Ch. 3: Run a Website? Create a Print Legacy

Only dirt lasts forever on the internet.

I was absolutely crushed to hear that another bright light of the digital age, The Establishment, is ending their run. Their farewell letter, like everything they have done, is passionate and honest. The Establishment is just one more in a series of phenomenal publications that have not been able to make the money work in our current moment.

It’s fucking hard to run a magazine. It’s even harder to run a website, they’re hungry beasts that can never get enough, and they mostly don’t earn enough money to pay the people who run them. Very few generate enough money for the founders and editors to live on. Almost none of them survive past 10 years. Few of them survive past 5, honestly.

But there’s incredible value in launching and running one. An online magazine can be a great way to introduce and build up new writers. It can let you share your unique perspective, and start or add to the cultural conversation. It can also be an excellent avenue for artistic experimentation and great design.

I’m a huge believer in creating a print version of work published online. A lot of people are using print annuals or print quarterlies as a way to create revenue for their publication.

Others are publishing (and often Kickstarting) print editions to create visibility for their publication. A print product lets you attend an event like AWP or a local book or zine fair and introduce people to your publication’s work in person, sending them home with something to hold that will also entice them to check out your publication.

But I believe online magazine publishers should also consider occasionally publishing in physical formats to create a print legacy of their work. Even though it seems like things on the internet last forever, we’ve all seen enough amazing sites come and go to understand that that’s not true (unless there’s an embarrassing fact or tweet that you wish would go away, then it really IS forever!)

I know this firsthand, as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Derbylife.com, which was the #1 roller derby culture site from its launch in 2011 until we ceased publication in 2015. At our peak, we published new content every weekday—intensely personal stories, tips on how to improve at the sport, health content sourced from a league doctor, and original photography by some of the greatest photographers the sport has ever seen. Tens of thousands of people in our weird niche sport were reading and sharing the work I edited and wrote, and the site made people feel more seen, and less alone.

But the publication was always 100% volunteer run. (I received a pair of roller skates as my only compensation for having put up to 40 hours a week into the site for 4 years.) We couldn’t pay ourselves, and worse, we couldn’t pay our writers or photographers.

As my co-founders and team fell away over the years, the site took more and more from me. At one point, I was a full-time freelancer, and every hour I put into the website literally cost me money, eating up the time that I could otherwise have spent on paid work.

After my last collaborator decided he was through, I knew I couldn’t keep running the site forever. I had already been planning to create a book about roller derby—the book I wished I had found when I started the sport—an entry point into our weird and wild world, drawn from what I had learned playing the sport for 7 years and writing about it for at least half that time.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would want the book I was writing, and decided to hedge my bets, running a Kickstarter project for the print edition. I budgeted enough to pay designers, editors, photographers, and contributors. If I didn’t hit my goal, I figured I’d toss the book online as a quick and dirty ebook, but if people did want it, I wanted to create something I could be proud of.

I raised more than 130% of my goal, and what’s more, 254 members of my community said they wanted what I was creating. I was buoyed by their support and enthusiasm over the next eight months as I pulled the book together, working pretty much around the clock to write and publish the book, along with continuing the website and putting in over 40 hours a week at my day job.

The book came out in June 2015 to great enthusiasm and strong sales. I sold through my initial 1200 copy print run in less than a year, and have continued to sell it in ebook and print on demand format ever since.

By the end of 2015, I stopped publishing new content on Derbylife.com. Honestly, I never published a final post. I could never really face the fact that I was done. I’m pretty sure people have realized it by now.

But when I look back on the four years I spent running Derbylife.com, I have something to physically point to and be proud of: Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby. And when the site inevitably goes dark, the Derby Life book is a tangible part of modern roller derby history that has already survived beyond my career as a derby skater and derby culture writer.

I’d highly encourage everyone running a passion project online magazine (or a financially sustainable one!) to create something in print to create your own legacy. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to drop me a line.