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FEATURE

A Golden Age of Print

The independent magazine scene is thriving. It is a corner of the magazine market where passion pays. Peter Houston looks at what lessons we can learn from the vibrant Indie scene.

Peter Houston

Posted on: 19 May 2013

So many of the biggest stories in the magazine industry today centre on “Burning the Boats” strategies where wounded print gets abandoned by publishers running off to a brighter digital future.

A Golden Age of PrintI don’t think any publisher should automatically abandon print, in many cases a complimentary crossmedia offering is a stronger proposition for both readers and advertisers. But I recently presented InPublishing’s first webinar under the banner of “A Golden Age of Print”. A Golden Age? Really? Try telling that to the guys at Newsweek.

No one is going to argue that everything in the print garden is rosy, but there are corners where print appears to be blooming.

I can’t take the credit, or the blame, for the “Golden Age of Print” tagline. I stole it from the catalogue for Mag Dossier, a magazine exhibition held earlier this year in Cyprus. In turn, the exhibition organiser, Peter Eramian, credits Jeremy Leslie of the magCulture blog for coining the phrase.

Jeremy says he first used the term in this context at an independent magazine exhibition he curated in Edinburgh, using it to counter what he calls “the usual negative narrative” about print. “Too many commentators wear rose-tinted glasses and look back at 'Golden Ages' and compare today unfavourably with the past”, he explains; “I also wanted to highlight the many magazines doing strong creative work today.”

It’s this interest in quality work that is driving the independent magazine scene, complete with exhibitions, meetups, mainstream media coverage, and weekly slots on the Stack internet radio show presented on Monocle.com by leading print propagandist Tyler Brûlé.

What makes the magazines celebrated by this scene so different from those caught up in the “death of print” stories we hear elsewhere, and what can we learn from them?

Not about the money

First a disclaimer. Commercial concerns are not generally top of the independent publisher’s list. And it goes without saying, it’s much more difficult to run a print title with a hefty mainstream circulation and make a solid return than it is to publish a short-run niche magazine where breaking even is sometimes looked upon as a bonus.

So if you’re reading this to find the magazine market’s latest million-dollar formula, sorry. That’s not what these guys are about. What they are about is passion, a word used by every single person I contacted about this feature. It’s the energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurship with which independent publishers approach their craft that we can learn from.

And for the independents, it is a craft. They put huge emphasis on production values – design and paper stock are paramount. Dan Rowden is the web-developer founder of Magpile.com, an online magazine community where independent titles feature heavily. He says working in small teams, or even as individuals, gives smaller publishers a lot more freedom on what the output is and, “nearly all the time in the independent magazine market, the output is extremely high quality.”

The principle at work appears to be that “Value Adds Value”; high production values and unique content build the audience and the audience pays it forward by creating awareness of the brand.

Stand-out production quality also allows publishers to put a clear value on their products. They celebrate the top-notch production values of attractive well-made publications and make no apologies for the fact that this comes at a price. While much of the mainstream publishing market has been in a race to the bottom, slashing subscription rates to boost circulation figures for ad sales, the independents have been charging real money for subs and single copies. Cover prices up to £15 are not uncommon.

The price tags are justified by the ‘Object of Desire’ aura that attaches itself to many of these publications – the best become collectables. The current issue of cycling magazine Rouleur will cost you £10, but a quick search on Ebay will turn up back issues selling for five times that. A set of the first 13 issues and three Rouleur annuals went for £400 mid-April. Readers – fans - really value these publications.

There is also an incredibly singular focus apparent in the way independent magazine publishers approach their subject matter. Kid’s magazine Anorak will be seven in November and founder Cathy Olmedillas says it was perseverance and single-mindedness that got it there. She points to the current crop of independent food magazines to illustrate her point. “All deal with one universal subject, food, but in many different and interesting ways. Not one looks like the other”, she says. “That's because they all are quite personal to the people who make them.”

Dan Rowden agrees, “These magazines are more often than not personal projects and therefore the publishers put a lot of their time and effort into them.”

The online dimension

Cathy says the internet and blogging has a lot to do with this trend. “One thing that the internet has done for the Indie scene is that it has helped demystify the process of making a magazine. It has allowed bloggers, editors, artists, art directors, designers and photographers to find a captive audience which they can take with them when they create something physical. Magazines are now very personal, they are as much about the people who make them as they are about subjects”, she says.

The Indie scene didn’t just appear overnight. According to Jeremy Leslie, “it's been growing for a decade at least. My 2003 book magCulture notes the growth of the 'microzine', small Indies playing with the traditional magazine form. Since then there have been ever-increasing numbers of launches.” Jeremy says new launches arrive at magCulture at the rate of between five and 10 a month.

“There are no more independent magazines now than there were, say, 20 years ago”, says Cathy. “I remember walking into Borders 10 years ago and being overwhelmed with the amount of Indie mags available.” But she does think the community of independent magazine makers is more visible than ever before. “Since the introduction of social networks, it feels like there are so many of us now.”

There is a certain irony in the idea that digital technology is at the very heart of this print Golden Age, but it plays a huge role in both magazine creation and distribution.

“Anyone with a decent computer has the basic wherewithal to publish a magazine”, says Jeremy Leslie. “The internet has also helped hugely with distribution and discoverability – hiring a distributor from the get-go is no longer a must. Post some spreads of your mag and see if it sells”, he says.

Independent publishers, despite their obsession for print, have tuned into the fact that the followers of the Indie magazine scene live online. They use the networks to draw readers and potential readers deep inside the publishing process and make them part of the magazine making experience.

Twitter is a huge part of the mix, from sharing feedback, asking readers to contribute interview questions, seeking out new talent, trailing upcoming issues, supporting retailers, even talking about where the publication is in the printing process.

Cathy Olmedillas tweets pictures of magazine stockists and Vine videos of the magazine on the presses. “Social media has been hugely important to Anorak's growth. When you run a small business with limited resources but bags of ambition, these social networks are a godsend. I joined Twitter about four years ago and I am still hooked. It has been instrumental in Anorak reaching an international audience as well as making contacts with journalists and stockists.”

Few Indie magazines make it to the newsstand so ecommerce is also an important enabler. Visit any of their websites and you can’t miss the sales pitch, not just for single copies and subscriptions; back issues, bundles and collection binders are almost ubiquitous.

Besides selling directly themselves, publishers are taking advantage of a growing number of alternative channels, from specialist distributors, subscription services like Stack which delivers subscribers a regular magazine lucky bag; bricks and mortar stores like Magma in London and Manchester; to ecommerce sites like Anikibo.com. Magpile, which started out as a community site where people simply documented their collection has recently launched an online store.

The Magpile Store was created to help readers get their hands on the magazines they discovered on Magpile and the feature seems to be popular with publishers. “It was the obvious next step - once a magazine has added their details to the site, what better way is there to sell an issue than by providing a “buy” button on the same page”, says Dan Rowden.

The ad sales opportunity

Revenue is not all about single copy sales and subscriptions; even with smaller distribution numbers, advertising has its place. Jane Grylls is publisher at the Royal Academy of Arts. She and her team sell advertising in the RA magazine and for a small portfolio of independent titles including Hot Rum Cow, Oh Comely and Eye. “We only work with publishers whose standards and excellence in their fields reflect ours at the Royal Academy”, she says.

Jane doesn’t think that limited circulation is a negative. “It’s an advantage, delivering targeted readership and lower unit page cost. We are not just selling numbers we are selling smaller magazines with loyal interested readerships.”

The Trojan Horse strategy

Broader business development goals are also a factor for independents, with many publishers starting magazines to showcase what they can do. The most celebrated example of this is the Church of London leveraging the work they did on movie magazine Little White Lies into a contract to produce the Think Quarterly for Google – 2,000 beautifully crafted publications delivered to the world’s top CEOs.

Fraser Allen, MD at White Light Media in Edinburgh describes his own title, the brilliantly named Hot Rum Cow as something of a Trojan Horse to get his design agency inside the consumer magazine market. Previously focused on financial services, the drinks and drinking magazine Hot Rum Cow was an entrée to new business. “We pitched for the whisky association magazine and didn’t get it because we were perceived as too corporate. We now get business in the food and drink market.”

Fraser thinks the biggest thing established publishing houses can learn from their smaller independent cousins is entrepreneurship. “There’s a new generation of publishers, not necessarily with any real experience in the magazine market, but with a love of good magazines. It shows in the product. Some are a labour of love and an indulgence, but many are entrepreneurial and looking for revenue from other sources”, he says.

Golden Age or not, there is certainly a refreshing passion for print in this corner of the magazine market. “There remains something universally exciting about the concrete reality of a printed thing as opposed to a web page”, says Jeremy Leslie. “That's not to say one wins over the other, just that both have a place.”

Jane Gryll confirms this duality, describing a business model that relies on publishing magazines less frequently - two or three times a year - backed by a lively, constantly updated website. But she makes a point to restate that these magazines have very high production values and are “kept and treasured”.

It’s this “Treasured Title” status that defines the whole Indie magazine ethos, for the publishers as well as the audiences. “Despite all the hype about e-books or digital magazines, nothing comes as close to the pleasures of creating your own magazine or book”, says Cathy Olmedillas. “Magazines are pretty things (well most of them anyway) that make you feel good about yourself. So the passion for making them will always be there.”

And there’s that word passion again. Maybe the big lesson to be learned from the Indie magazine scene is to pay a little less attention to the numbers, bottom lines and reader scores, and a little more to the enthusiasm readers have for the subjects we cover.

“You have to love what you're doing, share the passion of your readers, get out and meet them and know them”, concludes Jeremy Leslie. “You can no longer publish and laugh your way to the bank.”

A recording of Peter’s webinar can be viewed here.

About Peter Houston
(Details last updated: 16 November 2016)

Peter Houston is a writer, consultant and trainer working to help publishers build a sustainable multi-platform future. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing conference and is a judge on several magazine awards. He recently researched and wrote the 'State of the Media, 2017' for TheMediaBriefing.com where he is currently editor-at-large.

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