Inside the indie print revolution: How to make your own magazine

Inside the indie print revolution: How to make your own magazine

In partnership withVans
With some of the world’s most prominent publishers facing difficulty and announcing layoffs, you’d be forgiven for thinking the publishing industry was on its last legs. In fact, the modern landscape is full of possibility.

When Chris Hayes launched Emotional Art Magazine in a central London gallery on January 24, he was only expecting around 40 people to come. It was the first issue of the print mag, and he didn’t even have a card reader. To his surprise, more than 100 showed up.

"When I started the project I thought it was going to be something small and niche,” says the art critic and editor. His magazine is glossy, theme-led and bold, with issue one documenting the history of hate for the UK Conservative Party (features span a critique of Tory body language, a feature on NHS cuts, and pieces on austerity and council housing). Despite Hayes’ low expectations, the magazine was making a buzz before it launched, and has since nearly sold out, with buyers as far as the United States and the Netherlands. “People have responded to it in a big way."

You’d be forgiven if you thought the publishing industry was on its last legs. With the sharp decline in newspapers and old-school magazines, the “pivot” to video that cost hundreds of jobs, layoff after layoff, and some of the UK’s most prominent news titles entering administration, things don’t look good on or offline.
Meanwhile, literary publishing is increasingly costly, and book subscription services are changing the face of the industry altogether.

But this is not the end. In fact, for independent print publishers, it’s quite the opposite. There are new ways to stand out and be sold; and by embracing the demands of the modern age, a newsstand-full of print publications is thriving.

Make sure you stand out

When magazines are increasingly innovative and diverse, standing out is vital. “We don’t want to compromise on paper quality,” says Charlotte Ruth, editor of Ash magazine, a women’s mag borne out of a dissatisfaction with the mainstream media. Its mission is to challenge the narratives often found in traditional women’s mags, instead offering antidotes to the issues they raise, such as body image and beauty, in a down-to-earth, relatable tone. “People pick it up and say, ‘Oh, I’m really pleasantly surprised,’ which is almost an insult. But it looks nice, feels nice, and people feel guilty putting it in the bin.”

Depth also matters, both literally and figuratively, says editor of independent print mag Weapons of Reason, James Cartwright. Each edition drills into a complex global challenge, such as food consumption, artificial intelligence and the ins and outs of climate change’s impact on the Arctic. Through heavily reported features, striking graphic design (there are no photos in Weapons of Reason) and bold takes on the biggest subjects affecting the world, the magazine is a rich tapestry of intelligent journalism. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other titles.”

For Emotional Art Magazine’s Hayes, producing a professional but thoughtful work environment was key for an indie magazine in an industry infamous for exploiting the new and inexperienced. “Both the big publications and the small ones are really lacking in thinking about sustainability, but I have no right to anyone’s time or attention,” says Hayes, whose core pledge is to make every page count and to treat collaborators fairly. Emotional Art Magazine’s first issue is “revenue neutral”, with proceeds being split evenly between its 11 freelance writers and designer. For the second issue, writers will get upfront fees. “One of the big things I’ve done is not try to do more with less, [but] do very little, and do it very well.”

Watch your finances

Money is a sticky subject wherever you go, but it can be especially icky in small businesses. In DIY publishing, making enough money to make more books counts as a success.

Silver Press, a small-scale feminist publisher founded in 2017, is self-funded by its three co-founders – Joanna Biggs, Alice Spawls and Sarah Shin – who each invested £600 to kick it off. Embracing both timeless feminist traditions and texts by and about extraordinary women, Silver Press has resonated with a lot of readers. “Our publishing responds authentically to the psychic temperature of our times,” says Shin, “because we’re not primarily interested in profit, which, happily, translates well into sales.”

Poet and “high priest” of Morbid Books, Lewis Parker, raises funds for the surrealist literature project through a Patreon crowdfunding page, and by selling limited edition poetry, fiction, and literary magazine A Void. “I generally make enough money from book sales to keep the operation ticking over,” says Parker. He wouldn’t turn to outside sponsors, though. In order to be truly “independent”, says Parker, publishers should “never, ever, apply for government funding.”

Others disagree. Bloodaxe Books, the Northumberland-based indie publisher of “poetry with an edge”, founded in Newcastle in 1978, stays afloat through a yearly grant from the Arts Council England, as well as by keeping base outside of London to keep down costs.

Meanwhile, in the magazine world, Weapons of Reason relies on subscriptions, sales and its design agency owner to get by. But, Cartwright says, the magazine’s content isn’t impacted. “We completely decide the editorial direction. We don’t have advertisers and we don’t take instruction, so we’re 100% independent in that sense.”

In the hope of being able to pay contributors more, Ash’s Ruth is seeking advertisers for the second issue. She reckons there’s a way to do that without compromising the publication’s integrity. “We’re going to be very careful with who we approach, and I’ve put a lot of thought into who our advertisers will be,” she says. A survey revealed what readers are genuinely interested in. “It’s better for brands to be in touch with our audience and it’s better for our audience to see things they want to see.”

“As long as we are mindful of what adverts are placed in the mag, then we think it’s okay to have advertising,” says Ruth. “That’s our approach, anyway.”

Embrace the digital world

The introduction of digitisation – through ebooks, the audio market and the Kindle – has also placed a question mark next to the print industry. But instead of collapsing under the pressure, print mags and publishers have now begun to utilise the digital realm.

“Everybody was worried about ebooks, and thought they would have a detrimental impact on print,” says Bridget Shine, chief executive of the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG), a non-profit supporting independent literary publishers. “But actually it hasn’t, it’s been complementary.” Studies show e-readers have boosted the publishing industry as part of a digital transformation which has seen books be sold online and in digital formats, while ebooks help children to learn to read, encouraging them to pick up physical books.

The digital age means publishers must be present not just on paper. Ash is hosting a “supper club” ahead of its second issue, while offbeat London publisher of magazines, journals and books, Ditto London, keeps up intrigue between publications through a carefully-curated Instagram feed.

Likewise, Morbid Books photographs its new releases with readers and shares them on social media to build hype. And the hype is real; old issues of A Void are on Amazon for hundreds of pounds, becoming collector’s items of sorts perhaps due to Parker’s ties to members of south London band Fat White Family.

Old-time publishers are also weathering the digital storm by moving with the times. “Nowadays it’s very important to do as much work on social media as possible,” says Neil Astley, founder and editor of Bloodaxe Books. In its fourth decade, Bloodaxe is more than coping: the publishing house launched its own app, hosts regular live readings and publishes anthologies by young poets with modern themes to attract younger audiences. “We try to show readers that don’t read poetry that there’s a lot of poetry they would connect with if they gave it a chance.”

Believe in your message, and trust your gut

Staying alive doesn’t have to mean keeping afloat, or getting by with enough to pay writers and buy beers for the launch party. While they may be lacking in freedom financially, independent publishers have a liberty not all corporate publishers do: they can publish material because they believe in it.

For example, while many corporate publishers steer clear of poetry, Bloodaxe publishes an eclectic range of poetry and prose. “We try to open up the audience for wider, world poetry, because we can. That’s part of what we want to do,” says Astley. Because of this, he has an impressively-diverse roster of international poets, publishing more female and non-white poets than most. “I wanted to give a platform to new writers and writers who had been marginalised, to reach the readership which I thought was out there.”

It was – Bloodaxe books have won heaps of high-profile poetry awards, from the T.S. Eliot Prize and Pulitzer to the Nobel Prize.

“Print has proved incredibly resistant and it comes down to publishers’ strategies,” adds Shine. “Independent publishers tend to understand their readers better and build up their communities.”

A 2016 IPG report found the independent publishing sector to be “thriving”. “That trend really has continued,” says Shine. This is evident in the rise of book sales (in 2018, the UK’s print book market grew 2.1% in value and 0.3% in volume), the openings of small-scale publishers and magazine launches filling venues. Another sign is that the IPG now has more members than ever.

But in between the game plans, unique creations and loyal audiences, perhaps the success of the indie print scene today can be put down to something very simple – a human instinct.

As every corner of our lives become more digitised, readers are finding it increasingly important to be able to touch, feel and hold physical artefacts in their hands. The allure of having a physical, solid, analogue copy of a book or magazine will forever be an experience a screen can’t offer. Research has found we even retain information better when reading from a physical book as opposed to a screen. Print publishing fills the digitally-induced void and confirms our love of reading not for speed and efficiency, but for beautiful spreads and big ideas.

“People are crying out for a way to read content in a slow format,” says Ash’s Ruth. “To put the phone down, make a cup of tea and sit down to take your time over reading something… it is a real treat and people are crying out for good titles to do that with.”

The question on a lot of lips for the past decade has been, “why print?” But perhaps the question now should really be, “why not?”

Read more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.

This story was originally published in 2019.

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