You need great content to make a great magazine. But that’s just the starting point…

First published in GYM CLASS 12, March 2015

Illustration by: Parko Polo

There’s a lot more to running a successful magazine than editorial content and multiple paper stocks. If you want your magazine to be around for more than one or two issues, you’re gonna have to put your business hat on. Eek. Scary stuff. Luckily, Steve Watson (he founded Stack, an indie magazine subscription service) and Danny Miller (co-founder of London communications agency and publisher Human After all) are here with some wise words.

Steve Watson: I think we can say without too much doubt that there’s massive interest in starting magazines at the moment. THE GUARDIAN masterclasses in publishing an independent magazine have been getting more and more popular since the two of us ran that first one back in 2012. And you’ve just launched The Publishing Playbook as an open source repository of magazine wisdom, because so many people were coming to you asking for advice. So what’s behind it all? Why do you think there are so many people wanting to leap into publishing these days?

Danny Miller: I’ve been working in publishing for 12 or 13 years now, and I sort’ve feel like during that time people have always been interested in starting their own publishing projects. If anything has changed in that time, I think it’s maybe that some of the barriers to entry that existed before have been lessened. Access to the internet gives access to lots of information about self-publishing. It gives a limitless research pool for anyone writing stories or sourcing images, or looking for contributors, or backers (via, say, Kickstarter). The connectedness of global creative communitities is awesomely condusive to the arrival of many new such projects. All of this speaks to facilitation, but maybe not desire. Is there something more do you think?

Steve Watson: I think there’s something in the ease with which people can express themselves these days. Everyone takes it for granted that they should be able to communicate with a mass audience, whether through blogging, tweeting, Instagramming, etc, but that has led to a lot of noise and the concern that digital doesn’t last. If you’re spending a lot of time creating beautiful photography, lovely illustration or thoughtful writing, it makes sense that you want that content to live somewhere that will last for a long time. Print magazines are the ideal vessel for all that content, so I think that, perversely, the digital tools that have made it possible to bypass print have actually contributed to making print more attractive than ever.

Travelling around the place speaking to students at universities, I also get the sense that people are discovering the medium of print magazines for themselves. They’ve been told for the last 10 years that print is dead, and of course they can see that’s not true, but they also see the mainstream press is in serious decline. Viewed in that context independent print magazines become a really exciting new medium, and people feel that they can do whatever they want with them.

Of course the trouble is that this excitement is driven mainly by a creative impulse, and it’s incredibly difficult to turn that into a sustainable business. You need great content to make a great magazine, but that’s just the starting point. It’s all the other stuff you do on top of the content that can turn a great magazine into a decent business. What do you think people should be doing to come up with something that stands a chance of being financially viable?

Danny Miller: That is indeed the big question. Making magazines is one challenge, but running a viable business is another entirely. And if you’re to be making your magazine for anything more than a short time you’ll need the bedrock of a business to back it up. What we found early on is that our publishing projects themselves were never necessarily going to be able to make much money, but all the things we learned to do around it were valuable skills and services that we could provide to others at a cost.

I think the absolute gold standard is if you can turn your publishing project into a viable financial project in itself, but that necessitates overcoming a series of massive hurdles. Getting distributed at scale, building subscriptions, growing an effective sales team — these are not things that come the most naturally to creative entrepeneurs. What would you suggest from your own experiences for those who need to get a grip of these kinds of problems early on?

Steve Watson: I think the most important thing is to have a really clear idea of how the magazine will make money, and what you need to do to make sure that happens. For example, if you’re not planning to sell advertising there’s probably no reason to print a huge number of magazines. If you’re a small team and you’re planning to make your money out of cover sales, the most important thing is to make sure you actually sell those copies, get your money back, then think about printing more. I really like the example of THE RIDE JOURNAL. When they started they printed 1,000 numbered copies. They sold those really quickly, so they printed another 1,000 copies, but didn’t number them so the first set was still extra special. Then for issue two they printed 2,000, then 3,000, then 4,000, etc, until they reached 7,000, which as far as I know is where they decided to cap things.

I love that kind of sustainable, organic growth, but then I’m also massively impressed by the likes of CEREAL, which has seen phenomenal growth over the last year. But even they only started selling advertising over a year in, and only slowly at first. It’s a cliché but there really is no silver bullet in all this — every magazine is different, so every magazine needs a different plan and that can only come from having a really clear idea of your own objectives. It sounds like an obvious thing to say, but when you get to the boring stuff there are loads of publishers that don’t really give it a lot of thought.

I find that amazing. You’d never look at another magazine and like the way their cover looks, and so literally reproduce their cover for your new magazine, but that’s exactly what people do with distribution. They put tonnes of work into making something that’s beautiful and distinctive and completely theirs, and then they hand distribution over to an agency, because that’s sort of what they think people do with distribution. I’m always really impressed by the amount of effort you put into distributing your magazines — what would you recommend people do?

Danny Miller: Well, when we started out we feel into the trap you’ve described above. We managed to secure stocking in Borders, Virgin Megastores (bear in mind this was 10 years ago!) and that meant we could get a couple of thousand copies out onto shelves. But it was defintely the more nuanced and personalised outlets that helped us build our targetted distribution efforts more effectively. We made a mini-magazine version LITTLE WHITE LIES — a 36-page pocket-sized version of our Che issue, and I trawled the internet and made a list of all of the 800-ish cinemas in the UK, and we sent them all a copy, with a letter to the manager, asking very nicely if they’d like to stock our mag. I think we got about 10 replies! So I started making lists of the very best independent cinemas — about 40 or 50 sites, and calling them individually. Slowly we built up a relationship with them, cinema by cinema, and over the years we were able to make sure that we were stocked in many places that a lot of other movie mags couldn’t get into.

I think all of this was crucial. It took so long, and was so difficult and required insane spreadsheets and constant updating, but it helped us to learn about our industry, and to really embed in it. With our new magazine WEAPONS OF REASON, we’ve self funded the whole thing, so we just printed 2,000 copies and I’ve made sure they’ve got into the right hands. I trawled Linked-in premium for months, for about two hours per day, looking for everyone working in Corporate Social Responsibility roles at all the biggest and most purposeful companies in the UK, and sent them all a copy. Ahead of that (maybe a month ahead) I hand-wrote them all — well, 200 of them, a postcard introducing the magazine. It was a painful process but these kinds of things are the only way I know to cut through! As ever, the response has been solid, but not overwhelming. It’ll take time for people to get to know us. The question is, how many people out there who want to make a magazine, who have things they want to share and shout about, are as pumped about spreadsheets as they are about mags!?

Illustration by: Parko Polo

Steve Watson: I’d say very few! And fair enough — there aren’t many people in the world with your appreciation for a beautifully tabbed spreadsheet. But at least these days would-be publishers don’t have to start from scratch creating their own sheets, because they can use yours! I love the fact that you’ve made The Publishing Playbook freely available to all — this would be a good place for you to tell people what it is and why you made it.

Danny Miller: Well how convenient, I’d love to talk about the Playbook, thanks for bringing it up! Yes, it’s probably true to say that not all creative publishing types share my love of Excel and Google Docs. Given all the questions and request for advice that I’ve received over the years, I figure there are a tonne of people out there with a great idea for a magazine, but who are maybe just lacking some of the more technical bits of knowledge needed to get ahead and make one. So I figured I’d collect together all the resources that we’ve created over the years, tidy them up, and give them out to people to make good use of. I wrote this one central document, The Publishing Playbook, which is, like, 13,000 words on everything I (and some good friends who contributed) know about making mags. It’s in the form of a Google Doc, which is super simple, and the great thing is that people can comment and contribute, so the whole thing can grow and evolve much in the way that magazines themselves do. My hope is that people will find it useful, and it (among many other such resources) will see to it that ever more wonderful new magazines appear in the world! A couple of hundred people have requested access so far, and anytime I duck in there are four or five people looking around. We have to find a way to tie this in with what Stack is doing. Right, what are your big plans?

Steve Watson: Ah! The future bit! We must be coming to the end of our email exchange. As I write this we’re nine days away from Christmas so it’s kind of hard for me to think about anything beyond lunchtime on Christmas Eve. This is by far and away the busiest time of the year for Stack, but the month has gone really well so far, which gives solid foundations to build on in 2015.

I do have some quite specific plans for expanding Stack next year, but I can’t talk about them just yet. You won’t be surprised to hear that they revolve around making it easier for more people to get hold of more independent magazines, but that’s about as detailed as I can be until I’ve properly fleshed out the business plans. It’s all very well having ideas — the tough bit is figuring out how to make them happen!

How about you? What have you got coming up with WEAPONS OF REASON in 2015?

Danny Miller: So mysterious! We’re just preparing our second issue, the theme of which is ‘leadership’, hopefully ready to be released late March/early April. I don’t think that any grander plan will unfold for WEAPONS OF REASON other than to keep on trucking and make the best series of eight issues that we can. It’s nice to know when the project begins and ends, but scary to think of how little time and opportunity we have to develop.

Here’s to many more excellent new publications in 2015!

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