Penny Magic connects with readers using themed short story 'mixtapes'

Penny Magic connects with readers using themed short story 'mixtapes'

This Chicago-based husband-and-wife team is passionate about surfacing new authors and finding new ways to reach readers.


The pitch

Penny Magic is a short story anthology website and podcast, telling stories that exist on the borderlands between literature and fantasy. As an anthology website, it doesn’t publish stories year-round, instead releasing volumes of ten stories over ten weeks twice a year, in both written format on the website and audio format via the podcast. Each volume is centered around a theme. Vol. 1: Fairytales for Grown-Ups released in autumn 2018, and Vol. 2 is coming in spring 2019.

The team

Wife-and-husband team Natalie and Matt Mills run Penny Magic as a side project in addition to their day jobs.

Matt has a background in teaching and videography, but  also writes on the side. "Thematically, storytelling has always been a big part of his work, whether that’s leading students to better understanding in a classroom, telling the story of a non-profit through a video project, or writing a YA novel for his much-younger brother to read and enjoy," Natalie explains.

She spent several years in marketing and editorial at a publishing house in Chicago, and now works in marketing for a software company. "The idea for Penny Magic came out of discussions that Matt and I had about next steps for our writing," she says. "I wanted to see more writers connect with readers, and I figured that a great way to start was by trying to connect with readers myself. We decided that we should work to get our writing out into the world, especially since together we have the right combination of editorial, marketing, and business knowledge to make that happen."

Penny Magic is a collaborative effort between the pair. They both write and edit stories. Matt does most of the design work, handles the social media, and produces and edits the podcast. Natalie takes on more of the editorial workload and business strategy, including planning for future volumes and projects.

What's the gap in the market?

"Publishing is a really old industry with a great history, but it also comes with a lot of baggage and preconceived ideas about how things should be," Natalie asserts. "Working at a publishing house, I saw the books of great authors go unnoticed because there was no good infrastructure for them to reach readers. I’m interested in rebuilding that infrastructure to give writers a way to reach readers. Penny Magic is our testing ground for ideas related to that, as well as a place for us to publish our own writing."

So far, that experimenting has taken shape in a few ways: they’re growing an audience with short stories around a theme, they launched a podcast alongside they digital stories, and they started writing and posting even shorter stories (280 characters or less) on social media when they saw a need for that among our readers.

"We continue to talk about new ways to help readers read and writers write, and I’m sure we’ll be trying more new things as Volumes 2 and 3 launch this year," Mills says.

Success so far

Penny Magic has been steadily growing an audience since launch in the autumn of 2018. The Mills's original focus was on the written stories available through their website. "We added the podcast as another way to engage people with our stories, but we quickly started seeing as many weekly downloads of the podcast as regular readers on our site," Natalie explains. "That has become a critical way to get people into our stories, especially those with long commutes or young children.

This winter, they wanted to stay active on social media while also encouraging their readers to continue reading, so they started publishing 'Mini Stories' several times a week on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. "That has been a great way to drive engagement during our “off-season” but it has also become a great starting point to invite guest writers into the Penny Magic world," Natalie reports. "We’re hoping to see more guest writers in the future."

Biggest challenges?

Their first biggest challenge is exposure. "When a social platform is new, it is easy to grow as the platform grows," Natalie says. "Many of our channels are very established, so we have to work consistently over time to grow readers in those places. I think that’s also why the podcast took off. Podcasts have been exploding for a few years now, but they’re still on the way up, and we’re able to grow with them."

A second issue is patience. "I’ve seen this with the authors I’ve worked with as well: success comes from walking a long time in a single direction. It can be tempting to feel defeated when you build something cool and no one else thinks it is as cool as you do. But it takes time for people to catch a vision and to get on board. That’s why we’re doing this the way we are. We have the first four volumes mapped out thematically, and we’re dropping stories into the volumes each month. This gives us a manageable workload (on top of our day jobs) and gives us plenty of time to grow excitement in an audience."

Ultimate ambition?

This summer, the Penny Magic duo plan to launch a Kickstarter to fund a print version of Volumes 1 & 2. "Our hope is that the Kickstarter will get our most loyal fans excited about what we’re doing, and that we’ll be able to turn that book into a source of passive revenue through other retail channels after the Kickstarter is done," Natalie explains.

Future hopes include the ability to showcase new author voices through Penny Magic, whether that’s having authors contribute short stories to the regular volumes or helping launch standalone books in partnership with authors. "It’s tempting to think of writing in ethereal terms, but at the end of the day, everyone likes getting paid," Natalie laughs. "Even if it isn’t much, I want to be able to pay our writers when they contribute, help build up new voices, and see what a reader/writer relationship can look like outside the bounds of traditional publishing models."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Make it sustainable for you. I’m so grateful to have walked alongside other authors in their journeys of finding an audience before trying this for myself. The best writers had several things in common: they knew who they were talking to, they knew how to get that audience’s attention, and they knew how to make this last for them. That last one was the most rare.

"Matt and I choose to experiment like this because it gave us set start and end dates for each volume, breathing room in the summer and winter, and plenty of structure to invite other people in to join us. Coming up with a framework that works for you is the best way to keep stay motivated and to build something that can be sustainable for a long time."