How to make a mag

Launching a magazine can be a hugely rewarding venture. But it also takes a lot of hard work, determination and a solid business plan. Human After All’s Danny Miller, who co-founded Little White Lies and Weapons of Reason, offers some advice for getting started

So there’s this thing you love – and you’re itching to share with the world how you feel about it. Mags often start this way, with a person or group of friends who feel like there might be something unique about their passion for a topic that they could share with others. Something they can capture in a magazine.

Why should you make a magazine?

If you’re thinking about starting your own publication, you should think pretty hard about a few things first. Why should your mag exist? Is there a gap in the market? Are there no others like it? Do you truly have something original to add to the conversation? Can you bring value? Frankly, why should anyone give a shit about what you have to say? If you have the energy to launch a mag, interrogating your concept helps to clarify your thoughts and lay a solid foundation for the future.

Know yourself, and listen to your audience 

When we started making magazines, we’d always say that our audience was simply ourselves. We were making the mag that we’d want to read. But once digital and social channels had been democratised and two-way conversations opened up with our readers instead of us just transmitting our thoughts at them, everything changed. We learned who our audience was and we listened to them. We sent them surveys, found out where they lived, what they loved and what their pain points were. When we started out, making a mag for ourselves was in some ways the root of its success. But in time, we built it with our readers, listening to them.

Define your purpose and personality 

Be sure to know your elevator pitch, because you’re going to end up on the phone to serious people who’ll need to hear it. Be ready to clearly convey everything that is great and unique about your magazine. And remember, you have to embody your brand. Either you’re honest and passionate about what you do or you’re not. If you’re not, you’ll eventually get found out, because no amount of good design and smart writing will sustain the illusion. Your brand identity will grow organically from the things you do, not the other way around. Think about your purpose, your values, your vision and personality. With these things strongly codified, everyone you collaborate with will know exactly where you’re coming from.

Your brand identity will grow organically from the things you do, not the other way around.

Get to know the community 

In launching a mag, you’ll enter a rich ecosystem of individuals and organisations that share your passion. You can either sit back and do your thing and not worry about any of these people, or you can engage with them, form partnerships and potentially enrich your project in the process. Do some research into the institutions and industry bodies, events, organisations and individuals that surround you. Set up partnerships to promote to their networks. Send them free copies. Throw a party and invite them. Take them out for coffee. The best experiences we’ve had making magazines have all involved meeting people and being part of a community.

Make introductions 

When you don’t yet have a magazine to show people, a short PDF media pack is a great way to introduce people to all top-line information about your project. It’s best to cover off each element (introduction, vision, audience, channels, distribution details, advertising rates, etc) one page at a time, using as little copy as possible alongside great images that quickly connect people with the aesthetic of your mag. In our experience, you’ll need to revisit and update your media pack almost every single week, for as long as you make your magazine. Things will be in a constant state of evolution, and that’s a good thing.

Curious Iconic Craft
Spread from Huck magazine, featured in Curios Iconic Craft, Human After All’s Kickstarter-funded guide to magazine design. The guide was published in 2013.

Advertising

It’s no surprise to suggest that your publishing project will be subsidised by brands who choose to advertise or partner with you. With your media pack at the ready, how will you get brands to advertise with you and which of them will you approach? You need to do deep research on your sector, listing not just the companies you’ll approach but the decision-making marketers who work for them. LinkedIn is a great place to find out this info or you might just want to call up each company and see who works there. Time and patience are needed, but it’s worth stressing that you’re unlikely to get on anyone’s radar without calling them. When you do, you should be informed and educated about them. Be patient and work on building long-term relationships, treating all potential advertisers as partners and collaborators.

Printing

Printing your magazine is as much an art form as writing and designing it. All of your hard work can be elevated greatly with some judicious choices of paper stocks, special inks and finishes. There are some basic decisions you’ll need to make early on which will greatly define the feel of your magazine. Certain silk (smooth finish) and offset (rough finish) paper stocks will be used by your printers in great quantity, which can make them extremely cost effective. If you can come to an arrangement with your printer, they will possibly be able to make you up a dummy of your magazine, which will be the exact paper stock and dimensions, but hand-cut and bound. When you receive this, you’ll have an exact (though rather blank) copy of your magazine in hand, which will really help you get a feel for the product.

Distribution

When we started our first magazine, we got in contact with the relevant people at Borders and Virgin Megastores to see if they’d like to stock us. We also went around London speaking personally to front-of-house staff in independent cinemas and managers of shops to see if they would be interested in putting copies on their counters. Over the years, we got in touch with a great many independent stores and slowly built up our list. That’s the bespoke route, but you’ll also want to get a larger bulk quantity of your mag out through a distributor, who’ll sell your mag on ‘sale or return’, meaning no upfront costs. When you make your premiere issue, you don’t have to print a great deal of them, you just need to get it into the right hands. If you can print 1,000 copies of your magazine and get them into the hands of 1,000 key decision-makers and influencers in your industry, you’re in a good place.

spread from magazine Weapons of Reason
Weapons of Reason, a free magazine from Human After All which tackles a different topic with each issue, from ageing to global warming

Subscriptions

Subscriptions are an amazing bedrock for your magazine, both financially and in terms of growing a core group of dedicated readers and ambassadors. Trying to get more subscribers ought to be right at the heart of your publishing project. It’s worth remembering that you have many channels and means of promoting the benefits of receiving a copy of your mag each month. Another really important thing is to retain your subscribers once their term of six or 12 magazines is over. The only way to do this effectively is to have them subscribe by direct debit. And the only way to do this effectively is to work with a subscription company. It’s important to treat your subscribers like royalty, making sure first that they receive information before everyone else and that they get their copies ahead of everyone else.

Marketing

Making the mag is obviously a huge percentage of your work, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal to be done after you’ve signed off with the printers. There are endless big and small considerations for marketing the release of your new issue. From blogging to promoting through social channels, making a press release and running competitions, you might want to make a list and tick it off after each issue.

Channels

It may be that your project began with the desire to make a magazine, but it’s worth considering early on that there are many digital, social and experiential communication channels at your disposal. Make sure that each speaks to one another and that you place the right content for the right audience on each, at the right time. You may publish long-form pieces in your print edition that you’ll shorten or break into parts before publishing online. It’s important to consider that, ideally, each channel can be used to do something distinct and individual. Think about your audience and where you can reach them. Where and when will they want to hear from you? And how are your channels working to achieve that?

The reality is that independent magazine publishing is not the easiest way to earn a stable living.

The long haul

How long are you in this for? Are you going to run this project in your spare time? Are you quitting your job already or planning on doing so if things go well? The reality is that independent magazine publishing is not the easiest way to earn a stable living. You may be able to get your magazine to a point where it covers costs, which is to say that the revenue you bring in through advertising, cover sales and subscriptions will cover the cost of print, commissioning costs, marketing and distribution. But will this include your wages? And if so, will they be at market rate? You have to be massively realistic about what you’re heading into. You’re going to be so passionate about it, but the magazine isn’t going to owe you anything. It’s key to remember that things will be easier if you have a trusted team around you, make long-term plans (and think about money) from the offset, and be cautious about if/when you leave your job to undertake this venture full-time. Good luck!


Human After All have also created The Publishing Playbook, which brings together all they have learnt during more than a decade of independent publishing; publishingplaybook.com

Danny Miller is founder and CEO of creative agency Human After All, humanafterall.co.uk. Before setting up Human After All, he ran design and publishing agency The Church of London and co-founded independent film mag Little White Lies with Rob Longworth and Paul Willoughby. 

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