Making a magazine is a lot of fun. It’s also a helluva lot of work. There’s the stuff you see—the writing, editing, and artwork. And then there’s the stuff you don’t see—the printing estimates, budget, emails, and spreadsheets. Oh the spreadsheets. It turns out, making a beautiful piece of independent publishing is like running any business, but with an emphasis on “independent.”
But what does it really take to make a magazine in 2019? And why would anyone who’s sane embark on such an adventure? We sat down with three magazine founders to find out. Here, Verena von Pfetten of New York-based cannabis magazine Gossamer, Beth Wilkinson of the Australia-based Lindsay magazine, and Danielle Pender of the UK-based Riposte to talk about how they’re making making a magazine work.
Depending on the day, making a magazine can feel like the best job in the world or like a total trudge. How are you feeling today?
Verena von Pfetten: We just sent the files to the printer for our most recent issue, and it’s one of the hardest things we do. Every time we do it, I ask myself, “Why are we doing this? Is this a necessary thing?” But then I get so excited to put something that I feel really, really proud of into the world. In as much as there is still a proliferation of independent publications, I still think it is increasingly rare for people to make something that is really thought-through—every i, every t, every color, every placement of something. It’s a physical object that then you’re putting into someone else’s hands. I can hand someone the magazine, but I can’t make them read it. It feels like the last moment of agency that people have. Like, if someone read something in Gossamer, they read it purely by choice. I can’t news alert them into it.
Beth Wilkinson: What Verena was saying really resonates with me. There are a lot of independent publications coming out, but if you think about how many people are in the world, there actually aren’t that many. And that’s the thing for me. It’s been undoubtedly one of the harder things I’ve done in my life, but also one of the most fulfilling and the most rewarding. And any time I’m going through something challenging, I think, “Would I choose not to do this? The answer is always, very clearly, “Of course I would still do this.”
You all left full-time jobs to do this. Why did you want to make that leap?
von Pfetten: I didn’t necessarily leave to start the magazine. I was just freelancing and consulting when David [David Weiner, co-founder of Gossamer] and I came up with the idea of what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to start something in the cannabis space and make something that we felt reached a consumer that we thought wasn’t being addressed, for lack of a better word. Both of our backgrounds are in digital. I spent 12 years working in digital media and launching websites for companies. But when we thought about Gossamer and we thought about what we wanted to do, we knew it needed to be a physical object. We were both really, really burnt out on digital. It just didn’t feel sustainable. We’re seeing it play out over and over and over again—no matter how big and how much traffic these websites are getting, they’re not making the money they need. So is there a solution where less is more? I know the playbook, I know how to drive traffic. I know how to get people to click on something if I have to. I know how to build websites that will scale to millions of readers in a month, but that’s not real. So it was very important to us that we make something that felt real and felt organic. Even if it’s small and niche and slow to grow, at least I’m not making anything up. I’m not spinning anything. The readers that are there are readers. The people that follow us, actually follow us. The people who subscribe to our newsletter, actually open our newsletter.
“Is there a solution where less is more?”
Wilkinson: I was actually just working on a partnerships package this past weekend, and it made me start thinking about all of this. If I’m pitching to someone to work with us, what does Lindsay have that a website with much more traffic doesn’t? And perhaps it’s a bit cliched, but like Verena was saying, it is a much deeper connection. The audience might be smaller, but the people who buy Lindsay are paying $18. They’re buying it, and it’s an investment. They want to sit there and read it; they’re not just skimming it like they are everything else on the internet. Through that, I think they have a much more meaningful connection.
Danielle, as someone who’s been doing this in some form since 2013, have you felt pressure to grow?
Danielle Pender: As Riposte has grown, I had a baby, and then I quit my job and went full-time last January. So, in terms of pressure, there’s been pressure to make money for my rent. It’s tricky, though, because we’ve been thinking about what success looks like and whether we want to grow. We want to reach a wider audience and we want to make it a successful and sustainable business model. Whereas before we didn’t really pay anybody, or we paid everybody like a hundred quid, now we pay. I still don’t think it’s quite industry rates, but we pay everybody and we pay them as well as we can. And I think we want to be able to do that more and more. So there’s there’s not so much a pressure, but this is a definite ambition there to carry on growing.
It’s interesting to think about how staying small and focused is just another type of business model. Do you feel comfortable with where you’re at financially?
von Pfetten: I mean, look, we only launched a year ago. We don’t have ads on the website, and that was a very conscious decision. Event though we do publish one to two stories a week online, we knew we didn’t want banner ads. From the start we said, “That’s not how we’re going to monetize this.” If someone wants to partner with us, it’s going to be through an activation or maybe there’s a social component. We would not be making a lot of money that we do make if we didn’t have the print magazine, though. Even as much as selling a physical ad can be hard, the print mag is what gets us all of these other partnerships. It’s like a business card that we put down in front of people.
“I can hand someone the magazine, but I can’t make them read it.”
Wilkinson: Last year was definitely focused on creating Lindsay. And I think now I’m at that stage where things are starting to change. I’m really happy with where things have gone this last year, and now I want to work at how to sustain that. I started growing my studio and started doing a few more editorial projects and design projects for other people. I obviously want to grow Lindsay long term, but it grew quite quickly over this last year, and that pace isn’t necessarily something I can keep up with. So now it’s like, “how can I maybe just sustain that and pull back a little bit so there’s more time for doing other things that have, perhaps, a better income stream for the amount of time I have to put in?”
Pender: The magazine makes money, and in the last issue we made a bit of profit that will go into future issues. On the events side of things we cover the costs, but that’s more about bringing the community together and offering them a place where they can have a physical connection with other people, because obviously reading a magazine is quite a solitary thing. I think when you get people in a room, that’s where you make a community, so that side of things really important. To make money outside of the print magazine, we work with brand partners doing projects for them outside of the run of the magazine. That’s where the more sustainable business model is at the minute.
“It’s like a business card that we put down in front of people.”
Like a creative agency model?
Pender: Yeah, we launched Riposte Studio when I quit my job because I realized I needed to make some money. We’d already done quite a lot of brand partnerships over the years, and so we had a bit of a portfolio.
Verena, Gossamer is doing something similar, but with a physical product, your CBD tincture Dusk. Was this always part of your game plan?
von Pfetten: We knew from the beginning that that would be a part of the Gossamer ecosystem. Anytime you’re writing, you’re selling something—you’re selling an idea, a story, a person, a brand. For us, Dusk is just one product. We launched in January, and it sold out in three weeks. I think part of that is that our audience was trained a little bit to buy something. They understand that we are not free. What we make is a physical product—in one instance it’s a magazine, in another CDB—and that we put care into it. We had built up this trust with our content and with our approach to things, so when we released a physical product, it wasn’t out of left field. It was something that people understood was part of our ecosystem and in a space that we really cared about. So that’s been one revenue stream for us. I would say that our goal with the magazine is that it breaks even. We want the magazine costs to be covered. The print magazine is not where we necessarily see the bulk of our revenue coming from.
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you fuck up and you learn the lessons.”
Everyone is coming at this from a fairly creative perspective. Did all of you feel prepared when you started your magazine to handle the business side of things?
Pender: I just got an account about six months ago. Since we’ve been working with brand partners, the budgets have been bigger, we’ve had more people to pay, and there have been all sorts of things. I guess that’s the same with any business: You don’t know what you don’t know until you fuck up and you learn the lessons. I’ve got a business mentor, whereas with the creative side of things—I’m not saying that’s easy—but we have such a pool of people that we can call on that it isn’t something that I need to worry about. Whereas the business side is such a massive cause of stress and anxiety because it’s not a natural thing for me. Empowerment is not the right word because it’s such a cheesy word, but when you get to grips with the finances of your business and you can see how a P&L sheet should look and where you need to save on taxes, and all of those things, it just gives you confidence that you can actually do this. And I think that’s really, really important.
Wilkinson: I’ve always liked looking at things from both perspectives. I love the creative side, but I also get really excited about like making a business plan and doing a spreadsheet. I am also very aware that my knowledge in that area is still limited. I didn’t study accounting and I didn’t study business, so there are a lot of things about that that I don’t know. At the moment I’m building a volunteer advisory board, which will essentially be made up of six individuals from different backgrounds. It will be a quarterly meeting thing, really relaxed. I’ve had something like that informally. One of my good friends who’s a business consultant came over and spent a few hours with me at the start of the year, and to have him sit next to me and look over all my budgets and my one-year plan and my three-year plan was so great. I’d spoken to a lot of people in publishing and a lot of people in creative industries and they’d given me their perspective on like how to make everything work. But it’s actually really fantastic to have someone who comes at it from it from a business problem solving perspective.
On a related but separate note, how does everyone feel about distribution and shipping? Is it as much a headache for you as it is for us?
von Pfetten: I think unfortunately, myself included, we have all been trained that shipping is basically free. When I look around at who launches magazines and they have free shipping, I’m amazed. I don’t know how they they bake that into their business models from the beginning, but they’re brilliant because we didn’t. The shipping cost is about $6 in the U.S., and we charge $20 for the magazine, so that’s around a third of the cost of what we’re charging for the magazine. Internationally, we’re looking at shipping costs even just to Canada that are like $15. Telling someone, especially when maybe they’re coming from a currency that is softer than the U.S. dollar, to buy a $20 magazine and then spend $20 on shipping and now they’re looking at like $50 in their own currency for a single magazine is a huge barrier to entry. I just wish there was a better solution.
“I can’t tell you how giant and chaotic that spreadsheet was.”
Wilkinson: I print in the Netherlands and ship from Germany, and it actually works amazing for me. We can do $5 Australian dollars per issue anywhere in the world. Our magazine isn’t super weighty, and that was a consideration in thinking about the publication. I self-distributed my first issue, and I went really hard at retail, so I was self-distributing to over a hundred different shops in over 20 countries, but that was really so much work. I can’t tell you how giant and chaotic that spreadsheet was.
von Pfetten: For distribution, we’ve handled everything directly, so we’re only in about 30 shops right now. I think we’d probably have a larger reach if I just bit the bullet and just said, “Fuck it, we’re going for scale,” but my understanding is that working with distributors does help you scale, but you’re not going to see a penny of it.
Pender: I was just speaking to another company who wanted to take 300 copies, and they wanted us to pay £30 pounds per week just to get us into WH Smith at airports in the UK. So it was £30 per stall, and then they would give us like 15% of sales. It doesn’t make any sense.
I guess it’s probably predicated on an advertising model, where circulation matters.
Pender: I think that model doesn’t work so much with independent magazines. The quality of your readership is what you’re actually selling to a brand. It’s not that you’re in however many stores in mainstream travel points, it’s that the people who actually buy your magazine read it cover to cover. That’s what is valuable about indie magazines.
So despite all of the logistical hurdles and late nights, how are you feeling about the future of making magazines?
Wilkinson: I feel really positive at the moment. I feel excited about where Lindsay is going. We’ve spoken a little bit about how to make it work financially and logistically, but I think what everyone agrees on is with independent publications you have something that’s very valuable. It’s something people do want and it’s just figuring out how to make that work. I had a conversation with someone recently who’s starting an independent magazine, and I’m going to be working with her on that, consulting and also doing the design. I’m just excited by that. I’m excited that there are other people out there that want to do these kinds of projects.
“I think with the online digital landscape changing so much, people are respecting print a lot more.”
Pender: We just launched our 11th issue, and I feel really optimistic. We launched issue 10 last summer, and then in August our main brand partner dropped out for 11. We were trying to find someone to launch 11 with last October or November, and that didn’t happen, and by that point I just though that this is such a stupid way to try to make money. But it really made me reevaluate the whole business model and actually took it a lot more seriously. We pitched it into a longterm partner for a whole year, and that gives us breathing space so we can really plan events and think about the content a lot more seriously.
I think with the online digital landscape changing so much, people are respecting print a lot more. People are understanding that you get what you pay for and it feels like it’s a real sea change. I just bought Skirt Chronicles, No Man’s Land, and Gusher magazine, and I kind of don’t see them as competition. I’m just so excited that those magazines exist in the world.
von Pfetten: We’re just out of our first year, and for a very long time I was saying that I felt like I was pushing a boulder up a very steep hill with a semi truck coming in the opposite direction. And recently I just feel like that truck is gone. I’m still pushing a boulder up a hill, but like it’s different. And what is really exciting to me is exactly I think what we’re all talking about—that organic engagement. People are participating in the conversation that we are hosting because they want to, not because they have been tricked into it, and not because we’ve put a news alert in front of them, but because they actually want to.