The latest dispatch from magCulture’s Jeremy Leslie isn’t your typical magazine book. Independence is a book about magazines and yet it contains almost no images of magazines. Instead of page after page of delicious editorial spreads, we get thumbnails of a handful of covers, some nice full-bleed portraits, and a whole lot of text. Why? Because this is not a book about magazine design; it’s a book about the behind-the-scenes, nitty gritty of magazine making. From getting started to getting paid, it covers everything you ever wanted to know about successful indie publishing, told from the perspective of 12 of the UK’s leading indie mag makers, including WRAP, Print Isn’t Dead, The Gourmand, Intern, Cereal, Delayed Gratification, and more.
The book is the product of a series of interviews conducted by Leslie in front of a live audience at London’s Pick Me Up graphic arts festival in 2015. Leslie, who’s written three other books about magazines, is both an authority on editorial design and a champion for independent magazine publishing. His close relationship with many magazine makers allows for candid interviews where his subjects open up, often sharing intimate details of their businesses, including funding and circulation figures, margins, and essential contacts. Each conversation has been faithfully reproduced in full, with a little tidying up.
As anyone with an interest in magazines will know, independent titles have taken the publishing world by storm in recent years. Technology is such that it’s never been easier to put a magazine together. And this has brought an influx of new creative blood to the industry. But while there’s an abundance of material exploring and offering guidance on the creative side of magazine making, the entrepreneurial side remains rather shadowy. Perhaps that’s why, while more magazines are launching every month, few make it past their third issue. Plus, while technology has been hugely empowering, there are still many sticky areas. The business, distribution, and advertising models of traditional magazines simply don’t work in the new post-indie boom world. And this is leaving many would-be magazine makers scratching their heads. As Leslie notes in his introduction, when magazines people get together, talk of content, design, and ideas invariably turns to questions of funding and business strategy.
Getting a great magazine together is one thing. Getting it out there is quite another. And it’s these thorny, everything-but-the-creative issues that Leslie has set out to tackle.
The book is full of the yes-but-how-do-you-actually-do-it’s of modern magazine making. Marcroy Smith from Print Isn’t Dead discusses the advantages and disadvantages of Kickstarter (Pros: it allows you to collect pre-orders; cons: you have to fulfill those pre-orders and if you don’t have your numbers right, you could lose money.) There’s Danny Miller, once of Little White Lies and now of Weapons of Reason, on the importance of giving issues away and how a unique selling point allows you to compete with bigger magazines. Danielle Pender from Riposte talks about creative compromises and working with brands and advertisers.
Another key theme is distribution, a major headache for any magazine maker. There are shout outs to distributors such as Antenne Books, Newstand, New Distribution House, MMS, and Gold Key Media. Elsewhere Rosa Park from Cereal talks about how she‘s solving the transatlantic shipping problem by printing on both sides of the pond. Throughout the book there are details of percentages, commissions, print runs, and sales figures—the unsexy yet essential details of magazine making that are hard to uncover if you don’t come from a publishing background. Many of the interviewees don’t and have have learnt by doing, which is perhaps why they’re so willing to share what they know. It’s also why each of the 12 featured magazines offers a completely different business model. The cumulative effect of these many different approaches is a how-to guide you put together yourself. Aspiring magazine makers can add a dash of Printed Pages’ emphasis on the bottom line, a slug of Wrap’s brand extensions, a bit of The Gourmand’s portfolio business approach, and create their own recipe for success.
The book not only functions as a guide, but it’s also a snapshot of an industry in flux. These 12 are just some of a great many creative entrepreneurs who are reinventing an industry that’s sure to look very different in a few years time. It’d be interesting to return to them in five years and see which approaches become our new normal. This is an industry that’s growing up. For a long time the wisdom has been: if you want to make money, don’t start an indie magazine. Independence shows that it’s possible to make a legitimate business out of publishing indie magazines. But it also emphasizes that getting the product right is only half the battle. It’s not enough to be a creative. One must also be an entrepreneur.