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Making magazine publishing sustainable

Posted on Feb 18 2015 in Thoughts

I’m sure it applies to most fields, but in publishing especially you find yourself talking a lot about sustainability. It’s a topic that comes up frequently when I speak to other magazine makers. It’s no secret that generating money from publishing — whether it’s in digital or in print — becomes increasingly challenging in an environment where everyone expects the default price tag to be ‘free’.

There is, however, another type of sustainability that doesn’t get much attention: the emotional sustainability of what we do. In a conversation about the long-term future of indie magazines with Steve from Stack, he said that the closure of indie magazine titles is rarely due to the readers losing interest; it’s the makers becoming exhausted.

With so many new magazine titles appearing on newsstands noawadays, it’s only natural that some won’t grow beyond issue two or three. While many publications emerge out of ‘passion projects’, after a while the economic realities catch up with the publishers. I have yet to meet a publisher that managed to generate a healthy profit from the first issue onwards. But even if the magazine sells well and eventually becomes economically sustainable, the financial rewards are often anything but generous. On top of that, we publishers tend to always want to improve upon the latest issue, so many of us decide to re-invest our money to make the best possible product with the next issue.

This inevitably leads to a point where you question the effort-reward ratio. You can be passionate about your work for a long time, but eventually you need to be able to measure your efforts in more than just Tweets and Likes. Making a magazine (like any other great product) is a demanding undertaking that doesn’t really get that much easier over time. The result is that magazines disappear, and publishers move on to more financially rewarding work with a lower stress factor. (Hello client services!)

I’m throwing these thoughts out there because I know a lot of us are in a similar situation. I’ve spoken to a lot of publishers lately — those starting out with huge enthusiasm, and those tired and exhausted who work on their final issue. I won’t lie, I’m continuously struggling to find an emotionally sustainable level too. One of the problems I’m facing is that I have to spread myself very thinly as a one-man operation. I’m still trying to find a workable solution for this. (Don’t worry, I currently have no plans to discontinue Offscreen.)

If you asked me today what I’d do differently when setting up a magazine, I’d say that I would think more critically about the effort-reward ratio from very early on. The initial excitement about launching a magazine (or any product for that matter) blinds us to accept unsustainable work practices. More important than keeping our readers/customers happy, is to keep ourselves happy. The former isn’t possible without the latter, at least in the long term.

Now let me go find a way to practice what I preach…