Three reasons why I started the Stack Awards (and why this year is riding on the results)

If you’ve ever entered your work into a professional awards scheme, you’ll know the unnerving, slightly queasy feeling…

Are you showing the work in its best light?

Have you included all the necessary details and evidence?

Have you somehow screwed up the online form / submission dates / other totally key information?

It turns out that starting your own awards scheme feels like all that, with the added stress of booking a venue, organising food and drink and creating actual real awards that have to look and feel completely awesome because one day you’ll be handing them to people whose work you love and respect and you do NOT want to get that wrong.

So why did I do it? The following three reasons pretty much sum it up…

1. Because it needed to be done

The magazine industry has changed enormously over the last five years. Apple and Adobe have democratised the tools, Kickstarter has revolutionised funding, and ingenious startups like Newspaper Club have put the power of print in everyone’s hands. And the resulting rising tide of independent publishing has shown passionate people all around the world that they, too, could turn their words and pictures into a beautifully produced magazine.

But the big awards schemes haven’t kept pace with the change. With their high cost of entry and need for statistics showing return on investment and reader satisfaction, they’re in a different universe to the independents.

At the other end of the spectrum, small ad hoc awards schemes have done their best to recognise the work being done by independent publishers. I’ve been involved with several of them over the years, and while they have the best intentions and are normally lots of fun, they don’t really have any professional rigour.

So I set myself the challenge of stealing the best bits from the big awards schemes (expert judges, paid submissions, and a wide variety of magazines) and the best bits from the small awards (accessibility, passion and an emphasis on excitement and innovation).

The result was the Stack Awards, which opened for submissions on Monday 14 September. Entries cost £30 each, and by the time submissions closed on Friday 9 October we’d had 179 entries across the seven categories.

Those categories have now been shortlisted and the magazines sent off to our judges around the world, a stellar line up of experts that includes an ex-Man Booker Prize judge, an award-winning novelist, a leading academic, and several world-renowned creative directors, editors and magazine makers.

So phase one is complete, and while I’m really pleased with the project so far, I should note that it hasn’t gone exactly to plan. Which brings me to my second reason for launching the awards…

2. Because I’ve learned a LOT

When I started the awards I was pretty sure most independent publishers I know would want to be involved —after all, this was an awards scheme made just for them, with the aim of celebrating the things they’re really good at.

But almost as soon as the awards had launched, I saw that my biggest problem would be communicating the concept to publishers. Many of them assumed these awards were like others, and that they’d be nominated rather than actively having to apply themselves. Others assumed the winners would be decided by public vote, and so decided not to enter because they’d struggle against other magazines with bigger followings across social media.

We tried everything we could to set the record straight, with daily blog posts on the Stack site, and coverage on the magCulture Journal and Monocle’s The Stack radio programme. It’s fair to say that, halfway through the application period and with just 39 entries received, panic set in.

In the end, the thing that made a difference was email. I spent all day on Saturday 26 September sitting at my computer, listening to the Rugby World Cup and emailing publishers who I wanted to be involved in the awards. Almost 80% of entries were received on or after that day of marathon emailing, and speaking with the publishers individually also gave me a much better understanding of what they think about awards in general (something I should probably have figured out before I started).

The vast majority of responses were positive — some were excited by the opportunity to be independently judged, some saw the benefit of developing a stronger collective identity amongst independent magazines, and I think some just wanted to help me out.

But even the publishers who decided not to submit their magazines took the time to let me know why, and I was able to make changes as a result. For example, the awards for best use of photography and illustration started out by focusing on the work of just one photographer or illustrator, but emailing with publishers made me realise that they’d much rather the judges considered their magazines’ photography or illustration as a whole, so midway through the process we changed the rules.

Of course I’d rather have got it right from the start, but I’m pleased we managed to put it right in time for some excellent work to be submitted. (All publishers who had already entered those categories were contacted, told about the change and offered a refund. All decided to stay in the competition, and many said they preferred the new rules.)

But for some publishers, no amount of tweaking would persuade them to join. Some had a simple policy of not entering awards, while others felt that any exposure coming from the Stack Awards could only reach the same set of independent magazine fans they already have access to.

I absolutely understand that awards aren’t for everyone, and I can see the sense in opting out of awards altogether. But I’m going to do everything I can over the next few weeks to make sure the Stack Awards do indeed reach out beyond existing readers, and become a way for people to discover their new favourite magazine.

There was also some concern at the idea of paying to enter an independent magazine awards, and again I can absolutely understand that. A hundred and seventy-nine entries at £30 each means the awards have made a little under £4,000 after fees and tax have been deducted. Once the costs of setting up and running the awards have been covered, I expect we’ll just about break even, and that’s without paying ourselves anything.

But that was never the point — I’m not trying to make a direct profit from running the awards, which brings me to my third reason for doing it all in the first place…

3. Because I really hope it will pay off in the end

The Stack Awards need to do two things if they’re going to be considered a success: They need to introduce more people to fantastic independent magazines, and they need to bring in more Stack subscribers.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges faced by independent publishers is breaking out of their own network. These small magazines tend to have intensely loyal readers, but the expense of distribution and marketing mean it’s hard for them to get in front of new eyeballs. That’s why it’s so important that the awards have a really great panel of judges — these are people whose opinions count, and they’re going to spend the next month deciding which magazines everyone should know about. The resulting list is going to be a fantastic opportunity for newcomers to dip their toe into the best that independent magazines have to offer.

And of course it’s important that Stack is associated with these magazines, especially over the coming months. Magazine subscriptions is a very seasonal business (we bring in around 40% of our money between November and January) so it’s essential that while people are thinking about what to buy for Christmas, they’re also thinking about Stack.

I’m hoping that at least some of the people who get excited about the Stack Awards will also want an easy way to receive a different quality independent magazine every month. And just to make it even more enticing, I’ve created a discount code that will run throughout the awards — use AWARDS2015 when you sign up to Stack to receive 10% off all subscriptions, either for yourself or as a gift for somebody else.

Of course this all means I’ll have to wait until after Christmas before I know whether the awards have really paid off, so I’ll have my fingers crossed until then. But in the meantime, check out the shortlisted magazines and keep an eye on the Stack blog on Tuesday 1 December to see which magazines emerge as the overall winners.

This is going to be interesting…

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