From daydream to published magazine, and beyond: a practical guide to starting your own magazine
★ 15 min read
So, you want to start a magazine?
You’re not alone. Traditional print magazine - or ‘glossy magazine’ - sales have plummeted over the last few years, while the new age of independent magazines is going from strength to strength.
That doesn’t mean the magazine industry is the place to make a ‘quick buck’. In fact, most magazines really won’t make much money at all. And it’s hard work putting a magazine together - in fact it’s really hard. Those coffee-fuelled all-nighters checking final proofs may seem glamorous now, but you’ll soon realise they’re anything but.
That’s why you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror right now and ask yourself: do I really want to publish a magazine? If you’re at all on the fence, give up now. If your heart isn’t 100% in it, you’ll simply never make it work. However, if you’re all in and prepared for a bumpy road ahead, you could be embarking on one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
Your magazine will be a creative labour or love, but you need a strong business plan to lead it to success. This guide will take you on a whistle-stop, practical tour from idea to publishing, and beyond. When we say whistle-stop tour, we mean it - there’s so much to learn about the process of starting a magazine that you could fill a book. In fact, some people have! So You Want to Publish a Magazine and The Magazine Blueprint are two of our favourites.
The 8 steps to successfully self publishing a magazine:
Finding your niche
If you’ve got this far, chances are you already have an idea of what form your new magazine is going to take. That’s great, but it’s so important to stay open to change. Sticking ruthlessly to your first idea is a sure way to make something that misses the mark.
What will your magazine be about?
You need to find more than just your topic; you need to find your niche. You might love cooking, but you’ll need to be more specific than that. Find an angle, something that makes this new magazine stand out for all the right reasons.
Backstage magazine isn't just a design magazine. It's 'an interview magazine about how design can change business for the better'
And be practical about it, too. You may want to create a travel magazine, but this is a fairly saturated space - how would you compete with the likes of Cereal and Condé Nast? If you can't find a unique angle, it might be best to go for a different sector altogether.
Who will read it?
Okay, so now you’ve found your niche and you’re all set to make the best magazine known to man, right?
Wrong! You may think your magazine is the bee's knees, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will.
Think about your target audience, and think about more than just their age and gender: what does their life look like? What are their interests? What makes them tick? How will you get your magazine in front of them, and convince them to buy it? How will it fit into their life? Fill in this framework as a good starting point:
|Is your reader male or female?|
|How old is your reader?|
|What does your reader enjoy?|
|What does your reader dislike?|
|When would your reader read your magazine? (On their commute, over breakfast)|
|How does your reader like to shop, and where/how would they buy your magazine?|
Once you’ve got your dream reader in mind, give them a name and draw a picture of them. As silly as it sounds, you need this hypothetical person to stick in your mind so you never stray from producing something they’d like. Note: you can make more than one reader profile if you think it’s needed!
Once you have your target market in mind, find a bunch of them in real life. They can be friends, family, colleagues… anyone whose opinion you trust. Test your idea against them, and get their feedback. Take note and make adjustments. It’s also worth running it past anyone with experience publishing or selling indie magazines; you’ll quickly find it’s a really close-knit community, and people are happy to offer their advice. There are reddit forums you can post in, and events to attend (we’ll get to those later on).
Getting the word out
You’ve told your mates, you’ve called your mum - now it’s time to let everyone else know.
People publish magazines because they love the nostalgia and permanence of print. However, in this day and age, a magazine simply cannot survive on printed pages alone.
You’re going to need a website. This is one of the few stages of the publishing process for which the phrase ‘it’s harder than it sounds’ does not apply. That’s because making a website today is easy - it’s, really easy. And it’s cheap, too.
Check out our roundup of the best website builders on the market today. Wix is sure to be good bet for magazines. Their huge range of templates mean you can get your publication’s unique personality across in every digital page, as well as every printed one.
Your website should include an ‘about’ page summarising what your magazine is and what it stands for, and also a bit about the people who work on it. You should also have a blog section, and try to post here semi-regularly. Most importantly, you need a subscribe button so that you can keep interested people in the loop when your pilot issue is ready to sell.
Worried having a website means double the work? Don’t fret. Blog posts don’t need to be long, and you can include things that don’t make the cut for the printed magazine (or excerpts from the submissions that do).
You’ll also want to get your social media platforms started up now, and post on them regularly. Instagram is a hugely successful platform for indie magazines, even those that aren’t image-focused. Long captions have become fashionable now - each post is kind of like a mini blog post, and is a really invaluable way for people to get an insight into your ‘brand’. National Geographic has absolutely nailed long captions. Perdiz magazine keeps things short and sweet, but has made the hashtag #makesmehappy a huge part of their brand:
To get social media followers, it’s a good idea to first follow the accounts of publications you think your ideal readers would enjoy. Then you can actually start following some of the people who follow those accounts (on the basis that if they enjoy that account, they’d likely enjoy yours too, and follow you back).
Events and networking
Last but not least, you need to be out there spreading the word! Self-promotion can feel awkward, but it needn’t be. Keep an eye on MeetUp and Eventbrite for publishing, editorial or design-related events that could help you learn, and to meet people that can help you. Stack run some great events for this. You’ll be surprised how many useful opportunities and contacts you will find if you simply keep going to the right places and asking the right questions.
As the old saying goes, magazines don’t grow on trees. Neither does money, now we come to think of it.
How much money you’ll need to start a magazine depends on several factors which we’ll cover a bit later on:
- Printing - style, number of pages and other variables will impact the price of each copy
- Content - are you paying for a design, and for submissions, or are you doing this yourself?
- Distribution method - some large stockists will actually ask you for an upfront fee for displaying your magazine (bonkers, we know)
- Copies - how many copies are you going to print?
No matter how much you need to raise in order to get issue one off the ground, you have two key ways to cover the cost: self-funding, or crowdfunding (with a Kickstarter campaign or similar). Or you can actually do a mixture of the two.
If you’ve got sufficient funds saved up then you’re good to go. If not, check out our roundup of the 99designs is a good place to start, as is Fiverr for any small projects or quick fixes. It always pays to ask around, too. Someone you know is bound to know a freelance graphic designer who can agree a much more reasonable rate with you. And just because you won’t be doing the main bulk of the design yourself, it’s still a good idea to get up to scratch with the basics of Adobe so you can make minor tweeks yourself.
Distribution and sales
You’ve made the magazine, but now the real work begins: you need to get it into circulation.
Distribution is a tough nut to crack. The problem is that distributors will only pay you once your magazine is sold by the stockist. This means you take on 100% of the printing risk, and have to wait anywhere between a few weeks and a few months to actually get your hands on the money.
Cutting out the middleman and handling distributing yourself can work, but will obviously be a lot more time consuming. You’ll also find it hard to get into the bigger outlets. It’s a tradeoff you’ll have to weigh up.
Selling directly on your website
Of course you’ll want to sell your magazine on your own website, too. In fact, in terms of profit, the more you can sell this way the better. A Paypal business account is a good short term solution, but really you’ll want to set up a merchant account as soon as possible. With a dedicated merchant account, you’ll get better fees and clearly be able to see how much money you’re making.Magazine events and fairs
As well as selling online, you should set up shop in person at events and fairs. Magazine fairs are an obvious choice, but think outside the box, too - if your magazine is about food, coffee, beer or wine, for example, you’ll find there are tons of relevant events that you should be showing up at. Be sure to set yourself up with a mobile card reader (you can’t count on people to carry enough cash these days) - something easy and small, like the iZettle.
Collaborating for success
The saying ‘there is strength in numbers’ was probably coined by an independent magazine founder. That’s the great thing about little magazines with their own distinct niche; the success of one rarely has a negative impact on the other. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Once your first issue has been published, be sure to join The Indie Publisher Club and The Little Magazine Coalition. Being able to share your concerns and questions with a network of people who’ve been through it all before is invaluable. But more than that, there’s an opportunity to club together on Facebook adverts or joint sales efforts that will push your magazine to the next level.
Stack is a subscription service that sends subscribers a different independent magazine each month for £7. They also have over 40k followers on Instagram. This is another great platform for getting your magazine noticed.
Supersizing your magazine
The work definitely doesn’t stop after publish day. Not only should you be running around town telling everyone why they should be buying your first magazine, you should be thinking about starting work on the second one. And you should be thinking bigger and better.
It can be hard to get advertisers on board for issue one, but this is something you could start thinking about for issue two. When dealing with potential advertisers, push what makes your magazine different, and why advertising with you will be beneficial to the companies you approach. At the same time, make sure you work with companies that your audience will want to back.
Expanding your offer
Your magazine can be the perfect springboard into plenty of other complementary ventures, such as podcasts, newsletters and merchandise. Cereal is a travel, art, design and style magazine, but they also publish city guides. The Gourmand is a food and culture journal, but they also sell tshirts. These side ventures may even end up being more lucrative than your magazine itself.
Going full time
After a few issues, you’ll really get a sense of how your magazine is performing, and you may decide to quit your job and take it full time. This is really exciting, but should be approached with caution; as we’ve already said, print magazines typically won’t make a lot of money. That’s why it might be best to work from a coworking space before you try to rent a desk on a more permanent basis.
Now, go for it!
You could (and should) conduct a lot of research when it comes to starting your magazine.
But at the end of the day, the most important step you can take to starting your magazine is: starting your magazine! Start small - write your ‘mission statement’, buy your domain name, set up your Twitter account. Go for it! And let us know how you get on in the comments below.