Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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One night last spring, a burglar smashed a window and broke into The Sun’s office. Had he been searching for stacks of manuscripts, it would have been his lucky night. But after rifling through our desk drawers, he left empty-handed. I guess he hadn’t been paying attention in burglar school; surely none of his teachers would have suggested robbing an ad-free, nonprofit magazine. The next morning we swept up the broken glass, replaced the window, and put the incident behind us. Little did we know that the nighttime intruder would be the least of our troubles in 2006. In the coming months, a group of well-scrubbed progressives would create a bigger headache for The Sun.
In the beginning, we saw no reason to doubt the people at the West Coast–based nonprofit when they said they admired The Sun and wanted to help us reach a larger audience. If we let them distribute the magazine to newsstands around the country, they said, sales would increase dramatically. Since this was an idealistic organization whose very mission was to champion the cause of the independent press, it seemed like a rare opportunity to do business with a natural ally — as if a handy neighbor had offered to fix our broken-down lawn mower. We thought we had nothing to lose.
One thing was clear: we could use the help. Each year more independent bookstores that sold The Sun were closing their doors. The bookstore chains that remained said we needed to bulk up the magazine to make it more appealing. As one marketing manager put it, we could double the weight of The Sun and increase its “perceived value” simply by printing ads. I laughed when I heard this, assuming he was joking, but he was as serious as a butcher with his thumb on the scale. When I didn’t follow his advice, some chains lost interest in carrying The Sun. Others shelved it in magazine purgatory, tucked away on a low, dark shelf in the New Age section. Despite our best efforts, it was harder than ever to find The Sun in stores.
So, after carefully considering the nonprofit’s offer, we signed on with them, as did numerous other independent magazines around the country — so many, in fact, that the small organization grew rapidly. It hired more staff; it moved into larger and snazzier quarters. But not long afterward, things began to go awry — as if our friendly neighbor, after carting off our lawn mower, were suddenly nowhere to be found. The company started withholding payments from The Sun and other clients. Anxious publishers were either ignored when they called or were assured the check was in the mail. Since The Sun is sustained mostly by subscriptions, we were able to ride out this loss of newsstand revenue. But other publications weren’t so lucky. Late payments forced some small magazines to the edge of bankruptcy, and a few suspended publication altogether.
How did such a good idea turn sour? Some chalked it up to bad management and poor accounting; others said the organization was brought down by the same toxic brew of grandiosity and denial that afflicts so much of the corporate world. But I hesitate to place all the blame on the usual suspects. That’s because I’ve seen a similar pattern many times over the years: Someone has a good idea, one that springs from a passion for social justice or artistic excellence. As the idea unfolds, an organization begins to take shape. The organization grows. It grows some more. Then, sadly, growth itself becomes the focus, and well-meaning people lose their original passion in all the phone calls, e-mails, and stacks of paper that never seem to get smaller.
When I started The Sun, passion was all I had. I was young and broke but determined to keep the magazine alive, so I welcomed the challenge of staying up all night to finish an issue or selling The Sun on the street. Thirty-three years later, I’m no less committed to the work, but with seventy thousand subscribers and a staff of more than a dozen people, I’m hardly a lone renegade anymore. I know how tempting it is to lose myself in my to-do list or cut corners when facing a deadline — and I know how important it is to resist such temptations. To keep my passion alive, I try to be fully present, whether I’m reading a stack of submissions or analyzing The Sun’s budget or recycling my trash at the end of the day. I try to remember that the innumerable details involved in publishing The Sun are no less a part of my spiritual path than sitting cross-legged in meditation or getting on my knees to pray. I also try to keep in mind something the spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti once said: “I do yoga every day” — he meant every day for fifty years — “but I’ve never made a habit of it.”
That’s one reason I seek out writing that breaks the trance of mind-numbing routines and reminds us what it means to be fully human. That’s also why I’m determined to keep ads out of The Sun; I don’t want to lull readers with the great American lullaby of buy buy buy. Advertising pursues us everywhere these days: on our phone lines, in our doctor’s office, embedded in our e-mail. If the corporations could figure out how, they’d put ads in our dreams. But I’m publishing The Sun to dispel our illusions, not to deepen them.
Since The Sun isn’t underwritten by advertisers, we turn to our readers each year to ask for your support. Your tax-deductible donation, as a Friend Of The Sun, will help us keep the magazine independent and free of advertising in this age of media consolidation. It will allow us to continue sending free subscriptions every year to prisons, libraries, and community colleges. It will also help us to withstand unexpected financial losses, such as the one we experienced last year. The Sun has weathered many storms during more than three decades; given the nature of independent publishing, I expect there will be more to come. If it weren’t for the generosity of loyal readers, The Sun wouldn’t be here today.
It’s a shame that the West Coast nonprofit failed; a shame that a handful of bookstore chains have so much control over what people read; a shame that ads enhance a magazine’s “perceived value.” I would love to see The Sun on more newsstands. But, in the end, finding more readers matters less to me than making sure that, even when storm clouds gather, The Sun shines a light on what’s enduring and true. No, we won’t be increasing the magazine’s weight with page after page of advertising. If you ask me, the courageous and revealing writing we publish carries its own weight.
Editor and founder, The Sun
P.S.: You may send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org. Your donation is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.
If you’re a subscriber, you may already have seen this letter in your mailbox. We publish it in the magazine for the benefit of our newsstand readers.