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Any Questions – Peter Houston

This week, Peter Houston presented InPublishing’s first ever webinar, entitled ‘A new golden age of print? Lessons from the independent magazine scene.’ In the Q&A session that followed Peter’s presentation, we ran out of time before all the questions could be answered. Here, Peter provides a follow-up Q&A.

By Peter Houston

Q. Is sponsorship a good alternative to traditional advertising?

A. Yes, and the more specialised you get, the more sense it makes. Independent magazines typically don’t play the numbers game and sponsorship around niche content targeted at a very specific audience is one way to break out of the mass-media mindset. Offscreen has done this well, delivering targeted exposure to a small group of sponsors in print and online. The trick is to find a sponsor who really relates to your content, your look and feel, and who really wants to reach your audience.

Q. Any tips on approaching sponsors? What can you offer them?

A. You’re offering them association with your unique content, your passion and an audience that cares deeply about it. I would deliver this through print ads, maybe profiles (although I believe strongly that you need to identify these as advertorial) and through digital – banners in newsletters, mentions on social media, whatever channels you have. For me, the point about sponsorship as opposed to advertising is that you’re embedding your sponsors into the community. This is a perfect place to think outside the box, maybe consider competitions and give aways. Hot Rum Cow does this well.

Q. How “cheap” is it to create a magazine? How effective is that spend?

A. That’s the classic “How long is a piece of string question?”. It all depends on paper stock, number of copies, number of pages, what elements of design or writing are outsourced. You can print a really attractive magazine on a short run for less than £1.50 a copy, but that’s only the start of the story. It’s more interesting to think about whether that money is effective. If you get the magazine to the people you want to get it to, if they keep it and look forward to your next issue, if they pay more for it than it costs you to make, then yes, very effective. It really depends what your objective is.

Q. What kind of cost to set up and distribute an indie print magazine?

A. I talked about production costs earlier, but distribution costs are similar. At one end of the scale, it can cost pretty much nothing, because you sell through your own ecommerce site and charge the customer enough to cover postage and admin fees. Once you start using third-party ecommerce sites or real-world retail, it is obviously going to cost you more. These all have their own ways of charging some percentage of the sale price. I’m willing to bet it’s less than Apple’s 30% though.

Q. Do you think visual perception plays a key part?

A. Massively so. I love content on the web, but it is pretty samey. Tablet magazines are breaking out of the grid a little more, but the real attraction of print for me is that the opportunities to innovate around layout and design are almost boundless. Print’s enduring advantage over digital is its physicality and look and feels are a massive factor in that. I have never met anyone who has seen The Ride Journal - pixel heads included - that didn’t say, “Wow! that is an absolutely beautiful thing”.

Q. Should a publisher develop a brand encompassing all aspects of communication?

A. Absolutely. It has to be crossmedia, and not just a ragbag of unrelated digital and print projects. They need to correlate, integrate. I really believe that that only reason we are even discussing this phrase “The Golden Age of Print” is because of the explosion of social media. Pixels and print, working together is the ideal for me.

Q. Any tips for what content to put on your website so you don't give away you printed content?

A. This is a tough one. If you don’t have some content online, you lose the power to develop your audience. Give too much away and there’s nothing left for them to pay for. The ideal is to put content that doesn’t work in print online – video and audio are obvious. If you don’t have multimedia, you could offer outtakes, content that didn’t make it into the print issue. Alternatively, you could deliver completely different content on the web, maybe short newsy briefs or user generated content that really relates to your magazine content, but doesn’t appear in your pages.

Q. Do you see a future in interactive print, Layar or other Augmented Reality, and the way digital and print can complement each other?

A. On print and digital complementing each other, yes, but maybe not on the same page; at least not until we get paper that can carry a user interface. On Augmented Reality, as it exists in Layar and QR codes, I’m not sure. My 40-something gut tells me no, it’s too complicated. You’re going to make me use another device just to see what’s on the pages of a magazine… really? My head tells me there’s a whole generation of people growing up who expect interactivity and will love this type of crossover technology. The jury is out for me.

Q. Aren't you just talking about a "cottage" industry that's always been there? I'd be interested to hear where the revenues are in independent magazines. How many copies does Little White Lies sell, for example? What are their revenue splits between ads / subs/ online etc.

A. First, I have no idea of LWL’s sales figures or revenue split. But actually this misses the point I was trying to make. Whether the magazines I used as examples make a penny or not isn’t important, to me at least. More commercially focussed magazines should be looking to adopt some of the techniques used by these publishers, not because they are profitable, but because their audience absolutely loves them. If a magazine can make a profit without truly engaging its audience in social media, without charging for content, without being an “Object of Desire”, imagine what it could do by adopting these techniques. 

Q. Do you think commercial publishers spend too much time sending out magazines for free? Should we make more effort to sell subs and single issue copies? Everyone seems to be going free - is that a mistake?

A. I don’t think going free is necessarily a mistake. Time Out and The Evening Standard appear to have done pretty well since going free. I don’t, however, think boosting circulation numbers to attract advertisers is the only way to go. You can argue that the smaller the audience, the more niche, the higher the value to the advertiser or sponsor. And if your market will support paid subs or single copy sales then why wouldn’t you charge? However, it’s important to remember that there are consequences to charging. If you’re going to take money from people you need to make sure your content and your production values warrant the next issue’s cover price.

Q. We recently launched a b2b magazine / journal in PDF and flip format. Would you suggest a print version to get ads and monetise?

A. I think it’s certainly worth investigating. Of course it depends on your target audience, it depends on how receptive the advertiser base will be, and it depends if you have the resources to make an attractive print publication. If you can keep the production and distribution costs manageable, print is actually a great marketing vehicle for what you are doing online – it gets attention.

Q. How do indie publishers combat the rising costs of simply being listed in retailers such as WH Smith?

A. The trite answer to this is to forget WH Smith and go direct using social media to drive sales and ecommerce to fulfil them. I would also investigate independent magazine and bookshops. Or how about distribution through related retail outlets – sell cycling magazines through bike shops, kid’s magazines through children’s clothing shops. If you need to be in WH Smith, I’m not sure there’s any way to get around their pricing policies. I’d be really interested to hear from any experts in the distribution space on how to tackle this.

You can watch a recording of the webinar here.