When I came up with the idea for Esopus in 2003, many colleagues and friends were flummoxed. “Why start a print magazine now?” they said. “Everything is going digital.” I didn’t heed their warnings. I loved the print medium and I felt it had a unique ability to convey—and create—beauty. One of my goals with the publication was to take that medium, which, at the time, seemed to be teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and give it new life by inviting a wide range of creative people to push it to, and sometimes beyond, its boundaries. The other goal was to offer this unbridled creative expression to as broad an audience as possible, with no advertising and minimal editorial framing.
To facilitate all of this, I created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization: The Esopus Foundation Ltd. Over the past 15 years, the Foundation has been fortunate to count on grants from a number of private foundations and public agencies as well as tax-deductible donations from more than 400 generous individuals, allowing us to bridge the gap between our annual expenses and revenue. The expenses associated with producing a complex printed object are hefty, and revenue has always been limited in light of our commitment to eschew all advertising while still offering the magazine at a considerably subsidized price point.
We’ve produced 25 issues of Esopus in 15 years. Making the formula work has always been a balancing act, but in the past several years it’s become much more difficult. We’ve worked hard to minimize the expenses we can control (from aggressively soliciting in-kind donations to keeping overhead as low as possible), yet costs that are beyond our control have increased dramatically. The price of paper has risen nearly 20% in the past two years alone, and postage rates have skyrocketed since we began distribution—not a small factor for a publication that typically weighs more than three pounds. Income from newsstand distribution—always low for small-press publishers—is now essentially nonexistent.
Finally, and most depressing, our readership is on the decline. Newsstand sales of Esopus are down, and subscriptions, which had grown for a number of years, have started to recede—a phenomenon I can’t completely explain, though I am inclined to attribute it to the increasing convenience and sophistication offered by digital publishing platforms. Certainly we are not alone among small-press publishers in experiencing these challenges, but because every issue of Esopus involves extensive handwork, multiple specialty papers, inks, varnishes and costly procedures such as die-cutting and embossing, these changes in the print economy have hit us with remarkable force.
After a series of extensive conversations with the Foundation’s administrator, Keriann Kohler, and its board of trustees, I’ve made the difficult decision to suspend publication of the annual issue of Esopus for the time being and to focus instead on strengthening and expanding our crucial nonprofit mission.
Over the next year, one of our main goals will be to donate the majority of our available back issues to libraries around the United States. As you may know, we have donated 500 copies of every new issue to New York's Distribution to Underserved Communities (D.U.C.) program, an effort we’ll be amplifying dramatically. We’ve already made some terrific inroads: For instance, we’re supplying available issues to 32 branches of the New York Public Library, and we’re in the midst of discussions with numerous distribution outlets representing prisons, public libraries and community centers throughout the country. These efforts will only expand in the coming months, with our goal being to have 80% of these back issues on the shelves of public and/or underserved libraries by the close of 2019.
We are also in the early stages of creating an educational initiative that would bring Esopus and its celebration of unfiltered creative expression into high schools throughout New York City's five boroughs. This initiative will include lectures and presentations by me as well as other Esopus contributors, and we plan to have a beta version of the program up and running by the fall of 2019.
The Foundation will continue to program a wide range of events, such as last week’s fascinating conversation between photographer John Edmonds and writer Marjon Carlos at the SVA Library West. I’m also currently exploring partnerships with several cultural institutions to create screenings, lectures, and interview series (more on that soon).
Most importantly, we’re not abandoning the print medium! In fact, for premium subscribers, the Fall 2018 limited-edition artwork, Esopus Drawings, will be a facsimile "sketchbook" featuring 25 drawings of mine that are related to the past 15 years of Esopus. (This will also be available for sale here.) We will also continue to engage with print via a series of books and limited editions, which the Esopus Foundation will start producing in 2019. These publications will incorporate all of the high-quality printing you’ve come to expect from Esopus, with work from a bevy of creative practitioners. The publications will be available via our online store as well as in bookstores here and abroad. And, of course, we will further explore other options for publishing new issues of Esopus in the future.
I realize that a number of you have Basic or Premium subscriptions extending beyond Esopus 25 or the Fall 2018 limited-edition artwork. If you are one of those people, Keriann will be in touch with you via email in the next week or so with information regarding your account.
As I was working on the 25 drawings for this fall's limited-edition artwork—many of them completed during a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire—I was able to revisit, in an intense, deeply personal way, all 25 issues, the dozens of artist’s editions and the hundreds of events, exhibitions, concerts, screenings, and readings the Esopus Foundation has produced over the past decade and a half. I am proud of everything we’ve been able to do so far, and especially grateful to the more than 500 contributors I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work with on Esopus over the last 15 years.
I am excited to see where our mission takes us in the coming years. I can't thank you enough for your support and enthusiasm, and I hope you’ll continue on the journey with us.
—Tod Lippy, September 12, 2018