Is Publishing Dead?

Someone as recently as a week ago asked me my opinion on starting a magazine. My first thought is, “But it’s 2011?!”. Meaning why would anyone opt for a painstakingly produced brick and mortar mag when you can publish online from the comfort of your grandmothers basement. Then I recalled a piece I wrote on the subject a while back which delved into the topic somewhat. Feel free to edify yourself all over this page!

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Maybe Young Nasir was ahead of his time..

Recently someone asked me “What do I know/think about starting a magazine” and I responded in kind with a well thought out reply spilling forth my modest experience in the publishing arena. I figured I should write a post about this so if you’d like a semi insiders look into publishing, here we go.

First to qualify why I know shit from shine-ola regarding the publishing field, I spent years writing for and eventually co-managing an independent magazine based out of Brooklyn NY. I also freelanced for some of the bigger urban publications, (Source, XXL,Vibe) on medium pieces to small blurbs, and the two things I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt is WRITING is simultaneously the most necessary and most overlooked skill someone can have. In case you want a point of reference… remember that writers strike that shut down half of television. Yea.. that’s kinda what I’m hinting at. And two, putting out a magazine is a labor of blood, sweat and tears.

First I will go over the rudimentary steps needed to start your magazine if you’re so inclined.

The first thing you need to know is your target audience. That in itself sounds simple enough, but lets break it down further. A Mag like Playboy is obviously catering towards men. However so does a magazine like Details, which approaches their demographic differently. The beauty of a magazine, as far as advertisers were once concerned, is the ability to hit a highly specialized demographic with a sense of accuracy. Think.. is it a magazine aimed at men in relation to Music, Fashion, Health? There is almost no limit to how specialized you can get. To prove a point there used to be a magazine that came out bi-monthly dedicated to those who like to hunt turkeys.

After you got the topic down, now it is time to assemble a team. At the bare minimum you’d need a capable writer. You can get stock photos or steal high resolution shit off the internet, you can even lay the text and photos out in a simple word document. Want to keep it as low budget as possible, you can even print the shit out on a photo copier at the job after the boss leaves for the day (ex. F.E.D.S. magazine) , but if it isn’t worth reading, it isn’t fit to print.

Not to say that some stuff has gotten past a not so critical eye when it comes to publishing, but I’m speaking in general terms. I’ll go more in depth on the degradation of the art later on.

Now assuming you wish to start a mag, you probably fancy your pen game or camera skills somewhat and think “shit I can do this” and maybe you can, but you’ll need to assemble more than an army of one if you want to make a serious go.

Writers, Editors, Photographers, Art Director, Lay out person, Admin, Distribution, PR, and Editor in Chief.

In my particular experience getting people to jump on board was easy, getting them to stay was hard. On the indy level its more about getting a photo or writers credit rather than a pay check or even pay per word scenario. At most we had 12 staff and at the least we had 2. So all those positions I listed were either helped by me or done by me at some point.

Now lets assume that staff isn’t an issue, Printing a magazine is a very expensive thing to accomplish if you aren’t backed by an investor or good enough with the money that you don’t mind spending thousands upon thousands to see your idea possibly take off one day.

Once the articles, interviews and opinion pieces are written and laid out with either stock or original photography, it’s off to the printing press. Printing stateside is more expensive than printing overseas in countries such as Japan, China etc. Yet both have their pro’s and cons. If you print in Brooklyn and you’re based in Brooklyn, if there is a problem with the color scheme you choose for your cover, you can head down to the office and sit there till something you can mess with is produced. (I’ve done that on numerous occasions, sometimes to the tune of 12 hours and the end result was still not to our specific liking) or you can go overseas and save money, the quality in Japan for instance, based on my experience is much better than anything I’ve ever found stateside. The drawback to that was waiting 3 weeks for a ship to arrive with your magazines. Is the content still relevant? Was it worth the savings in money to lose time?

Not to mention a 10,000 copy run will cost you about 18 grand, depending on the stock or thickness of paper, whether its perfect bound (the mags we’re used to seeing) or saddle stitched (the mags that are bound with staples), depending on the page count etc.

Lets assume staff and money to print and have shit sent air mail is not an issue, so now what? You have 10,000 copies (and 10,000 is a small number compared to what the major publications do, but this is for the purpose of someone who is ideally just starting out) No what?

Once you have 10k copies of your sure shot can’t miss (insert rapper/actor/celebrity here) cover, what do you do with them? You need distribution. It’s always wise to start locally. If you insist on broadening your reach from jump try to at least stay regionally. The thing is to understand your market, but you also want to have a decent return in news stand sales. The average magazine will sell 20% of the copies at news stands on a good run. The rest get returned to the publisher. Now if your a new or relatively small magazine the distributor will not give you any money up front. Rather you supply the product for, lets say 4 dollars an issue. Lets assume your run was less than stellar @ 10% so you sell 1000 copies, the gross profit is 4k they take 2 off of the top, so that leaves you with… yup 2k.

While it is important to be visible on newsstands to build buzz, that isn’t where you make your money. That comes from subscriptions, but more from Advertisers.

When I was running around with the day to day business ish, advertisers were paying 10 cents per 100 readers for ads, or at least that is how the formula broke down. So a magazine like Sports Illustrated who at the time had 3 million readers… would get 300k per page ad. You can see a more specific breakdown on their rate card. (I used S.I. as an example based on 1 how well known it is and 2 the ease of mining the data since urban mags guard that shit like govt secrets)

*Image taken from Sports Illustrated’s 2006-2007 Rate Card*
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Of course S.I. charges different prices for a black and white ad or a 4 color press ad and they give you different breaks if you get a 2 page spread or ad etc. However working in the examples so far given your magazine only has 10,000 copies per issue, but only 1000 readers resulting in any ad sales to be 100 per page and that is if you can find someone who wants to advertise with you. On your end you should want someone who has an ad that wont compromise the look you have for your magazine. However this stigma works both ways. Big time advertisers wont even place free ads in most cases, in a magazine if they feel it doesn’t fit their standard of excellence.

Ok so all things considered peachy keen.. you got your mags printed real nice and shit, the distributor got you for less than half of the cost, and your selling 20% of an expanded 50k press. Even considering that..

I think it makes a shit load more sense to go online. for MANY reasons

1) overhead.. you can realistically run a website solo and make it look presentable for MUCH LESS than a monthly or even Bi-monthly magazine.

2) web traffic > news stands.. sure it is great to be visible on news stands and it feels more authentic, but the reality is unless your distribution is Hudson (one of the larger distributors) or someone of that caliber, chances are you’ll be seen in midtown, but not uptown, in Brooklyn, but not Queens. The sheer ease of getting the word out about a website, though tedious, if the content is on point is considerably easier and the range for obvious reasons is exponentially better.

3) probably the biggest advantage is the highly specialized data regarding readers. Advertisers love that shit considering they spend a lot of money annually to do market research on their demographic depending upon the product. With a website that data is a click away depending upon what data traffic monitors you have in place.

Now don’t get me wrong the web has its drawbacks. I mean there is Sooo much shit on the net who can keep track of whats legitimately good and whats bullshit. (the ratio on that is 99:1) But it wasn’t so much the web killing publishing as publishing killing itself.

Eventually there comes a time when technology equalizes the playing field and people with less talent than money can create product and flood a market with weak shit. We see it happen all the time in music. There was a vast influx of independent magazines that simply lacked the look and feel of a polished publication. Before blogging became popular, cheap indy magazines were the place where poor resolution photos would pop up coupled with shitty writing and no aim or vision to the mag itself. The writing took a sharp decline, the photography wasn’t original or creative and the content was saturating an already saturated market. Publishing was a victim of itself as far as urban publications go (that is the field I’m most versed in, I never tried to crack into the Turkey Hunters market).

In the end the media reflected the mind state of the music, hustlers stopped rapping and started “writing”. The shit with publishing though, as with anything, you need to be consistent. Eventually all these pretenders to the throne fell off, by this time though, when new publications of note became available, the net seized the opportunity to take a foot hold. I mean even the big boys get it wrong sometimes as we have seen a bevy of magazines close their doors and opt for a web presence.

So in the end, I feel the internet killed publishing.. Like it will kill TV. Of course this is a very basic breakdown on the mag business with ideal scenarios being in place. You get to mingle with celebs, go to fancy parties and go home extra quiet so as not to wake the landlord because you used the rent money to get the issue out on time, while you feast on ramen noodles.. not even cooked because you didn’t pay the gas bill. I’m just saying with the good comes the bad.

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