What makes a magazine sell? An interview with buyer Marc Robbemond

Design writer Angharad Lewis’ new book So you want to publish a magazine? offers an in-depth guide to launching a new publication. In this extract, Lewis talks to Marc Robbemond, a buyer at Amsterdam magazine store Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum

Marc-Robbemond_Ivan-Jones
Marc Robbemond at Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum in Amsterdam. Portrait © Ivan Jones

So you want to publish a magazine? is packed with useful 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. Each chapter contains brief case studies on successful magazines as well as interviews with industry experts, including Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé and The Gentlewoman’s editor-in-chief Penny Martin.

Throughout this month, we’re publishing extracts from some of the interviews featured in the book — here, Angharad Lewis talks to Marc Robbemond of Amsterdam magazine store Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum…

Hand-in-hand with the boom in independent magazines has been the rise of the independent magazine shop, writes Angharad Lewis. As well as being places where the growing audience of magazine buyers go for their fix, they have also become hubs where publishers meet the readership through events. Meet Marc Robbemond, the buyer responsible for deciding what goes on the shelves at legendary magazine store Athanaeum Nieuwscentrum in Amsterdam.

What are the ingredients you look for in a new title that might do well in your shop?

We have 2,000 titles in the shop. A strong identity is very important. I really appreciate it if a magazine picks up a topic that [its creators] are really interested in themselves, instead of just wanting to make a magazine because it’s hip or cool at the moment. That’s the foremost thing – the topic and the relationship of the makers to the topic. You can easily see that by reading a few articles.

In the shop, we have specialist sections: design, food, interior design, urbanism and architecture, literature, fashion, art, photography, biking, film and current affairs. So a new magazine also has to fit in to one of those areas.

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum magazine shop in Amsterdam
The Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum shopfront. Image: Marc Robbemond

What does it take to get a magazine stocked in Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum? Do you have to turn many publishers away?

The biggest part of rejection or refusal of a title is because the distribution is not profitable. It’s very difficult for us to import titles from the US [since] it’s very expensive to send it and then we have to add shipping costs to the cover price. Sometimes people are willing to pay quite a high price for a specialist magazine; €25 is common at the moment, but some go up to €30 or €35 and then it’s too risky. You don’t want to have this pile of overly expensive magazines in the store that no one buys. When that’s the case, I try to connect the publishers with European distributors like Antenne Books in London or Motto in Berlin.

On the whole, we like to give magazine-makers a chance. Sometimes you don’t know if a title will work, or it might not suit your personal tastes, but then we sell a big pile and have to order more. There’s no magic formula.

Distribution seems to be the biggest headache for indie publishers. Is there a tipping point when it becomes necessary for a small publisher to have a distributor?

I’m always happy when a magazine moves to a distributor because for me, as a retailer, it’s so much easier: I can order bigger quantities and I can send back unsold copies much more easily. But I’m very well aware that, with payment structures and the percentage they get, it’s not really profitable for the magazine-makers.

We still do direct deals with some makers who have a distributor, and I don’t really mind that because, although it’s a bit more work for us, I understand that they really need the percentage and the money for the next issue. The money is important for the magazine to go on existing, and it must be paid before the next issue goes to print. That’s what you don’t get with distributors; they pay later, when they have a clear view of what has sold and what has not sold.

A couple of times a year I collect all unsold copies from one distributor and send them back, and then we get a credit invoice. When we’re ordering directly from an individual magazine, it works the same way, but I have to communicate everything to the makers myself. We take magazines on consignment [‘sale or return’].

Magazine display at Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Image: Marc Robbemond
Magazine display at Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum. Image: Marc Robbemond

How do people make a magazine that will succeed in the mid- to long term?

By being super-distinctive and choosing a topic that you know you will find interesting over a long period. Those are the magazines that are succeeding. For example, The Outpost, which just published issue 5, has a strong concept: there will be a lot to write about the Middle East and the possibilities for the Middle East in the coming years. The makers don’t have to worry about their concept; it will be interesting for a long time. Flaneur picks one street in one city and makes an issue about the stories they find there. Also Delayed Gratification has a very strong concept, in which they can really frame their work with every issue.

I think working with a distributor as a small magazine will not give you much money, but it will get you attention. Stores don’t have to discover you; your magazine will be presented to them. That is something to consider: OK, you don’t make money, but if you get represented well at book fairs and in small shops then you get more spread, and that’s something you want to do, to build up an audience. That is very important.

What about magazine frequency? Is there a trend towards magazines that are on sale for longer?

Yes, there are more biannuals. Also, more and more titles are changing from quarterly to biannual, which has to do with money and time. People often have jobs next to their magazine to support. As well as that, if you have a small team, the most important thing is to have consistent quality and new ideas. You don’t want people to [pick up] a new issue and think: ‘I’ve seen it before, and don’t want to buy it again.’ It has to be really good each time, so if you have half a year to prepare an issue you can go into a subject more deeply without the stress of adding articles that, afterwards, you realise didn’t really make the issue stronger.

So You Want To Publish a Magazine? published by Laurence King
So You Want to Publish a Magazine?

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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