Friday, August 19, 2011

Publisher Profile: Sy Safransky

The following interview was 23 years in the making.

In 1988, while taking a graduate-level journalism course at UNC-Chapel Hill, I interviewed three local small press publishers for (what turned out to be) a never-published story—one of them was Sy Safransky, publisher of The Sun. In retrospect, I’m surprised and honored that Safransky took the time to speak with me, given the fact that he was, at that time, putting in more than 60 hours a week at The Sun’s offices, doing everything from answering the phone, reading the mail, and talking with and giving advice to writers, and I was without press credentials and assured publication.

In case you don’t already know, The Sun is a monthly, ad-free magazine that publishes “thoughtful and authentic” interviews, stories and essays. It publishes some of the best literary work in the country; several of its pieces have been chosen for the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories collections and the magazine has won the Pushcart Prize. It began life as a self-published magazine that Safransky sold out of his backpack on the streets of Chapel Hill. When I began reading it in the late 1970s, it still had a funky, homegrown feeling (it used line drawings by local artists and stock clip art). Today The Sun reaches more than 70,000 subscribers and is printed on glossy paper, with beautiful black and white photos featured in each issue.

Back in 1988, The Sun had two full-time staff members with additional volunteers helping to get it out. Today it has 13 full-time and seven part-time staff members. It has moved from the small, sun-yellow house on Rosemary Street, where the initial interview took place, to a house around the corner that a staff member in an email said is still “quiet and homey… with creaky hardwood floors, warm colors, photos, and old magazine covers adorning the walls” but which has enough room to accommodate its larger staff.


Note: Unlike other interviews that have appeared on this blog, this is not in a straight Q and A format since the original interview notes are gone, converted to newspaper-style write-up. Instead, it’s a hybrid of (excerpts from) the original write up and years-later follow-up questions.

[May 1988]

The Chapel Hill-based The Sun is so much a part of Sy Safransky's life that it is sometimes hard to separate the man from the magazine.

"I print what seems important to me, what moves me, what honors the human heart,” he said in interview at the magazine office. Safransky, a tall and lanky man, sat crosswise in his chair, speaking in thoughtful sentences, pausing to stroke his beard.

Safransky said he is more concerned about the honesty and feeling a writer is able to convey in a ·piece than he is about writing technique. In the past, that kind of heartfelt sincerity often was expressed in reference to spirituality and mysticism. Safransky said that the magazine is moving away from the self-conscious spirituality that used to characterize it.

"I believe that the less you announce yourself along those lines, the more effective or persuasive you're able to be," he said.

For him, the magazine doesn't fit any particular genre. It is always evolving, always open to new ideas and possibilities, he said. Its identity is made up of its writers and its readers, its time and its place in the culture, he said. Many readers write in to share their opinions on a prescribed topic, such as "Obstacles to Peace" or "Taking Risks."

Safransky was drawn to the idea of publishing his own magazine because he thought that it would allow him the freedom of expression he had missed while working as a journalist for a Long Island newspaper for three years after graduating from Columbia University with an M.S. in Journalism. Quoting Ben Bagdikian, he said drolly, “Trying to be a good writer on the average newspaper is like playing Bach on the ukulele.” Writing for The Sun allows him the time to be the kind of writer and editor he always wanted to be, he said.

"There's nothing I'd rather be doing," he said. "I feel tremendously blessed. I am always challenged and always rewarded."

[Interview by email-May 2011]

When I interviewed you in 1988, you had 5,000 subscribers; you now have 70,000. To what do you attribute the growth? Do you think going ad-free helped?

The magazine’s growth was due largely to our direct mail campaigns. Thanks to a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, we were able to market the magazine nationally by sending out brochures to potential subscribers. We continue to do this today, always aiming to be conscientious with the mailings by using recycled paper and keeping the materials to a minimum.

The readership has also grown by word of mouth. Many Sun readers are fiercely loyal to the magazine; they share the magazine with friends and family and colleagues, who become readers themselves.

The Sun discontinued carrying ads around the time our readership reached 10,000. This was when we could have raised advertising rates and really started profiting from the revenue. But the possibility of publishing a reader-supported magazine with absolutely no advertising was far more intriguing to me. After all, ads interrupt the emotional current of the magazine and clamor for the reader’s attention, distracting from the heart of the writing. Dropping advertising allowed for an uncommon atmosphere of intimacy in our pages. I think that also helped The Sun’s subscription base grow.


You also said in the prior interview that the magazine was moving away from the “self-conscious spirituality that used to characterize it.” Would you say this has happened and, if so, do you think it has attributed to the growth in readership?

Yes, the magazine has gotten away from the kind of self-conscious spiritual writing that wears God on its sleeve. But we still run philosophical and metaphysical work that’s thoughtful, well tempered, and emotionally evocative, and occasional interviews with spiritual teachers and thinkers. In fact, we now have a section called the “Dog-Eared Page,” which consists of a short but uplifting excerpt from a classic work of literature. Often this section will feature one to two pages of writing that is overtly spiritual – by teachers and preachers and spiritual luminaries – but it’s just as likely to feature a literary excerpt. Our Sunbeams page – the last page of the magazine, featuring quotes arranged on a particular theme – often includes quotes of a transcendent nature. So while the overt spirituality has been toned down, the deeper intention is the same: to honor the mystery at the heart of existence.

I’m not sure how this has affected our readership. We very rarely hear complaints about the content being “too spiritual” or “not spiritual enough,” and the Dog-Eared Page and Sunbeams pages are usually well received.


How do you know when a submission is right for The Sun? Is there anything particular that you expect from a writer/submission, or do you like to be surprised?

I’m drawn to writing about love and loss and betrayal and compassion, writing that honors our fundamental connectedness. I like writers who are brave enough to be honest and vulnerable. A unique, accessible, engaging writing voice can also be important. If a manuscript stays with me long after I’ve read it, that’s a good sign. But I don’t have a list of qualifications or some rubric that I expect writers to stick to. I do like to be surprised.


Is there a common trait that characterizes the pieces that run in The Sun now? Would you say you’re still looking for writing that “honors the human heart”?

Yes, I’m still looking for such writing. Most pieces in the magazine read like a meaningful, heartfelt conversation with an old friend.

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