The Gentlewoman’s Penny Martin on evolving a magazine and making great covers

Design writer and tutor Angharad Lewis’ new book So you want to publish a magazine? offers an in-depth guide to launching a new publication. In the second of a series of extracts from the book, Lewis talks to Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman

So you want to publish a magazine? is packed with advice for aspiring publishers. The book covers every aspect of launching a new title – from developing an initial concept to working with advertisers, printers and distributors – and each chapter contains case studies on successful magazines and interviews with industry experts. In our second extract from the book, Angharad Lewis talks to Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman, about creating great covers and trying to make each issue better than the last…

The biannual women’s magazine The Gentlewoman was launched in 2010 by the publisher of Fantastic Man, writes Angharad Lewis. Defying conventions about women’s magazines and fashion titles, it has carved out a unique place in the publishing firmament with intelligent, witty journalism, exemplary standards in design and photography, and a focus on real women’s lives, rather than products and slavish adherence to commercial fashion cycles. At the helm is Penny Martin, a former academic, a curator and previously editor-in-chief of the pioneering fashion website SHOWstudio

Is the cover the hardest bit [of putting the magazine together]?

Well, if I say ‘the Beyoncé issue’ or the ‘Adele issue’, that cover image comes to represent an entire six months of work – all ten interviews, seven essays and eight fashion stories. So it’s a crucial symbol. Plus there’s a long stretch of shelf life from one issue to the next, so you have to feel confident that you’ll want to live through the production process with that cover, and then live through the following six months of it being on the newsstand and in the image at the foot of your email. It’s the person you’re constantly interviewed about; you end up having a really intimate relationship with the cover star, whether you personally interviewed her or not.

You’ve achieved a few surprises and talking points with your covers. The Angela Lansbury cover [no. 6, Autumn/Winter 2012] is cited a lot for featuring an 86-year-old woman. Are you breaking expectations about fashion publishing?

Well, she’d been on my list since I first had my job interview, so it wasn’t a case of ‘Wow, wouldn’t we capture media attention with her?’ I just knew it would be a brilliant shoot. And it’s great that she’s been so much in the public imagination since the issue came out: she got her honorary Oscar [Academy Honorary Award, 2013], she got her damehood [Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire ‘for services to drama and to charitable work and philanthropy’, 2014], she’s been on in the West End [Driving Miss Daisy, 2013; Blithe Spirit, 2014]. It’s been wonderful that we got mixed up with that late-career renaissance; it’s been to our huge advantage. That image – you wouldn’t believe the number of people who stop me to talk about it.

Adele was another turning point for us, because she really came to mass prominence around the time that third issue was out [Spring/Summer 2011], when her album sold all those millions of copies and she won big at the Brits. It really clarified our position on the whole plus-size topic, which was always going to be an issue for us, as a women’s magazine, without us even having to acknowledge it. You know, we featured Adele and Angela because they’re brilliant at what they do and they’re really lovely women, not because of their size or age. But it’s really nice to think that, rather than exploiting them to stage some phoney debate, those covers turned them into contemporary fashion icons.

How do you keep the magazine evolving?

If an outsider came to the first editorial meeting after an issue is back from the printers, they’d think none of us liked the magazine – ‘That was a disaster, this didn’t work …’ – but it’s just that we’re Scottish and German and Dutch and that’s how candid and fanatical it is in here. Everyone’s completely focused on making sure each issue’s better than the last. That said, I’ve found at other places I’ve worked that you’ve got to learn to make space for pleasure and joy as well as for critique and perfectionism, otherwise it can be a bit destructive.

You have certain carefully defined aspects visually and editorially in the structure of the magazine, but there is also evolution. How much was that intended from the start?

It’s in the character of the people who work here that we never want to repeat things; if we have editorial formats, we don’t want them to become too fixed. Some can be great, like the ‘Modernisms’ interviews at the beginning of the magazine. We ran those in the first two or three issues and then began to wonder if we should change that section, but we decided [not to], that they were our equivalent of shopping pages, except that they prioritized conversation over product. It’s an important distinction. There are components of a grid, but the magazine pretty much gets redesigned from scratch every time, when the assets come in. You can be far more experimental that way. And Jop and Veronica have very high standards. They come from a Dutch graphic-design background, which means their approach is very editorially led.

I think it’s rare to have art directors who find it necessary to understand and to some extent shape the editorial direction. And then they’ve got an editor who was very involved in photography [Martin was a curator at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, as well as working with Nick Knight on SHOWstudio]. It’s a very luxurious situation, where we’re able to step on one another’s toes a little bit – it’s not too departmental or territorial.

What are the key things for an aspiring magazine to get right for a launch issue?

You just need a really good idea that’s very clearly expressed. Not everybody is going to see that issue, but if you get it right, it will act as a kind of mission statement for your readers and your team.

So you want to publish a magazine? is published by Laurence King on August 5 and costs £19.95. Angharad Lewis is co-editor of Grafik magazine and a tutor at The Cass School of Design. 

To celebrate the book’s launch, Laurence King is offering a 35% discount for readers of CR – enter code ‘CR35’ at checkout.  You can order copies here.

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