This post has been corrected. See the note below.
Quinn Emmett is a Los Angeles-based actor and a screenwriter. But he has also, perhaps surprisingly, found himself as the editor and publisher of the Fog Horn, a new digital literary magazine. Publishing four short stories a month, the Fog Horn is available as an app for the iPad or iPhone, and has made a point of showcasing emerging writers — and paying them for their work.
“Our name, the Fog Horn,” Emmett writes on the magazine’s website, “is drawn from one of [Ray] Bradbury’s most epic and moving science fiction stories. In it, a mythical beast, the last of his kind, rises from the depths of the sea to answer the call of another, a friend. To chase a forlorn hope, a beacon, a dream. What he finds isn’t as expected, and through his rage we learn about loneliness, and companionship, and time, and inevitable, crushing truth.”
That’s a pretty good description of what short fiction offers us: a kind of unexpected empathy by which we find ourselves. Recently, Emmett answered some questions about the Fog Horn and his hopes for it via email.
You’ve just published the fourth issue of the Fog Horn. How did the magazine come about?
I was lucky to be raised in a family where reading and writing were a vital prerequisite to being fed dinner. But I also spent my 20s working in digital product development, and later became a working screenwriter. I’ve always kept a foot in digital, and I’m constantly thinking about how to merge the two worlds.
Two things got me to the Fog Horn:
1. I worked at ESPN for a while and they do a great job of hiring folks within their demographic. We were the first to use our own products, and we were tougher than anyone else on them. In tech, it’s called dog-fooding. You can absolutely tell which companies use their own products and who’s passionate about making them better.
2. Traditional publishing sucks, and it’s getting worse. Writing is hard enough. Now it’s becoming infinitely harder to be a successful writer. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you get paid for it.
So last fall I took a long, sad look at the growing pile of New Yorkers on my floor and Wired issues on my iPad and decided to build a reading experience I would use: curated, consumable, no murdering of the rain forest.
We’re a team of three — me; Conor Britain, our young, smart developer; and Bryan Flynn, our art director. To round it out, one of our original writers, Chris Starr, has volunteered to provide a thorough and essential copy-edit pass.
The Fog Horn is digital but very magazine-like: a suite of stories every month. What’s the editorial process?
We’re looking for great voices. Yours could be well-developed, or a kernel of something special, but it can’t be all plot. Short stories have to be succinct — they leave little room for heavy setup. There’s no time. They need to burn a hole in the page.
Stephen King had a great tweet this week: “Horror is when you know and love the characters, but you also know something very bad is going to happen to them. It’s not the monsters!” So true. Give me characters to love and then tear them away.
We work one to two months ahead. We consider our submissions and try to imagine what fits together, or what makes for a compelling contrast. If a theme emerges or makes sense on the calendar, great. Otherwise we go back to our original goal: Be compelling and consumable. We look for a variety of lengths to make sure it’s a magazine you’ll want to read.
The name of the magazine comes from Ray Bradbury. Is he an influence?
I’m a proud sci-fi nerd, so he’s what you would call an inspiration, yes. Bradbury and [Isaac] Asimov are fundamental parts of my life education. We need them more than ever today. But then you read someone like George Saunders, and you realize the enormous potential in a personal short story. That’s why we don’t restrict our genres: Short stories allow you to enter the life of a person (or animal, or spoon of peanut butter) for a very brief moment and experience their love or pain or terror, or even a devastating downward spiral. There’s nothing like it.
What are the advantages of being digital? Why an app and not a website?
I’ll always love print, but it’s not cheap. Our first goal is keep the business alive and profitable by providing a consumable reading experience. Once we’ve done that and hit our subscriptions goal, we can do anything. We could deliver print magazines with custom drones....
Fundamentally, it comes down to push vs. pull. Our model is as old as publishing itself: You subscribe, we deliver to your door. Websites are tough. People don’t like subscribing to content on the Web, and you’re relying on them coming back, over and over. Unless you’re Gawker or ESPN or Reddit, they don’t usually do that. On the other hand, most people download an app and use it only once. That’s a tough obstacle. But with us, you get a magazine you can actually finish, and you get a push notification with every new issue. We offer a seven-day free trial, and after that, it’s $3.99 a month (we like to say it’s $1 a story) for access to both new and back stories.
What are you looking for in a story?
We want to hear your voice. Have an opinion. Introduce us to people we love or hate, but we have to care about them, whether they’re falling in love or walking into a barn full of werewolves. Great example: “Noise” by Corinne Stikeman, from our first issue. A couple at a critical juncture in their relationship, only they don’t realize it until they’re in very real, very empathetic danger. I can’t tell you how many people have called me, angry, about the way that story ended. I love it.
You have a commitment to publishing emerging writers. And you pay.
This is important for us. There are a huge number of websites, magazines and journals out there. Which is awesome for new writers. The problem is, very few of those places pay real money that you can exchange for sandwiches or diapers.
While we’ll never offer the volume a Kindle Single bestseller does, we do guarantee $1,000, a small but growing audience and a fun publishing experience. As a writer, those things inspire me. Do new writers drive subscriptions? No. But writing is hard, getting recognition is really hard, and getting paid is a crapshoot. Why shouldn’t we encourage people in the idea that they can make decent scratch writing?
You donate a percentage of your revenue to 826LA. Can you talk about this engagement with the community?
My mom is a teacher and a reading tutor. Talk about making an impact. Reading and writing are essential to a productive future, to being a human who can have a conversation, understand a job, read a contract, raise a kid … it goes on and on.
We believe in paying it forward, and 826LA is the tip of the proverbial spear. They don’t care about your background, or your parents’ income. We love their mission, and we want to help however we can.
[Updated, 8:05 a.m., April 17: This post inititally referred to the Fog Horn’s art director as Brian Flynn. His name is Bryan Flynn.]