starting from scratch

geoff goodfellow

 

“Do you get paid?” asked Ken Alexander, publisher of The Walrus.

“No, I don’t,” replied Derek Webster, publisher of Maisonneuve magazine.

“Neither do I. What the hell are we doing?”

“Setting a bad example.”

If these bad examples, discussed recently at a small magazine workshop, are the success stories of the Canadian magazine industry, why are independent publishers of start-up magazines proliferating across the country? How can the little guy starting out hope to survive?

The Canadian Magazine Publishers Association (CMPA) held the workshop at the Rad’a Yoga studio in the trendy Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal. The turn of the century building also serves as a home base for Ascent magazine, a publication on yoga lifestyle. The sun-lit empty studio of smooth hardwood floors was the site where representatives of 11 existing or aspiring start-ups recently gathered for guidance on the business of small magazines.

“Set up your bookkeeping and accounting systems from the very beginning. Don’t say ‘well, I’m too busy getting my magazine launched. I’ll do that later when there’s time.’ Because I can guarantee from doing consultations all across this country, there is never going to be the time,” said D.B. Scott, a former editor, publisher and freelancer who works as a consultant for the magazine industry and runs the small magazine workshop for the CMPA.

Developing a business plan and bookkeeping is not a luxury reserved for those who can afford to pay others to do it. Apart from having a true sense of such things as whether you’re spending more money on renewal drives than you’re getting back from new subscriptions, organized record keeping is essential to gaining advertisers, donations and government grants.

Personal accounting software has made it possible for the poor arts-centric publisher to be hishishis own accountant. Not doing so greatly hinders a start-up’s chance for survival.

In an industry that is rarely self-sustaining, keeping costs at uncomfortable levels is often a necessity of starting up.

But “to keep publishing, you often need simply to keep your costs down,” said Maisonneuve’s Webster. He was speaking to an audience at Lower Canada College in Montreal as part of the College’s speaker series. “Many magazines, more than you might expect, are . . . produced by their publishers in their own basements; where the publisher functions as the editor and the ads sales person and the office manager and the managing editor.”

“Maisonneuve started in my study for about a year before we even published our first issue. When we did publish it I simply moved the magazine to a one room, cold-water walk up. We’ve grown a lot since then but the problem remains: You have to keep costs down.”

Nxet magazine, a start-up in Halifax offering content from “dating to relating” to highlighting Atlantic Canada’s culture and night life, recently survived a similar process.

“I started alone, then my girlfriend jumped in to help, then I gathered seven more people to build the final concept,” said Guy Shaham, Nxet’s publisher. “Today we have two full timers and two part-time sales reps plus volunteers for the nightclub team and freelance writers. At Nxet, we have titles but all of us do much more than what our titles suggest.”

Advertising drives the industry. But start-ups that begin with original and edgy ideas soon find out that advertisers aren’t as accepting as their audiences.

“A good example of this is a magazine called Vice which came out of Montreal,” said Webster. “It turned out to be pretty good after a while; none of the advertisers were interested in advertising in it because they didn’t trust it . . . the fact was, it was read religiously. But the advertisers never really got on board with it.”

Vice magazine moved its frustration to New York City. Last year it was voted the most popular magazine in the United States among 18 year olds. Vice has since branched off into extremely successful merchandising and talent search ventures.

Back in Halifax and barely a year old, Nxet magazine is still facing the same difficulties despite soaring popularity. “I thought that the local advertisers would love to see a new and edgy magazine around,” said Shaham. “I thought they would understand that to grab the youth attention you need to use their own language. I was wrong; our first issue was a bit too edgy and racy and even now we face difficulties in convincing advertisers that we are not all about sex.”

The shortage of advertising dollars, for small and unique magazines in particular, is haunting start-up publications. So much so “it’s very difficult for a small magazine to find a sales rep to take them on,” said D.B.Scott. “With the lack of advertising money in small magazines you don’t interview the sales rep, they interview you.”

 

Start-up fundraising and promotion requires similar creativity that brought about the magazine in the first place. Nxet magazine promotes itself with the same flare that fills its pages. “We have a nightclub team that travels around to clubs and events in a pink limousine,” said Shaham. “I bought an old limousine and pinked it for that reason. The team enters all the events to take pictures of local clubbers, which we publish in the magazine. Because of these campaigns we have increased our distribution from 60 locations in the first issue to more than 1,400.”

Spacing, a magazine covering Toronto’s urban landscape and public spaces is another recent start-up. Its resounding fund-raising success came from the simplest of merchandising ideas; buttons. The magazine offered buttons with the unique tile designs of Toronto’s individual subway stations. “At first we thought we’d sell a few hundred. In a month we sold 12,000 buttons and made over $10,000,” says Matt Blackett, Spacing’s editor.

In 2003, then Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced a new direction for government funding in the magazine industry. “By directing our support to where the need is the greatest, we are laying the groundwork for the growth of hundreds of smaller publications.” The focus was on literary, arts and ethno-cultural publications.

It looked like a pot of gold waited on the other side of publishing a new magazine. Looks can be deceiving. Realizing that your editorial concept or business practices may not qualify for funding before you make government grants part of your future budget is gravely important. Magazines generally have to survive the first year on their own, often only to find that qualifying for funding may hinge on editorial practices that break with the essence of their magazine’s raison d’etre.

But many have discovered that making government funding the focus of your strategic success is often a recipe for failure. Even magazines that receive more than 40 per cent of revenues from government sources can fail miserably.

Shaham’s words of wisdom: “The idea is to build a plan where government funds or grants are the cream. If an entrepreneur builds a business plan with government grants in mind, he’d better get a job somewhere else.”

Heritage Canada (through the Canadian Magazine Fund), the Canadian Council of the Arts and provincial arts councils all have millions to invest in the industry. New publishers should familiarize themselves with the requirements made readily available on the websites of these prospective funding branches before they’ve made concrete commitments to advertisers, formats and editorial content.

Government funding is not secure. The trough could be full today and empty tomorrow. The current levels of government funding are substantial, numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars, yet the industry still struggles to sustain itself.

From the stage of Lower Canada College, Ken Alexander emphasizes that, “It’s important that it not all come from Ottawa, that it not all be state sponsored, that it be from within and that we put the challenge to the Canadian people to support [Canadian magazines].”

 

Canadians seem to be thirsting after these start-up magazines – just not when it comes to advertising or paying a cover price that would make them profitable ventures rather than labours of love. Publishing software and a good idea has made accessible what was once only possible with massive financial backing, and a shift in government focus has targeted these start-ups as the core of the industry’s future.

Nonetheless, starting a magazine in Canada is often a doomed undertaking. Even the most basic new publications often run into unforeseen costs and prospective government funding that reveals itself to be more troublesome than anticipated.

Some lasting advice from a fresh experience in starting up a magazine: “Get a job, get a life, get this idea out of your mind. But if you really insist: learn your market, get distribution agreements in advance, find a fat investor and a dedicated team that understands what it takes. Start to live on Kraft Dinner, rent a basement not a high end office, don’t plan to get government funding cause you probably won’t, try to get commitments from advertisers, be different and learn your target market.” -Guy Shaham, Nxet magazine.

Photos: courtesy