The problem with selling independent magazines (and a solution)

Steven Watson
Jun 11, 2015 · 5 min read
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I’d forgotten what it’s like to launch something new.

Seven years ago I started a subscription service called Stack, which sends out a different independent magazine every month. You never know what you’re going to get next, but you do know it will be a beautiful, intelligent magazine that you probably wouldn’t otherwise have read.

There’s a nice rhythm to it — one magazine per month, three or four blog posts per week, an Instagram post per day… it’s all really quite soothing.

But the independent magazine industry has changed (and grown) enormously since Stack launched, so for the last six months I’ve been working like crazy to launch Sampler, a new service that helps people discover the best print magazines.

I started Sampler because there’s a problem with independent magazines: people love them, but they don’t buy them. Of course there are always going to be more people interested in a product than there are people who actually buy it, but independent magazines suffer from a particular set of difficulties caused by the way print publishing has evolved over the last few years.

First of all, magazines are supposed to be an impulse buy — you walk into a shop, see something that catches your eye, and buy. That works well enough when you’re spending a fairly small amount on an ad-supported product (the model for most mainstream magazines). But it gets more difficult when the cover price climbs higher, and today most independent magazines are expensive, weighing in at £10 or more.

That’s because they’re beautifully crafted products that need to charge a premium for their quality content and production, but the price makes it harder for somebody to take a punt and buy a copy for the first time.

And it becomes even more of an issue when buying online. In a shop you can at least flick through a magazine and quickly judge whether it’s the sort of thing you want to read. But the majority of independent publishers find it difficult to sell in shops — conventional distribution is expensive and time-consuming, especially when trying to reach readers overseas. So the ideal way for small publishers to sell is online, but that raises the spectre of postage.

The cost of shipping a single issue domestically can easily add 20% to the purchase, and shipping internationally can double the cost of an already expensive product. That obviously puts people off, especially when they haven’t actually seen a physical copy before.

I want Sampler to encourage more people to buy independent magazines for the first time, so I’ve focused on four areas that make it easier to become a paying customer:

1. Discovery
Sampler is essentially an email list. Every Thursday we’ll send out an email with that week’s recommended reading — a single magazine that members can buy in just a couple of clicks. Only the very best magazines will be featured on Sampler, so no matter how weird or wonderful the content, you can always be confident you’re buying into an interesting, exciting, high quality piece of independent publishing.

2. Shipping
Sending single issues of magazines around the place is expensive, but these days I’m mailing out more than 3,000 magazines each month on Stack so I’m able to apply bulk savings to Sampler, giving buyers the best deal possible. That means shipping will be free for magazines sent to the UK, Europe and USA, and heavily subsidised for deliveries everywhere else in the world.

3. Cost
There are no two ways about it — a lot of these magazines are expensive. And so they should be — they’re quality products that generally make their money from copy sales rather than advertising, so they have to charge accordingly. But customers want to know they’re getting the best possible deal, which is why all magazines on Sampler are sold at a 10% discount, so buying from Sampler is always the best value option.

4. Commitment
I love subscriptions, but running Stack has shown me that sometimes people just don’t want to commit over the long term, no matter what you’re selling. Sampler allows people to buy the best magazines when they want them, with no subscriptions and no ongoing commitment.

But there has to be a catch, and as the name suggests, this is a sampler service so there are only 100 copies available each week. That means you need to move fast if you want to pick up the best deal on the best independent magazines.

The limit is there because the publishers involved are giving me a great deal (which I’m passing on to the buyers) but the ultimate aim is to get people buying direct from the publisher so that 100% of the money goes direct to them.

The limit is also there because everybody knows that when a new magazine is printed, it goes and sits in shops, warehouses or spare bedrooms with hundreds or thousands of other copies. There are very few independents that sell out within the first few weeks, so there’s no urgency, and no incentive for people to buy now. Limiting the number of copies available means Sampler will never turn into a huge business, but I think it will improve the experience of the service.

Sampler isn’t supposed to become the way you buy all your magazines. It’s supposed to be an added extra; a way to discover new magazines you wouldn’t otherwise have tried, and which you’ll hopefully keep on going back to as a regular reader for years to come.

Of course this is all an experiment, and I’m fascinated to see how it progresses. If you’re interested too, please head over to the Sampler site and sign up with your email address. (Or, if you’re reading this after our first offer goes live on 18 June, buy a copy!)

I’ve spent a long time thinking this through and preparing for launch, but I know this is just the beginning. I’ll keep on tweaking Sampler as the weeks go by, and with your help it really will become the world’s best way of buying independent magazines.

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