How to Start a Magazine: Lessons from 4 Years in Print
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
By Steve Daniels
So you’ve got an idea for a print magazine. You have the perfect social movement to capture in matte CMYK. Perhaps a glossy lifestyle that Instagram just doesn’t do justice. You’ve come to the right place.
This week marks my first as an advisor to Makeshift. I have stepped down as Executive Director, leaving my baby in the hands of a team I am proud to have attracted over the last four years. Their passion and expertise has transformed an idealistic Kickstarter-backed vision into a functioning media company.
Now is my moment to reflect on this process. For the many of you who have asked me how to start a print magazine of your own, what follows is the best advice I can offer. This is not a guide to the nuts and bolts of finding a printer and selling subscriptions but a contemplation of the major elements that will set you up for success. By the end of this piece, you’ll understand that “How do I start a magazine?” is actually the wrong question to ask.
The cards are stacked against you If you happen to be afflicted with the same mental delusion that struck me four years ago when I decided to revive the art of print, the reality you must accept is that you’re going to be dealt a difficult hand. You are David facing a Goliath of distributors, retail chains, and competitors.
Consider the typical magazine supply chain: you print your copies, sell to distributors, who in turn sell to stockists, who in turn sell to your readers. Right? Wrong. The first hard truth is that nearly all retailers stock your title on commission, meaning they only pay the distributor when they sell a copy, meaning the distributor only pays you at that time, meaning you take on 100% of the risk of printing. Print fewer copies than you think you need to start, and send distributors fewer copies than they ask for. This is especially true for large distributors, some of which charge you by the pound for taking on your title and are, therefore, incentivized to ask you for many times more copies than they will actually sell. And then there’s the large retailers who charge fees for reasonable shelf placement.
The second hard truth is that you will initially have a very difficult time selling ads due to the low circulation of most independent magazines. Few have ever broken through the circulation threshold needed to build a business on advertising while maintaining the ethical and journalistic integrity that is core to why most of us started in this industry in the first place.
Your weapon to fight back is smart partnerships: many Davids together have a better chance against a Goliath. Get involved in groups like the Indie Publisher Club and Little Magazine Coalition, where you can seek general advice, trade tips on specific distributors, and even find partners to pool with to attract advertisers. (The organizers of these groups have asked me to kindly inform you that they’re open only to publishers of existing print magazines. Please do not request to join unless you meet this criterion.)
Partnerships with other magazines have paid off for Makeshift. Last winter, Makeshift led an effort to create a Little Magazine Gift Guide, inviting 19 fellow publishers to list their titles on our microsite and offer readers a holiday discount. Many pitched in to a pool of funds used to purchase Facebook ads for the site. The result was our best sales season ever.
Out of this project emerged a second opportunity. One of the titles invited us to distribute together in a new geography under an agreement that flipped the above supply chain on its head by redistributing the risk more fairly. Indeed, amidst the gauntlet of obstacles, there is success to be had for the creative and collaborative.
Start with your audience One of the biggest mistakes I made off the bat was to place too much emphasis on the stories I wanted to tell over the stories a particular audience wanted to hear. I didn’t even know who my audience was. No matter how much craft we put into our product, it was grounded in a completely inside-out vision. Over time, Makeshift has refined its target audience — globally conscious creatives — and listened to their needs. We all start magazines out of a passion for the content — otherwise we’d go work for BuzzFeed. But this passion needs to be aligned with an explicit market opportunity. The two magazines I’ve seen do this best are Offscreen and Hello Mr., who focused on software designers and gay men, respectively, and filled a gap in media serving those audiences. In both cases, their readers also write for the magazines — often for free — and are active advocates for those publications on social media.
Your readership can be your biggest asset. Make them a core part of your strategy, and cultivate them as a community. [wherever] calls its readers “members” and offers them access to exclusive events.
Once you’ve identified your audience, use that to drive your brand and content. Print magazines are no longer about information; the ones that are have become a commodity easily replicated online. Today’s print magazines are lifestyle products. The question is not “What does my audience want to read?” but “What does my audience want to buy?”
In our redesign last year (outlined in another post), Makeshift thought deeply about this question. The result was a rebranding effort that spoke directly to globally conscious creatives. Makeshift became a “field guide to hidden creativity,” and its form factor and storytelling followed suit.
The magazine is not your product By now, you’re starting to see the picture that running a magazine is more complicated than putting stories to paper. But I would put forth a more extreme proposition — that the magazine is not your product at all.
The reality is no independent magazines survive on the traditional model of magazine and ad sales. You will become a B2B company as much as a B2C company. The challenge will be to keep things simple, integrating the B2B and B2C components as tightly as possible so you can stay focused.
So if the magazine isn’t your product, what is? Consider what differentiates you from other publications for a particular set of business customers. Monocle realized it was its high-income audience and has used advertorial content to position brands for its readers. The Collective Quarterly realized it was its brand and partners with other brands in each issue to develop its content. Vice realized it was its expertise and started a creative agency to help clients target millennials.
For Makeshift, it was our contributor network. We have 400 professional journalists, videographers, and researchers across more than 80 countries. This was not always true. For our first few issues, nearly all content was assigned based on ideas from the editorial team; now, nearly all content is assigned through inbound pitches. As a result, we recently launched Makeshift Studios, an agency that produces content for clients in collaboration with the contributors and creatives we’ve worked with and vetted over the years. As a bonus, we distribute some of this content through our quarterly magazine and YouTube channel — a symbiotic relationship between our B2B and B2C models. There are many creative revenue strategies you can experiment with. Makeshift, along with other titles like Offscreen, generates significant revenue from sponsorships. Monocle also sells products through brick-and-mortar retail. Hello Mr. forms brand partnerships on Instagram. The Bold Italic runs live events. In each of these cases, the magazine has become a platform on which to build other businesses. You may not have the right model up front, but it will benefit you to form a B2B vision early and keep an open mind to experimentation. For now, there is no single proven model.
Use digital strategically Print magazines often struggle with their digital presence. And for good reason — there is an inherent paradox every publication must face when it decides to go digital. It goes something like this:
Publication needs a digital presence
Publication has lots of content already and decides to digitize it
Publication doesn’t want to cannibalize print sales, so it adds a paywall
The problem here is, from a business perspective, you’ve just completely lost the benefit of digital content, which is to drive traffic to your website and generate sales or ad revenue. Content behind a paywall (or, worse, locked in a PDF or app) is not shareable.
This is what Makeshift has done, and it’s not inherently a bad thing. Our digital subscriptions have sold decently well, and many of our articles are unlocked so they can be shared. But this cannot be the full extent of your digital strategy. Your digital presence must reflect the way of the internet, which is to share. That’s why, in addition to our quarterly content, Makeshift maintains a blog, YouTube channel, email newsletter, and multiple social media accounts. The goal of all of these channels is to keep readers engaged between issues, enable them to share your content, and ultimately drive them to your website and into your sales funnel.
This, of course, assumes, your website is optimized for e-commerce, though you may also be generating digital advertising revenue. Makeshift has taken great care to optimize our sales funnel, regularly checking analytics to see where potential customers are dropping off.
While you may need to invest in multiple social channels, double down on a particular channel that you think works best to your advantage. Each has intricacies to growing followers, and it’s unlikely you’ll have the resources to adequately invest time across all of them. Facebook has been most successful for Makeshift because we can easily promote posts and link back to our website. Meanwhile, Hello Mr. has invested most heavily in Instagram, where its account currently has 12 times more followers than its Twitter account. That’s where its readers are, and its brand is very visual.
Go for it! Running a magazine can be an incredibly rewarding experience. I’m proud of our team, wowed by our products, inspired by our contributors, and in love with our readers. I started Makeshift because I believe magazines are the best way to capture a perspective on the world, and Makeshift has achieved that for the thousands of makers whose stories we’ve told.
While this piece outlines many challenges of running a print magazine, I have no intention of scaring you. I simply wish to equip you better than I was when I began my journey. But what I lacked in expertise I made up for in fearlessness. Take up the challenge and start making.
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