The New Rule in Indie Publishing? There Are No Rules

A recent indie magazine exhibit in London sheds light on the history – and the future – of independent publishing. In a nutshell, they came, they published, they vanished, by the dozens. But in the process, they helped spawn a landscape in which new titles flourished and grew. 

“Take Blast, a literary magazine backing the short-lived modernist art and poetry movement called Vorticism, inspired by Cubism,” writes Peter van Niekerk in FIPP.  “The first edition was published in July 1914 and the last a year later. Fast forward through generations and you will find more of the same. Take the remarkably popular – during those years – Kill Your Pet Puppy dedicated to the emerging punk music scene in London. Born in 1979 and redundant at the age of five, Kill Your Pet Puppy joined a very long list of independent British magazines that make for depressing tombstone reading.”

“In fact,” he continues, “should you have had time to study the utterly confusing – and huge – floor-to-ceiling ‘mindmap of independent British print publishing’ at the recent exhibition of independent print magazines at Somerset House in London entitled ‘Print! Tearing It Up’, the most striking realisation is the vast number of print magazines in the UK that has bitten the dust – long before digital disruption.”

Does this mean they were failures? Far from it, he insists.

“First consider this. A huge number of these magazines answered in the need to define the spirit of a specific era. They were at most sybaritic exercises to give expression to specific subcultures, be this anarchy punk, goth or any alternative grouping in need of a fanzine. Like the demise of Vorticism, Blast was doomed even before it started. So to, as one of many dozens of examples, would the Shoreditch Twat (1999 and 2004) only have a life expectancy until rich faux artistes started moving to Shoreditch, to – inadvertently – kill off what used to be trendy (in Shoreditch).

“Second, many of these now obsolete titles inspired offspring. Music, fashion and culture monthly The Face (1980 to 1999), spawned or influenced rivals New Sounds New Styles (13 issues between July 1981 and July 1982), Blitz (1980 to 1991), Arena (1986 to 2009) and i-D magazines, of which the latter is still being published today. Jump to modern day success stories and the creators of London based Accәnt magazine, a manifestation of glossy photography and personal stories from trans opera divas to urban cowboys, will gladly admit that they were inspired by independent cult titles, including The Face.”

The exhibit documented not just the history of the British indie magazine scene, “it also managed, quite successfully, to chart the impact of it.”

And that impact continues today, as strong voices insist on breaking down the old ways of thinking and the mass market mentality of same-speak, according to FIPP CEO James Hewes who says indie publishers will thrive in this kind of environment.

“Nature abhors a vacuum, and the recent wave of consolidation in the industry has created space for a range of new independent titles.” – James Hewes, FIPP CEO

Yet the current environment also includes the reality of lower print ad budgets, so how can these indie titles hope to thrive with ad spending down? By finding the model that works for today’s consumer – and increasingly, that is a pivot to paid content.

The key to making a paid model work is, of course, relevant high-quality content, so your readers will see the value and pay accordingly.

“Many of these new titles are successful, and financially independent of advertising, like Delayed Gratification (since 2010), the first magazine to be launched by the slow journalism movement, a kick-back against the blind spots created by the 24/7 news cycle,” van Niekerk notes. “All these titles have a business model that legacy publishers are late to wake up to – subscribers pay for all of it.”

On the other hand, many indie titles are well-funded from the start, like the satirical Passing Wind, founded by Ian Hislop (editor of Private Eye) and cartoonist Nick Newman. There’s no shame in being backed by money rather than starving artist angst. And whether bootstrapped or well-heeled, van Niekerk notes one similarity:

“Either way, whether a modern day generation of independent print titles are printed by privileged boodle or the spoils of modern technology, one thing stands: the content will not be lost on platforms that are hesitant to be publishers.”

Ironically, as more indies turn to reader-funded journalism, advertisers are being lured back for that very reason. As MPA’s Linda Thomas Brooks told the industry last fall, magazines are a short cut to quality and continue to deliver top results for advertisers. 

The new rule in publishing? There’s really one one: the old rules are gone. The indie magazine industry continues to evolve – as indies always have, even a century before digital media made it so much easier to find our tribe. And the independent voice and point of view is more important now than ever.