Upping the Anti: The making of a radical journal

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Upping the Anti is a radical journal published twice a year by a group of activists from across Canada and the world. Tom Keefer, one of the founders of the journal, did an interview with rabble.ca’s Jenn Watt about where the publication came from and how it has continued to thrive in a time where print media is struggling to remain relevant.

Jenn Watt: When did Upping the Anti start conceptually?

Tom Keefer: Publishing a journal geared toward making sense of activist movements was something that people currently involved with Upping the Anti had been thinking about since 2000-2001. Although this was the highpoint of anti-globalization struggles, we were painfully aware of the shortage of spaces in which radicals could collectively discuss political objectives. We felt that, if we were going to win, we’d need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of our movements in a grounded and systematic way.

Upping the Anti began as a project of the now-defunct Autonomy and Solidarity Network in September 2004. The first issue came out in April 2005. Although the journal is a relatively new initiative, many of the people on the masthead have been working together in various political capacities for the past five to 15 years.

JW: What are some of the challenges to continuing to publish?

TK: Although money is an ongoing issue, the biggest challenge continues to be gathering the material for each issue and then editing it. We put out a high quality 200-page book twice a year. There’s an awful lot of labour involved in liaising with authors, editing their work, proofreading and coming up with clearly conceived storyboards and editorial perspectives. Finance and administration also demand attention and are constantly encroaching on the time devoted to content. However, without committing to the content we run to the extent that we do, the project wouldn’t be worthwhile.

Our editorial committee puts a lot of time into the project. We have a two-hour meeting every week. During production and other crunch times, this commitment can increase exponentially. Since we’re entirely volunteer-run, we know we have to pay attention to long-term sustainability. We’ve tried to deal with this by increasing the number of people actively involved in the project. As a result, we’re always on the lookout for new members to join our editorial committee and advisory board.

JW: Do you think your audience is limited by the semi-academic nature of the content?

TK: In an era such as ours, a lot of people have gotten out of the habit of reading books. Mainstream culture devalues both reading and thinking. It’s therefore not surprising that people might find the kind of content we run to be “difficult.” However, I think we need to be clear that this doesn’t make it “academic.” In today’s context, I actually think a little difficulty can be a good thing. We shouldn’t fetishize difficulty. However, we should recognize that confronting the scope and implications of capitalism and devising an effective response is going to be hard work.

Upping the Anti is very serious about avoiding academic jargon. We work hard to make the text as reader-friendly as possible through editing and content selection. We’re hoping that, as we continue to become a reference point for movements, people will reaffirm the value of books and continue engaging with the “difficult” material we print. In the context of today’s crisis of global capitalism, I think a lot more activists and radicals are willing to undertake a serious study of Marxist economics. In contrast, even a few years ago, this would have seemed irrelevant or somewhat unimportant.

The political context changes how people engage. At the same time, we must also be aware that “how people engage” can also change the political context. We hope that, as new struggles develop, Upping the Anti can help to both reflect and shape the field of engagement. People will read the material we print to the extent that we can make it consequential to do so. Once it’s consequential, it doesn’t matter how “difficult” it is.

JW: What effect do you think this journal is having on the progressive community?

TK: Although it’s difficult for us to really tell, it does seem clear that we’re increasingly viewed as an important space for the Left in Canada and the U.S. to engage in dialogue and debate. The number of submission proposals we receive increases each issue, and our subscription numbers and sales continue to increase as well. As with any publication, it took us a while to become established. However, because we’ve consistently published high-quality material that’s of direct relevance to activist struggles, I think we’ve gotten to the point where people make a point of reading our journal.

We’re not going to rest on our laurels, though. We’ve worked hard to produce a non-sectarian publication where a wide range of perspectives can be elaborated and we hope that even greater numbers of activists will become Upping the Anti readers, writers, and distributors.

JW: What is your estimated circulation?

TK: We printed 2,000 copies of issues one through five and 2,500 copies of issues six and seven. Generally speaking, we sell half our print run before the next issue comes out. Because our content tends not to go stale, we always sell a lot of back issues, too. In addition to sales, we also enjoy extensive informal circulation through photocopies, Internet downloads, and lending libraries of various sorts. This is flattering, but we need to remind people that there will be nothing to photocopy if they don’t buy the journal.

JW: Have you found it difficult to fund?

TK: Upping the Anti is entirely funded by subscriptions, donations and revenue from distributors. We could always do with more money but we’ve never failed to produce a new issue. Because we’re not in it for profit, and because we want our readership to be as broad as possible, we try hard to keep the journal affordable. We sell copies to activists directly for $5 each. We have activist distribution networks across Canada and the U.S. and have distribution to bookstores through Magazines Canada. We’re currently working to increase our international distribution. If you want to subscribe you can do so at http://uppingtheanti.org/node/2784

JW: What is your funding model like? Do you take much advertisement? Donations? Subscriptions?

TK: We run exchange ads with other publications so we don’t get revenue from them. Our main source of revenue comes from sales by distributors or from members of our advisory board who sell the journal at activist events in the cities where they’re located. We also sell lifetime subscriptions for $250. These subscriptions entitle people to all our back issues and everything we print until we fold; they’ve been quite helpful in terms of raising cash.

Subscriptions are an increasingly important part of our revenue and have really started to take off since we began using PayPal to process credit card payments. Upping the Anti is published twice a year -- in October and April. It’s most recent issue, Upping the Anti number eight, will be available in bookstores in May.

To find out about Upping the Anti launch parties in Toronto and elsewhere, email [email protected]. Previous issues of Upping the Anti are available at www.uppingtheanti.org

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