A Look at Independent Magazine Publishing

This special feature will focus on a growing area of independent publishing that may surprise you; that of the print magazine. The independent print magazine is characterised as “published without the financial support of a large corporation or institution in which the makers control publication and distribution…“independent” in spirit due to a maverick editor or publisher who leads the magazine in an exploratory, noncommercial direction” (Thomas 2007 40).

Independent magazines are defying the predictions of many that print magazines are a fading relic of the pre-digital world.

A small but growing body of evidence suggests that small printed magazines are quietly thriving even as the global newspaper and book industries falter” (Hamilton 2013: 43).

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Today’s editors and art directors, raised in the digital age, are seeking inspiration and expression once again from the creation of their own print magazine. For example, Kinfolk magazine was founded in Portland Oregon in 2011, and is published quarterly with the aim of finding “ways for readers to simplify their lives, cultivate community and spend more time with their friends and family” (Kinfolk 2014). With issues now translated into Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Russian and circulation reaching 55,000 (Kinfolk 2014), this magazine has hit upon a market that appreciates slow living, rejects the transience of the online world and is willing to pay high cover prices.

kinfolk magazine cover

Independent magazine 'Kinfolk' has gone from strength to strength since its debut... Image Credit: Kinfolk Magazine.

This market has been referred to as the “global niche” (Hamilton 2013: 44) and highlights the differences between independent and established mainstream magazines. Magazines produced by large companies like Bauer Media and News Limited in Australia are struggling to keep readers from moving online. In contrast, those behind independent magazines use digital developments to their advantage, and have a strong online presence. These creators set their own terms and rely on collaboration to achieve them.

It could be said that this return to less frequent, small print runs of well-executed magazines marks a greater appreciation of graphic design, community and also a cultural push away from trend-focused mass-market publications that tell people what they should be doing and buying. While rejecting many of the typical characteristics of large-scale magazines, independents face new challenges: raising funds to produce and print issues, distributing online or through atypical channels, and relying on free labour and shared passion to create original content.

It is interesting to analyse the creation of Sydney-based Alphabet Family Journal (AFJ), and compare the experiences of its founder, Luisa Brimble, with the defining characteristics of independent magazines. Luisa set about to establish a magazine that she could identify with:




It seemed like many parenting or family-related magazines featured a polished, picture-perfect home that was, quite simply, not at all like our own. So we set out to create an alternative: a family journal that celebrates the personal foundations of our homes in their many different forms” (AFJ 2014).

Blank magazine template with soft shadows.

Newcomer to independent publishing 'Alphabet Family Journal' is a bi-annual publication... Image Credit: Alphabet Family Journal.

Released in June 2014, the first issue of AFJ relied entirely on its online crowdfunding campaign for print publication. This grasp of online opportunities is a distinctive difference between independent magazines and traditional print media. In order to raise enough funds to produce AFJ, Brimble employed a filmmaker to produce a short film to exemplify the mission of the magazine. With this film, and the strength of an online media following built over three years, sufficient funds were received from online supporters donating to her Kickstarter campaign over a few short days to cover production costs as well as payments for contributors (Jones 2014).

Today a magazine publisher does not need the financial strength of a large-scale organisation to successfully launch a magazine. Independent magazines resourcefully utilise technological advances as well as social media to operate. Thanks to developments in areas such as digital printing and electronic file transfer, “people with expert knowledge of a special interest area can potentially take advantage of the low barriers to entry in the industry to originate their own magazine titles and use contract printers to create the finished product” (Cox and Mowatt 2008: 513).

Alongside a firm grasp of technology, independent magazines have a strong online presence that connects them to their readership internationally. According to Brimble, social media has “made the world much much smaller. [we can now] get the word out there, get to know people” (Brimble 2014). Independent magazines use this access to their advantage, recruiting new readers, new collaborators and media interest (Jones 2014, Morris 2014). This method works especially well for independent magazines as they focus on specific interest groups. Where mainstream magazines compete for presence in a sea of similar products, independent magazines attract readers with extremely specific pastimes.

In order to reach the target audiences of Boneshaker – “We’re for road cyclists, downhillers, fixie freaks, couriers, commuters, tourers, BMX bandits and everyone in between” (Boneshaker 2014), and Knit Wit, a “magazine about fiber art, textiles and the people who put it all together” (Knit Wit 2014), founders expect that potential readers will happen upon their Instagram page, Facebook profile or Pinterest account, or perhaps enjoy a review on a blog or write-up by a collaborator on other websites.

Knit Wit COver

Knit Wit Magazine is yet another independent publication that used crowdfunding to get itself up off the ground... Image Credit: Knit Wit Magazine.

Thanks to online networks, “participants in minority sports, crafts, hobbies and activities for example are each brought together with others of similar interests in focused groups to read and contribute information focused on their particular field” (Ingham and Weedon 2008: 210). In an age where “small publishers often have to rely upon good peer networks to develop readers for their publication” (Fusco and Hunt 2004: 16), independent magazines are taking full advantage of the Internet to market themselves to their target audiences.

Independent magazines are able to hone in on such specific markets because they are owned and developed by the same people: the founders, editors and art directors who share a similar creative vision. This is another distinction from mainstream, large-scale magazine publications. Where monthly and weekly magazines are directed by deadlines and the bottom dollar, and thus the demands of the owner or publisher (Le Masurier 2012: 392), the release of an independent magazine issue is dictated by the pursuit of original content.

(Founders) prize their small-scale for the basis for the intimate and creative character of their work. They opt for micro-entrepreneurship because independence will give them a sense of authorship and ownership: it is the best way for them to develop their own work” (Leadbetter and Oakley 1999: 22).

Independent magazines are able to maintain a strong vision for their magazine without feeling the pressure to appeal to a wider market each issue. "It is this literal ownership that differentiates the idies from mainstream niche magazines, where editors and art directors can be hired and fired by the owner or the owner's delegate, the publisher"(Le Masurier 2012: 392).

Print magazines could be seen as “tomorrow’s primary documents, excellent records of current and emerging artists’ and designers’ practices and communities” (Thomas 2007: 40). The growth of independent magazines reflects a deeper cultural change in the way print magazines are now created and read. A culture of collaboration, creative passion, appreciation of graphic design and physical print all represent an alternative to the conventions of mainstream mass media. Those editors and founders of independent magazines are producing cultural records that will one day represent the changing concept of print magazines as people increasingly incorporate the digital into their everyday lives.

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Independent magazine publishing, despite the alleged 'death of print', is on the rise... Image Credit: Gather Journal.

The legacy independent magazine publishers are creating is impressive:

These recent print publications are the products of creators shaped by a cultural doctrine which endorses technology as a ubiquitous, constructive and empowering tool. These publishers advocate for self-employment, entrepreneurialism and a collaborative model of production among their peers” (Hamilton 2013: 58).

This spirit of collaboration encourages likeminded creative people to produce works together without the confines of editorial briefs typical of mainstream magazine art direction. “The term “do-it-yourself/do-it-with-others” emphasises semiotic self-determination in how citizens formulate and live out their identities and actions as citizens” (Hartley 2010 241). It is through this collaboration that the concept of a magazine community is established.

Magazines such as Kinfolk, Gather, and AFJ do not seek to capture typically generic reader markets. Instead, they identify relatable communities within an ever-expanding online world. This aim exemplifies the DIWO approach, as collaborators share their united vision in print. To produce an issue of AFJ, Brimble relies on the philosophy that by sharing each others’ strengths, everyone will benefit. “Because they really love the project everybody is willing to help out” (Brimble 2014).

While Brimble's ultimate ambition is to eventually earn profits and compensate contributors, at its early stages AFJ relies on shared passion. Contributors also gain, as they are published in print, their name becomes recognised by a new market and from this they may receive new commissions. “We also need to be attentive to the capacities and competencies of the participants, both professional and non-professional, commercial and non-commercial, to negotiate and navigate the possibilities of these emerging co-creative relationships for mutual benefit” (Banks and Deuze 2009: 426).

cereal magazine

Independent travel magazine 'Cereal' has shot to success with its minimalist design and stunning photography... Image Credit: Cereal Magazine.

By reaching out online, sharing their vision and encouraging contributions from the online realm, independent magazines are not only identifying new cultures, they are creating them. This is a very different attitude to that fostered at large-scale magazine publications: “In mainstream commercial magazines the editorial philosophy develops from market research into gaps in the commercial magazine landscape motivated by the possibility of creating a new niche for potential advertisers” (Le Masurier 2012 390).

Within these demands, independent magazines can also place greater emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of their publications. This could be seen as a response to changing reader expectations. There is an increasing awareness of graphic design elements, brought about by online sites such as Pinterest, and indeed a glaring prevalence of poor design on various blogs and websites frequented by today’s magazine reader. Culturally, this recognition of the value of design presents “DIY graphic design as a means of bypassing commercial uniformity and gaining a sense of self-satisfaction in an increasingly corporate world…design skills are essential tools in modern life” (Beegan and Atkinson 2008: 306).

As more readers turn to blogs and social media to satisfy their instincts to browse and peruse for inspiration, why are independent magazine publishers returning to print media rather than staying online once they find their market?

Internet fatigue, for one thing. As our Facebook feeds are increasingly overtaken with unread blog posts, disposable lists, and the general digital overload, a niche market has clearly opened up for whatever is the opposite of all this—an object with shelf life, a disinterest in newsworthiness, and, seemingly most of all, thick paper.” (Garrett Mettler 2014)

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Another issue of the successful independent publication 'Gather Journal'. Image Credit: Gather Journal.

As Brimble explains when asked why AFJ was not produced as a digital magazine, for her efforts, and for those who purchase the magazine, she prefers “something real [that] will never go away. Because nothing beats the experience of print. There is beauty in the ritual of holding a physical magazine in front of you” (Brimble 2014). This physical print magazine is the output of years of work, both online and in meeting and working with contributors and supporters. Other independent magazine creators, like Jordan Vouga, art director and founder of Ancestry Quarterly, share this attitude.

There is something nostalgic about a magazine. It’s substantial and you can smell the paper. It hits you at a subconscious level. I don’t get the same emotional connection with digital content” (Garrett Mettler 2014).

This preference for print media does not mean that the creators of independent magazines have rejected digital technology, “the preference for print is born of a refusal to see print and online content as opposing camps…In producing printed works that rely upon digital networks for promotion, distribution, discussion, and community building, contemporary small publishers are affirming that the material and the online world are interrelated and interact in mutually beneficial ways” (Hamiltion 2013: 57).

Rejection of many of the conventions of mainstream print magazine publishing has created new challenges for founders of independent magazines. Without the financial backing and established presence of a large publisher, founders are finding inventive new means to fund, distribute and pay contributors.

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Inside the pages of the Alphabet Family Journal... Image Credit: Style Juicer

Funding is a key concern for independent magazines. As with AFJ, crowdfunding campaigns are often used to accumulate the initial costs to produce. From there, creators rely on subscriptions and high cover prices to continue to produce, while not necessarily making a profit from each print run. While highly innovative, these methods require risk and a willingness on the part of the founders as well as contributors to expect little financial reward. Commenting on Brimble's crowdfunding campaign in the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Weekend liftout, Linda Morris observes that "this a source of much criticism of micro-circulation magazines: they cannot pay professional rates and their editorial management style comes at a cost of inquisitorial journalism” (Morris 2014). Interestingly, the high cover prices of such magazines, AFJ retails for $25 a copy, does not seem to alienate readers. The high quality of the print and unique nature of independent magazines' content and design justifies to buyers the high price relative to mainstream weekly and monthly magazines.

Likewise, independent magazines struggle to reach widespread distribution in newsagencies and other typical magazine retailers. Brimble's realisation that independent magazine production is "10% creative, 90% hustle"(Brimble 2014) exemplifies this dilemma. A small print run prevents large-scale distribution, while founders need to locate venues where their readership may frequent in order to chase their market. For Brimble, it has been a matter of trial and error. She is a vocal admirer of niche magazine boutiques such as Beautiful Pages in Sydney, as this store provides a concentration of print magazines that will attract those interested in independent publishing as an art form. A stand at Sydney's One Fine Baby fair was not deemed a successful avenue for distribution as attendees "were not there to buy magazines" (Brimble 2014) despite being part of Brimble's target market, young families.

Ambitious and talented editors, art directors and photographers are challenging mainstream media's obsession appealing to the largest reader market. This is very different from the trend-seeking motivation behind many mainstream print magazines, and the frantic pace of information channelled via online media. Independent print magazines represent a slower, more deliberate media strategy.

kinfolk mag independent publishing

Interior layout of indie mag 'Kinfolk'... Image Credit: Superiest

According to Zinzi Edmundson, editor at Knit Wit magazine, "it's not about speed and getting to a story first, it's about how well you can tell that story to make it appealing months after someone heard about it. It's deeper and hopefully more beautiful content"(Garrett Mettler 2014). While large established magazines struggle to bridge the divide between traditional print and online mediums, independent magazines are creating a new culture that combines print and online as cooperative elements to connect readers with their communities and their magazines. Brimble recognises that “the world is getting bigger and everyone has their own community” but there will always be a desire to “really connect to the stories” that she shares in AFJ (Brimble 2014). It is this dynamism that differentiates independent magazines from mainstream media and also secures their place today's print media environment.

References

Alphabet Family Journal (2014) 'Our Mission', available here

John Banks and Mark Deuze (2009) ‘Co-creative labour’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 12(5) 419-431

Gerry Beegan and Paul Atkinson (2008) ‘Professionalism, amateurism and the boundaries of design’ Journal of Design History 21(4) 305-313

Boneshaker Magazine (2014) 'About', available here

Phone interview with Luisa Brimble, conducted Wednesday 22 October 2014.

Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt (2008) ‘Technological change and forms of innovation in consumer magazine publishing: a UK-based study’ Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 20(4) 503-520

Maria Fusco and Ian Hunt (2004) Put about : a critical anthology on independent publishing. London: Book Works

Lizzie Garrett Mettler (2014) 'The Great Indie Magazine Explosion: A Survey', available here

Caroline Hamilton (2013) ‘Chapter 5: Don’t Look Back’ in By the Book? Contemporary Publishing in Australia. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing

John Hartley (2010) ‘Silly citizenship' Critical Discourse Studies 7(4) 233-248

John Hartley, Kelly McWilliam, Jean Burgess and John Banks (2008) 'The Uses of Multimedia: Three Digital Literacy Case Studies' Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy 128, 59-72

Deena Ingham and Alexis Weedon (2008) ‘Time Well Spent: The Magazine Publishing Industry's Online Niche’ Convergence 2008 14, 205

Lucy Jones (2014) 'Heading Home with Alphabet Family Journal', available here

Kinfolk Magazine (2014) 'About Us', available here

Knit Wit Magazine (2014) 'About', available here

Megan Le Masurier (2012) ‘Independent magazines and the rejuvenation of print’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 15(4) 383-398

Charles Leadbetter and Kate Oakley (1999) The Independents: Britain’s New Cultural Entrepreneurs. London: Demos

Linda Morris (2014) 'Future Perfect: the rise of Independent Magazines', available here

Benjamin Tepler (2014) 'Kinfolk Magazine Takes Over the World', Portland Monthly, available here

Susan Thomas (2007) ‘Zeroing In on Contemporary, Independent Visual Arts Magazines’ Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 26(1) 40-50

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