by hundreds rather than dozens, which attracted sponsors and product donors.

I’m constantly exploring new ways to collaborate with others, exchanging best practices to foster our expansion. This often takes me away from the office and out into the world to attend events and brainstorm strategies with other editors, publishers, and technology developers. I meet lots of smart, interesting people all the time; each new connection is an opportunity to learn something new that adds to my understanding of what marketing can mean.

Laura: What’s been one of your most exciting moments or experiences with BOMB?

PM: How about two: one geeky and one sexy? Very early on in my tenure at BOMB, we created a partnership with the IFC Channel for their pre-opening of the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan. BOMB had just published an interview with Miranda July conducted by Rachel Kushner in summer 2005, so we invited July to speak to a theatre full of guests about her fiction and filmmaking, which was followed by a very chic after-party with a bunch of celebrities in attendance. Her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know had yet to premiere, but there had been a lot of buzz about it already. Our affiliation with IFC Center’s opening meant BOMB’s name was on everyone’s lips in the weeks leading up to the event, and also afterward in the media.

More recently, in 2009, I was able to broker a relationship with JSTOR, the digital journal service for libraries, which resulted in 6,000 academic institutions subscribing to BOMB. JSTOR agreed to digitize our entire back run of issues, over 11,000 pages total, and made them available to students and scholars worldwide. (That was the sexy one, obviously!)

Both examples illustrate what is the single most exciting thing about my job: getting BOMB Magazine into the hands of readers, especially new readers who will find value in what we do.

Laura: What are some other publishers or literary entities you find inspiring?

PM:
For me, the literary organizations doing some of the most important work right now in terms of raising awareness and championing emerging talent, not to mention important works in translation, are places like PEN America, Open Letter Books, and Words Without Borders. One Story and Electric Literature inspire me by their hybrid models for analog and digital distribution of their magazines, and it helps that they’re publishing great fiction. I find I’m drawing less and less distinction between old school print publishers and online magazines, like Triple Canopy and Guernica, who are committed to building a community online as well as at their live events.

Laura: What do you wish existed in publishing that hasn’t been invented yet?

PM: Maybe an extra day to just read? Or in lieu of that, maybe some new device or application that helps me get through my reading faster? I’ve tried all the devices; nothing helps. The problem with there being so many new journals and publishers is that there’s just too much good work being produced. Which is not a bad problem to have if it means people are reading more…