GUEST INFORMANTS: Is Magazine Publishing Really Screwed?

March 16th, 2012 | guest informant

So, every now and then, I ask my friends and acquaintances, all of whom are eight times smarter than me, a very obvious, general, linkbaity kind of question, so that I can get a broad spectrum of their thinking.  A couple of weeks ago, I asked a few people this:

Is magazine publishing really screwed?

If you follow @themediaisdying, you might think so, as it’s really just a rolling obituary of print magazines.  And yet Cosmopolitan claims a hundred thousand paid digital subscriptions.  And people are talking about a resurgence of niche magazine publishing.  Is the latter just the dead cat bounce of print magazines?  Is the former statement just PR bullshit?  How does this shake out?

And this is what they said.

MARK MILLAR is a writer, producer, and the editor of CLiNT magazine:

I think every industry has a death fetish. It’s the same reason we watch hospital dramas and cop shows. We’re fascinated by the concept of our own extinction and so we flirt with it, writing and hypothesising it into existence even when it usually fails to show up. It’s happening in papers and magazines right now and e saw it happening in comics twenty years ago. When I first started kicking around on the fringes of the 90s scene, everybody was convinced that video-games were replacing us. They saw an industry downturn and randomly selected a thriving, though quite distinct business as our evolutionary replacement and had something close to a cardiac arrest. I never really bought this theory. It made no more sense than Reebok replacing cheese, cheese sales going down in 1994 when Reebok profits were going through the roof. Decline was happening because of low quality books and over saturation of the market. You have to step back and look at the overall picture before anyone does a Chicken Little.

Twenty years ago you could sell every major magazine in Britain on a single news-stand. Now you couldn’t have them all into even the biggest WH Smith’s. There’s over-saturation and too many imitators of books we didn’t especially need in the first place. In the short-term, a cull looks like extinction, but step back and look at the broader picture and you see it’s just the necessary boom and bust of a luxury high-price product in the worst economic depression we’ve had since Hitler was tipped as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Is publishing evolving? Absolutely. I read everything I can get my hands on and half of what I read is on my iPad. But until they invent an iPad that can be safely perused in the bath without fear of a high voltage finale I’ll still be leaving through Empire, the Spectator, New Scientist and, of course, Clint in the dead-tree format we know and love. I think circulations will be smaller and more specialised in the future, just as High Street giants are tumbling to make way for the return of the lean, mean indie stores. But as a consumer that’s no bad thing. I like my niche being catered for.

VERONICA SO is the editor and publisher of L_A_N magazine:

I’ve been peer pressured into preparations of a digital release of the upcoming L_A_N 3 but in the end all I really want is the smell and touch of my content printed on paper. I’ve been made to feel like an idiot before for having to  deal with all the print preparation and fundraising, shipping, storage and other expenses involved, but I get mixed signals. People who are introduced to L_A_N melt with pleasure when they encounter the physical edition. ‘It’s huge," "it feels great" all sorts of orgasmic comment I’d never get from sending them a pdf. This tells me something but i haven’t figured out if it means I’m a zine dinosaur or even worse a nostalgic sap. For an editor of a magazine that’s supposed to write coverage for futurists, celebrate technology and cutting edge design, it makes me a little bit worried, but only like 0.3% worried. Also, I hear a rumor that Google has posters up in its offices that say ‘All My Shit’s Online." FUCK THAT!

WILL WILES is the deputy editor of ICON magazine and the author of the excellent CARE OF WOODEN FLOORS:

This is obviously a question I spend a lot of time thinking about and I have a lot of detailed opinions about it, which I’ll try to put as snappily as possible.

First, as William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” – this is all pure conjecture and handwaving seasoned equally with wishful thinking and fear in equal measure. What follows is all “I think”, “I suspect”, “in my opinion” etc.

Many magazines continue to make money – others make losses that entirely acceptable to their owners because either they’re on a non-profit/charitable footing or because there are other, indirect benefits to owning that magazine. So a lot of magazines are fairly secure for the time being.
Somewhat more troubling is the decline of distribution outlets – IE shops that sell magazines. But that can be compensated for by the marketing potential of the internet.

On to your actual question – is magazine publishing screwed? – I think yes, the business model itself is increasingly subject to an existential threat. That business model is the advertising-driven print magazine, and the number of those is going to drop. But there will continue to be magazines, there will continue to be print magazines, there will continue to be money to be made in magazines and there will still be jobs to be found in magazines. What we don’t know is how many/how much of any of those things.

First, there will be those magazines that endure in the “traditional” magazine form – these will mostly be prestige items, they will be individually pricey (£5 and up), and will exist because they are luxury objects that look good on coffee tables. So that’s fashion magazines like Vogue and design/lifestyle titles like Monocle. There will also be print news/analysis titles that will endure on sheer quality of content – The New Yorker, Private Eye. There will be print titles that endure because they operate on a philanthropic basis – Cabinet, Harpers.

There will also be boutique, superniche & one-off magazines and zines made by people using services like Magcloud just for the sheer pleasure of making something, an object, with no thought of profit. Some of these will make money almost despite themselves. Like Strange Light.

But the “mainstream” of magazine publishing will move online, mostly to tablet devices, e-readers and smartphones. Indeed the future definition of “magazine” might be a periodical formatted to those devices – as opposed to desktop computer & laptops, rather than as opposed to print. This is because I think revenue will have to come increasingly from subs rather than ads – when people buy a print magazine they expect to see ads in it, but people are I think less happy about seeing ads on their ipads, kindles whatever. And when the mainstream of magazine discourse is digital, titles might move digital-only simply because that’s where the action is, not because they have to for commercial reasons but just because that’s where the action is, that’s where the agora is.

(Relevant to this: As recently as three or four years ago, people I spoke to as a magazine journalist wanted to be in the print edition above all and were a bit let down if they found their story or contribution was online only. Now people are miffed if they’re not online. The prestige is shifting.)

Another emerging field is standalone works of (generally longform but also data) journalism being sold individually, outside the “magazine” frame – the Byliner.com or Kindle Single business model. This is a wonderful development, a potential boom in quality and quantity waiting to happen, but one that challenges magazines as a concept. Is this magazine publishing? No, not really, but it’s publishing for journalism that until now has mostly appeared in magazines, and it has prosperity ahead. (Where it falls down is artfully combining words with photos/illustrations, one strength that mags in whatever form will a lock on for the time being. And a prominent reason why people buy mags in the first place.)

And the barriers to entry are lower. There will be Amanda Hockings in Nu Publishing and longform journalism. Which is exciting.

The biggest real danger is the emergence of monopolies – Apple and Amazon will hopefully soon realise that monopoly doesn’t serve them well in the long term.

So the magazine publishing business is going to be transformed, maybe beyond all recognition, and household names will continue to go to the wall, but afterwards there will still be magazines, there will still be publishing, there will still be livelihoods to be earned and there will still be quality journalism. A few years ago I felt really pessimistic about magazines – now I feel quite optimistic, even excited, and keen to try some of these new tools.

(I think. I suspect. In my opinion.)

ABRAHAM RIESMAN is a journalist and web strategist.

The Importance of Sweatshop Employees (Like Me)

I’m probably not the most qualified dude to talk about the magazine industry’s cost curves and price points and economies of scale and whatnot. However, I can give a grunt writer’s perspective and say the following: there’s always a place for magazines in a struggling writer’s heart.

That may sound simply romantic, but it’s not. Writing a cover feature for a magazine remains one of the — if not the — brass rings for a freelancer or young staff writer. Like, for real.

The blue-chip publications are, of course, ideal — your New Yorkers and New York Times Magazines and Wireds. And I don’t suppose anyone has little fantasies about writing for the official Amtrak magazine (although, y’know what, I really shouldn’t say such things in this economy). But even a spot in a smaller-market title is an insane boon to one’s career/prestige/wallet, when one is starting out.

I dream of the day that I can write a cover story — or even just an internal feature. I want to go glossy. I’d literally do it for zero money, because it brings with it a hope that dollar-signs will be in my corneas in the not-so-distant future.

And I’m not alone. Journalism is an increasingly slave-labor-like process, but kids keep coming up hungry for it. I’m not saying that population can save magazines, but we’re an important factor to remember in these discussions. As anyone at Foxconn can tell you, a cheap, desperate labor force is helpful for any industry.

NEIL CLARKE is the publisher of CLARKESWORLD magazine:

Using body count to determine the future is a sensationalist approach to analyzing the field. In the last decade, I’ve seen the same tactics employed in discussions about online publishing. The overwhelming majority of the online genre magazines that existed when I launched Clarkesworld (five years ago) are gone, but today, online/digital magazines are stronger and more respected than ever. In a sense, those early days were the Wild West. It was a new frontier with no one right way to succeed. It was evolution in action and the better approaches survived.

Courtesy of market pressures (increasing printing and postal costs, migration of advertising to the web, a broken distribution system, the convenience of digital publishing, etc.), traditional publications are being forced into a situation where they must adapt or wither. This isn’t an industry that is culturally disposed to change. To survive, they must embrace the web, social networking, digital editions and all the associated expectations that come with them. Many are struggling. Many more will fail.

Do I think magazine publishing is screwed? No. It’s evolving and that keeps things very interesting.

JEAN SNOW is the executive director of PechaKucha and the editor of THE MAGAZINER:

Is magazine publishing really screwed? This really depends on how you frame it, or what aspect of publishing you examine. Is print dead? No, it’s certainly not, but it’s in a state of flux. Anything that is disposable — think newsweeklies — becomes more and more unnecessary, faced with the speed and distribution of digital. But the explosion in indie titles shows that there still is a place for print. Think more in terms of a magazine issue as an "object," it needs to be something you want to experience in that way, whether it’s because of an odd shape/format, the paper stock, etc. You’re seeing the same thing with books — a lot of people are getting used to reading text-focused books in electronic form, but you’re not yet seeing this transition happen (in any big way) with art and design books. You know, the kind of books that you want to enjoy on a visual level, and that you want to show to others.

On the digital side of things, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a fan of magazines. Sure, there are certain platforms (like the Adobe digital publishing tools) that have taken off, but there’s no set layout or format that rules the magosphere, it’s still the Wild West. And you also have a growing set of easy-to-use (and cheap) tools that are popping up to give any budding creator the ability to create something that can look just as good as anything put out by the Big Boys.

Are magazines screwed? Fuck no. It’s a virtual no man’s land right now, and it sure is exciting to have front row seats on the whole thing.

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Thanks to all.


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  1. You can find Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis