The Medium is the Message – 1964 (Mcluhan)
The Medium is the Massage – 1967 (printer error?)
The Medium is a Mess! – 2016 (Mcluhan again)
It’s hard really to know where to start, so I guess I’ll start at the beginning. Twenty years ago I was a failed photocopier salesperson who stumbled into the world of publishing strictly by chance. By any stretch of the imagination, I am not supposed to be here. The fact that I am even writing something about magazines for a website is pure fluke.
Full disclosure: this post is not for the scores of people who work tirelessly at large magazines. If you work at a business to business publication, it probably won’t really resonate with you either. That’s ok. The truth is that this post is really for the independent publishers and the small, yet fearless staff who work for them. What constitutes a truly indy publisher? These are the folks who do their own writing, sales, collection, marketing and bookkeeping along with trying to make sense of the world.
If you have more than one person full-time under your wing, congratulations! You have 100% more staff than I do.
It might surprise you to learn I started my first magazine with $50 worth of phone calls. I started my magazine because no other magazine would touch the subject I wanted to write about. They were all stuck in a monolithic/tunnel vision time warp. Every issue, it was pretty much the same stuff. I decided to create something different.
That was 18 years ago. Prior to this, I had a website that cost me $5 a month to run. It was that particular website that led to a book publishing contract that eventually led to a career in magazines. I am great believer in that the lack of money can be more than made up by passion and a dash of “let’s freaking do this!”
Independent publishers know it’s messy out there. Not only is Prince dead, a number of people are convinced print is dead. Advertisers are throwing out the analog baby with the digital bathwater. A number of my larger advertisers have pretty much decided they are content creators and don’t need to be involved that much in print.
Meanwhile, we keep hearing from digital marketing gurus that all independent magazines need to do is to engage readers by creating outstanding content on multi-platforms and financial rewards will be at hand. While I have absolutely no doubt that some of my indy publisher friends are in fact thriving in today’s environment, I am having a little more difficulty.
Perhaps the best way to explain why I am encountering issues is to imagine you are portraiture painter. You make your living with brushes, canvas and paint. You spend hours at your craft and the painstaking attention you put into the work pays off. But it’s not really the money that drives you. What drives you is seeing a blank canvass and creating magic with each brushstroke. You view your work more like a symphony conductor. You know where each colour needs to be placed on the canvass in order to make a truly exceptional product. Your paintings fetch a minimum of $1000 and clients are pleased with your work.
Although your paintings are truly exceptional, they can only be seen indoors. Clearly, elements like rain and snow would destroy your work. One day, a client comes along with a block of marble and a chisel. She says she will pay you for time and quickly urges you to get busy. You realize that art is buried in the rock, just waiting to break free. As you cradle the tools in your hands and run your fingers over the hard rock, you begin to imagine how wonderful it will be to showcase your work outdoors. However, when you start to hammer away to bring life into the marble, you suddenly find yourself not really enjoying the experience. The tools are unfamiliar and while you are forming something of permanence, you can’t really quite find your flow. You are not in the zone the way when you use a brush, paint and canvass.
After hammering away for what seems hours, you are left with a giant pile of rubble and what appears to be a face. Both you and client realize this marble bust can withstand the mightiest storm. But you know in your heart it’s not really reflective of who you are as an artist. Your client senses your misgivings but smiles and says she appreciates your time. She offers you $10 for the bust and leaves. You go back to your canvasses, brushes and paint and wonder “how did I get here?”
Perhaps I am being a little more dramatic than I need to be, but I think a number of publishers will understand the analogy. I’d like to think that when I create a magazine, it’s not just a bunch of ink thrown onto paper. I spend hours hunting down photos and a remarkable amount of time ruminating on the kinds of stories I want to publish. Bringing all the elements of design, imagery, words and fitting them into a schedule can be daunting. Ensuring that you’ve got money in the bank to publish can be even more challenging. And yet, month after month, independent publishers create fresh pieces of work that audiences (aka readers) find captivating.
When I first started publishing, there was no real market. Advertising was few and far between. I used the power of print to cultivate new customers and fire up the committed enthusiasts. The magazine served as a catalyst for change. The magazine was niche, but it was powerful way to communicate new ideas.
On numerous occasions I have introduced someone to the world of skateboarding that I cover. They are incredulous at what they experience and are eager to learn more. It is this initial spark of interest that gives me the greatest satisfaction. It’s not about click bait – my magazine is just pure bait! And once I have a reader hooked, the possibilities are endless. They may purchase product. They can put on an event, they may even start up their own skate company. They may even wind up writing or shooting for the magazine. Our magazine fosters engagement in many different ways. While a like is great, it just can’t be compared to something like a double page spread. I am convinced a healthy media landscape is made up of a variety of medium.
Likewise, in a healthy economy, you have small, medium and large companies. Each feed the other in some special way. The new ideas generally come from those companies willing to take chances and try something unique. You will find that small and medium companies are nimble enough to do this. As a niche magazine publisher, I want to be there to cultivate this type of ecosystem.
By Michael Brooke, Publisher of Concrete Wave Magazine, a publication for the Skakeboarding community and is an independent publisher