Image by Emma Hoareau.
Magazines. Online, in print, slipped into a newspaper, hiding behind your sofa… It seems we are constantly surrounded by the outcome of so many people’s desire to create their own rectangular blocks of bound paper based on a dizzyingly diverse range of subjects.
The recent Printout talk at The Book Club focused on the business side of magazines – past audiences have been more based around the creative side of this industry: the beautiful paper, which binding to use, how to make a cover stand out – but how do independent magazines actually turn into successful businesses (if at all)?
The discussion was between It’s Nice That founder Will Hudson and Bruce Sandell, Managing Director of Rouleur Magazine. Both have experience in different parts of the magazine industry. Bruce has been working in magazines for 25 years since he first got a sales job at IPC Media at 18. Will’s involvement was more of a modern chance happening: the website he created at university in 2007 whilst studying Graphic Design has now become his Monday to Friday job, and subsequently a magazine was created off the back of the online content.
Why create a magazine?
The most poignant point throughout the talk was to do it for love (not much money here guys, sorry) and to know what you’re doing. It’s Nice That magazine ran a magazine version from April 2009 to March 2012, and then it stopped. Only now has a new version of the magazine been released – a year later. Why? Because the creators wanted to take the time to think, to realise what they wanted to create and to re-think the process and properly separate the medium of the magazine from the website.
This is where the business thinking began. Hudson admitted that you have to compromise: “as a graphic designer, it’s hard not to be able to print on the best paper, to have a certain binding – but to make a business you have to focus on other aspects to begin with”. That aspect for him was realising that by creating a less expensive, more accessible magazine (the newly released It’s Nice That magazines retails at £4), you actually got more pages for less money. He thought strategically about the process of how the customer chooses and buys magazines, coming up with two types of customer. The first one spends 20 minutes in the shop and buys one (most probably expensive) magazine, and the second one spends 2 minutes in the shops and buys 20 (probably cheaper) magazines. These are the different kinds of audiences that buy independent magazines. Hudson made the choice that speaking to more people for less money made more business sense at this time for It’s Nice That. With an attention grabbing cover, Will hopes that it’ll be harder for readers to say no to a well-made magazine for a good price.
However, he did acknowledge that the “re-assessment was risk management”. There are 400,000 viewers a month to It’s Nice That, of which approximately only 1% will buy the magazine. Risk indeed. And why is this, with such a big online readership – surely that number would be reflected in print – or is there not a place for a website’s magazine? Of course there is. Hudson kept repeating – and rightly so – that there is nothing like holding a magazine in your hands. Photography is created to be in your hand, to be that size and to be enjoyed through that medium. There are things you can do with a magazine that you can’t do online, but from now on this will always be questioned (both from INT and from the internet age generation).
Sandell added here that toing-and-froing content between online and print can be dangerous: “By putting online what you’ve put in print undermines the print value”. The message was to keep each medium within itself, they should be mutually exclusive. Hudson referred to the football metaphor of “always being judged on your last performance” and likening it to the stress and pressure of creating a magazine, especially under the same umbrella of such a successful website. “The important thing is consistency. If you say you’re going to create this many issues over the next year, then you have to. That’s why it was so hard for us to decided to take a break from the print magazine – it was a risk, of course… But good things happen when you risk things”. Adding that “you need to be good, but know what good is. Identify why you’re doing this – it’s a business so you can’t always have everything you want, like the best paper. It’s about identifying with what you’re doing”.
What about advertising?
For Will, it’s back down to passion. “First of all, create something you want to put out there. Advertising comes after that. I don’t want to be ruled by my advertisers”. As much as advertising is a source of income – or stabilisation – for all magazines, if you’re creating an independent product, there’s no point doing it if you can’t say exactly what you want to say. “And certainly, from a graphics guy’s point of view, it’s more aesthetically pleasing to not have adverts get in the way of layout”. But of course the reality of staying financially afloat in such a competitive industry can often force smaller businesses to go for the easy option – if that is an option at all. A point raised by both speakers was that playing on your audience is an extremely important tool. Rouleur customers, Bruce believes, would prefer to pay more for a nicer magazine with better paper and binding, good content and less ads.
Each magazine will appeal to a certain kind of person, and the fact that you have the attention of that person speaks to advertisers who are looking to influence readers who don’t buy (into) the mainstream. Bruce offered his indisputable advice here, when specifically asked who the best person to have in a magazine’s team in the advertising department was. He responded immediately with “someone who loves your market – and, even better, your magazine. You need an optimistic person: this isn’t always going to be easy so the person has to be passionate about the subject and the product”. With a niche bike magazine under his wing, Bruce prefers to get readers to subscribe as a way of creating a more stable income and of giving Rouleur a future. It also gives a much better estimate of how many copies of the magazine need to be printed, since most have been bought in advance.
So, is it worth it? As with any business, challenges come along and you need to deal with them both creatively and strategically. Indeed, “if this was easy, loads of people would be doing it. Read good books back to front; you can’t buy common sense”.
Emma Hoareau for TCD.