The Revival Of Print – Why Independent Magazines Are Thriving

Print is dead, apparently, but the world of independent magazine publishing is growing by the day and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The demand for beautifully crafted print magazines has defied the countless bleak warnings of print being on its way out.

Jeremy Leslie knows all about indie magazines. He launched magCulture as a website in 2006, then a design studio in 2010. As of December 2015, it exists in the form of a 400 square feet brick and mortar shop. The magCulture journal is an invaluable resource for everyone interested in editorial design and well-respected in the publishing industry.

The idea for the physical retail space, Jeremy says, came about at the beginning of 2015. “I wanted to see a shop give the same amount of care and attention to the presentation of the magazines as the people making the magazines.”

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Piles of magazines on a table inside Jeremy’s shop

When I ask Jeremy to describe what an independent magazine actually is, I expect a definitive, almost immediate response. Instead, he pauses before admitting it’s hard to define.

“The best description I’ve heard of it – I think it was Steve Watson from Stack who came up with this – is that the financial decisions are made by the person who also makes the creative decisions.”

Steve Watson founded Stack, an independent magazine subscription service, in 2008. Every month, Stack sends a different magazine to 3,400 subscribers around the world. Subscribers don’t know what they’re getting next, so Steve keeps a range of magazines to ensure there’s something for everyone to enjoy. For him, it’s important that each magazine he chooses has something to say for themselves. “A lot of magazines look lovely but don’t have a lot there when you start reading. I’m sending these magazines to thousands of people around the world who I don’t know so I have to feel like people will be able to get something from them.”

Indie magazines might not be easy to define but many of them have certain qualities. The thing that arguably distinguishes indies from mainstream magazines is their higher production values. Thicker, matte paper and images and graphic design of an exceptional quality are commonplace. Indies feel more luxurious and this is reflected in their cover prices. £10 to £15 per issue is a common figure, although some titles can range from £5 to more than £20.

Independently published magazines often operate with limited budgets, so it’s common for contributors to receive little or no financial rewards.

Jeremy swiftly scans the shop before nodding towards a large, thick book-like publication behind me to illustrate his point. “Something like MacGuffin is made in Amsterdam twice a year by a couple of people who both have full-time jobs. That’s just something they love doing. They’d love to be able to make a living out of that magazine but realistically they’re not going to make a living from it, not for some time.” On the other hand, two of his favourite titles, The Gentlewoman and Apartamento, have grown into successful businesses. The success of an independent magazine isn’t automatically linked to advertising revenue or high circulation figures.

So why have larger, mainstream magazines struggled to survive while independent magazines are thriving? “The big publishing conglomerates have huge overheads and offices and expectations.” Jeremy says they are stuck in a rut of relying on ad sales and cover sales. “Some of the magazines that are closing are selling around 80,000 to 100,000 copies but that’s not enough to finance the business set-up that surrounds them.” The fast turn-around of mainstream magazines puts more pressure on publishers to keep their business going.

Independent titles allow more time for completion because many of them are published bi-monthly, quarterly or bi-annually. “They have a longer shelf life so it’s a slower, gentler process,” Jeremy adds. “I also think the mainstream publishers have cut a lot of corners. They’ve reduced the quality of their paper, they’ve done all the wrong things to try and make their businesses work. They’ve cut the number of people working [on the magazines], meanwhile they’ve still got big fancy offices etc.”

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Some of magCulture’s most popular titles (around March 2016 at the time of writing)

As celebrated as they are, indies aren’t exempt from criticism. Jeremy stresses that something that is independently isn’t instantly brilliant.

“If you’re going to put the effort and money into making your own magazine, then I think it needs to be your own magazine… there are examples in various genres of magazines where you can sense that they’ve looked at certain magazines. I worry that there’s a certain look appearing across a lot of these magazines that’s quite common and the point is not to be common.”

The look Jeremy is referring to is a minimalistic design that’s abundant in white space. “It tends to be matte paper, all the typography is black and white, clean and simple, maybe there’s a section of photography in the middle which is glossy.”

Nowadays, we are glued to our smartphones and spending more time online than ever before. The tactile quality of print magazines offers something different. Indies don’t like to be treated as throwaway objects.

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The main shelf inside the magCulture shop

A new crowd-funded digital start-up wants to bring the best independent titles to our smartphones. For £5.99 a month, Readbug users can access and read a select range of independent, cult and classic magazines. Could an app like this take away from the experience of enjoying a print magazine?

Readbug CEO and co-founder Matthew Hammett acknowledges that opening an app and opening a magazine are two different things. He maintains that Readbug has captured a similar experience to the real thing. “We’ve tried to include as much of the character of each magazine as possible. We include hi-res images, original fonts, and each one gets approval from the editorial team.” He also notes that Readbug helps titles to reach more people as a lot of indies can’t afford huge print runs. The app has a great user interface. The magazines have been replicated in a truly mobile-friendly way.

At the time of writing, Readbug has over 4,600 registered users. More than 50 titles are available on the app including PUSS PUSS, Schön!, Huck, Bonafide and Boneshaker.

The future of indie magazine publishing appears to be strong and healthy. Crowd-funding will likely remain an attractive option for new, smaller publishers. As Jeremy notes, there will inevitably be failures along the way as the indie publishing scene continues to grow. This makes it important for publishers to think about longevity when they start making magazines. “The first thing people often get wrong is they put all the effort into the first one and then think, ‘Ah shit, I’ve got to do another one! And I’ve got to do another one after that,'” says Jeremy. For new indies, the initial hurdle is publishing four issues. Getting past Issue no. 4 indicates that a magazine is doing something well and the publishers can worry a little less after that point.

Steve’s advice for those who are thinking of publishing a magazine is simple: nail your central idea!

“Nobody out there in the world right now is thinking ‘I wish I had something else to read.’ You must have a strong and clear idea of what your magazine is, why it needs to exist and who it’s going to reach because, without that, you just get lost.”

Digital media’s growth and influence can’t be denied, but online publications can’t offer what print magazines can. It’s a wonderful time for independent magazines. They’ve shown that they are able to flourish in difficult times when mainstream magazines have had to fold. Print most definitely isn’t dead and it’s mainly the indies that we should be grateful to for that.

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