Celebrity Culture: C. Max Magee of The Millions on what he learned in founding, growing, and selling his publication.

Celebrity Culture: C. Max Magee of The Millions on what he learned in founding, growing, and selling his publication.

Celebrity Culture:

It was 2003. I was 25. I had started dabbling on a blog, a barebones thing, powered by Blogger and hosted on Blogspot, blogging then just starting to become a minor craze. I called it The Millions. Every day I went to the bookstore where I worked — Book Soup in West Hollywood, California — and every day I came home and felt a nagging lack of ideas for what to write. Then one day I came to the obvious realization that, since I spent all day thinking and talking about books, since I had spent much of my sentient life thinking about books, I could write about them too.

Little did I know that this was a first small step toward creating something that would change my life.

The Millions would eventually shed its bloggy roots, growing into a magazine with a part-time staff of 30 writers and editors. Over the 15+ years I served as editor and publisher of the site, we published over 1,700 unique bylines, including National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners ranging from Margaret Atwood to Jeffrey Eugenides to George Saunders to Zadie Smith. The Millions reached (yes) millions of readers each year and our readers bought hundreds of thousands of books through the links on the site. We made an impact on the culture.

When asked, I’ve often described The Millions as the premier independent online magazine focused on arts and culture. The New York Times called it “the indispensable literary site” and it has been praised and cited in nearly every major newspaper and magazine and on BBC Radio and NPR. New York Magazine recently published a feature on The Millions that gives a good picture of its history and legacy.

As New York put it, “the site was revered by almost everyone who cared about books, a coveted outlet for book publicists and marketers and a launching pad for the careers of multiple literary stars.”

I sold The Millions to Publishers Weekly at the end of 2018, ready for new challenges. In PW’s capable hands, the site and its community can live on for years to come without being tied to the whims of its founder.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been wanting to collect my thoughts about all the lessons I learned founding and growing The Millions. When I started in 2003, I knew next to nothing about being an editor or a publisher or managing people or running a business. I learned a whole lot along the way by trial and error but also from great collaborators and mentors.

When it comes to running an online magazine, a lot has changed since 2003. There are things we were able to do in the first ten years that are no longer possible. But more might be possible than the conventional wisdom about online publishing would have you believe. And my hope, anyhow, is that these lessons will be valuable outside the narrow space of online culture-focused publishing. Certainly, these lessons could be valuable in “content shops” of all sorts, and some of them may be useful for IRL endeavors. Taken together they may provide a sort of roadmap and also a snapshot of a particular era of online publishing. Let’s begin…

Lesson 1: Find Your Focus

As I wrote above, The Millions was born when I decided to write about books.

And since The Millions was mine, I could make my observations newsy and breezy — no need to take on the heavy freight of reviews or analysis of the sort that had pained me to write a few years prior as an undergraduate.

Here was lesson number one! Focus on a particular topic and you will attract readers interested in that topic. They arrived in the dozens and I was stunned to have even that audience. Intoxicated, I began hustling for links — something that was more possible back then. I got The Millions listed in “blogrolls” and mentioned by those first celebrity bloggers — quaintly small and independent back then but aggressively occupying what territory they could cede for this new form. This was before Twitter and Facebook. Before Gmail even, or Google’s Adsense and Analytics. RSS hadn’t been invented yet. The blog was started before the first version of WordPress was released. In 2003, Blogger hadn’t yet been acquired by Google and had no out-of-the-box commenting functionality (blogs without comments!) Readers hopped from blog to blog because there were no platforms aggregating the links.

What were these links I was so excited about getting? My Gmail archive — that second memory that lives outside my brain — doesn’t go back that far. I remember the outsize heady feeling, each day a string of dopamine hits fed by links and visitors, a foretaste of the feelings that Facebook would years later commodify and use to conquer the world, and that Twitter would use to turn a small subset of us into hopeless notification addicts.

Lesson 2: Become Habit Forming

Lesson number two was therefore inevitable. I chased those dopamine hits and wrote more — every day if I could. The more you write, the more readers you get. This was a rule that was quickly discovered by those first blogs-as-businesses. Publish 10 times a day, 20! 50! It became habit forming, the writing and posting and the traffic watching. It also became habit-forming for readers and it set a precedent about what kind of publication The Millions was going to be. I tried very hard to publish every day. With help from some early collaborators, it wasn’t long before we were publishing each weekday, often more than one piece a day, a pace that put us ahead of other similar sites at the time.

Aggregators like Facebook and Google News have at times appeared to program their algorithms to reward high-volume posting (and maybe they still are), but that way lies clickbait slideshows and tweet round ups and caustic hot takes. The Millions probably could have published a lot more frequently than it did, but I think we published frequently enough to meet our goal: give the reader something new and substantial every time they visit.

Lesson 3: Prioritize revenue

This one may seem either too obvious or too craven, depending on where you sit. For the crowd that has relentlessly exploited the limitless arbitrage opportunities presented by the internet — from Macedonian fake news mills to China-sourced drop-shippers to American Instagram influencers — it’s just confusing not to make money your first concern. For those embarking on a literary (or any other) passion project, money is often tertiary at best. The internet is much quicker to reward the clever schemer who figures out that you can acquire visitors from here for x and get paid x-plus-one when you make those visitors click this or that link. (It perhaps says something about the current state of the internet that these schemers were the ideal users of the iteration of Facebook that was exploited by propagandists ahead of the 2016 election.)

The Millions was never purely a passion project. It was a side hustle built by a kid a couple years out of college earning a bookstore clerk wage and carrying nearly an annual salary’s worth of credit card debt. It is either idealism or foolishness that led me to decide that this project should focus on something I was passionate about.

Under my leadership, The Millions was not affiliated with a university. We were not the junior book arm of a family of sites run by a media conglomerate. We were not backed by a publisher or a rich patron or a single benefactor of any kind. And the truth is that many, many completely essential and very worthy literary and arts-focused projects do have this sort of backing (we happily would have!) In the absence of that, first as a broke bookstore clerk and later as a guy with kids and a mortgage and several very invested collaborators, it was pretty much immediately apparent that The Millions needed to make money.

In all eras of the modern internet there have been many ways to make pennies and only a few ways to fully cover the budget of a small but growing online magazine. All of the ways to fully cover our budget (save one, which we’ll get to later) involve trade-offs and not so great feeling arrangements. Back in the earliest days, this might include renting out space on the blog sidebar so that somebody in Sweden or Japan could post links to a dating site or an online poker thing. It would also inevitably mean going into business with all those familiar internet monopolists and their familiar baggage.

One great fallacy, popularized by the fetishization of the venture capital model, is that it’s best to just get big first, and then you can figure out revenue. This makes sense if you’re Facebook, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re a niche online publisher. A unique feature of the internet as a publishing medium is that it allows one to turn tiny readership into tiny sums. Go to Google or Amazon, copy over the ad tags and start counting your pennies. In today’s landscape, this might mean asking readers to support the site right away. You don’t need to wait until you’re reaching 100,000 readers a week. The Millions started generating (tiny) revenue when we were getting just 300 readers a day.

Here’s why you start generating revenue when you’re small:

1. The numbers will be tiny, but you’ll know what’s working. You will be able to see which revenue-generating opportunities are legitimate and which are bogus (Some will be bogus. This is the internet after all!). It’s much better to do this sort of trial and error when the stakes are low.

2. Any sum of money can help motivate a project. The great scarce resource is time. When even a little bit of that time can be exchanged for a little bit of money, it becomes easier to say: I’ll keep going for another month. When the numbers get bigger, the money can immediately be spread around to collaborators.

3. When you do start to attract more readers, the revenue scales with the readership. If revenue generation is already in place, a ramp in readership doesn’t create an artificial rush to monetization.

4. Following on number three above, if you’ve been monetizing from day one, your audience has come to expect it and understand it, and you don’t have to foist ads or some other monetization scheme on them when they have grown attached to the uncluttered feeling of an un-monetized site. How many times have we heard the story of a reader rebellion when a site launches a revenue-focused redesign?

But that’s really the easy part. That’s just signing up for every revenue program you can as soon as you can. The more challenging part — and more fun — is figuring out what kind of content generates revenue both by being more monetizable and by attracting more readers. There’s a secret sauce to this that I don’t quite want to give away for free (longtime Millions readers can probably guess which features and articles met this goal for us.) But the bottom line for The Millions was that the content that was most useful and in many ways was most beloved by its readers was also the content that made the site the most money. That’s a sweet spot to be in. That money-making content also gave us the freedom to publish much more challenging, often general interest and high-quality pieces that made our reputation as a smart place to read and write.

Lesson 4: Cultivate a staff culture

Lesson four was what to do with this money we started making. The answer to that is pay staff writers and editors but, in our situation, this generally did not extend to what we called guest writers, the talented group who ended up in our pages by sending us unsolicited pitches and finished pieces. This is controversial and I understand why.

I made the choices I did because it felt most important to cultivate a small group of collaborators and do everything you can to make it worth their while to stay involved. A challenge for any publication with a limited editorial budget is how to most efficiently utilize that budget. From a purely business-minded perspective, the optimal solution would be to only pay for pieces that were going to generate more revenue than it costs to produce them. But maximize for profit too much and here come those plagiarized slideshows and tweet round ups and caustic hot takes again.

In practice, the dilemma looked like this: If I have $1,000 to spend, do I pay 100 writers $10 a piece (I can hear them all saying, uh, thanks, I guess), or do I take the ten people who are devoted and loyal to the project and pay them each $100 with the hope that each of those ten will lend her talents to the project for years to come? While this meant that those other, generally one-off writers could not be paid by The Millions, it allowed The Millions to cultivate and retain a core staff that was important to making the site as great as it became. Many of these relationships have lasted a decade or more.

It is immensely hard to retain a core group of people around a project like The Millions, where staff were all part-time and there were no salaried employees (including me). There is a natural inertial tendency, as the years go by, to drift. People get full-time gigs. They go back to school. We retained our staff by paying them as much as we could. It wasn’t a lot, but every penny we spent on something else made it that much harder to keep those staffers.

We also retained our staff by making The Millions a rewarding and uncomplicated place for them to write and by fostering a sense — deeply felt by me — that we were part of something special. Every Monday for years, I emailed the staff to update them with the latest news about the site. In these messages I pointed out pieces I had enjoyed, and let them know which of their pieces were getting traffic. It was a weekly reminder to our staff that The Millions exists. The subtext of every message was: “The Millions is still here and I value your work and the site is ready for you to write for it whenever you want.” We also went out of our way to use the site as a platform for our staffers’ burgeoning careers, and we delivered their work to our smart and taste-making readers — in my biased opinion, the greatest group of readers ever assembled.

I was very lucky to have, early on in the project, very talented friends and acquaintances who saw what I was doing and wanted to be a part of it. Before the site was making any kind of meaningful money, they became semi-regular writers, writing for free. When The Millions did start making money, it was clear to me that it should first go to those who had already spent some years working with me to get it started.

Lesson 5: Defend your turf

Once a site reaches a critical mass — that is, once it has established in the marketplace that it reaches readers and has influence, a vast machinery begins to exert its pressure. First it’s a few emails a week but over time it becomes a flood. A large portion of this machinery is the marketers: in the case of The Millions, an array of publicists in the publishing and cultural space who wanted to influence our coverage.

The volume of communication I received from publicists and aspiring guest writers, many of whom weren’t really familiar with the site’s purview, was an order of magnitude larger than what I received from my staff writers or from our readers. A back-and-forth with a generous publicist — perhaps a publicist who helped land a great interview not long ago — might carry a whiff of obligation, but that obligation must be weighed against the site’s mission. I firmly believe that one of the things that made The Millions special is that we went to lengths to resist that obligation and always viewed our readers as our most important stakeholders.

The emails were also from writers. We never stopped being amazed and grateful at the number of writers who wanted to write for us, generally without compensation (see lesson 4), because they wanted to be part of the project. But multiply these interactions by 500 over the course of a month and it can become overwhelming. I started to understand why so many of my own inquiries over the years had been met with silence or form letter rejections.

Lesson 6: Control Your Destiny

Along with frequent inquiries from writers and publicists, a site of a certain size it will be approached by advertising middlemen and providers of various publishing tools and aggregation platforms. Lately, it has been shockingly easy for a partnership with one of these companies to damage or sink a site. We have seen it all across the online ecosystem.

There was a time when many small ad networks and other revenue opportunities existed, smaller ad marketplaces like BlogAds and aggregators like Memeorandum that emerged to serve the growing blogging boom were very lucrative revenue- and traffic-generators for thriving sites. Many of these smaller ventures got wiped out or marginalized as the online publishing ecosystem matured and venture-funded social media platforms moved in.

One example that I watched closely was Medium. Medium reached out to The Millions in early 2016, promising a guaranteed sum of money along with vague assurances of future sponsored content revenue if we’d let them host the site within a stable of other “partnerships” they were forming. Attention like this is flattering, and guaranteed revenue is incredibly tempting when you’ve been hustling for each extra dollar for years. But it also represented a distraction. It would have required undoing all the infrastructure and processes we had layered onto WordPress over the years and it would have put all of that in the hands of an entity that saw The Millions as a component of its “growth strategy.” Less than two years later, sites like The Ringer and The Awl were leaving and Medium was soon shuttering the venture.

So too with Facebook Instant Articles, which promised a big ad revenue share in exchange for hosting articles on Facebook’s platform. This too turned out to be a dud with the promised revenue share underwhelming. We did not participate.

This is happening again with Apple News, which is proposing to keep half the revenue from its new subscription service and which would have Apple and not publishers own the customer data associated with the subscriptions.

These platforms massively undervalue creators by always making the revenue part secondary, obfuscated at the outset with a lot of big talk and handwaving and perhaps an up-front guarantee (with nothing at all guaranteed after that). Self-funded sites like The Millions, on the other hand, must always think about revenue first (see lesson three above). We could not get locked into “exclusive” revenue opportunities, and we had to judge the relative safety of the revenue sources.

Nonetheless, we were beholden to the internet giants. It’s impossible not to be. Traffic from Google’s search and revenue from its ad programs has ebbed and flowed across the years — not due to any changes we made but presumably due to various inscrutable changes to its algorithm. Since we were trying to run a magazine and not a search engine optimization scheme, we did not devote too much of our limited resources to keeping up with best practices.

Facebook was worse. In the early years, the growing social network was a boon, sending generous traffic and offering group pages that readers could join. We could directly message all the members on those pages, an incredibly useful promotional tool. Wanting to control the interaction, Facebook later deprecated those pages, neutering their capabilities to ensure that Facebook could mediate and monetize all interactions between a site and its readers (or a business and its customers). As we dutifully built a following on Facebook’s new pages, each post we made was accompanied by a lure from Facebook — the more money we spent “boosting” the post, the more of our readers (those people who had opted in to following us!) we could reach. Meanwhile the algorithm that had sent us healthy traffic was overhauled yet again, cratering traffic to The Millions and many other sites.

Amazon’s Associates program was a huge part of The Millions’ revenue model from the start. Back in 2009 I wrote a piece about why we participated in the program (to the exclusion of less fraught alternatives like Powell’s or IndieBound). It boiled down to a few key points:

1. Shopping aside, Amazon has always been an amazing database for books and if we were going to point readers somewhere to get more information on the books we were writing about, it made sense to point them to Amazon.

2. “The grills pay the bills.” When you click from an Associates site to Amazon and buy something, the affiliate gets a commission (with a few exceptions) no matter what it is. If someone clicks on a link to 2666 and in wending his way through Amazon, ends up buying a $2,100 grill, The Millions gets a commission on that grill. It adds up.

3. The Millions talked about books a lot, and that meant there were a lot of opportunities to link to Amazon.

As conflicted as I am about Amazon and all that it represents and its complicated history with authors and publishers, the fact is that their program allowed The Millions (and many sites like it) to generate meaningful revenue that we could use to pay our staff and build a community.

Of course, as is the rule with all internet giants, they share in the profits to get big and then they cut out the partners when they have achieved monopoly scale (see more on this in lesson seven below.) And so, in early 2017 and with almost no warning, Amazon slashed publishers’ rates, and it hit The Millions and many other sites hard.

Luckily, we had long been operating from a stance of paranoia. I knew that our reliance on these giants endangered us and so we were always looking for ways to control our own destiny. In late 2016, thinking that Amazon’s Associates program had been too good to us for too long, we launched our member program. This is by no means a revolutionary idea, if anything we were late to doing this, but it fit with a growing awareness that the only way to survive was take our destiny as much as possible out of the hands of the internet giants. Time will tell if the reader-funded model, as it matures, will be able to support a rich array of online publications. I hope it will but fear it won’t.

Lesson 7: It’s Free to Be Early

At some point, as The Millions started to see some success, it was clear to me that part of the reason why was timing. The Millions started within the first wave of single-topic blogs (especially blogs that weren’t focused on technology), and that early-mover advantage was key in establishing the site with readers and within the publishing ecosystem.

When it came to publishing online, early-mover advantage was not just about being there before competitors emerged, it was also about being there before the venture-funded revenue- and traffic-generators matured and became publisher unfriendly.

Basically: our budget was small, but it was free to be early.

The way it worked out was: you had to hurry up and start making money as soon as you could because as the revenue providers scaled, they would start to squeeze you out of your profits and they would crush competing revenue providers and reduce publishers’ revenue opportunities.

There is a further benefit to being early — especially since, as a publication, you are also a “brand”. The platforms need content, especially from brands that lend them legitimacy, and if you join and become active on the platforms early, they will feature you and will help you build your follower base.

By being an early adopter of Twitter, The Millions became a recommended account when users signed up for the service. This helped us build a large and valuable following. We did the same thing on Tumblr, which was a valuable traffic driver until various pivots negated its benefit. We even did this on Google Plus, and while that never really went anywhere, it was easy to do; it cost us basically nothing and set us up to benefit immensely in the event of the platform achieving big market share.

Facebook, ever wily, made it hard to do this with relentless pivots and rule changes that had “brand” pages like ours constantly starting over and having to rethink strategies.

The key, basically, is to get in when the balance of power still lies with the content creator, because eventually the platform either fails (after initially overspending on partners like you) or it achieves the scale necessary to divert the profit from the content-creators into its own pockets.

The Medium example in Lesson 6 above is kind of interesting viewed through this lens, because those early adopters did get paid, but there were costs to the disruptions of joining and then leaving the Medium platform (perhaps easy for site with the technical resources of The Ringer to navigate but potentially fatal for a site like The Millions with more limited resources.)

Nowadays, new partnership offerings from mature platforms (see Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News above), give the publishers a raw deal from the outset.

Another name for this lesson might be “Be skeptical of partnerships with internet giants” and it worries me that the great revenue programs — Google’s Adsense and Amazon’s Associates — that were genuinely beneficial to upstart publishers and that fueled the blogging boom emerged to the pre-platform era and look nothing like the partnerships touted today by Facebook and Apple. Meanwhile, Amazon has in recent years slashed Associ

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