It’s either the worst time to start a new magazine or it’s the best. Over the last decade, we’ve seen national titles go through layoffs and cutbacks, consolidations and reorganizations. Print schedules are shifting — often slowing — and content is moving online, where it’s being optimized for SEO, loaded with trackers, and sandwiched between ever-more intrusive advertising that degrades the reading experience. But all is not lost—indie magazines, in many ways, are thriving right now, with new print publications starting up regularly. A limited reach is a tradeoff for a more enthusiastic fanbase that allows for unusual publishing schedules and high quality printed objects. The economic constraints of publishing a print magazine today, paradoxically, provide new opportunities for creativity — in format and in design, in content and editorial, in funding and in distribution.
The latest entry in this space is INQUE from editor and publisher Dan Crowe and designer and creative director Matt Willey, the first issue of which launched on Kickstarter earlier this week. While Willey, who joined Pentagram earlier this year as the newest partner in the New York office, spent the last five years as an art director at The New York Times Magazine, the duo is not unfamiliar with independent publishing. When Crowe launched the literary magazine Zembla in 2003, Willey, who had not worked on a magazine before, helped design it (under the creative direction of Vince Frost) and over the last fifteen years, the pair went on to co-found both Port and Avaunt.
In teaming up again for INQUE, Crowe and Willey have set out to make the magazine they’ve always wanted to make. INQUE will be large-format — coming in at 11” x 13.7” — and entirely ad free. After funding the first issue on Kickstarter, future issues will be available to purchase online, through subscriptions, and select bookshops around the world, with the hope that the publication will eventually become self-sustaining. This, of course, is every magazine publisher’s dream — complete editorial freedom, bold visual design, a collection of the most interesting writers, and completely self-funded. It’s like the indie magazine ethos wrapped in the hype and reach of a mainstream publication. Willey and Crowe are, perhaps, well-known enough — with a proven track record — to actually pull it off.
While they won’t begin working on the first issue in earnest until the Kickstarter succeeds, they’ve already assembled an impressive list of contributors including poet and novelist Ocean Vuong, filmmaker Werner Herzog, actor and filmmaker Tilda Swinton, musician Kate Tempest, and filmmaker David Lynch, as well as artists and photographers like Alec Soth, Barbara Bloom, and Willey’s Pentagram partner Paula Scher. They’ll also translate international writers into English and Chimananda Ngozi Adichie will be selecting new African writers to contribute to each issue. “Expect exciting new fiction, opinionated non-fiction, and collaborations between fiction writers and musicians and weird hybrid projects which defy classification,” says Willey. “Editorially this will be bold and unapologetic. It will take risks. I’m deeply bored of magazines being safe and ‘neutral’ and appealing to the masses. There is so much to be upset about at the moment, so much to talk about, so much to react against.”
Because INQUE will be entirely self-funded, Crowe and Willey can push the boundaries of its publishing format. Following the first issue, they will publish one issue a year over the next decade, before closing the magazine in 2030. This publishing framework provides Willey and Crowe unique opportunities in both design and editorial strategy. The writer Jonathan Lethem, for example, will publish a novel, serially, over the course of the ten issues. “We wanted to make something slower, something finite, so we could in a way see the whole, knowing that this has a beginning and a middle and an end,” says Willey. “Ten years is both a long time and nothing. This will be over before we know it. I hope INQUE will become a sort of collectible creative document, a book-like record of a decade. And I think it’s going to be, one way of the other, a really interesting decade.”
Once the Kickstarter is over, assuming it’s funded, INQUE’s first issue will arrive at the end of 2021. We can clearly see its beginning and know there is an end, but what does the middle look like? Aside from some recurring features, like Lethem’s serialized novel and Adichie’s editorial commissions, they are very much planning this as they go, going to writers and asking what they might be interested in writing about. “We have no editorial strategy, partly because we want this to respond to the time it’s being made,” Willey says. “I don’t know how the visual design will evolve over the ten issues, and that not knowing is part of the fun for me. I know the spines have to come together to form something lovely…but I don’t know what.”
In thinking about this as a finite object, the editors could, hypothetically, begin playing with how each issue builds on the previous or grows with itself. And with no online version, each issue both needs to stand on its own as a singular object while also fitting within the larger 10-issue collection. The visual vernacular, in theory, could evolve over the years, the final issue looking nothing like the first. Regardless, it’ll be exciting to watch it change as it’s proposing a kind of ideal publication — something uncompromising and slightly nostalgic.
In a media landscape that’s increasingly moving faster and faster and seemingly infinite, INQUE provides a counterweight — one that is slower, deliberate, finite. “Part of the reason to do this is in order to carve out a space where you get to make something the way you want to, without compromising, to make something slowly and with absolute editorial and creative control. That feels uniquely exciting to me,” Willey says. “Magazine publishing isn’t working any more. This is a stab in the dark but one we felt we had to try.”