Anyone who has launched a new magazine will be familiar with the following dilemma: You need money to produce your first issue even before you’ve had the chance to make any sales. Lately, the rise of crowdfunding sites had made upfront costs less of a barrier to production. Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are responsible for successfully jumpstarting indie magazines like Intern and Failed States through their customizable campaigns.
But what about after the launch of issue one? Is crowdfunding a viable overall business strategy for a magazine, or is supporting future issues through funding from previous sales still the ideal business model?
“Compared to other businesses, the whole funding model of magazines is very flawed,” says Jeremy Leslie, director of London-based shop and journal MagCulture. For most independent magazines, securing and sustaining funding are the hardest aspects of the job. “You have to pay out so much just to get the magazine going, and then you could wait quite some time before the income arrives. Many publishers choose to pay their contributors before they start paying themselves.”
Producing a magazine requires you have to have some sort of capital available to you at the outset, which is where the crowdfunding model has become particularly useful for indie mag producers. Leslie says there’s never just one right way to keep a publication going after the success of an initial issue. “There are multiple ways of trying to make things work, many of which involve borrowing, stealing, or wasting your own savings, which is why I think Kickstarter can be so powerful simply as a pre-order tool.”
Take the Portland-based artist and designer Nicole Dadonna, a.k.a. Friday Hangs. She’s used both Kickstarter and IndieGogo to fund her quarterly arts and culture magazine, Friday. But prior to her crowdfunding campaigns, she self-financed her DIY zines and small-run prints, like the political coloring book Buff Bernie, whose illustrations of a ripped Bernie Sanders spread online via outlets like Buzzfeed and LA Weekly at the peak of election season and the subsequent “feel the Bern” movement.
Two years later, she published the first issue of Friday, also entirely self-funded. “It was kind of an experiment to see what would happen, and to serve as a proof-of-concept for what I wanted to create,” she says. “It did better than I had expected, but when it came time to do the next issue, I had depleted any available funds. That pushed me to look at Kickstarter as a funding option.”
“Compared to other businesses, the whole funding model of magazines is very flawed… You have to pay out so much just to get the magazine going and then you could wait quite some time before the income arrives.”
Dadonna manages to keep costs down by doing much of the writing and designing herself and using her small budget to pay her photographers and other contributors. “I’ve always fantasized about working at a magazine, like in those rom-coms where the girl’s job is always in publishing or at a fashion mag,” she says. Nostalgic, kitschy, and exceptionally weird, Friday is a funhouse of vernacular typography and absurdist humor. Recurring sections include quizzes, horoscopes, and offbeat travel guides as well as a “Hunk of the Month” featuring a dreamy centerfold of comedian John Early in the latest issue. “It’s like if John Waters made Teen Beat,” says Buddy Hangs, Dadonna’s creative partner (but no relation).
Conceptually, it’s angled as a humor magazine in the vein of MAD and National Lampoon, as seen through the female gaze. And though its heavy on satire, Friday is sincere in its mission of creating a woman-run publication that highlights up-and-coming artists and comedians who may not receive a platform elsewhere. “There are so many cool and creative people out there who should be getting press but they aren’t, so that really sparked my desire to start this magazine,” says Dadonna. “In Portland, there’s also a lot of activity around independent publishing, and just independent endeavors in general. It’s a very supportive community.”
Securing funding for independent publishing, however, has always been a challenge. Dadonna failed to reach her Kickstarter campaign goal and moved over to IndieGogo due to its more flexible funding system. “I relaunched on Indiegogo and I still didn’t meet my goal, but I was able to get enough to make a second issue happen, which was all that really mattered.” She says that Instagram has also been an essential platform for the growth and popularity of the magazine. “Once I launched @FridayMag, all of a sudden these people were following it and writing to me: ‘I wanna be in the next issue!’ It made me feel really wonderful that I’m making something that people would actually want to be a part of.”
“We’re seeking out more wholesale options to get the magazine into people’s hands and to, you know, hopefully make a profit in the process.”
For future issues, though, Dadonna says she will most likely be moving away from crowdfunding as a primary source for production. “We’re seeking out more wholesale options to get the magazine into people’s hands and to, you know, hopefully make a profit in the process.”
For Anxy, an artful, creative magazine focused on personal narratives surrounding mental health, crowdfunding has proven to be a successful model beyond just the initial launch. Founder Indhira Rojas says, “I knew from the get-go that I wanted to do a Kickstarter because I’d been following other indie magazines and saw their trajectory, and how for a lot of them Kickstarter was the mechanism that made their success possible.”
Prompted by the lack of mental health magazines featuring well-designed content, Rojas set out to create a publication that would be designed in a way that makes readers almost mistake it for an art magazine.
“When you look at what’s available in the market for mental health magazines, ours has a visual vocabulary that’s pretty unexpected,” Rojas explains. “For us, we felt like bringing an arts perspective would make the topic more acceptable and also allow people to approach these stories about mental health from a more experiential point of view.”
Each issue of Anxy is thematic, with issue one and two exploring Anger and Workaholism, respectively. Their third issue titled Boundaries was produced via another successful Kickstarter campaign, though Rojas is looking at alternative business models as her operation continues to grow.
Leslie says that while Kickstarter is a great launchpad for indie mags, the continued use of funding campaigns runs the risk of a gradual reduction of interest from backers. “With an initial campaign, Kickstarters usually see a lot of contributions from friends and relatives, near and distant, because it’s an easy way of supporting your new venture, but once you’re on to issue three, four, or five, it’s questionable whether those same people will still support you.”
However, Rojas’ experience offers another perspective. “In terms of using Kickstarter as a platform to collect funds for the project, it’s been an excellent mechanism,” she says. “We’ve used it essentially as a platform for people to pre-order the magazine. The question is, can our community support two campaigns a year and for how long? Our third Kickstarter was more successful in terms of percentage funding than our previous two. So you can say that it’s working. And because we’re a magazine with a focus on something that you can say is community-oriented, it makes sense that that community gathers together through Kickstarter to fund the project.”
“The question is, can our community support two campaigns a year and for how long?”
Rojas equates that sense of community support with the annual fund drives that sustain organizations like NPR or PBS. “Why wouldn’t Kickstarter be sustainable?” she asks. “Is it because of an expected community fatigue, or because fundraising takes effort? Other organizations do that all the time; why can’t magazines do the same?”
Whether magazines opt for repeat crowdfunding campaigns or switch over to wholesale or subscription models, Leslie says it’s important to remember that you’re always kickstarting a business rather than just a single issue. “The real key to making a magazine work is to treat it like any other business, by starting small and building gradually,” he says.