How To Publish Your Own Magazine
By Julia Beverly, Publisher of Ozone Magazine
(Originally appeared in "JB's 2 Cents" Editorial Column--March 2006)
First of all, my disclaimer: I am far from an expert. All I know is what I've learned through trial and error, and I'm still learning as I go. But (special editions included) having managed to put out around 65 issues, I must be doing something right, so hopefully this will be helpful to anyone trying to start their own magazine or even another type of business. The tips in this piece basically assume that you are starting with little to no budget - if you are lucky enough to have found an investor willing to put five or six figures into your dream, you are probably smarter than me and should write an article for me to read.
This is very, very important. Whether you've decided to come out monthly (12 times a year), bi-monthly (6 times a year), quarterly (4 times a year), or otherwise, you have to set realistic deadlines and release dates and do everything in your power to meet them.
Especially when you are first starting out, it's essential that your issue drops when you say it's going to drop, or you will damage your credibility with advertisers and therefore you will lose money. Think about it - if an advertiser pays you up front for an ad in a publication they've never seen, they are taking a risk. For the first year or two, advertisers would call me promptly on the release date to make sure the magazine was really out. These days, they ask out of excitement, not out of suspicion. They know it's coming. Until you've built a reputation and people have a reason to trust you, it's important to have your product out on time.
The advantage of having a monthly publication is cash flow; you can constantly be booking ads and can offer significant discounts on advertising for multiple months. The disadvantage, of course, is that you will also be spending a lot of money on a monthly basis, and you will be working your ass off constantly to meet deadlines. Advertising dollars tend to dry up near the end of the year - I assume this is why some magazines come out 11 times a year, usually with a combined December/January issue.
Keep in mind that you have to allow time for printing and distribution. The amount of time depends on your method of distributing the magazine (are you giving it out for free, is it subscribers only, is it sold on newsstands, or all of the above?). You have to allow 7-10 days for printing and several days for shipping. If you're using a distributor, they'll probably need around 3 weeks to put your product in stores. So if your magazine's release date is January 1st, 2007, you'll have the send the files to print the last week of November 2006. This is the reason why you'll see magazines with news items that seem dated. If an artist gets arrested, for example, you'll hear about it on the internet or the radio right away, and a few months later read about it in a magazine's "news" section.
For most hip-hop magazines you see on newsstands, there's probably about a two month gap between the time the article is actually written and the time it reaches you, the consumer (I'm writing this on February 9th, so check your calendar).
Picking A Name
No disrespect to anybody, for real, but if I see one more magazine named "Urban __" I'm gonna throw up. It's so generic and dime-a-dozen. Think of something original that's relevant to your magazine. Hater Magazine, for example, is a cool name for a magazine and I wish I had thought of it first. Your tagline should also be quick, original, catchy, and easy to remember.
Find Your Niche
Who are you targeting? A successful magazine owner knows the type of person who is reading, and what they want to read about. Many start-up magazines fail because they are only trying to cover the "stars." If I want to read about 50 Cent, I'll pick up XXL. If I want to read about Kanye West, I'll pick up Vibe. So why are you, a local indie magazine, trying to interview 50 Cent and Kanye West? They don't care about you and they don't need you, so even if you can get 10 minutes with them on the phone, they're not going to tell you anything interesting that hasn't been printed a thousand times already. Of course, there's nothing wrong with featuring major artists, but your main focus should be something unique to your audience. Focus on people who aren't getting the publicity you deserve. Seek out interesting stories that haven't been told.
There are a couple of copycat OZONEs out there but we aren't saying any names. I'm just saying, do you, don't copy somebody else. I intentionally tried to make everything - from our layouts to the titles of our articles - totally different from The Source, XXL, etc., to give OZONE its own flavor. Also, there is nothing more boring than a magazine that prints press releases, label-provided bios, and stock images of the artists. Hire a photographer or go out and get pictures your damn self. Don't run the same photos that we've seen in forty other publications, and PLEASE don't try to pass off a press release as an "article" or "interview."
Dealing With Artists
If your magazine focuses on music or entertainment and you expect to be taken seriously, you have to act like a professional when dealing with artists. It's natural to be a little starstruck once in a while, but don't be a groupie. This goes for men and women alike. Asking to take a picture with them is okay sometimes, depending on the situation (FYI: the pictures you see by my editorial every month are usually not my request), but asking for autographs is generally a bad idea. Rapping/singing/entertaining is just what they do for a living. Don't get caught up in the smoke and mirrors and bullshit, just do your job and handle your business and you will be respected. Same goes for "modeling" magazines - don't be trying to fuck all the models.
With that said - this is still a business where your success depends largely on your relationships and your reputation. It's important to develop professional friendships with people in the industry. If you don't vibe well with one particular artist, try to develop a relationship with someone in their camp – the DJ, security, road manager, manager, publicist, label rep, anyone. Don't look at anyone as a peon. Treat everyone with respect, because in this business you never know where an intern or roadie might end up in a few years.
Media Passes/Access to Events
Sometimes the hardest part about dealing with artists is all the bullshit you have to go through to actually get to them. Depending on how tight the security is, you might have to get creative. There are two types of events: underground hood concerts thrown by local promoters, and major events put on by radio stations or corporations. Build a relationship with local promoters and show them some love in the magazine in exchange for getting access to their events. Those are show-up-early-at-the-door-and-talk-your-way-in situations. But when it comes to award shows or major events, you usually have to fax in a request for media credentials several weeks or even months ahead of time. Find out who the media contact is for that particular event, and. fax them a simple letter on your magazine's letterhead requesting passes and explaining what type of coverage you plan to give the event. Having a relationship with the artist can help you get access in certain situations, but don't depend on them to get you in.
Generally speaking, where there's a will, there's a way. If you want to get in to an event bad enough, you'll find a way. When one door is closed, another is open. That means if the front door isn't working, try the back. If one person tells you "no," ask someone else. Be persistent and aggressive to get what you need, but don't cross the line and disrespect the person/people in charge or you'll risk burning a bridge you might want to cross in the future.
Basic Business Skills/Follow-Through
Running around to the clubs and events and meeting artists is just the fun part. There's still a lot of business to be handled at the office that requires basic organizational skills. Having some type of corporate experience is helpful. If you're trying to get advertising dollars from labels, your paperwork game has to be right. Even though I get to hang out at video shoots and in VIP lounges and green rooms, whenever I get back to the office there's always a mountain of mail and faxes to sort through, and 15,051 unread emails in my inbox (seriously, that's a real number, so don't get mad if I haven't responded to yours). So, there's a lot of filing and typing and organizing and emailing and corporate America-type-bullshit that comes with running a magazine. If you don't have the tolerance for it, you may be in the wrong business.
Keep Your Overhead Low
It doesn't matter how hot your product is if the numbers don't make sense. Every issue, you have to be aware of how much you're making (advertising dollars + newsstand sales + subscriptions) and you also have to be aware of how much you're spending, total. If you're spending more than you're making, you have a problem, so you have to find a solution to the problem. That solution might be to find other ways to bring in revenue, or it might be to cut back on expenses.
Wearing multiple hats is also a solution to this problem. Most startup magazines don't have much funding, and don't bring in enough revenue to hire a complete staff. My solution to this problem was to do everything myself. In the beginning, I had no money to hire a photographer and writer for every article, so I'd just go do both myself. As OZONE's popularity has grown, so has the need for a full-time staff, and we are slowly developing into a company instead of a one-woman show. But all in all, it helped me understand the entire process. It's important for every CEO to understand every aspect of the company, and what better way to do that than by being hands-on?
Don't Be Afraid To Start Small
It's basic economics: supply and demand. Some magazines fail because they spend all their money printing a whole bunch of copies of the first issue, and the supply exceeds the demand. I actually had a debate with Bun B about this recently: Would Air Force Ones and Bathing Apes be as popular if they were available everywhere? I doubt it. In the same way, starting out small and staying consistent can help you build an enormous buzz (not to brag or anything, but OZONE is a perfect example of this). It doesn't make sense for you to print 50,000 copies on your first run. Start with 10,000, or even a few thousand, depending on the area you're trying to reach. If your product is hot, people will start talking about it. If there's a limited amount of copies, it will be harder to find and will increase the hype. As your audience increases, slowly increase the amount of magazines you print. Since the cost of printing each magazine is so high, you don't want to be printing extra copies unnecessarily.
Negotiate Printing Prices
When you're starting out, the cost of printing your magazine will be by far your highest cost. In my experience, some printing companies rank right up there with car salesmen and lawyers. They'll hit you over the head with high prices right off top, and if you don't complain or find other options, they'll continue charging you out the ass because you don't know any better. I interviewed photographer J Lash in OZONE once, and he quoted boxing promoter Don King as advising him, "You never get what you're worth. You only get what you can negotiate." This statement applies to all forms of business, especially magazine printing. Of course, this goes back to my first point: consistency. The more consistent you are, the more negotiating power you have. Don't just pick one printer, pay what they ask, and get comfortable using them. Renegotiate constantly. You should constantly get quotes from other printers, and if their price is lower, show it to your current printer and see if they'll match it. If you're a consistent client and you pay on time, they will at least try to come close.
You should also keep in mind that there are different types of printing presses, different paper weights, different types of binding, and many variables that can affect your price. Also, printers sometimes throw on additional costs (like UV coating, for example) which can add up.
You might find a cheaper price in another state or even another country, but the cost of shipping may negate those savings. The closer your printer is to your office, the more control you have. Having a face-to-face relationship and being able to knock on their door has significant advantages over dealing with faceless names via phone and email.
Magazines are generally printed on large sheets which fit 8 pages (front and back), so when you're starting out it's most cost-efficient to put out a magazine in intervals of 16 pages. This means your magazine should be 32 pages, 48 pages, 64 pages, 80 pages, etc. Add 4 more pages if you want the cover to be thicker than the inside pages (this is also an additional cost). Magazines that are under 104 pages are generally "saddle-stiched" with two staples in the middle, which is cheaper but doesn't look as professional. Once you get over 104 pages (like the current issue you're reading) it can be "perfect bound," with the flat binding on the side.
Learn How To Use The Fucking Spell Check
One local magazine I saw had the title "Fat Joe and the Terrow Squard" on their cover. Needless to say, that magazine is no longer in business. If you aren't able to skim through your articles and spot typos, at the very least, run spell check on your entire document before you print it. Most programs, even Microsoft Word, will do this for you automatically. But even with spell check, the program will miss minor spelling errors or grammatical errors. For this reason, if time allows, it's good to read through (or have someone else who is good at catching mistakes) your entire magazine at least once before it goes to press. You'll never catch them all- no matter how hard I try, OZONE always seems to end up with three typos that slide through the cracks - but you should try your hardest. Printing obvious typos or false information reflects very poorly on your publication. Potential advertisers - major labels or corporate sponsors - will shy away from spending money with your publication if it appears unprofessional. This also applies to your media kit, advertising solicitation letters, and other correspondence.
Your articles should cause a reaction. They should be thought-provoking, amusing, educational, controversial, or at least vaguely interesting. Write about things you're passionate about and allow other writers to write about things they're passionate about. If you're bored writing it, the reader will be bored reading it. Again, PLEASE no press releases or artist bios. Calculate how much each page is costing you to print, and ask yourself if that particular article or interview is really worth the space. As a publisher, you have a lot of freedom. If an artist gives an exceptionally great interview, you have the freedom to make their article longer, and chop or eliminate boring interviews.
Graphics and Layout
You could write the most profound article of all time, but if your layout is bad or cluttered, your words will go unread. When it comes to layout, it's best to keep it simple. One common mistake is printing white text on top of a dark, cluttered background, which may not print out well. Many local magazine owners don't understand CMYK. CMYK is the color “mode” used by printing presses. When you send your magazine to press, the images are split up into four color “plates:” C (cyan), M (magenta), Y (yellow), and K (black). Occasionally, you'll see pages in a magazine that appear blurry, because one of the plates wasn't aligned properly. Many indie magazine publishers also don't understand photo resolution. Images on the internet are 72 dpi (dots-per-inch), but professional quality photos should be minimum 300 dpi. If you copy a photo off the internet (or scan an image from another magazine), blow it up, and print it, it will look like absolute shit once it comes off the press.
Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are basically industry standard when it comes to designing graphics and images. But DO NOT use Photoshop to layout your text. For text - articles, cover titles, etc - use a layout program. Many publications use Quark for layout, which is a Mac-based program. Personally, I prefer PCs, so I use Adobe InDesign.
Now that digital cameras are so common, many indie magazines take pictures straight out of the camera and print them without retouching. This is a big problem, because images - especially from digital cameras - tend to look much darker in print. Almost every single image you see in this magazine has been individually retouched. Photoshop is essential for magazine publishing. If you don't have at least a basic knowledge of it, find someone who does. You can play around with layers, curves, brightness, contrast, hues, sharpness, healing brushes, cloning brushes, and lots of other fun stuff. You should also attempt to match the colors and brightness of your monitor to a print copy of your magazine; in other words, the final copy of your magazine should appear exactly the same as it did on your computer screen. If you're good at Photoshop, you can often salvage photos that appear too dark, airbrush out blemishes, make colors appear more vibrant and eye-catching, and the list goes on and on.
Hit The Streets, The Internet, And Everything In Between
Posting your articles online, whether on your own website or on other people's message boards, is a good way to create hype online. In the same way, but a little more time-consuming, passing out copies at clubs and in the streets can create hype. These are two equally important audiences: people on internet message boards, and people in the streets and in the hood, are both tastemakers in their own way.
Barcodes, Corporations, Trademarks, Taxes
I honestly hate dealing with this stuff, I don't completely understand it, and would hate to give you incorrect information. Still, that doesn't mean you should ignore these things. You'd be better off consulting an attorney or accountant like I do. If you're planning to sell in stores, you'll need a barcode, which requires a fee up front and minimal monthly fees to actually create the barcode image. A lawyer can help you file the necessary paperwork to register your company as a corporation (Inc. or LLC), as well as filing for trademarks and copyrights. Paying taxes, of course, are just as essential to your corporation as they are to you as an individual, so make sure your business is on point.
Subscriptions & Bulk Mailing
Your subscription cost should be minimal; enough to cover your costs but still competitive. In addition to your subscriber list, you should also have a comp list of people that receive the magazine for free every month: potential advertisers, label reps, DJs, writers, publicists, even artists. Collect business cards and comp key people in each market.
As your list grows, you will be faced with the fun task of mailing copies out each issue. When OZONE started, we were sending out magazines in manila envelopes and stamping them with "MEDIA MAIL:' which is a little cheaper than regular first class mail. But they still cost around $2 each, so the mailing was getting very expensive. I finally learned that the United States Post Office has a separate Business division which handles bulk mailings. If you ship more than 200 pieces per issue, you can apply for a bulk mail permit (it costs several hundred dollars, and you have to pay to renew it once a year). But instead of paying $2/each, you'll be paying more like $.50/each, depending on the weight of your publication. Plus, you can stick the label directly on the magazine instead of taking the time to stuff them in manila envelopes.
Although bulk mail is much cheaper, there are also several drawbacks. One is that the post office requires you to presort the mail by zip code. You can buy software to assist you with this, but either way, it's a pain in the ass and a complicated time-consuming process. Another major drawback is that bulk mail can take 2-3 weeks to reach the reader's mailbox. If you don't have the time or patience to handle mailouts in-house, another option is to outsource your subscriptions (pay another company to send them out for you).
I'm really not an expert on distribution, so you may want to seek out other resources on this aspect of magazine publishing. As far as I can tell, there are three basic routes you can take when it comes to distribution. One is to pass it out free as promo and depend on your advertising dollars as revenue. OZONE was given out free for about three years, and we still give out promo copies through street teams in certain areas in addition to the copies available for sale on newsstand. (We also sell wholesale to indie retailers.) This is a good way to get people talking about your magazine, because everyone loves free stuff, but you're also spending a lot of money on printing. Plus, it requires a lot of time, effort, and travel. The second option is to sign up with smaller distributors or wholesalers that will accept virtually any magazine and place it in a limited amount of stores. Unfortunately, most of them will charge you significant fees per store and shipping costs per magazine. You shouldn't expect to receive large checks. Even if your magazine sells well, by the time their retailer takes their percentage (usually anywhere from 50-60%) and the distributor deducts their fees, there won't be much left. Most of your revenue will still have to come from advertising, but at least you will benefit from the visibility of being seen on newsstands.
The third option, and the one which I am still learning about, is to sign an exclusive contract with a major distributor. You can basically count the number of major distributors on one hand. They're like the WEA or the UMG or the Zomba of the publishing world; all the labels consolidated into one. They deal with many of the smaller distributors and wholesalers mentioned above, but have the power to negotiate better percentages and fees. Major distributors take a flat percentage of your sales, reach out to chain stores to get authorization for new titles, and handle all the paperwork and headaches. They're also harder to reach, and much more exclusive, so they won't accept every magazine. They're looking for titles which are well-funded, well-connected, and established. If you're trying to link up with a major distributor, hiring a distribution consultant can help in the process but of course that means spending more money. Major distribution is not necessarily a good thing for every magazine. You have to wait til the time is right. If you're reaching a very limited specialized audience, you may want to be strictly subscription-based. Or, you may want to try the other methods above to build an audience first, which will give you more leverage when seeking a major distribution deal (Just like an indie artist seeking a major record deal).
Even after you've signed with a major distribution deal, that doesn't automatically guarantee you placement in major chains. Places like 7-11, Walgreens, and airport bookstores often charge hefty fees to place your magazine on their shelves. If you don't have an investor or a steady stream of advertising dollars already flowing in, pursue other distribution options first.
Haha! You didn't think I was gonna give up all the game in one issue, did you? I'm not a salesperson. Before I started the magazine someone told me, "If you just do what you love to do, the money will come," and I didn't believe him, but it turns out there's some truth to that statement.
- Julia Beverly, firstname.lastname@example.org