(thoughts on the "success" of independent, print magazines)
Image by Oleksandr Sapaiev (IG: @oleksandr.sapaiev)
Before anything else, independent magazines are about people. They are borne by strangers you see and touch, not triggering logos or brands you recognize. Their physical lives are dangerous, exciting and commonly short, and the industry is fueled daily with emerging publishers and editors busying this landscape with ideas. There is a resurgence in print and has been for several years, one that is not short of new voices. How then, amongst so much discourse, could their “success” be defined?
First, let us understand two things: the indie magazine generally attempts to survive outside of a commercially stable context. This is the simple reality. And secondly, the indie magazine exists even after its production has ceased; it is a physical object that continues to be bound by the voices and ideas that it features - history, too, is anthropological. So, let us assess its success more by what its independence enables it to be: a mobile, original and innovative medium of expression.
A couple of years ago, the summer of 2018 brought to London’s Summerset House Print! Tearing It Up, an exhibition co-curated by Paul Gorman, featuring a wealth of progressive, independent magazines since the release of Blast in 1914.
Gorman believes that the “success” of a magazine is not so easily defined by the prospects of longevity or market research, but more by the relationship the editor(s) has with their own voice and readership. "A lot of the great magazines were done on instinct," Gorman notes. "I trained as a journalist […] and what was drummed into us by grizzly older blokes was know your reader. I think that the instinct that Bertie and Charlotte had at Mushpit ten years ago was: we are our reader. We think this is funny, or poignant or perceptive. Maybe lots of other younger women will do as well."
This nuanced self-expression is commonplace in the digital age amongst our Twitter feeds and hashtags, one that is now feeding back into the print industry through a new generation, defying the suggestion that print was dead. And this notion has been in print since the Vorticists, suggests Gorman, and can be seen especially in the punk values of the 70s, too: "[the punk attitude] was anti-corporate and it was DIY. And DIY is seizing the means of production, and building your own culture—your own fashion, your own music—just doing it yourself."
This ethos decentralizes the binary pillars of financial and physical endurance. They uphold the desire to share thoughts and opinions with the world and to represent those voices that are quieter, a keen focus in Print! Tearing It Up.
Inclusivity is a key factor in determining whether or not the content of an indie magazine is going to travel well over time. It must be true to itself whilst simultaneously responding to current issues and trends.
I read Gentlewoman. In a previous age, that would have been targeted just at women. I read it because I’m not being excluded from it. —Gorman
If it is rejected. It is rejected. Debate arises and education transpires.
One positive example of the way in which today’s digital landscape feeds into the world of independent print is the ability to find a community—one’s own niche, as Gorman emphasises:
"We’re all niche people. Music magazines, for example, Mojo and Uncut, they were probably selling about 100,000 copies a month. That’s gone now. They’re probably surviving on 15-20,000 copies. So, they’ve become more niche. What was quite a wide demographic has become really concentrated […] and I think that that has made space for a lot of smaller magazines to state their case."
A particular breed of independent magazine that I engage with regularly is the literary magazine of new writing—a form which promotes emerging and previously unpublished writers. These publications, like Glasgow-based Guttermag or text-visual hybrids like Popshot Quarterly and our own (digital) EX/POST, are the kind of spaces to which I submit my own literature and read that of others. Their content is their readership. And those tools for success first stated in the article—mobility, originality, innovation—all move with fluidity throughout the pages of literary magazines as the writers that contribute towards them comment on the world as it is, as it was, and as they believe it may come to be.
As well as holding a plethora of fascinating and original storytelling, they act as a vital resource for the promotion of other writers and the development of their practice.
Tim Shearer, fiction and poetry editor of Manchester’s Confingo, believes good fortune, goodwill, and "endless amounts of passion combined with limitless amounts of patience" are the requirements for a successful publication in this field.
"Obviously, [commercial viability] is a significant factor—and a factor in why so few independent literary magazines survive beyond a few years, but I wouldn’t say I’ve found it fundamental. We’ve published ten issues of the magazine and not one has made a profit, although the losses have become smaller with each issue. In Confingo’s case, we are fortunate that my partner takes a close interest in the magazine’s development and has been willing to subsidize it at certain times."
Whereas many magazines of this kind are built as stages, from which writers’ work can be showcased, Confingo diversifies its form and places an emphasis on collaboration, too, inviting participants to produce work together.
"Two years ago," Shearer said, "we staged a project whereby one writer, or artist, was paired with another—but the identity of each was kept secret from the other. The participants were able to write with uninhibited freedom (within the constraints of a dialogue) while at the same time being confident of a sympathetic response. It was a particularly intense experiment and a number of enduring friendships were formed in the course of it.
"In the magazine," he continued, "we have published a number of collaborative pieces: writers responding to images from a video triptych; a poet responding to paintings; an essayist responding to a series of photographs featuring bees. In at least two of these cases, the writers/artists involved have gone on to produce further collaborative work together."
These projects are accomplishments in themselves, which again fractures any overarching definition of “success” into smaller, more personal terms.
Confingo’s peers, like Bare Fiction and Pushing Out the Boat, and all of the magazines filling the shelves of fashion, music and politics, too, show that the independent publishing industry is home to passion projects, demographical representation and progressive thought. The ability to express yourself cannot be so easily defined by margins and financial gain, but more the accumulative weight of some paper—cut, bent, colored and bound in every way imaginable—then thrown in front of someone else to see what they think.