Lessons on Starting a Magazine

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Our first book, Origins, is now available for purchase. It features eleven essays about scientific progress from authors such as Michael Elowitz, Tom Ireland, and José Luis Ricón. All profits will be donated to Malaria Consortium, an organization that vaccinates children against malaria. We’ve printed a total of 1,200 copies and are now accepting orders. Books ship later this month.


This milestone was surprising, in part, because it happened so fast. In October 2023, the idea for Asimov Press was little more than a hastily written Google Doc, outlining a speculative budget and a short-term vision for a “biotechnology-focused publishing company.” Still, it was from this scramble of ideas scrawled on the digital-equivalent of a napkin that Asimov Press was born.

Now—after having released our first book, hosted a few events, and commissioned about 35 essays from writers—we’d like to pull back the curtains and share what we’ve learned so far. Hopefully, this essay will provide some direction to those of you who may want to start a magazine or print books of your own.

Throughout this journey, we’ve received lots of editorial and publishing advice from other editors at magazines we admire. We’re grateful to Saloni Dattani, Sam Bowman, and Nick Whitaker at Works in Progress, Tamara Winter at Stripe Press, Jake Eaton and Clara Collier at Asterisk Magazine, and Matt Southey at The Latecomer.


Our operating budget is $150,000 a year, not including salaries. We’re fully supported by Asimov, a biotechnology company, and don’t run ads or have any other sources of revenue. We are, therefore, an entirely money-losing endeavor. Most of our budget is spent on paying authors (~$65,000 per year) and other freelancers (~$10,000) and on maintaining our website (~$15,000 per year). The rest of the money is used to host events and print books. In short, a massive budget isn’t needed to start a magazine. We could run our core operations with under $100,000 a year and still produce great essays by working with talented authors.

Still, our budget is small compared to other publishers. Magazines funded by the Simons Foundation, including The Transmitter and Quanta Magazine, have annual budgets of more than $3M (but also larger teams.) Asterisk Magazine, which is also operated by two people, launched with $730,000 in January 2022 and received an additional $991,000 the following year. Making a tight budget work requires a clear delineation between “wants” and “needs.” While we may want to hire more designers in the long run, we decided early on that “writing is king” and everything else—art, events, the website—would be secondary to publishing the best possible essays.

We pay writers between $1,500 and $2,000 per article, depending on length. This rate is lower than large science publishers, such as Nature and Scientific American, which typically pay $1.50 per word or more. Although we initially assumed this pay discrepancy would hamper our ability to attract top writers, this hasn’t been the case. Writers who normally write for, say, Nature are often willing to write for us, simply because we have a “narrower” audience of biotechnology enthusiasts. Our focused audience enables writers to go deeper into their subjects.

A photograph of Origins, the first book from Asimov Press.

Printing Books

Printing is absurdly expensive and no one buys books. And yet, we still felt like there was something essential about producing a printed artifact. Books are not only a reflection of the evergreen ideas we seek to publish but also an ode to the permanency and attention that this age of internet writing so often flouts. Beyond this, we wanted to create something physical that would withstand the passage of time and solidify our identity as more than “just a blog.”

We printed 1,200 copies of our book at a cost of $20,995, not including shipping, shrink wrapping, barcode registration, or shipping. That’s roughly $17 to make a book that sells for $20. (Appalling margins, we know.) Costs come down with larger orders—Stripe Press’s print runs typically exceed 20,000 copies and their hardcover books each cost less than $10 to make—but we didn’t know whether our copies would sell and couldn’t afford to spend more money. Since we intend to publish two books per year, printing alone amounts to more than one-third of our total budget. On top of this, we decided that all our profits would be donated.

We’ve justified our decision to pay a premium on printing because we want people to “literally judge the quality of our books by their covers,” as Tamara Winter, commissioning editor of Stripe Press, said at a recent event in New York. As a publisher, we care deeply about the quality of ideas expressed in our essays, and it follows that we want the quality of our physical books to be a reflection of that. Newspapers and magazines are often discarded, but well-designed books are not. In other words, a printed work is more likely to become an artifact if it is made using high-quality materials.

With this in mind, we spent many weeks trying to figure out what makes a book beautiful. We visited bookstores around Cambridge and noted our attraction to minimalist covers with typography-forward designs. Even with a simple design, though, a book’s details can quickly take one down a rabbit hole of minutiae. There are dozens of flourishes that readers don’t often notice, but book designers obsess over: paper texture, binding, stitching patterns, debossed covers, typography, and even weight.

Our books are printed on Cougar White Vellum paper with foil-stamped covers and Smyth-sewn bindings to ensure they fall and stay open comfortably. Each book measures 5.5” by 8.5”, ideal dimensions to ensure they can be toted around and not just sit on a shelf or coffee table.

Our books were designed by Everything Studio, the New York-based design firm behind Cabinet Magazine. The designers formatted images, selected fonts and cover designs, and typeset all the essays. Everything Studio even ensured there were no hanging or orphaned sentences so that the layout of essays algorithmically fell into the “signatures”––or folds––of the printing paper.

While Everything Studio made everything we included look elegant, decisions about which essays to include in the first place and how to adapt the essays from the internet to print fell to us. The largest challenge when printing text is that nothing can be updated or fixed afterward. Whereas a rogue period is easy to correct online, books are forever frozen in time. Scouring the essays for errors became a weeks-long project. All hyperlinks were converted into citations, which were then included in a bibliography at the end of the book.

Pages from Origins.

Learn to Say ‘No’

Editors have duties to uphold toward both writers and readers. While these are often harmonious, they can occasionally create tension. For instance, we frequently receive pitches from excellent writers that aren’t “nerdy” enough for our readers, or we receive drafts from scientists that are too jargon-filled. We have had to pass on pop-science pitches about topics such as terramation (human composting) as well as extraordinarily well-researched, yet too-in-the-weeds pieces on the history of direct to consumer DNA sequencing. Striking a balance on technical detail, without compromising on depth, is a constant struggle. Doing this well requires careful vetting before the writing commences and assiduous editing once writing is underway. Each piece requires, on average, 15 hours of editorial work spanning over four revisions.

Since we only publish one essay per week, 15 hours may not seem like a lot. But we’re quickly discovering that there are dozens of other things that go into running a magazine but lie buried beneath the public’s eye; following up with writers, updating spreadsheets, tracking metrics, writing social media posts, re-designing the website, documenting expenses, paying invoices, hosting events, proof-reading books, and so on.

Often, these tasks overlap and pile up. We currently have 20 essays in progress; three are being finalized and copy-edited for publication, three are in the middle stages of editing, and four are being substantively edited in their early draft stages. The rest are still being written. As we edit, we often do our own research as well, tracking down extra papers and details to strengthen the piece. When editing is done, essays are formatted, images added, copyrights checked, and social media posts drafted.

Because editing is a slow and tedious process, we’ve had to get better at identifying the strength of an idea before we invest too much time in its development. We’ve commissioned about 30 pieces to-date and have “killed”—a newspaper-era term meaning that an article won’t be published—four of them. Killed articles cost money—typically 50% of the agreed-upon fee—so we want to avoid doing that. But this typically happens when we feel that a piece has migrated too far from its original aim or treads into scientific claims that can’t be fully substantiated.

Over time, we’ve gotten better at evaluating pitches. A strong pitch generally has two features: It presents a crystalline and compelling idea, and it is presented by a writer who has deep credibility or a unique angle on the story. One of the essays in our first book is called “Scaling Phage Therapy,” and it was written by Tom Ireland, editor of The Biologist magazine. Tom wrote an entire book about phages and had credible answers to all the questions we threw at him. Editing his essay only took about five hours of work because his ideas and arguments were so clear from the onset.

Don’t Stray to the Median

It is difficult, though not impossible, to publish essays that go “viral” while being deep and nuanced. Our most successful piece to date was by Metacelsus and covered the history and development of the micropipette. It went viral because of its comprehensiveness and charming characterization of little-known figures. So although it may seem strange to try to reach more readers by publishing essays about niche facets of scientific progress, we think this will pay off in the long term.

Though we acknowledge that not everyone has time to deeply engage with every essay we publish, we’re convinced that attention jockeying is not the way to create writing that will withstand the passage of time. We seek to publish pieces that talk up to our readers. In practice, this means that we will publish Q&As with experts and leaders in their field even if they are more demanding of a reader’s attention. We will double down on thorough, long-form deep dives and avoid clickbait, the exciting but vacuous, the topical, or the hyper-speculative (unless it is speculative fiction).

Again, we are inspired by Stripe Press, which previously published Richard Hamming’s memoir, “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering,” even though a large chunk of it consists of esoteric math equations. They did this, says Winter, because Stripe Press believes in writing to the “aspirational reader.” The book has sold tens of thousands of copies.

Pages from Origins.

Find A North Star

Why does Asimov Press exist? We’re not posing this question to justify our existence post hoc, but because we are genuinely interested in how we can make an impact. And for a long time, we didn’t have an answer. We’re pleased with the essays we’ve published thus far, but most of them have been guided by our own taste and interests. Though we trust ourselves to act as models of our audience to some extent, it’s still difficult to know whether we are moving people other than ourselves. Ideally, the work we publish would be guided by proxies more satisfying than subscriber counts or “likes” on social media.

So we went searching for a “north star” metric; a singular goal that would determine whether or not our work adds real value to the world. A company that sells tents, for example, might have a north star of “nights spent outside.” If the company sells more tents, this number goes up. But that’s not the only way for the tent company to reach their goal; they might also host camping events or sponsor visits to National Parks. A north star metric is a way to grow a company without sacrificing the mission in relentless pursuit of profits (or subscribers).

At Asimov Press, we didn’t have a “north star” metric until recently. And this lack of focus often meant that we weren’t fully able to justify why we would publish one piece, but not another. However, once we started thinking more about what actions we wanted readers to take, it became easier to figure out what to publish in the first place.

Our goal is to publish “actionable writing” that meaurably helps readers create a better future with biology. An ideal long-term impact is that Asimov Press serves as a direct inspiration for future CEOs and inventors of technologies with outsized societal benefits. We track our progress toward this long-term goal by monitoring short-term metrics, such as subscribers, impressions on social media, and so on. But we’re also tracking things like “heart-warming emails received from readers,” “shares of our essays by people we admire,” and other metrics that suggest our essays have caused readers to alter their career trajectory in a positive way.

We will increasingly publish writing that is explicitly about scientific progress, with a focus on biology. Our essays will always aim to contextualize progress, exploring everything from failures and frustrations to people and possible solutions, because we think that the builders of today are most capable when they’ve learned from builders of the past. We’ll also continue to publish speculative fiction that inspires readers to imagine plausible and positive futures. And soon, we will add a third category, called moonshots, that will spur people to action in the present.

Thanks for joining us on this journey.

— Xander & Niko
The editors at Asimov Press

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