This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 29, April 2017. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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Gerard Elson talks to Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent about the origins of the magazine, their working relationship and what is in store for KYD in the future.

Illustration: Gerard Elson

Illustration: Guy Shield

Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent are the founders and publishing directors of Kill Your Darlings [KYD]. From April 2017 KYD will be an entirely digital magazine, which means this edition is the final in print. So we thought it would be a great opportunity to get together with Rebecca and Hannah to celebrate this occasion, bid farewell to our beautiful print magazine, and talk in more detail about the intriguing evolution of the magazine. Our conversation revealed how much has changed for both women since KYD was launched into the world back in 2009, as well as how much the KYD publishing program has expanded, and how the seismic shifts undergone by the publishing industry within that relatively short space of time, particularly in regards to the boom of digital publishing and online social media, have shaped KYD’s future and its increased readership.

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KYD: Let’s begin with the foundation story. What led you to start Kill Your Darlings?

RS: It happened over a cup of coffee. I think I had a Fanta, actually, which was my drink of the day, c. 2008. Hannah and I first met when we were both working at Australian Book Review [ABR]. At the time I was the Deputy Editor and Hannah had come over to work as an Editorial Assistant.

HK: I was the work experience kid.

RS: A friendship developed between the two of us, initially over talking about books. We were both big readers, and big readers of other literary magazines. We were just casually having conversations about what we liked, and what we enjoyed that was out there at the time. But we also spoke about the kind of things we’d like to see, should we ever run – at this time, this was all in the realm of fantasy – our own magazine.

At the time we were in our mid-20s. And while there were great things out there, we didn’t feel that there was enough in Australia that was speaking particularly to us. We were interested in reading, but also writing as well.

HK: When we were discussing the niche we thought could be filled by a new literary magazine, I mentioned to Bec that when I was 12 I ran my own literary journal [laughs]. I used to create this photocopied, ten-page newspaper called The Hours, and circulated it among my friends. It went on for two years; I ended up having about fifteen subscribers. I was very proud of myself. I was obviously one of the cool kids!

I remember telling Bec this story, and she had this reaction: We should just do it! Why shouldn’t we? And neither of us could think of a legitimate reason why we shouldn’t create this thing we were so obviously seeking. So, we went off and had that coffee/Fanta, and just started jotting down notes about what kind of pieces we wanted to read, who we wanted to potentially publish in this magazine. We asked ourselves: what did we hold dear, what would be the ethos of this magazine?

From this early stage, we decided that we wanted something that would be of very high quality, but would not discriminate between high and low culture. Even as the magazine and website have evolved over the years, I think we’ve retained that core ethos that we decided upon in those early days.

RS: We also wanted to produce something in print. Even as we were seeing everywhere that print numbers were declining. This was when ebooks were taking off. There was a real instability within the industry, and the market as well, about the future of print. Everyone was predicting the death of print.

KYD: This was around 2010?

RS: The initial conversations were happening in 2009. We had a nine-month planning period, from the day we sat down and decided we were going ahead with it. We were collaborating at that time with a couple of other editors, including Jo Case. And we had a designer, Anne-Marie Reeves. We had a 12-hour meeting at my house. There was a lot of beer drunk. We plotted the timeline that we needed; it was very thorough and strategic.

We decided we would launch in March 2010 with the first issue of the print magazine, and also a website, but the initial focus was very much on the print object, which was, hopefully, going to make a splash. We had a digital strategy working in the background. That came to the fore in 2011, when we brought on our first online editor in Estelle Tang. That was when our online presence and our print presence [began] working cohesively. This was all before we had any government funding. Hannah and I had invested our own meagre funds in the first one or two print production cycles. We were running on the smell of an oily rag.

KYD: And that was the launch capital?

RS: We had a few trivia nights in Adelaide and Melbourne in order to raise funds, then Hannah and I put in our own money. From there, we were reliant on generating issue sales and subscriptions. But these things take a long time to build up, particularly the subscriptions. You can begin with very little for three or four issues, and that’s when you hit a brick wall. Unless you’re beginning to generate revenue from elsewhere.

HK: We were really fortunate, during that early period, to have those additional people working with us, like Jo and Anne-Marie. They had a lot more experience than we did. Although Bec had begun at that time to work at Affirm Press, I had very little industry experience.

I think one of the reasons that KYD was then able to go on and be so adaptable was because we had such a solid grounding, based on the experiences of the other people involved. I remember Bec and I having lots of conversations about how to strategically plan fundraising events so that we could meet a printer’s invoice for the next issue. It was quite a long time before we began to build our subscriber base, and to get the support that we always knew we would have, if we were just able to hold in there for long enough.

RS: During that nine-month period leading up to the launch, Hannah and I, and Jo and Anne-Marie, were really working overtime in order to have everything prepared. We were working full-time jobs; Hannah was studying full-time. Basically, every weekend was dedicated to work around KYD. Then, when the magazine was launched, almost every weekend was spent proofing the issue, editing, marketing. We did all the posting out of the issues ourselves, all of the administration and logistics.

That went on for a couple of years. I have so many memories of us sitting around my dining-room table, back when I lived in North Fitzroy, doing all the mail-outs, talking about content… This is how so many independent magazines begin. All of this additional hard work is required, and you just have to push through.

Then we began to see the results: sales were coming in, the subscription base growing, modestly. The turning point for us was when we were successful in our Australia Council application for contributor funding. That gave us a bit of pause for breath, in terms of the funding situation. But it also legitimised what we were doing. The Australia Council funding, like most government funding, is peer assessed. Which meant that people were saying, You guys are deserving of funding, what you are doing is good, and important. I felt very emboldened by that. 

KYD: After how many issues did you receive the Australia Council funding?

RS: I think it was during our second year of publishing. We got the Australia Council funding from issue five onwards. Australia Council, along with Creative Victoria, have been integral to the success of the magazine, as they are for so many publications like us. It’s not only the financial support that they provide: we’ve talked and strategised with these organisations, in particular the Australia Council. We’ve had long conversations with them about our digital program. They were impressed by what we’d been doing online, and that encouraged us to continue growing the magazine online. That advice and that guidance has been invaluable.

HK: I think one of the greatest things that the funding we’ve received has done for the magazine is enable us to divert the funds that we were originally putting towards the next issue towards implementing new projects. This is true of everything from increasing the rate of pay, to commissioning some exciting new work, to setting up a workshop series, and putting money into the website – all so we can publish more content, and more writers, than ever.

That is what is so wonderful about that funding. It allows us to finally have money to invest back into developing new aspects of the KYD project. It allows us to take creative risks, to try to work out new ways to attract additional subscribers, or to make our existing subscribers feel like they’re more of a part of the writing community that we’ve been trying to develop for all of these years. We might have been able to implement all of these things eventually, but the fact that we’ve been able to do all of this in what, I think, is a relatively short space of time is down to the funding we’ve received from these amazing arts bodies.

KYD: Can you elaborate on what some of the creative risks you’ve just mentioned have been?

RS: The act of embarking on the project in the first place was a creative risk. When we were starting KYD, a lot of people said to our faces things like, You’re mad. You won’t be able to do this. That’s a direct quote from one person!

Hannah and I have had a lot of conversations over the years about this response. But then again, launching a print magazine when there’s a crisis in the print publishing industry – the folding of REDgroup, the decline of print sales, et cetera… Maybe it did seem mad.

For us, the risks are taken by expanding our operations. We’ve been very ambitious. Each year we expand our content. This means that we take on more work. And, in a sense, more financial risk, because we spend more money on the contributors, and on production. And we also spend more money on the website. Those have been big risks, I think, in what is a relatively small market.

The biggest one, recently, was the recognition that for KYD to continue its growth and to remain an important part of the literary and cultural ecology in Australia, and to do this we needed to make a big investment in our website, which we did last year – the biggest single investment we’ve made as a company. And we’ll be continuing to invest in the website.

The digital transition (with us ceasing producing the print magazine) makes sense in a lot of ways: it makes sense financially, it makes sense in terms of the scope that we can now publish, and it allows us to initiate a lot of great new things, including writing awards. But for a magazine that began with a modus operandi to shake up the print literary magazine, to turn around after six years and say, We’re not producing a print magazine anymore… We both found that pretty scary. There were a few sleepless nights.

HK: Something I’m proud of which I also think could be considered a risk over the past few years is that we’ve retained our independence. We’ve had offers for the magazine to be bought by another company, or to merge with another publishing project. Which would have lessened the financial burden. However, we’ve always been adamant that, in order to be able to publish the sorts of writing that we continue to celebrate, we need to have the ability to adapt and to evolve. And you need independence to do that. The fact that we’re not tied to any other, wider project, or board, [means that] KYD is not operating to serve anything, other than what we want. I think that’s remarkable.

KYD: Earlier it was mentioned that the idea for KYD came out of conversations between the pair of you about how your particular interests weren’t being catered to, as readers. What were some of those interests that you wanted to see reflected in a new literary magazine?

HK: At the time I subscribed to a lot of fantastic literary magazines that were supportive of early career writers and new voices. I also subscribed to lots of publications that had been around for a considerable amount of time and were very highly respected, and had established authors contributing to them. While I admired both, I wondered why there wasn’t a publication that sought to find new voices and publish them alongside the established authors, thereby raising the profile of these new writers. I really wanted, as a reader, to be able to read the early work of writers who showed great promise, at the same time as reading the writers that I already knew I loved.

RS: I felt the same way. At the time, working as an editor, I was interested in KYD serving as a place for writers to showcase their work-in-progress. In that sense, the magazine and our editors could act as mentor. We’ve been proud to have many of our contributors, whose work first appeared in the magazine, go on to have book contracts, to develop their ideas into longer-form pieces. That’s really why we exist. We’re the intersection between the writer and the publisher, in many ways.

In terms of content, though, I wanted to read material that didn’t take itself as seriously as a lot of the content I was reading in other literary magazines. Irreverence needn’t mean that a subject matter isn’t serious. For me, often the most profound and powerful writing is about weighty, serious subject matter that is imbued with a sense of lightness, or an alternative perspective. We were also interested in criticism about artists who have been underrepresented or forgotten by the mainstream. Also, and I think this is where KYD does distinguish itself from other literary magazines: we are interested in a lot of our commentary being personally driven, of personal stories and personal perspectives being an entry point into an issue. That seemed to be something that resonated strongly with readers and writers.

One last thing, which I think is central to KYD’s longevity, is that we were very interested in being accessible to our readers and our potential writers. I think among the old-guard, international literary magazines, there was a sense that there were impenetrable walls. We felt very strongly that we, as editors, wanted to be accessible. So we try to provide feedback to contributor on their fiction, as well as non-fiction and pitches, engaging in that conversation with them, and building a community. We don’t just function as a publication that produces something for a reader: we function as a publication that works with writers. We want the writer to have a good editorial experience with us. Those editorial values were of upmost importance to us as the publishers of this magazine.

HK: I think some of the things that Bec and I recognise as the greatest accomplishments within KYD would not necessarily be apparent to the reader. I hope that we have helped to facilitate developments in writers’ careers. I personally have learnt so much from being an editor at KYD, and developing these sorts of relationships with writers. And, I hope we have also helped writers to understand their own work a little better.

KYD: Do you know how many writers have been published in KYD over the years?

HK: We did a tally some time ago, and that was over six hundred individual writers. But with the amount of content that’s now been published online, I think it would be over a thousand.

RS: Yeah, it would have to be. And for some writers KYD is their first place of publication. That’s important for an emerging writer. You never forget your first time! [All laugh] It’s crucial for your sense of confidence as a writer at that point in your career, too. That’s why literary magazines are so important to our literary life in Australia.

HK: It’s one of the reasons why I continue to love literary magazines, no matter my involvement, or whether I just come to them as a reader. They do fulfil an important coalface role within the literary industry.

KYD: How easy do you two find it to sustain the enthusiasm required to publish, and lately, again, also edit, an independent literary magazine? Nowadays, you both have extremely full professional and writing lives beyond KYD. Has it changed over the years?

HK: I think we were just running off enthusiasm and naivety alone in the first couple of years. We were lucky that we kept our heads above water. That we did was, as I said before, due to the support we had from the other founding members, and also the support we had from our early contributors. They didn’t really know who we were, or what we were doing. But they still allowed us to publish their work.

We’re both now in our early 30s. We started KYD in our mid-20s. Your life necessarily becomes fuller in these years, and you tend to have a lot of other responsibilities. I think, however, that one thing that’s always allowed us to find that enthusiasm again, and to keep it central to what we do, has been the working relationship that Bec and I have with each other. And also the relationships that we have with the other wonderful people who work for KYD.

Speaking specifically about Bec and me, though, we have always been painfully honest with each other. We’ve always worked very closely together, communicating ridiculously often. A lot of that comes down to us being honest about the times when we’re not feeling that enthusiasm, and letting the other one take some of the weight of responsibility, [so as to] get things done. There’s a bit of to and fro.

I’m about to go off on a UK tour for my new book, and I’m not going to be back in the country for another month or so. And that’s going to continue for a lot of this year. So, Bec takes on responsibilities that I would otherwise have. And there have been times – although probably in recent years, not quite so much! – where the opposite has happened, and Bec lets me know when she’s, y’know, taking off to South Africa… But we do have conversations where one of us says, Look, I’m really feeling the pressure, I’ve got a lot on, I really need to focus on this area of my life right now. And we work it out, between us.

RS: Like Hannah mentioned, we have wonderful staff working for the magazine: some of the best and brightest editors, designers, marketing specialists. And, of course, there are our wonderful writers. We’re a team, and without all of these people, the magazine simply wouldn’t exist. We could not maintain the daily running of it.

Hannah and I have a very close friendship, and we’re also business partners, so it is an unusual scenario. Trust is really implicit there. I know that if there’s a problem I can call Hannah up, and she’s there and available. That support is always there, and has been a constant since the beginning. It’s a true partnership.

Of course, there’ve been times when inevitably our ideas diverge… We have a running joke between ourselves where I come up with some madcap ideas, and Hannah and I talk it over… Often, actually, I need to be talked down!

HK: They’re not madcap, just…financially non-viable.

RS: [Laughs] I will own that office townhouse in Fitzroy one day!

HK: [Laughs] I’ve never said no, just not right now…

RS: That’s true. But really, we both have a lot of ideas. There are a lot of mundane, practical issues that we necessarily have to go through, such as scheduling bill payments. But most of the time our conversations are really enriching and exciting. It’s really: what next? And that’s really special, that we’re in this situation where we can come up with ideas, then often enact them. We have great support networks, from our staff and our readers, the people who are interested in what we’re doing. That’s something we’re both really grateful for.

HK: It’s an honour, really, that there are so many people out there now that frequently come to our website, or pick up the print edition. They’re choosing to spend their time reading the work that we’ve assisted in publishing. At the end of the day, all we do is facilitate this wonderful creation of ideas and the consequent discussion.

But what a wonderful thing to be able to do! There’s so much joy in it that, whenever we do feel the strain, or get caught up in the dull minutia of running a business, it’s one quick way out of that mire: to take a step back, and look at the ways that our readers and writers are interacting, or look at the feedback that we’re receiving from readers. You realise that this is something to be grateful for. Gratitude is a fantastic antidote to any kind of anxiety or exhaustion.

KYD: Can you outline what readers can expect from an all-digital KYD?

HK: We’ve been seeing changes in readers’ habits, in how they want to access the content we produce. We are, of course, sad to lose the print magazine, which has been at the heart of what KYD does for so long. But, I think going digital is going to be wonderful for us, and for our writers and readers. The number one thing we’re excited about is that we’re going to be able to produce so much more content.

RS: It’s almost a doubling of what we’re currently producing and putting online. It’s very important to us that we continue to grow the magazine, and that we continue to publish as many writers as possible, enabling them in every way that we can. Although we will remain very fond of the print magazine, for a small publisher with the ambitions to continue publishing more writers, to better remunerate them, and to create new opportunities, like the writing prizes that we’ve initiated this year… We couldn’t have it both ways.

We made the decision that it was best to divert our energies and resources into the website. Which is already so well read. The content itself will remain very similar to what we have been producing in print. Only the publishing model has changed, slightly. Now, we publish member-only content, and every week, we unlock two or three articles for non-members to read, as well as publishing as much, if not more, free-to-read content. So there is so much to read in KYD! We’ve seen continued growth in our online readership over the past five years. Our subscribers have been very receptive to the digital transition: we’ve seen a doubling of our online membership in the past six months.

HK: When we looked at all the things we knew that we’d like to do – all the ‘madcap ideas’ that we would actually be able to implement! – the answer became apparent. Something I’m excited about is continuing to celebrate Australian writers with our growing international readership. I think that sometimes, people can mistakenly regard literary magazines as being quite parochial. This is something we’ve always aspired not to be. We’ve always wanted KYD to be representative of all Australian writers, not just writers of a particular state, or at a particular stage in their career. I think KYD’s international readership is reflective of the broad appeal that a lot of Australian writing has. I think that, in turn, that’s going to create a lot of opportunities. Both for us, and for the people we will continue to publish.