Brothers launch ‘20 Minute Tales,’ free publication for poetry and short stories

Three brothers have launched a free publication for short stories in the D.C. area. Metro riders got their first chance to read “20 Minute Tales” on Wednesday at Medical Center, Van Ness, Cleveland Park and White Flint stations.

The 16-page tabloid is the brainchild of 33-year-old publisher Dave McQuaid and his brothers Danny, who is the editor in chief, and Michael, who is the director of sales.

At a time when newspapers and fiction are in a race for the title of Most Depressed Industry, “20 Minute Tales” is a refreshing dose of springtime optimism. Dave, a resident of Chevy Chase who is part owner of J&R Residential Construction Services, has got energy to spare.

“I found it was hard for local businesses to compete,” he said by phone. “The ads available for small businesses were either too small or too expensive.”

Amateur scriptwriters, Dave and Danny combined their business interests with their love of literature.

“My brother and I came together and said there’s one thing that’s missing: a place for short stories and poems. I could advertise my construction company in that,” Dave McQuaid said. “Originally, we were going to write the short stories ourselves, but that was a tall order. So we opened it up to the writing community, and the response has been remarkable.”

They solicited submissions from creative writing programs and local schools, hoping to help “young writers who haven’t had the funds or a chance to publish,” McQuaid said.

On Wednesday, they handed out 1,000 copies of their initial 20,000 press run. Next week, newly hired staff will distribute copies at 28 Metro stations. They plan to publish a new issue every two weeks.

“Funding has been tough,” McQuaid admitted. “We’re definitely still taking a loss.” For the moment, money from his construction business is paying the bills. “We have to use advertising to continue to publish.”

That financial life-blood depends largely on the paper’s one full-time staff member: Frank Gatto, a former ironworker in the Washington area. At 26, he realized he was in a dead-end job that was destroying his body. But his new occupation involves heavy lifting of a different kind. Working on commissions only, he’s trying to get local businesses to pay $800 a month for banner ads that run above and beneath short stories by unknown writers in a free newspaper.

“It was difficult selling ads,” Gatto said. “There’s some dressed-up dude with a beard walking in and saying, ‘Do you want to advertise?’ I probably talked to over 300 people. I borderline gave away the ad space.”

But he makes a compelling case. “Our ads are big,” he says, “and you’re not competing with a lot of other businesses. And your demographic are people who live and travel through your area. You’re not wasting money to reach people who live all over the place.”

For the moment, the New Yorker magazine has nothing to worry about. The five stories in the debut issue are weak: chick lit without much wit and gothic tales that don’t raise the pulse. But the editors were drawing from just 45 submissions, some solicited through an ad on Craigslist. That could change quickly as word gets out that these editors are paying $50 for stories and distributing them to thousands of people. (Plenty of literary magazines pay with gratitude and have circulations not much bigger than a bridge club.) The publication is taking submissions from local writers for a comic story contest with a $500 prize.

McQuaid knows that the quality of the stories is key to attracting readers and the advertisers who want to reach them. “It’s a big learning curve. But if we get good enough submissions, people will want it.”

Gatto is determined to make “20 Minute Tales” work. “I’m broke,” he said. “I’m working on sweat equity. My success is going to come from the success of this paper. That’s the way the world works. If you want to make something successful, you’ve got to have the drive to make it happen.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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