‘Make a Beautiful Magazine — Here’s Some Money’

Born out of a collision between China’s economic boom and a New York literary scene accustomed to skimpy budgets, the fate of short-lived Astra magazine came down to global economic forces far outside its editors’ control

For the threadbare American book publishing industry, the idea of an imprint launching its own lushly edited and illustrated literary magazine was so foreign that one might have to go back back to the 19th century, when the Harper brothers began experimenting with weekly and monthly magazines to supplement their book publishing line, to find a prior example. So, when Astra Publishing House’s chief operating officer Ben Schrank first pointed out the job listing to edit just such a magazine to Nadja Spiegelman, she was taken aback. “It seemed like a dream job,” she told The Fine Print. “I was like, ‘What is this job? What does it mean that someone would pay me a salary to start a magazine?’” Like many writers, Spiegelman had long dreamt of launching her own magazine, but one of the reasons she had written it off was the prospect of endless appeals, galas, and other fundraising activities that dominate the working hours of most heads of English-language small magazines. “I didn’t want to spend all my time asking rich people for money, which is a lot of what you have to do if you start a literary magazine.”

But the money backing what would become Astra, the “international magazine of literature” with Spiegelman at the helm of a six-person editorial staff, wasn’t coming from traditional literary publishing sources. It came from Thinkingdom, one of China’s largest and most respected non-state publishers, which, in the booming Chinese consumer economy, operated more like a Silicon Valley tech firm than a musty old New York publishing house. Founded in 2009 and backed by venture capital firm Sequoia Capital China, Thinkingdom conducted an IPO in 2017, and, after launching Astra Publishing House in 2020, the company was seeking new ways to expand and take new risks. “They were sitting on a lot of cash. This is obviously one of the areas that they wanted to use that cash,” explained Jo Lusby, a former managing director of Penguin China and Penguin Random House North Asia who now runs Pixie B, a Hong Kong-based IP management agency. “You don’t get private equity falling over each other to invest in publishing houses in the West because it’s not seen as a growth industry; it’s seen as a legacy industry. In China, these companies are very, very entrepreneurial, especially the newer, independent companies like Thinkingdom.”

One of the ways Thinkingdom made its name in China was by publishing translations of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, and Shel Silverstein. “We got quite a brief on what the values of the founder of that company were,” Rutter said. “He was a true believer in the importance and the role of literary translation in fomenting international relations.” “They really believed in translation,” Spiegelman said. “They believed in that in the way that some people believe in world peace.” And in many ways, that’s what Astra was: the go-go 21st-century Chinese publishing industry translated by pedigreed members of the New York literary scene.

And from the vantage of Thinkingdom’s Beijing headquarters, there was some business logic to the plan. “I do think they genuinely believed a literary journal was a commercial proposition,” Lusby said. “Literary journals in China really do launch the careers of major writers. They’ve existed, some of them, since the ’50s. They’re brilliant, tight editorial pieces of work. It’s not even a case where Granta has a legacy journal but essentially is making its money off of its publishing operation. These are Granta-sized name recognition literary journals domestically, with different remits — doing nonfiction, doing fiction, doing young writers, whatever it might be. Even with the Internet, these literary journals still have a strong role and a lot of credibility in a way that they don’t in the English language publishing world.”

“That’s why we went so large, so quickly,” said deputy editor Samuel Rutter, recalling an early emphasis on establishing a prize with the Astra name. “This was meant to be a flagship publication. It was going to be bigger than just the magazine. It was supposed to make a splash industry-wide.” For the staff, the broad non-monetary mandate was liberating. “There was really no other directive aside from ‘Make a beautiful, wonderful magazine — here’s some money,’” said managing editor Medaya Ocher.

Before becoming the editor of Astra, Spiegelman, daughter of cartoonist Art Spiegelman and The New Yorker’s art editor Françoise Mouly, had been the web editor at The Paris Review, while Rutter, originally from Melbourne, Australia and a translator of contemporary Latin American literature, has won a PEN Translates award and contributed to Harper’s, The Paris Review, and T Magazine. The launch issue featured writers from around the world alongside established names like Ottessa Moshfegh and Leslie Jamison. They celebrated their launch with a stylish party in SoHo. “By the third issue, I was getting submissions from some of the writers I most deeply admire,” Spiegelman said.

The only real corporate mandate was that the magazine had to have an international focus. “Too often the publishing industry condescends to us — they expect writers from abroad, or minorities writers here in the U.S., to create work that is instructive, to commodify their identities and homelands,” said online editor Spencer Quong. “We wanted to reject that pattern and instead commission work from around the world that simply felt alive. Work that accessed universal feelings — ecstasy, lust, anxiety, guilt, shame, jealousy.” The magazine’s staff felt they were in a position to achieve those lofty goals but tried to make it clear to their parent company that financial benchmarks like profitability would always be out of reach for a literary magazine in the U.S. “From the beginning, I, and I think several other people who interviewed for the job, to my knowledge, were very clear that a literary magazine was not only not going to make money, but not going to break even,” Spiegelman said. “I asked them why they wanted to do this and was told they wanted to build their reputation internationally.”

For some of the magazine’s staff, there was a sense that this was too good to last even at the beginning. “It’s really, really rare that you hear that there’s a new literary magazine starting with funding,” Ocher said. “I kind of expected that one day things might change in terms of budget,” Rutter said. “A lot of this did sound too good to be true at the start. It was like, ‘So we’re going to have complete editorial independence, we’re going to make a magazine to our own specifications with whatever content we want, design it how we wish, it’s going to be a full-time paid position, you’re gonna have offices in Manhattan.’ That’s not necessarily the way literary magazines work.” But since the money was there, they went with it. “It was thrilling to work with a serious budget. It wasn’t limitless, but I felt good about the fees I was offering to writers, translators, and illustrators,” Quong said. “It was liberating to not worry about chasing donors or new investors, to never have to ask writers to accept inadequate fees in exchange for mere exposure.”

As they started work on the first issue, the Astra editors didn’t encounter any creative roadblocks. Rutter said he only heard enthusiasm from people in other parts of the company for what they were doing. “From my end, at least, we never really received any directives about who should or shouldn’t be in the magazine, what we could or couldn’t do,” he said. “We know for a fact that the two issues we put out are quite racy in terms of what generally is in play in the Chinese literary market. We never received any slaps on the wrist, or we were never told not to do anything.” And the publishing house never pushed them to feature their writers. “From the very beginning, I was a little afraid that if we were making a magazine with the same name as the publishing house and as the book imprint, it would be mistaken for a catalog for the publishing house,” Spiegelman said. “So, I said that at first I really wanted to have very clear editorial differences and explicitly not publish their writers in our first two issues, just so we could establish ourselves as something that was editorially independent. After that, I really love the work that Astra House is doing so would have included them in the same way that we were excerpting works from Graywolf or from FSG.”

“We wanted to go for some of the names that we thought the readers of literary magazines are excited about, but also some of the ones that they might not have heard of yet,” Rutter said. “Our plan was to continue with the budget that we had and to continue to put in the best writing from all around the world, full stop” Their parties embodied the magazine’s spirit: It was something that lived in the neon light refracted from the ubiquitous disco balls and ricocheting through the equally inescapable rain. “Part of what was the most exciting about doing this was how quickly as editors, we had the feeling of like, ‘This is an Astra magazine story, and this isn’t. This is an Astra magazine writer. This is the kind of thing we’re looking for,’” Spiegelman said. “‘This is our community, and this person fits into it.’”

The staff started to dream big dreams about what the future might hold. “We thought there was really no reason to put a cap on what we could accomplish. We were looking forward to potentially becoming quarterly. We were certainly looking forward to publishing more online,” Ocher said. “We were dreaming imprints, we were dreaming classes, we were kind of going all out in terms of what we wanted for the magazine, what we wished for it.” It was a new thing, but the lavish funding at the outset made it feel possible to think in terms of defining a legacy even before they published an issue. “It was really fun to think about how to build a foundation for something that could exist for years to come,” Spiegelman said. “That’s what I thought I was doing.”

But Schrank soon began asking questions that Spiegelman believed were coming from above him. “By the end of the summer, I was starting to be asked a lot of questions like, ‘But how is this going to make money?’ And I kept being like, ‘But it’s not. We can reduce loss over time, we can bring our budget down over time, and we can bring up revenue streams over time.’ I felt like we could increase our cover price. I felt like we could make and sell merch. But none of those things were ever going to offset the way in which we’d formed this magazine, which was to have a salaried staff and pay writers and translators decently. They were never going to offset it enough to make the magazine not lose money.”

The challenges Astra faced were not just keeping the Thinkingdom management interested in a money-losing clout-garnering experiment but also a downturn in the entire Chinese economy, still hindered by “Zero Covid” policy lockdowns. “Private publishers in China are generally facing a difficult time,” explained Qidong Yun, a professor at United International College in Guangdong and author of a history of Chinese publishing since Mao, “which might have impacted the overseas business of Thinkingdom.” Lusby concurred. “I moved to China in 1997, and this is the first time in my experience that I’ve witnessed any kind of shrinkage in the economy or the ambition or the level of confidence in the economy,” she said. “My general sense from friends and colleagues in the publishing space in China is that they’re having a very, very hard time right now. I’m hearing a lot about tightened budgets, realigned acquisition strategies, high discounts on books.”

Those concerns and questions, all too familiar among American publishing operations, began cropping up at Thinkingdom’s New York outpost as well. “What’s complicated in having a new company like Astra Publishing House with a whole bunch of different imprints doing a lot of different things,” Rutter said, “is when that sales pressure comes, it’s tricky to figure out where and how to make changes that can affect the bottom line.”

Ocher and Spiegelman met to try to figure out how to cut costs. “I had some intimations that there were issues with funding, that we were maybe looking at some cuts in terms of our production, and that made sense to me in a way,” said Ocher. “If you look at the magazine, it is extremely expensively produced. It’s full color, it’s really heavy stock, it’s really beautiful cover stock, there’s a ton of illustrations in it, there’s a lot of art. It is really not a cheap magazine. It just isn’t. And so I wasn’t completely surprised that there was some sense that you guys maybe are spending a little lavishly on the actual issue.”

But there were some things they weren’t willing to compromise on. “We really did not want to cut payment to writers. That was a real priority. We didn’t want to cut payment for online pieces. We paid illustrators well. We paid everybody well, and so that was not really an area where we wanted to implement cuts at all,” Ocher said. However, the extent of the cuts the executives were asking for — half the budget — meant that that had to be considered. “So much of how we’d structured it had to do with the fact that like, ‘Okay, the goal is to get attention, and we can hire an actual staff.’ So half of my budget was my staff salaries, so when it started to be like, ‘Can you do it for half the budget?’ it didn’t feel very possible,” Spiegelman said. “That conversation sort of kept going until like, ‘Well, how about you don’t do it at all?’”

On November 21, Astra Publishing House executives met with the magazine’s staff on a Zoom call and told them the magazine was shutting down and they would all be out of jobs by the end of the year. “I really don’t think that that’s a decision that should have come basically when we launched our second issue,” Rutter said. “That’s not really a proper runway, but there’s not much you can argue with when you’re told there’s no money left.”

Astra Publishing House sent out a press release announcing the end of the magazine on Wednesday, November 28. “We are disappointed not to be able to further fund the magazine,” said a statement included in the release from Astra Publishing House president Leying Jiang. “In a very difficult year for publishing, we found that the format provided unexpected challenges and have decided to close the magazine in order to focus all of our efforts on our children’s and adult imprints and continue to foster our book publishing business.” Reached by The Fine Print, Schrank added, “We loved the magazine, and we deeply regret that we couldn’t support its growth through this incredibly and surprisingly difficult year for book publishing, but we remain entirely committed to our books, authors, and imprints at Astra Publishing House.”

The staff started figuring out how to responsibly wind down operations on the website, which is set to stop publishing by the end of the year. “We have stopped commissioning new work for the website to focus on tying up loose ends, namely, making sure every contributor receives payment,” Quong said. “There were a handful of pieces near completion that we finished up for the website.” They’re still trying to figure out what to do with the pieces that were commissioned for the third issue, which was originally scheduled to close on December 21. “We’re still communicating with writers about how best to serve their work,” Ocher said. “When we all talked about it, we thought it best to allow the writers to place their work elsewhere so that it wasn’t part of a dying institution.” The theme of that issue, “Broke,” had been announced in September, well before the magazine itself would be directly experiencing the condition. “We imagine an issue that examines wealth disparities and finds meaning in the ruins,” the editors wrote in the issue’s submission guidelines. “We had no idea how prescient we were being,” Spiegelman said.

Staffers have conflicted feelings about Astra’s brief run. “It’s a real shame that all of that work that went into it has just been rolled up because it was quite a lot of preparatory work and I think it was done with an innovative sense and with a high degree of success,” Rutter said. “It’s really frustrating to see that go out the window.” But there’s also a sense of gratitude for the moment it lasted. “It’s so unlikely that this happened at all and I feel like what we did functions as a proof of concept for what could be in a world slightly different from ours,” Spiegelman said. “I hope that that’s how it’ll be remembered, as this flash of light of what it can look like when a literary magazine actually does have secure funding.”