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A Transparent Conversation About Money and Magazine-Making

You’ve reached your Kickstarter goal and issue 0 is out in the world. Now what?

From Twitter to Instagram, or from Patreon to Kickstarter, it’s never seemed simpler to build an audience and launch an indie magazine title. But with an infrastructure that’s set up to favor bigger publishers—those with large sales teams and an economy of scale that still relies on advertising—it’s also never seemed trickier to keep one going.

New titles often appear with excited fanfare only to silently disappear into the ether months later. And it’s never certain which titles will achieve longevity—the real test is whether they last beyond issue two or three. Some indies, like Riposte and The Gourmand, manage to sustain themselves long enough to build a creative studio to attach to the brand. Others—the especially inextricable ones with fancy printing processes and ludicrous travel budgets—are perhaps quietly financed by trust funds. But what about the rest?

We sat down with five editorial teams from variously sized independent titles from Europe and North America to find out what exactly goes into publishing an issue, and what strategies editors use for generating money to keep momentum going, from grants, to lucrative T-shirts, to some pretty wild parties.

Ladybeard, from the magazine team

“We end up bankrupting ourselves sometimes by giving everyone vodka jelly shots.”

“At Ladybeard, we try to make enough from each issue that we can print and fund the next. When I say fund, no one on the team makes any money at all. Our priority is paying our contributors. Only in the last issue were we able to pay fees which were okay, though we still paid some nominal fees. The aim for the next issue is that all contributors are properly paid, but it’s really hard to get there as we feature about 75 people per issue. 

“It cost us around £6,000 [$7,800] to print the last issue, and we printed 5,000 copies. We used to do our own distribution, but now Newsstand does it. To raise funds, we run a few different types of events.

“Our launch parties are our biggest blowouts. We are extremely irresponsible and uncommercial with those because we just want to go mad and have a huge party with some free drinks and lots of performances. Because we only do this once a year, it feels a bit like a wedding or something. For the last one, we sold 400 tickets at £10 [$13] a ticket, and then the event cost us about £3,000 [$3,900] to put on, so we only made £1,000 [$1,300] from it.

“Other events we run are more profit-minded. We might put on a film screening, for example, which is much cheaper for us to organize, and we can make some money from it. Last Christmas we put on a screening and made £1,000 [$1,300] that we desperately needed to go to print.

“We also did a week-long exhibition series last summer, and just about broke even doing it. The aim there wasn’t to make money though, it was to do something experimental and large-scale. Ladybeard is a passion project for all of us, and we never want to just provide an average, shit night. So we end up bankrupting ourselves sometimes by giving everyone vodka jelly shots and booking a performer we really like and can’t afford.

“Buying the mag and shouting about it online is the best way that readers can support the title. I also think it’s lovely when people donate.”

Editorial, from editor Claire Milbrath

“Get big in Japan!”

“For the first few issues, I borrowed chunks of money from friends and my older sister, and I relied on the launch parties to make back the money that was loaned. After charging cover at the door, and selling drinks, and asking friends’ bands to play, we usually managed to get like $2,000 from a launch party. But as our audience grew the parties became too wild, and I didn’t have enough money to book bigger venues. 

“I started screen-printing our own T-shirts and tote bags as a fun side project, and in the end that’s what keeps Editorial afloat. The clothing has done so much for Editorial, like in Japan for example, our Clay Hickson tote bag became famous before the magazine was even distributed there. 

“Making the magazine is so expensive, like between $10,000-15,000 an issue. The printers don’t accept credit so it means saving cash for months in advance and keeping that money somewhere safe. I also pay for distribution. I just fired our U.S. distributor and I’m learning what a tough job it is, chasing down consignment bills for like $24 in faraway places like Texas. 

“Ultimately, it’s been the sales of the T-shirts, totes, calendars, etc. that literally pays for everything. That being said, our budgets for writers, artists, photographers, aren’t very competitive compared to the bigger magazines. That’s something I’m working on. I don’t know if Editorial will ever make enough money to have a full salaried staff. My two editors now work full time at SSENSE, and I make my living off my art. In that way I guess Editorial has been invaluable for opening doors to amazing paid opportunities. 

“Magazine-making is one of those things that if you knew all the work that went into it you probably would never try doing it. But for those setting out to make one, just always be honest about what you can and can’t do. Artists can always say no to working with you if you can’t offer enough. That, and get big in Japan!”

Leste, from editor Sara Sutterlin

“We will never not pay the people who make the magazine.”

“We have tried several methods for raising money for a new issue. But fundraising and releasing merch are the most effective and lucrative, up to a certain point. It costs $4,000 to print 450-500 copies of the magazine. Last year, our total costs were $25,000. That includes two issues a year, merch (posters, T-shirts), contributor payments, paying part time employees, website costs, shipping and materials, advertising, etc. We currently do not have professional distribution, so our shipping costs are… high.

“There’s no way we could raise the money needed to print an issue without our merch. The idea for it came from my designer Kevin McCaughey, who does Boot Boyz Biz. I would say it’s been integral to the magazine’s funding. We’re very lucky people are into them. At least 80% of the profit goes right back into the magazine, it’s the only way we can keep this moving.

“To be honest, I’m still mostly paying contributors out-of-pocket. We haven’t gotten to a place where it fits neatly into the budget, but it’s crucial and integral to the foundation of Leste and what it’s about. We will never not pay the people who make the magazine.

“Lastly, social media has been crucial to generating funds; our presence on Instagram probably being the most important. It’s really helpful when readers spread the word—sharing, liking, interacting on social media. I see huge spikes in sales for us when people share a Leste cover, for example, or a shirt in an Instagram story.” 

MacGuffin, from editors-in-chief Kirsten Algera and Ernst van der Hoeven

“We got a lot of support from the independent magazine world.”

“[Editor and journalist] Tina Brown’s ‘If you don’t have a budget, get yourself a point of view’ was our mantra when we started, and the first thing we did was to apply for a research grant. In the Netherlands, there’s a Creative Industries Fund that sponsors and stimulates design research projects. We were lucky that our first application was granted.

“In terms of a sales strategy, we were mainly focused on international distribution. We were convinced we could have a global audience that could inspire the stories we wanted to tell. In retrospect, we pretty much bluffed ourselves into it. Maybe the best PR move we made in the beginning was launching MacGuffin Nº1 The Bed (with a great nest installation) at Palazzo Clerici during the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It really internationally kick-started the magazine.

“What helped a lot (and still does) is that from the very start we got a lot of support from the independent magazine world, firstly from Athenaeum Newscentre—the Dutch Mecca for independent magazine lovers. But also internationally we felt supported by colleagues and organizations like magCulture and Stack.

“The things we have done to raise money next to the government funding is apply for other grants, private sponsorship, cultural collaborations, advertisements, media partnerships, and a limited-edition print sale through our online shop. For the last issue, we were able to cover quite some costs with an advertorial by Dutch jeans producer G-Star Raw. We helped them with the production and did the final edit.

“Arts funding is a good way to secure a budget for contributors and an important confirmation of the quality of our research and content. But a more lucrative and simple way to get funding is direct sale (without a middleman) of a bulk amount of magazines, preferably against cost prize or more. If you can sell and invoice say 1,000 copies at once, it is a good way to pre-finance the production. The flip-side is that you have to operate carefully in order not to frustrate your distributors.

“For others setting out to make an independent magazine, we recommend having a clear idea of your theme: MacGuffin, The Plant, Apartamento, etc. all have a pretty clear approach and subject.”

Orlando, editor-in-chief Philomena Epps

“I also offer e-copies of the magazine at a cut price.”

“I have always organized a launch event for each issue of the magazine, with a program of performances, readings, artist moving image and sound, and music, which has been ticketed. Each ticket includes a free copy of the magazine. The funds raised from the ticket price to these events—in addition to any donations from generous readers or those who wanted to support but couldn’t be in attendance—is used to pay back the cost of printing.

“On average, an issue costs around around £1,500-2,000 [$2,000-2,600]; it’s limited-edition, ranging between 200-300 copies over the years. I distribute myself to a small selection of loyal bookshops that I’ve built relationships with in the UK, Europe, and America. I also sell a lot of copies through the website, and I post internationally. 

“For issue three, I organized a series of ticketed film screenings in the run up to the production of the magazine, in order to raise funds so I could pay my contributors. For transparency, there had been no fee for writers in the past, which I was determined to change. This was in addition to the launch party, which funded the printing costs.

“The subscription model doesn’t really make sense for me, as Orlando is published annually. I haven’t gone down the Kickstarter route either, but so far readers have supported by attending events, buying the magazine through the website, making donations, etc. I also offer e-copies of the magazine at a cut price, which makes it more accessible and widely disseminated, and helps improve cash flow.”

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