Print-Only in a Digital World
A few independent commercial publishers are rediscovering the joys of print. Will they survive long enough to tell the tale?
By Elise Czajkowski
The future of print media is murky, but decidedly dark. Will it go the way of the tape player and the DVD player — still in existence, with niche audiences, but losing out at every step to digital? Print may not be as rare as a functioning 8-track player just yet, but starting a print-only operation today is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.
The appeal and benefits of print are real and deep. Studies have shown that reading on paper is fundamentally different from reading something on a screen. One found that students read slower in print than online, but retained more information and more deeply understood the material. For adults, reading in print can be an important antidote to the cracked consciousness produced by media saturation in a too-connected world, allowing time to breath and engage with stories in a way that’s difficult to do on a device.
In the world of digital media, metrics are king — audience engagement is often synonymous with social media interactions. But in the small world of non-digital media, especially indie magazines, developing a relationship with an audience means trusting that readers will appreciate the product without knowing every detail of their experience. “I think people are really tired of having their data scrutinized and feeling like they’re just being used for ad dollars,” says Rachel Signer, publisher of an independent print-only wine magazine called Pipette.
Signer, an American journalist who’s written for Wine & Spirits, Eater, Vogue, and Vice, started publishing Pipette in 2018. The 96-page print-only magazine focuses on natural wine from around the world. It’s second issue was released earlier this year. She says she was drawn to print by the possibility of exploring the visual elements of storytelling alongside the written. “Part of my dissatisfaction with the media world was the lack of care for presentation,” explains Signer. “I would spend a long time on an article and then, because it was [for] a website, it would be treated as just another piece of content and get a stock photo attached to it. I love photography and I love illustration, and I think we really do a disservice to people when we just use stock imagery or graphics for an article that someone spent time on. The original goal was to create a beautiful publication. People love sitting down with it, putting their phone away, and reading, and being lost in this story. It’s an immersive experience.”
Unlike digital-first publications, the goals of indie magazines are often more modest. Signer says that she doesn’t see Pipette ever printing more than 5,000 copies. But as the natural wine movement grows around the world, she’s finding readers, and they’re finding her, in small bars and shops that cater to natural wine connoisseurs. I spoke with Signer recently about how one goes about marketing a print magazine, and why the format is likely to be around for a while.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your background and how you became a publisher on the niche subject of natrual wine?
I started writing about wine in 2014. Natural wine is a fascinating subculture, but for various reasons it’s not well represented in the media. Since then, the movement of natural wine has grown significantly around the world. A lot of our stockists are new shops and bars that have opened in the past year and a half, and there’s new places opening up to support this specific kind of wine. I think indie mags do really well when they’re niche. If you look at some of the titles in indie mag shops in major cities, there’s one about dogs, there’s one about watches.
How did you figure out who your audience was for this publication?
Because I was known as a wine writer, I could see how excited people were that I was starting something of my own. I had met lots of people—when you go to wine tastings, or you’re traveling, you meet other people in the industry—and lots of those people have shops and bars. My business partners and I reached out to our networks, and then I sat down and just made a spreadsheet. I researched independent bookstores and magazine shops. I still spend plenty of time doing this. I reached out to them. Cold called, sent a PDF of what we were doing. Most of them said yes. That’s kind of how it started.
What kind of feedback do you get, and how do you get it, without a website version of the magazine?
It comes in a lot of strange ways. One of them is the stockists, these shops around the world. It’s very simple. Either they sell through whatever they order from me, and they ask for more, or they struggle to sell them, and then they decide they don’t want to carry future issues.
I get emails from people saying how much the magazine means to them. People reply to Instagram posts, but I try not to take it as a gauge for what people are interested in. Because I think some of our articles are very literary and beautiful but they might not be so Instagrammable, if that makes sense. In the natural wine world, people often tend to like photos of natural wine or attractive people drinking natural wine, which makes perfect sense, because that’s how Instagram works. I do love when one of our posts gets like 800 likes, it’s obviously a nice pat on the back, but I try to focus on offering people the best writing and the most attractive presentation in the magazine. Because the feedback I’ve gotten is that people really love sitting down with it, putting their phone away, and reading, and being lost in this story. It’s an immersive experience, you can be really pulled in, and that’s what I’m going for. Feedback comes in because people are just excited and enthusiastic.
Do you have any way to track metrics? Are you even trying to track metrics?
The reason I love indie magazines so much is because it’s almost impossible to really analyze metrics and commercialize it. And I think that’s why it’s successful. I think people are really tired of having their data scrutinized and feeling like they’re just being used for ad dollars. I understand the model of digital media, I used to work in digital media, and I felt like we were publishing complete rubbish most of the time. It was all based on clicks, and what got clicks translates to ad dollars.
That’s another reason I started a print publication. I don’t really live off of it. I pay my designer more than I pay myself. I have other small sources of income. I don’t spend a lot of money. That’s really the only reason it works for me. It will never be, like, a $60,000 a year salary for me. Maybe it’ll be $15,000. That would be really exciting. We’re far from the mainstream.
There are no ads in the magazine, right?
No, not yet. But we’re going to have two half-page ads in Issue 3.
What was the thought process behind that?
I would like to pay my writers and photographers and artists a little bit more; they all work for slightly below market rates at the moment, and I think they deserve better. I would like to pay myself a little bit more and if possible, in the future, it would be nice to lower the price for consumers, even if it’s just a dollar per magazine. I think people would appreciate that.
What are your long-term goals?
It’s a really niche topic, and I don’t expect it to grow beyond a certain point. I don’t think we’ll ever print more than 5,000 copies, for example. I would be very surprised.
I would love if other people got involved, whether that’s intellectually or financially. It’s been really hard, because most people, when they try to get involved, they don’t have that experience of patiently building up a brand. And also, people think a magazine can be profitable, and so I’ve had investors approach me and they have lots of ideas about how to make money off the magazine, and I don’t think [laughs] I don’t think it’s really designed to be profitable.
I think it’s designed to be — I think of journalism as a public service. My parents were newspaper reporters, so I grew up with those values, so I don’t really want it to be this commercial enterprise. Maybe it could make some money through events. We’re starting to do a little bit of branded merchandising, which is fun, and it’s a great way to support artists, and it brings in a little bit of money, so maybe we’ll do a little bit more of that. But I think the only way it would ever have a long lifespan is if some kind of boutique publishing house, like Ten Speed Press, approached me and wanted to get involved, but also still let me guide the magazine. It would be exciting if that sort of opportunity came along.
What are the lessons you’ve learned? If someone came to you and said, “I want to do what you’re doing,” what would you say?
Think global. Forget location. One of the things that confuses people about Pipette, but it’s also I think what makes it successful, is that it’s not really based anywhere. I’m American; I spend quite a bit of time in Europe; I currently live in Australia. There’s almost a perspective from nowhere. But that’s why we have been taking off in Italy over the past six months, and [there’s] lots of interest in Scandinavia. The U.S. is our biggest market, with Canada and Australia, mostly for language reasons. But I think some magazines fail because they’re really tied to a local scene. So my advice would be to branch out and find contributors around the world, and move beyond your local perspective.
The reason indie magazines are great is that they’re a little bit like social media, in one sense, which is that they have no boundaries at all. Think of your magazine as part of a global conversation.
Do you think indie magazines are the future of non-digital media? Or is there a future for non-digital media?
I don’t think the future is non-digital media. I don’t think it’s indie magazines. It’s such a whimsical luxury. I think the New York Times keeping their print distribution going, and the New Yorker — I think it’s really important that these long-standing publications don’t fade away. What I publish is culture and lifestyle storytelling, and it’s definitely political in it’s own way, but I really hope that these more established publications keep their print runs going. I think it changes the way we read when we read everything online. It’s very different when you sit down and concentrate, and read a long story. The impact that it has on you intellectually, the way you absorb information, is totally different.
It’s rewarding to make something that’s print, because it feels like it’s not adding to the noise. It feels like it takes away from the noise.
Elise Czajkowski is a 2019 Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and the Awl, among others. Find her on Twitter at @EliseCz
Last edited: May 7, 2019
Author: Elise Czajkowski
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Pipette / Rachel Signer