In Conversation With: Stack Magazine's Steven Watson
The age of independent publishing is well and truly upon us. Lovingly crafted, well researched projects born out of a will to share individual passions with a wider audience.
In a sense, the very thing that was supposed to signal the death of printed media has helped to inspire the growing crop of titles. The internet. The idea that anyone, anywhere can publish their own thoughts and thoughts of other in a style uncompromised by advertising or shareholders and establish a community has been adopted into the mindset of those in the printed magazine sector.
While there are established names covering broad subjects; travel, lifestyle, in the independent world, for every Cereal or Kinfolk there is also space for magazines dedicated niches in analogue fashion photography, the Arab world and the effect of plants in the home.
Based at the Makerversity co-working space in the bowels of Somerset House, Stack Magazines founder Steve Watson has been championing the work of independent publishers since 2009.
Going full time in 2014, Stack is the ultimate online magazine subscription service and distribution resource for indie titles.
We spoke to Steven about the work Stack are doing to support the industry and the positive future of independent magazines.
What was your initial aim for the project and what difficulties did you encounter in setting it up?
I really just wanted to make it easier for people to enjoy independent magazines. I was writing for a few small independents and was struck by the fact that most people had just never heard about them. At first I assumed that’s because they don’t have much money for marketing and advertising, but as I looked into it I realised that distribution is the big problem – most magazine distributors work sale or return, which means the publisher takes all the risk producing the magazines, but they only get paid for the ones that sell. I started Stack as a safer way for publishers to work, and as an easier way for people to discover new things.
In terms of difficulties, probably just all the usual stuff! Not enough time, not enough money, etc. But the brilliant thing about independent magazines is that they have boomed over the last few years, so any time I’ve felt like chucking it all in, another new title has come along and got me excited about publishing again.
Did you work in magazines or publishing before setting up Stack?
Yeah, I was a writer and editor, and my last job before going full-time on Stack was as editorial director at a creative agency. I learned loads from those years, and today the main way we promote Stack is by content marketing, so making videos, podcasts, writing things, and generally spreading the word about independent publishing.
Do you think the rise of independent publishing has reached its peak or do you see further progress happening over the next few years?
I think the genie is out of the bottle and this thing is just going to keep on going. Print publishing is just like all other media in that the internet has shaken it up and radically changed the way it works. So in just the same way that now you have people making their own music and releasing it, or shooting films on their phones and releasing them, we have people all over the world who have realised that with a laptop and an internet connection they can produce their own independent magazine.
Making a print magazine is still relatively difficult and expensive, so it means people only do it when they really feel passionately about something, and that’s a brilliant filter to work with. The ideas and excitement that drives people to print is what makes independent magazines so interesting, but compared to a video or a piece of music or something else that can exist purely as data, they’re difficult to move around the world and put in front of people. And despite that filter, there’s still a lot of not very good stuff being made.
So the challenge for Stack is to first of all find the really good stuff, then find a way of putting it in front of readers who will appreciate it.
How has the landscape changed since you began?
There’s a much greater awareness of independent publishing as a ‘thing’ now. Back when I started in 2008 I’d tell people that I work with independent magazines and they’d say, ‘Oh, you mean like Vice?’ But now it’s much more likely that people will name magazines like Cereal, Little White Lies or The Gourmand - these magazines that are cutting through and gaining a wider following.
Do people set up their own magazine for similar reasons or is it quite varied?
It’s always because they have something they want to say – some passion or belief that they want to communicate to a wider audience. They go about that in all sorts of different ways, but that initial impulse is at the heart of it.
Which are some of your favourite titles out there at the moment?
Good question! I really love Real Review, a magazine that is nominally about architecture but actually ranges way beyond that subject. It’s provocative and inspiring and really high quality, and they’ve added a vertical fold to the pages to create a new reading experience. Really clever stuff.
What separates a good magazine from a bad one?
The magazines that really excite me are the ones that take an original idea or point of view, and build everything around that point. Those are the magazines that really thrill readers with their purpose and passion, and it just leaps off the pages. By contrast the ones I try to avoid are the ones that seem to be going through the motions, producing derivative or ill-considered work.
The Stack Awards are a great vehicle for highlighting the great work done by independent publishers. Have you seen a noticeable impact since launching it?
Thanks very much! The awards were conceived as a way to shine a light on independent magazines as a whole, by drawing attention to the best and most exciting titles. It’s by far the biggest event of our year, so yes, in terms of traffic and awareness and sales the awards make a big contribution to the stuff we do.
What are your plans for Stack long term?
More of the same! I’m really excited by the diversity and originality of the independent magazines being produced all around the world, and I want to help them reach readers who will appreciate them. We do that through our subscriptions, through the weekly Sampler sales, through the awards, and through the video reviews, podcasts, interviews, round ups and all the other content that goes up on the blog pretty much every day. We’ll keep on doing that, and hopefully keep on finding more ways to switch people on to independent magazines.