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Indies set to revive sagging mag sector

By Jon Severs, Monday 11 January 2016

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In 2006, Cathy Olmedillas set up Anorak, an independent and print-only magazine for children. It was well designed – you’d have been as happy to have the cover looking down at you off your wall as you would have been having it looking up at you from your coffee table (or more likely, the floor of your child’s room) – and it was well put together.


In 2015, she was still publishing Anorak magazine. It was still print-only, it still had the highest production values and it still looked great – the winter edition cover looked like a Picasso doodle and the summer cover like an illustration from a classic 1930s children’s book.

And in 2016, she will continue to publish Anorak magazine. It will continue to be well designed, well put together and it will still be printed. 

All this makes Cathy Olmedillas special.

Firstly, she is special because she is making print work in magazines at a time when each new set of ABC circulation figures makes those who love print weep. For the period January-June 2015, British magazine print circulations fell by an average of 5.3%. For the six months before that, the average fall was 6.3%. Indeed, the majority of print magazines have been seeing big falls in circulation for years, and once massive titles, most recently FHM, have fallen in battle.

That said there are some honourable exceptions: Monocle and Private Eye are bucking the trend, with the latter at its highest circulation since 1986.

The second reason Olmedillas is special is because she is an independent magazine publisher that has done what few independent magazine publishers have managed to do: she has kept going beyond her first few issues. 

“The third or fourth issue is usually the pinch point, in terms of finances, energy and enthusiasm,” says Jeremy Leslie, who runs the MagCulture journal, website and shop.

“Ultimately, we produce a magazine that really connects with its audience, that is very unique and offers our readers a real alternative to the sea of over-commercialised and polarised titles out there,” Olmedillas says. “We treat our audience with the utmost respect, always striving for the highest quality and they repay us by recommending us.”

So it’s simple: the right content, aimed at the right market, packaged the right way.

Alas, being successful in the independent magazine sector is usually a bit more complicated than that. But it is worth printers in particular getting to grips with that complexity. While the consumer magazine market may be struggling, opportunities abound in the independent magazine sector for printers of all shapes and sizes. 

Size does matter

What exactly is an independent magazine? 

“The term ‘independent magazine publisher’ covers such a diverse spread of businesses ranging from a one-title business run from home, to much larger multi-title organisations,” says Darren Coxon, managing director at Pensord, which works extensively in this sector. 

It’s a relatively fluid concept, then, but these magazines can generally be identified by them having an off-beat and niche focus and being run by small groups of enthusiasts rather than multi-national corporations – indeed, many are run from said enthusiasts’ homes. 

Olmedillas is not alone in making print work in this space. Last summer, The Independent reported that independent magazine subscription service Stack had reported a 78% increase in revenue. And Leslie has deemed the demand for printed magazines to be high enough to justify selling them in the suitably analogue medium of a bricks and mortar shop in London. 

“There is a huge range of magazines out there in this sector and I felt there needed to be a way of supporting that by there being a shop from which to distribute them,” says Leslie. 

So where are all these magazines coming from? Tim Holmes, associate director for the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, says it varies.

“Some mags launch primarily in print from the start, others launch as a blog or website and add print later,” he explains. “I would say the latter course makes more sense from a business point of view.”

The reason for printing only after a web presence has been established is that the web is low-cost both in terms of producing the magazine and for reader-acquisition. Once you have a dedicated following, you can then print a magazine for them and be pretty certain they’ll buy it. 

Holmes says this was the model mainstream publisher Future adopted for Mollie Makes and it was a massive success. Music website Pitchfork launched a print version, Pitchfork Review, after years of building up a loyal readership online and following an acquisition by Condé Nast. The independent sector can work the same way – Holmes gives the example of the Ernest Journal as one of many that has made the journey successfully. 

As for what types of independent magazines can make print work, Holmes says it is easiest at the higher end of the market. 

“High end is what seems to work,” he says. “I paid £22 for a single copy of Alpine Review, but £10 is a pretty common price. I can’t see it working at the bottom end unless it’s a fanzine – otherwise you need high volume to make it work and the whole indie mag scene is kind of anti-high volume as a matter of principle. 

“I think part of the appeal of the high end is that most of the magazines are, in some way, about quality and aesthetics and considered consumption.”

Multiple opportunities

There is plenty of opportunity here for printers, then. Yes, this is mainly a short-run market where clients may not be around for the long term, but on the plus side you have a client base absolutely dedicated to the best possible print product and that has a readership willing to pay for that printed product. It is a sector that is expanding, too. In short, it’s a boom area for printers that is waiting to be fully tapped into. 

Those that are already working in the sector include PrintWeek Company of the Year Buxton Press, which counts Anorak among its clients.  

“As a printer, it is immensely exciting and rewarding to be chosen to be involved in the planning stages of a first publication and then be instrumental in bringing the publication to fruition,” reveals Kirk Galloway, managing director. “To see a publication develop from a germ of an idea to a physical ink-on-paper product is incredibly worthwhile and exciting, and ultimately what we’re all about.”

Multi-award winning magazine printer Park Communications also works in this sector. Managing director Alison Branch says there are, of course, risks but there are plenty of benefits, too. 

“Like all new ventures there is a risk that the new magazines do not succeed,” she explains. “There is a risk that you put in time and effort to support the team and there is no return. You also have to be sure you cover your credit position. We review carefully the magazines we work with.

“But the independent publisher has become adept over time at identifying niche markets and gathering data and so to an advertiser this represents good value as they are targeting a pre-defined known demographic and getting good hit rates. 

“We also see working in this sector as part of an investment for the future and also in part giving back to the publishing industry that has been good for us for so many years.”

It may seem odd to view this work as an “investment” but because the production values are so high for these magazines that is essentially what it is. Print benefits by these magazines showing what can be done with print and also by proving that there is still a market for a printed product. 

That investment is not just for the long term, though, this is high-value print and that brings short-term rewards too. While some of those publishing independent magazines have a design background, so know enough about print to make their dreams of high-quality printed magazines a reality, Branch says many publishers are print novices. That means a lot of hand holding, but this can be part of an added-value – meaning paid-for – package that works for the printer as much as the publisher if companies do things properly. 

“Typically the editors are not experienced print professionals so there is more opportunity and requirement to be part of the creative process building and refining the final specification, than there would be with a mainstream publisher,” Branch explains. “To facilitate this, our account directors, who are able to draw on many years of experience, work with the designers and editors to come up with options to add an extra level of differentiation.”

“We do a lot of hand-holding,” agrees Anne Ward, chief executive of the Newspaper Club, which prints a limited number of independent magazines. “We will answer as many questions as it takes to help someone get their newspaper off to print. We don’t get involved in the content or the design though, only the print part. Increasingly people also ask for help with distribution.”

Coxon reveals that a key area of assistance can be where budgets are concerned. “We like to educate our clients and make sure they know what options are available to them to either maximise their printing spend or provide options to upsell to clients and advertisers. It’s about working together, removing obstacles and providing flexibility to ensure our business transactions are seamless.”

Branch agrees. “We have worked very hard to ensure that we can achieve the very best reproduction on our in-house coated and uncoated stocks. This means that our independent magazine customers can take the cost benefit of Park’s house stocks, but still achieve a ‘wow’ factor in the final piece.”

Part of that financial planning will concern run lengths. While many magazines have a dedicated subscriber base so predicting numbers is relatively simple, a lot don’t and instead sell issues online or via other media. Holmes says run lengths are typically between 1,000 and the 30,000 a big seller like Cereal can achieve. 

Trying to balance the number of magazines you print with the need to ensure each of those magazines is of the print quality you desire can be tough, as there is usually a limited budget in place. Hence, printers can often be called on to make the sums add up. 

Hole & Corner, which is printed by Pureprint, believes it has the right balance. It printed a run of 15,000 magazines for its last issue, but editor Mark Hooper explains how he still wants the product to be crafted (see box for more about this magazine). 

“Print was always central to the proposition,” he explains. “The aim was to celebrate the things that print does best. The quality of the paper and printing is paramount: we needed to show the same care, commitment and detail as the subjects we feature – the unifying thread is ‘stories of dedication’ from ‘people who spend more time doing than talking’ – so our product has to be as good as those we feature.”

Tech flexibility

Both digital and litho printers can produce that sort of quality nowadays, so the market is relatively open if you have high-quality machines in your printroom. That said, those with digital capability may be able to offer additional flexibility that could attract this customer base. 

“We don’t produce any magazines as print-on-demand products, although some have used the option of personalised covers created by the subscriber,” says Richard Owers, director at Pureprint. 

This does not mean, however, that those currently operating in the books-on-demand market should be getting too excited. The markets are, in fact, very different. Holmes says on-demand printing for one off magazines as they are ordered is very rare. 

“I have not come across any examples of print-on-demand in the indie sector,” he explains. “A large part of the appeal is to have something that feels crafted rather than just manufactured as a convenience. On the other hand, a device that allowed the consumer to choose paper, finish, tonal value, etc, might be interesting...”

So clearly there is an opportunity in the indie magazine sector for printers to showcase what they can do and be paid for it, as long as they are willing to take on the risks of the customer potentially being a temporary fixture. But for how much longer will this market last: are printed magazines for indie’s going to be a fad? Holmes, who is better placed than most to judge as a researcher into the current publications market and a teacher of the next generation of people who want to work within it, thinks not. 

“Some students still come in expecting to work entirely in print, it is a very persistent idea, even now and even with a generation brought up on screens,” he says. “Most of the people behind the new wave indie print mags are young, certainly much younger than me. I don’t think print is a fad. Indie mags may come and go but the lure of print on paper is strong and deeply engrained.”

And he concludes with a comment those currently in the consumer magazine market may wish to consider as the spur they need to set their sights on independent magazines too.  

“Digital communications will almost certainly take over all mass communications,” he predicts, “but further down the long tail there will always be people who will pay for print on paper.” 

Case study: Hole & Corner magazine

hole-corner-indies“We started the magazine nearly four years ago,” says Hole & Corner editor Mark Hooper. “Sam Walton, editorial and creative director, had the idea for a title reflecting an under-represented lifestyle. There was a definite shift towards a slower-paced, more holistic way of life, one that is interested in provenance, authenticity and integrity – away from logos and towards something more substantial. 

“Print was always central to the proposition, it is about taking the time to celebrate life ‘offline’. Although, we do of course have other channels - online and social media, and we produce moving image work too. 

“We follow a traditional print and distribution model - financed by a combination of print ads, investment raised through crowdfunding (via CrowdCube) and agency work ( We have also launched a ‘Goods’ section to our website where people can buy products by some of the makers we’ve featured in the magazine. 

“The aim was to celebrate the things that print does best, the unifying thread is ‘stories of dedication’ from ‘people who spend more time doing than talking’ – so our product has to be as good as those we feature!

“We use Pureprint in Uckfield, Sussex, who have one of the most up-to-date sheetfed litho printing plants in the country. The paper stock and the overall feel has to be up there with the best for us: it’s great having some of the world’s best photographers ringing up raving about the quality of the repro (by Tapestry) and printing.

“The last issue was a 15,000 print run - we sell through a combination of specialist bookstores, key WH Smiths locations, 300 Barnes & Noble stores in the states, as well as online. We’re also in Eurostar and first-class airport lounges and are about to go into Anthropologie stores, which we’re very excited about. 

“In many ways I think print is in a really healthy place - look at the explosion in indie publishing in the UK (which is ironically partly thanks to digital in terms of identifying an audience, targeting it and getting your title out there). It’s noticeable that top-end advertisers are returning to print: there’s a kudos and permanence to it that digital media can’t achieve.”

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