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How Do Independent Magazines Make Money?

A number of independent fashion magazines are leading a so-called ‘print renaissance’ in an increasingly digital world. How are they making it work?
A selection of independent magazines | Source: Courtesy
  • Laura Isabella Matthews

LONDON, United Kingdom — In our increasingly digital world, where the average time spent with print magazines has fallen 19 percent in the past five years, according to a report by media agency Zenith Optimedia, it is often observed that independent fashion magazines are nonetheless seeing a resurgence. Today, newsstands have never looked so inviting. Rainbow rows of matte-papered, ice cream coloured fashion magazines cover every inch of space.

Journalist Ruth Jamieson has compiled a book of the world’s best independent magazines, MagCulture has organised conferences on them and the London Edition Hotel has created a dedicated independent magazine library, featuring a host of indie magazines. But what are the business models behind these titles?

The most obvious revenue stream available to titles is the cover price of the magazine. “It has been my number one rule here that we never ever sold a magazine at a loss,” said Masoud Golsorkhi, founder and editor-in-chief of Tank magazine, an innovatively-designed, ideas-focused, independent fashion title. “If we couldn’t rely on copy revenue, I would just close shop immediately,” he continued. The first issue of Tank, launched in 1998, was paid for wholly by cover price, though Golsorkhi comments, “That model in its strictest form is not hugely sustainable if you want to scale up and are producing a niche product that is not going to be selling hundreds of thousands of copies.”

"The cover price pays for distribution and printing and a little bit more," said Penny Martin, the editor of The Gentlewoman, a biannual intelligent women's fashion magazine, launched in 2010, that today has a circulation of 96,000. But Martin added that the majority of the magazine's revenue comes from its strong relationships with advertisers. The Gentlewoman counts brands Céline, Miu Miu, Balenciaga Saint Laurent, Gucci and Prada amongst its advertisers, for whom the magazine's tactile print quality is a part of what makes it a desirable place to market their brands.

“Paper is a luxury material and I think that consuming our magazine is a luxurious experience. It is very different from the way that you engage with online content,” said Martin, who said that working in print builds a different, more desirable relationship with readers than online. “It extends to things like the quality of the photography and the production and the way it is graphically designed — it’s a very time-consuming operation, which extends to the way we want to engage with our readers.”

For Canadian menswear magazine Inventory, which transitioned from online to print, traditional advertising was a means of securing a revenue stream. “At the time it was really tricky to figure out how to do online advertising,” Inventory’s editor Ryan Willms told BoF. “Even though the print industry was in a bit of a declining state, there was still more of a traditional sense of advertising buying in print.” Advertising is now Inventory magazine’s main revenue stream.

But, with the relatively small distribution of some independent magazines — many media kits do not even include circulation numbers — not every print publication can depend on traditional advertising alone.

Some independent magazines have turned to branded content and other forms of native advertising to bolster their business models. “You’ll have a video on YouTube and you’ll have an event at London Fashion Week together and it will be more of a 360 degree collaboration,” said Becky Smith, editor and creative director of Twin, a luxury biannual bookzine with a circulation of 45,000 that champions female creatives and features cutting-edge editorials. “The advertising space is limited and has a limited revenue. It’s about approaching a brand and giving them something bespoke and curated, with a Twin twist," she added.

A number of independent publications, including Inventory and Kinfolk, a quarterly magazine based in Portland that celebrates the 'slow lifestyle' and features contemporary illustrations, charming photography and intimate interviews with creatives, have also been able to leverage their brand and point of view as curators of products, tapping transactional revenue by setting up online and brick and mortar stores. Inventory magazine has an online store that has stocked menswear brands including Margaret Howell and John Smedley, and now sells independent publications. Willms noted that this has "contributed to Inventory [being seen] as a brand rather than just a publication."

Events are another way for independent magazines to make money. Kinfolk, which operates international editions in Japan, China, Korea and Russia, hosts a vast programme of events internationally through relationships with partners across the globe — from Sydney to Seoul. Jeremy Leslie, founder of MagCulture, described these events as an “enormously powerful [tool]. People buy into the brand explicitly and they want the full Kinfolk experience. It doubles back into the magazine and makes them money along the way.”

Also harnessing the power of events is The Calvert Journal, an independent magazine with a focus on the post-Soviet world, funded by the Calvert 22 foundation, a non-profit organisation looking to promote the contemporary art and culture of Eastern Europe, which produces an annual print issue, supported by daily features, news and photography online. The magazine has built strong relationships with a number of brands, working closely with the likes of Nike to host events and organising global digital-journalism master classes with British newspaper The Guardian. “Our plan has been to create a viable, editorial proposition, with the idea that that helps us build enough cachet and unique visitors to begin talking commercially to brands,” editor Ekow Eshun told BoF.

Some magazines, like Near East, an independent art and fashion publication from Istanbul, are still building their business models. "It's a very specialist magazine," explained Mihda Koray, the magazine's publisher and editor. "There will only be a handful of people that understand what we are doing [with Near East] but with their support we can keep it going." Koray is looking to private investors who feel passionate about the magazine as a cultural project, not a business prospect, but she currently self-funds the publication with revenue secured from a previous project curating a gallery in Istanbul. For Koray, her print publication — though respected within the industry and stocked at major fashion spots such as Dover Street Market — remains a labour of love.

For others, like System — a visually rich biannual fashion publication known for its story-telling editorial style — creating a profitable business was never the aim. "We didn't do the magazine in order to make money, or to start a business on the side with a creative agency," said Elizabeth Von Guttman, who runs the magazine alongside brand consultant Alexia Niedzielski, Jonathan Wingfield, ex-editor of Numéro, and Thomas Lenthal, an art director who has worked for Yves Saint Laurent.

Fabrice Paineau, editor of the Parisian magazine Double, describes his publication as an "amateur professional magazine." Since its launch, Double has become a reference point for emerging photographers, innovative styling and graphic design, featuring major industry names including Juergen Teller, David Sims and Terry Richardson. However, each member of Paineau's small creative team has to maintain a job outside of the magazine.

But although some magazines don’t make money themselves, they can be powerful tools for other businesses. A number of magazines, including Double, Inventory and Tank, have founded creative agencies. Twin also aims to launch creative services.

Tank has leveraged its creative agency to help bolster business since its fourth issue. “We’ve evolved as a business to offer a kind of consultancy service, a design agency service alongside our publication,” Golsorkhi told BoF. “It pays for the office and the staff and keeps the lights on, whilst the magazine pays for [its production] and makes a small profit.”

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 24 July, 2015. An earlier version of this article misstated that Inventory's online shop still stocked menswear brands John Smedley and Margaret Howell. It does not.

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