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Episode VI: "Help me my vagueness is showing"

Published 3/18/15
In this installment, I speak with Liam Sarsfield, a Creative Director and founder of Literistic. Topics include being in a novel, his startup, when life partners become business partners, design, Apple, teaming up with the big guys and more.

I’m here with Liam Sarsfield, the Editor at Literistic, which I’m sure we’ll say at least a word or two on. But first things first: we’re three kilomiles away. To bridge the digital divide, would you so kindly describe your current environs?

I'm currently sitting on the third-floor of a restored heritage building in Victoria B.C. It's a tech accelerator, but the whole floor is empty. And, I'm sitting here with my stack of vintage penguin paperbacks (inspiration) and my Peter Mendelsund and Robert Bringhurst books, talking to you.

Sounds like a great opening scene for a Steig Larsson book. Sincerely hope you don't get murdered during this chat.

Hahah! I think it's been a year or two since I envisioned myself being someone who could be in a book or a novel.

Today's your day. We're in the novel of life. Anyway—Literistic. People are tweeting. Hard. It’s one of those ventures that, when you hear about it, you wonder why it didn’t exist before. To the uninitiated: what exactly is it?

Literistic is an email that comes every month with deadlines for the following month. It covers deadlines for literary magazines, contests, fellowships and awards.

It's a little bit more than that though.

We're making sure that every single subscriber gets handed a survey when they first sign up, and based on that we're creating the list every month. We're trying to create something that's so curated that you can structure your month around its listings.

It'll be a long process, but it'll be cool to see it come together.

It sounds excellent. What's the catch?

Hah! Well, right now there's no catch. Eventually though, we'll have a paid version, that is 100% curated based on your preferences.

From your website: "Journals can't pay to have themselves listed in Literistic and we aren't selling advertisements."


I see, so the beginning model is free, and then hopefully you'll build an engaged, active user base, at which point you can make good on the investment?

I guess so, yes. I don't ever really see Literistic being something that I can live on. I don't want to live on it! But, it would be nice for it to pay for its time. I have zero reach into the literary world. None. Nada. But I feel like it's where my heart is. So, if it gets me involved again, I'll be a happy man.

Well, you certainly do now. You're the "Editor". Is that the same as the "Leader"? How was the team assembled?

Hahah. It's me and my partner, Jessie Jones. My background is in design and business. I read a lot and subscribe to a ton of magazines, but Jessie is the one with genuine taste. She reads things before I have even heard of them. I can see to the thing being built, but she's the cultural fire at the centre of it. Though she wouldn't admit to that.

I was pestering her for a week to get her into this interview. No luck.

That, I think, is crucial to great collaborations between duos: a sort of non-overlapping skill set.

Oh, I mean "life partner" not "business partner" though surprise surprise we're both now it seems.

Well, congratulations on that front!

Hahah, thanks.

I'm sure that makes dinner conversations a bit more heated.

Division of labour. I'm pretty blind when it comes to her part—I don't have much to contradict! I like to play the empty-headed fool.

Oh, god I'd play that every day if I could. It's wonderful that your background is in design—my deep research shows that you're a Creative Director. The site shows it. If you've been on enough lit websites, there's a sort of startling realization that all sites fall into two camps—ones that are sort of beautiful and ones that are sort of, you know, horrendous.

There are those that are Wordpress themes and those that are trying not to be Wordpress themes.

Right, so I ran a company called Pixel Union. We were first to start building Tumblr themes for sale in Tumblr's theme marketplace. We eventually expanded to Wordpress, Shopify and Ghost. My background is in building blogs, and stores.

As for most literary magazines: I don't know, do they need it? I feel like this pressure to be buzzfeed or whatever is unfounded. As long as those magazines are keeping their local art communities alive, who cares what their website looks like.

Very true. But I hope you're not citing BuzzFeed as an example of stellar design.

Aahah! No! Just publishing paradigm.

Great—same page. You note that the list of deadlines is carefully 'curated', which is a word invented so you wouldn't have to define what it means. Thus, I'm going to ask you to define how you mean.

Ahah! Oh man.


Well, in the context of Literistic, that means that the list that's in front of you has been compiled with intent for you. Oh, my vagueness is showing. Help me my vagueness is showing. Hahaha. It means that instead of having to comb through a list of 100+ publications, like most round ups, you'll have a list of 30 really good ones, ones that you actually want to see.

Because they're good or they're good for you?

Good for you.



It seems like for all forms of "submissions"—to literary agents, to publishing houses, to publications themselves—we're at a breaking point, where the word "inundated" has never been more useful.

I'd say that for writing tools in general.

How do you mean?

How many friggin writing apps do we need? How many resources websites? It seems there are many of these. Loads. And I appreciate the intention behind their existence. But holy god, it's easy to get stuck in them.

Yes. Agreed. Let's take a step back now into the more abstract. Literistic is truly one of a kind, and it seems like there are now kindred apps, programs, systems growing in every industry—in other words, curators that are here to help pull us back a bit from the information overload.

Totally. My favourite example of that right now is Canopy ( It's curated Amazon. Which is hilarious, because it works, and outsmarting Amazon feels like a monumental and impossible task.

Very interesting. Though it seems like they're both outsmarting and supporting Amazon.

But they know that the for their customer, the high-end designy type, that Amazon is missing some core component.

I assume they get a referral bonus from Amazon from every sale that contains a cookie to Canopy.

Right, they make money on affiliates. But there's no reason they can't release their own products.

It's true. It's hard for megaliths to properly transcend their clutter to cool, minimalist design I guess.

When you're designing for everyone, you're designing for no one.

Except for Apple.

I would argue that the reason that Apple is so successful is because they know exactly who they're targeting, and that target is a figure that many people aspire to be, though they may not be it, and subsequently they achieve the broad, through the specific.

How do you mean "through the specific"? To me, Apple accomplishes minimalism at its most intuitive.

The specific is the person who appreciates minimalism. There are many folks who do not want a computer that they can't really game on, or run weird corporate software on etc. Some people want an Android phone because they can customize their menus. But I'd say before Apple achieved its current hegemonic status, these people were figured to be the majority. If you'd walked into a corporate board room before Apple and made the claim that through minimalism, and good design, you were going to create a personal computer that people desired, despite being comparatively underpowered and overpriced, you would have been laughed out of the room.

Okay, good answer. If we talk more about Apple I'm going to have to request a sponsorship. Let's zoom back in to the mechanics of Literistic. Whether or not you subscribe to the "lean" company-building process, it seems you've followed some of its tenets. You, for example, rely on feedback from your users and change. What assumptions did you initially have that were proved wrong, and what great insights have you gleaned from them?

Haha! So far, because the reach hasn't been super broad yet, the response has been pretty much along the lines of what we've expected. A lot of these people are "our people." They're people in our cultural community, even though we've never met. Even though we now have some 725 responses to our survey, the responses are pretty.

One thing that's troubled us is that the lack of education surrounding some of the contests and awards. It seems a lot of folks dont quite realize they need to have a magazine submit on their behalf, or a publisher submit on their behalf. We're going to doing a blog series on how the process works.

Very interesting, let's talk about that. Do the publications themselves ever know that the submission came, in part, from you?

Not yet. Though I'm sure it could be easily found out through Google Analytics.

I've actually found it pretty difficult to get bigger magazines to pay attention to us. They're pretty closed institutions.

Why do you need them to?

Well, this contest we're running for example. I'm running it because I have no real way of getting in front of people. No budget for advertisements and there's only so many tweets I can send. And folks seem a little resistant to tweeting about it or sharing it. It would be nice to be able to reach out to publications that have a bit of reach and to have them value the idea and want to give it a boost even if that's just a tweet. Ellen Duffer at Ploughshares has been very good to us, same with Britt Huddart at Geist in Vancouver and Nanci McCloskey at Tin House. The three of them have been very generous. I guess my expectations for big helping small comes from the start up space, where if an idea is good, you won't even need to ask to get the word out. It might also because I am young and impatient.

I feel you there.

Have you found strangers very supportive of 0s and 1s?

I think the larger publications, who will remain nameless in this conversation so we don't burn any bridges, are less enthused about getting aboard an idea unless they know it will succeed, or has already. I have found "strangers" in the individual sense, and publishing houses too, as well. Some have been with me since the beginning. Coach House rings a bell.

Though some have said "this isn't for me" curtly, and that is that. I understand time is a valuable resource, and to invest time in exploring 0s&1s means money theoretically lost.

That's terrific. Ahh! Brilliant! I visited Coach House a few months ago. Have you been?

I haven't been, though I'd like to. I've never been to Toronto in fact.

There are a lot of problems with only supporting things that are already validated.

There are, though I can't say I completely blame "those have been there" for not openly supporting "those who haven't" on an idea alone. To me, ideas as a currency are depreciating faster than ever, and execution is rising exponentially.

I completely agree.

It looks like we're winding down on time, so to tie it all together: where do you see Liam Sarsfield in 2025 and where do you see Literistic?

Oh man. My hope is that Literistic gains enough momentum to allow me to build other things. A literary consultancy for one. A publication for another. By 2025, I hope I am much the same as I am now: hammering away on something I care about, surrounded by beautiful old things. I wouldn't mind having a few people to help me do it either.

Beautiful. Thanks for playing Liam.

Thanks for opportunity, Andrew!