How do indie-publications successfully break into the magazine publishing industry?

By Christie Stack

Let’s quickly cover the basics. Most magazines today are narrowcast, so determining an audience and tailoring your content toward them is key. Some, like the New Yorker, the Atlantic and People, are targeted toward a broader audience. However, these publications must still anticipate their readership’s interests and demographics. In addition to content production, you’ll need to decide if your magazine is going to be available in print, online, or both. Do you want a lavish, high-quality print magazine, a glossy weekly, or something that exists solely as an online flip-book? The basic creative idea of what you want to produce and who you want to target is the easy part. Designing, printing, and distributing your publication all while growing an audience and grossing revenue is an overwhelmingly difficult task. However, it’s not impossible.

Ian Frisch, Champlain College alum and founder of the fashion magazine Relapse, was able to build his publication from the ground up while living and working part-time in New York City. Relapse is a small, independent publication available in print in NYC and online as a flip-book on ISSUU.com. Through subscriptions and newsstand sales, Frisch was able to make Relapse an economically viable venture. He prints six issues per year, limiting production to around two hundred copies of each issue, and sees approximately 90% of all newsstands copies sold with each release. It’s a small operation, but Frisch has managed to make it self-sustaining. I wanted to know how he approached this endeavor.

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How did you decide on your demographic, and are there any specific efforts you made to target them? How important are niche audiences and location to Relapse and other indie magazines?

Frisch: When I first came to New York, I was a little out of my element. I had lived in New England my entire life, so the way of life for creative twenty-somethings here was somewhat of an adjustment. But I always kept an observant eye on what people within my demographic were doing. Turns out, they were always on the cusp of the new and exciting thing, and I used that knowledge to narrow down my demographic in terms of Relapse. I am essentially putting out issues of this magazine that I myself would buy off the newsstand. Understanding and focusing on a niche demographic has been key in the success of my publication and should be at the forefront of anyone trying to sell a product or become culturally relevant, especially in the magazine industry. People are much more passionate the deeper you dig.

Relapse is a high-quality print publication. Could you provide some info on the paper, the size, the layout that contribute to Relapse’s polished look?

Frisch: Paper stock choice was a big decision for me when I started this magazine. I’ve always wanted the print to be the foundation of the brand and to also act as a novelty item–a coffee table book of sorts. I use 100weight, matte cover stock and an 80weight, uncoated paper for the inside. This is the complete opposite of glossy magazine, which usually use lightweight, glossed paper. The size, too, is a big part. The print is 9.5″ x 12″, an oversized publication, which adds to its aesthetic. In terms of graphic design, my Art Director Max Louis Miller wanted a very simple, clean and classic approach. We only use three fonts in the entire magazine for text and article titles. Simplicity is key.

Do you have advice, some do’s and don’t’s, for publishing print and digitally? Do you approach these methods differently?

Frisch: I would say the overall approach is the same: Stick to a high-quality product. People will adhere to it if they know what they are dedicating their time and money to is something they can trust and take something away from. If you put out a sub-part product, people won’t become loyal to it.

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So this is all well and good. Frisch has done an extraordinary job of establishing brand identity and visibility within the fashion industry. He’s built a small and loyal audience and continues to see increased readership.

But let’s revisit the question. How do indie-publications successfully break into the magazine publishing industry. To answer this question we must define “success.” Say you’ve taken the proper steps and have physical copies of your magazine printed ready for distribution or an online flip-book about to launch. So what?

For some, satisfying a small constituency and creating a publication they are passionate about is enough. But the goal of any business is to make money, isn’t it? For some, like Ian Frisch, it’s not all about the money. He’s more interested in maintaining standards and his vision of the magazine than sacrificing them in hopes of turning a profit.

The good news is that high quality, lavish publications are possible to produce on a limited budget. However, without a generous sugar-daddy or investors, your product will most likely be a labor of love. But you have a few options here. If this is a long term goal, start saving and searching for possible benefactors now. Advertising is another route to generating revenue, and it’s something Relapse utilizes sparingly, because pages filled with advertising distract from Frisch’s vision of a clean, content driven publication. A good subscription base and higher retail value can supplement advertising revenue to some degree. These decisions should be determined before you begin and adhered to consistently, regardless the route you take.

How much you want to make really is going to affect they way your magazine looks, which in turn impacts your brand image, and then ultimately, the readers who pick up your publication. You’ll also need to understand the current state of the magazine industry as a whole, not just the size of you’re readership and their wallets, in order to make a profit.

To get a better understanding I spoke with Jay Heinrichs. Heinrichs has dedicated 30 plus years to publishing, as a writer, editor, and executive, and has written for several dozen publications, from The New York Times Magazine to Reader’s Digest. He was a the deputy editor of Outside magazine and the editorial director at Rodale Inc., where he oversaw five outdoor magazines with a total circulation of 2.5 million. Heinrichs offered a general overview of the current state of the magazine publishing.

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Does having an extremely niche magazine make it easier to grow an audience?

Heinrichs: The magazines that seem to be doing the best these days are vertical magazines, as they say in marketing terms. But, with that being said, they are wide verticals. A great example of that is Runners World, a magazine I worked on at Rodale. They have the wherewithal to develop a really robust web presence, and that allows them to create both the online and paper strategies that really are necessary. You need to gather the audience, and to this day newsstand magazine publishing is really the best way to gather an audience. Then to monetize that audience you have to be able to tap into the online budget of advertising agencies and corporate clients. Runners World does this very effectively with a well-to-do, high demographic audience and it does that because it’s part of a sizable company and at the same time it develops a passionate audience around a particular subject.

If you can launch a venture by yourself or just a couple of people and you keep your burn rate extremely low you can make money doing almost anything. But honestly, to give you a really horribly blunt answer, you’d make a lot more money mowing lawns. The problem comes down to [the fact] most people start magazines as a labor of love, whether it’s online or print. Doing anything out a labor of love is a really great way to destroy what you love. When you turn your passion into profession it can really cause all kinds of heartbreaks for yourself. If you really did the kind of job you need to do in order to do a great climbing magazine, you’d pretty much have to give up climbing. It’s a 24/7 thing. A former intern of mine was an editor of Climbing magazine for years and he ended up quitting and becoming a photographer just so he could climb again.

Anything online is going to be niche, by definition. Time magazine is a niche publication online, because people come for very specific parts of Time.com. There are people who go to Time only to read about wedding trends, literally. So they’re not going to go necessarily pick up their news from Time.com, they’re probably going to get that on the electronic version on their iPad through their subscription. If it’s an e-magazine, it’s all niche, and circulation is going to be extremely small.

How do you feel about publications that produce a flip-book, twin magazine online?

Heinrichs: They don’t work. They can help a very tiny trickle revenue stream with online budgets. The problem is with the monetization of the magazine. What a magazine is very good at doing is gathering a group of people who want to read the magazine.

Once you gather them, to monetize the audience and make any kind of money from them, if you’re interested in making any money at all, the way to do that is to do subscriptions or advertising, or both.

Or by selling the content through various ways, piece by piece, which generally hasn’t worked very well. With subscriptions online, people are used to getting stuff free online, so it’s really hard to get people to pay. The Wall Street Journal has done so really successfully, the New York Times has been successful, the Washington Post is starting to be, local newspapers have failed miserably at it, so with general publications subscriptions work but only in the news category, and pornography category.

On the other hand, the other way to do it is to sell advertising. The problem is that newsstand, paper magazine, which have generally been produced from 60% to 70% of their revenue from advertising, that advertising had been drying up because marketing budgets have been moving away from print into online where they can track audiences. That has actually been swinging back a little bit toward paper right now, because marketers are realizing that all these wonderful metrics that they depended so much on not only aren’t very reliable, but the measure of engagement or passion of a particular reader or user is really hard to do. Things like Facebook likes don’t work very well.

The problem is selling advertising for a niche publication is extremely difficult, unless you’re selling what’s called endemic advertising, so in terms of climbing, you might be able to get [the outdoor gear company] Five Ten to buy something or to sponsor something, and their also might be people who like your cause and want to donate, but no matter how you do it, it’s going to be a real struggle because you’ve got to gather an audience and then you’re going to have real trouble to get the audience to pay for anything.

One possibility is to pull together your information after you’ve gathered an audience and then sell them a book. And the best way to sell a book and make any kind of money at all is to sell a book that is actually printed and mailed to them. You can do an ebook but you’re not going to make any money from them. Once you gather an audience that’s the final way you can monetize them doing a niche publication. And to do that, to make any kind of significant money, your audience, your subscriptions, your base of readership should be at least 10,000 to 20,000 in a niche publication.

High production values will benefit your advertisers. Advertising this year is actually moving toward print. Print is never going to be what it used to be, but certain print magazines will survive.

Another big factor is that the most interesting innovations in technology have to do with the manufacture of paper and the printing on it. What’s really interesting is the basic technology of the smartphone has pretty much been around for 20 years, and then the iPhone came out fairly recently and that’s really cool. On the other hand, within the past five to ten years, the ability to take the pulp from paper and rags and turn it into really good paper – the technology – has really advanced hugely. It’s actually cheaper to produce nice paper that you can’t see through than it’s ever been. Shipping that sort of thing and distributing it has not gotten that much more expensive than it was, and one reason for that is because fuel costs now are below the rate of inflation. 
The printing has gotten awesome, and the binding, you can bind all kinds of stuff in magazines that were unimaginable just eight years ago. That means you can produce really cool looking magazines.

Magazines that don’t depend on advertising do quite well on a subscription basis, when they hardly have an illustrations at all. I’m thinking about Cook’s Illustrated, which really isn’t that illustrated. That has hardly any design what-so-ever, it really is more like a book, and there are people buying it strictly for the content. They’re biggest revenue stream, other than subscriptions, is books, which are illustrated. And they gather a vast audience and do a really high quality job.

Do you think it’s essential that if you’re going to do print that you should also do online, or vice versa?

Heinrichs: If you can get enough people to pay for your magazine without it containing any advertising, then there is absolutely no reason to go online. Unless you can’t afford to print a magazine, it’s much cheaper to do a magazine online obviously.

If you have invested money and people are willing to pay for the magazine, just as Cook’s Illustrated did it, you can start out with a newsletter that is very cheaply printed. If you can find one store to sell it or distribute it by hand for that matter, you could probably make a better living than you could online. I mean, I sound really old school saying that, but my consultant work is with companies that are trying to figure out how to monetize content, and one of the things I say to them is: don’t give up on print, there are all kinds of ways to make money that way.

On the other hand, if you’re depending on advertising revenue, the problem is that marketing budgets use spreadsheets to dole out their advertising dollars. Less and less of that is under the line for print, and some campaigns are giving up on print all together.  I think they’re making a mistake, and some of them are realizing their making a mistake.

It all comes down to where the money’s going to come from, and if you’ve got a sugar daddy who wants a lavish magazine then there is absolutely no reason for you to go online. And generally people, to this day, if you look at any kind of marketing focus group, people want their magazine to be in paper, they don’t want to read their magazines online.

I was reading a recent report by Adweek that claims magazine readership is on the rise, even in print which saw a 3% increase in readership last year. Have you seen this trend of increased readership?

Heinrichs: Yes, I have. That trend is not recent. That trend’s been continuous. Magazine readership has not gone down, ever. It’s only increased. This is nothing new, the 3% increase has been pretty steady year, after year, after year.

The problem is not the number of readers, the problem is advertising. There are so many places for marketers to advertise now, and a lot of people are embarrassed to spend their dollars on paper magazines, regardless if it’s actually going to make them a profit. Sometimes it makes sense to advertise in a paper magazine, sometimes it doesn’t.

In the past, there weren’t as many channels to run your advertisements and magazines used to be a great option. That’s just no longer true. The main reason for that is people want to be able to measure the results instantly. With magazines you can’t. You have ways of measuring audience and ways of measuring reader engagement, but generally the data only come in once a year. You now have marketers with dashboards on their computers measuring literally minute by minute how many people are engaging with their content online, and magazines can’t compete with that.

As far as people wanting to read magazines, yeah, it’s never been richer and there have never been more readers.

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There is good news. Whether you want to dedicate yourself to a small publication or have big dreams of one day running a highly circulated magazine, know that magazines are not a dying business.

My overall advice is to have a detailed and calculated plan. Know exactly what you want to produce, have it outlined beforehand so you can approach investors and sponsors. Decide if you want your publication to exist in print, online, or both, and then anticipate how this will affect potential advertisers. Draw up a concrete document outlining your mission, vision, budget, and your constituency, as well as similar organizations and potential advertisers. This will keep you focused throughout your start-up efforts, and it’s something you can present to potential investors, too.

There are many avenues to take so be creative, but also practical. Whatever you decide to do will take dedication, vision, and a commitment to your brand and audience.

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