Life on the edge for the independents

WHILE the quick demise of So London magazine last week after three issues was particularly surprising, magazine closures are about as frequent as celebrity weddings in OK! At particular risk of the axe on a regular basis are independent magazines, without big budgets and sister titles to hide behind. Which is why the speculation last week that the US books chain Borders was considering pulling out of the UK market has caused alarm.

Borders, the largest range stockist of magazines in the UK with 2,500 to 3000 titles, has been an enthusiastic stockist of low-circulation, independent titles across its 42 high street stores and associated branches. Last week it announced its intention to focus on relaunching its website and concentrate on revamping its core US books chain. This is a cause of concern for most independent media but especially those high in creativity but low in circulation – selling between a couple of thousand to 15,000 copies a month each.

"It's lifeblood to some publishers and readers," says Chris Houghton, publisher of independent music monthly Plan B, which sells 11,000-12,000 of each issue. "Some art and style magazines — where are they going to go? It would be really worrying if Borders stopped being such a supporter of these magazines. It is by far the most supportive of any of the big retailers out there. I think for a lot of people looking for niche magazines, it has taken the position of WH Smith in people's hearts."

Borders said on 22 March it would explore "strategic alternatives" for its international division, largely the UK and Ireland. This may see the business sold, or franchised, in which case the stores could retain the Borders name – so all may not be lost. It really depends on how new owners view independent titles.

Up until now Borders has had something of a love affair with independent magazines. It has supported magazines like Plan B from their inception, and well before other retailers would risk making room on the newsstand for them. Matt Cherry, category manager for non-book Borders UK & Ireland, says independent magazines are "very important" to the chain. "We see new publishing as exciting and what keeps the magazine industry exciting," he adds.

The ease with which some independent titles get on with Borders is in contrast with other retailers. The biggest, WH Smith, requires a payment to get on the newsstand for a specific period – a significant barrier to entry for a title working on a shoestring budget and waiting months before any advertising or cover price revenue comes back in.

Other obstacles for a title to get on the newsstand are numerous, more so if you are new and going it alone. The publisher goes to the distributor and a contract is created; the distributor then negotiates a deal with the wholesaler – either an independent news wholesaler or the big three of Dawsons, Menzies or WH Smith News. One of these then exclusivelydelivers the products within a certain postcode to the retailer which picks and chooses what it wants to stock from the selection.

Launching a new magazine into this structure can be daunting. At Borders, Cherry says it is inundated with indie titles trying to get on the shelves, and although it is happy to discuss the viability of a magazine, it is constantly referring independent titles to their true starting point: getting a distributor on board. While the smaller titles are "so important" to Borders – marking it out from the competition — Cherry points out that indies need to find "efficient routes to get them to our stores". This is not to say independent publishers are green – far from it, as the most successful ones show – but the sector is marked with pitfalls you might not have thought of when busy designing that highly desirable fashion glossy.

Danny Miller, publisher of film monthly Little White Lies (circulation 15,000) is in no doubt about the biggest issue for his two-year-old title: cash flow.

"We were adamant it would be a beautiful magazine printed on beautiful paper. So getting the money to go to print is always an issue. The magazine covers costs but doesn't make enough to pay people."

Richard Barrett, who edits a free magazine for the homeless called The Pavement, admits that independent publishers, especially really small ones, encounter all sorts of difficulties establishing themselves — finding printers, distribution, simply getting the basics down. "With printing, for instance, a lot of people don't like jumping in at the deep end without knowing all the technical jargon and who's the best printer to go to," he says.

Despite the difficulties, independent magazines continue to make an impact. It was fashion monthly Marmalade that MySpace chose as the first print publication to collaborate with on a reader/website audience-produced issue, and the impeccably arty title won a D&AD design award last year. The Church of London, the company behind Little White Lies, has secured a deal with Curzon to produce its in-house magazine. Plan B went from bi-monthly to monthly last September, securing newsstand space in WH Smith and now boasts a deal with Barnes & Noble/Borders in the US.

In the wider magazines industry, independents are monitored closely for fresh talent and ideas. At the PTC New Journalist of the Year Awards lastNovember, Loaded editor Martin Daubney protested vocally when his favourite nominee didn't win the consumer monthly journalist award. Monisha Rajesh was at that time a sub editor and writer on Little White Lies. One indy publisher was recently approached twice to get involved in creating one of the major's new digital ventures (the offer was, was declined). International economics and politics monthly Diplo closed last year and its founder Charles Baker stepped up to a job on Tyler Brûlé's Monocle.

Asking independents about their relationships with majors elicits an understandably hazy response. Yes, people are poached and some independents are doing their magazines as a way to get themselves noticed by the big boys. But "a vast minority", according to The Pavement's Barrett, are doing it for the sheer love of making magazine magic: "They just enjoy doing it and feel passionate about it."

There's an entire magazine of anecdotes to be told of the trials of independent publishing. Plan B publisher Houghton says he spent the first two years using his mum's loft as an office. The Pavement's Barrett recounts tales of editors reduced to carting around copies of their beloved title in rucksacks or shopping trolleys to try and coax that independent record store or bookshop to stock a few copies. And yet the sector continues to attract those romantically attached to the magazine as a format.

Marc Cameron is one the latest entrants into the market with the launch of Seven, the print version of his online project of the same name. Seven is serious,worthy and wants to bring global issues to a global readership in a really nice font. It has its supporters: not only has Borders taken it up nationwide from issue one, out this month, but he's managed to get blurbs of support from the founders of The Body Shop (Anita Roddick), The Big Issue (John Bird)

and Time Out (Tony Elliot).

Cameron developed the project with a former fellow student Michelle Akande. It won the Business Concept competition run by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise (LCACE)

in 2005. But he says the real inspiration for the magazine came from an internship at a "liberal New York" magazine he previously admired but which was, as an experience, a complete let-down. "I think it's a pretty soulless industry; no-one's dealing with anything. We are all pretty focused on what celebrities are up to these days," says Cameron, who declines to name and shame the magazine but says it didn't give him the inspiring experience he had hoped for in publishing.

So he has done it himself — which, coupled with a dislike of what's already on the newsstand, seems the core reason people go it alone in the sector.

Plan B has at its helm former NME and Melody Maker staffer Everett True, but says his time at IPC Towers had taken its toll. "The reason I think they [True and fellow IPC veteran, Plan B ads manager Nick Taylor] wanted to be independent is what happens at the big magazines. You end up having internal meetings all day and not getting to do anything else when you get to a certain level."

Independent publishing, especially when the staff consists of you and your two mates, can be an isolating experience. Initiatives between independents are fraught with the same difficulties that prevent Emap getting into bed with IPC. As publishers confirm, there's a lot of magazines afraid of others stealing their ideas.

Just as the big companies refuse to go into specifics, independents are equally wary of naming names. All newcomer Cameron will do is warn others of the dangers: "Be careful, because you do not believe some of the things people will do – it's quite a shock, to be honest."

Despite this, there are efforts to begin sharing resources and swap notes on the friendliest printers. Plan B recently pooled advertising resources with Little White Lies and its sister publication, surf magazine Huck. In its infancy is Indy&Ink, a 45- member collective of independent magazine publishers. It has lofty ideas about combining resources, some of which have manifested in the development of a warehouse space off Gray's Inn Road in central London into shared offices for magazines The Pavement, Plan B, Nude and, up until its demise last year, Diplo.

The association runs regular meetings in a London pub, at which, says Barrett, there is always a new face looking for information on how to set up their own magazine. Its website has started compiling a log of crucial information, like sourcing an ISBN number. There is talk of promoting indies more heavily and of courting WH Smith. "We want to allow more sharing to go on, advertising jobs and equipment," says Barrett. "We want to turn it into a hub for people to promote things as well. We are going to use blogging software to give individual magazines streams on the website to show what for they are up to and who's published and when."

Which plans reach fruition, remains to be seen.

Little White Lies is a member of Indy&Ink but its publisher, Miller, admits he can barely make it to any of the meet-ups. If the romance of the printing presses drives sane people into independent publishing, then the reality of the number of hours clocked up on the job might dissuade all but the dedicated few.

When asked about the future of Little White Lies, Miller says this year will include a drive to get it into WH Smith. He hopes, like the rest of the publishers I talked to, that news of the Borders' shake-up won't disturb its position as friend to the independent — heaven knows they don't need any more obstacles put in their way. The aim is as simple as "to keep pressing on – making magazines," says Miller. He laughs, adding, "but nothing else specific or else we would all collapse."

Five inventive independent title 

Amelia is a biannual publication about music, fashion, art, illustration and photography. As well as beautiful illustration, the gorgeously designed bookish title has introduced a 50-page world culture section into its most recent issue – focusing on new music, art and fashion cf the past three years. Asked what the biggest challenge has been, founder Amelia Gregory says:"I think that getting this next issue out may be it."

Karen is a magazine about ordinary everyday life. It is a kind of opposite to mainstream celebrity titles and different to mainstream ‘real life' titles. It won EMAP lifestyle fanzine of the year 2005 and has since been lauded by Scottish artist David Shrigley as one of Britain''s best-kept art secrets. Says founder Karen Lubbock: "In the next issue there's a coalman and a butcher and Roger with his bad feet and mid-morning milky coffee, housework, diggers and luncheon meat. Karen is a very extraordinary ordinary magazine."

Subtext bills itself as a feminism, politics and culture magazine with features on politics and culture, critically examined or looked at from a feminist standpoint. Typical fare includes interviews with female musicians, activists and academics and articles on topics including pornography, beauty rituals, censorship and sexual violence. The six staff all work for Subtext on a voluntary basis. Issue Three is out this month.

Nude is a counter cultural magazine, which aims to explore alternative music, film, writing and art, with a strong emphasis on contemporary graphics, illustration and graffiti. Its co-editor Ian Lowey says: "The best thing about being independent is the creative freedom and the great sense of achievement attained through producing something tangible out of your labours and on a limited budget."

Super Super is a fashion magazine that doesn't take clothes or itself too seriously. It is glossy and cartoonish and last November made the cover of Sunday Times Style magazine. An ironically glossy, oversized tabloid-take on style from the former editors of Blow and Sleazenation, Super Super is deliberately DIY, mistake-riddled and over-the-top. No wonder fashionistas cannot get enough.

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