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How We Overcame Our Marketing Hangups and Sold a Lot of Ink

Organizer, pen, booksNote from Megan: We have an interesting post for you today. Over the summer I connected with Rob Wringham, who is the editor in chief of a print magazine called New Escapologist. We got to talking, and I became really fascinated with the how’s and why’s of starting and running with a print publication as opposed to a digital one – and what that means in terms of marketing.

Now, most of our students in Write Like Freddy and the Audience Business Masterclass have businesses with at least a very strong online component in terms of community marketing – but I know that there are also some students and readers whose businesses are more physically oriented, and who rely more on traditional marketing.

So I asked Rob if he would write a post for us explaining a few things:

  • Why print?
  • What do you do to build your readership?
  • How successful are those efforts?

Rob responded with an excellent post – complete with marketing tactic rankings (out of 5, with 1 being the least effective, and five being the most), to give us all a peek into the world of print publications. This is a new kind of post for us, so if you like getting an insiders view of an industry like this – let us know in the comments and we’ll see what we can do! Enjoy!

Hello,

I run a lifestyle magazine called New Escapologist. It’s an old-style print magazine but we offer a PDF version too. A labor of love, it’s mainly a one-person operation but there’s a volunteer house staff of five other people (all of whom have phenomenal practical specialties) and a mostly-volunteer stable of some thirty or forty writers and illustrators who come and go as they please.

The magazine is an experimental petri dish for alternative ideas about how to live. The ancient philosophers would have called it an ethics. It’s also quite witty, or so we like to think. We agree with Aristotle and Epicurus that the good life involves a lot of leisure and a kind of thoughtful simplicity. The rest of the world, however, seems preoccupied with forty-hour weeks, glum professionalism, debt, social status, and beeping gizmos. We ask: how to escape? We use Houdini-style Escapology as a light-hearted metaphor for breaking free of the restraints of modern life. We’re Libertarians in the truest sense and our contributors come from many backgrounds: from tattooed dumpster divers to scientists and philosophers; from pimply sci-fi fans to waistcoated dandies. We’re like a Silicon Valley skunkworks of print.

It all started in 2007.

Some peers and I were out in the grown-up workplace for the first time. We were nonplussed by the unrewarding nature of modern white-collar work and unsure of what to do with our masters degrees. We secretly wanted to be artists but the modern artworld tedium of government grants and artist branding seemed like a whole other vale of tears. We set up our own artistic circle in the style of the Romantics or the pre-Raphaelites or (most appealing to us) the Dadaists and the Situationists. The Dadaists wrote weird poetry, did performance art, mixed bawdy comedy with higher-minded principles, and splashed luminous paint on things. The Situationists were deeply critical, made avant-garde films, explored cities as psychogeographical flaneurs and revelled in leisure for its own sake. We — a sorority of whimsical and thoughtful dreamers too aloof for white-collar servitude — were the Escapologists . New Escapologist would become our journal.

How we sold it

Despite what I’ve felt in my bone marrow since the age of 17, there’s nothing inherently filthy or evil about marketing. (Megan says: we certainly don’t think so!) Any number of good things — healthy vegetables, feminism, origami — could be marketed more and it would make the world a better place. It just so happens that some of the most powerful agents of marketing have chosen to dedicate themselves to sugar, misogyny and exploitation.

I don’t know why this is.

Against the grain, we would be marketing something that could make the world a better place: an impertinent small-press publication geared toward freeing minds and spirits from the shackles of modern humdrummery. Needless to say, it’s an uphill struggle. It’s not immediately clear what the product even is. It’s a magazine, but our printing techniques make it look a bit like a book. Its approach is akin to a self-help guide, but its voice is witty and sarcastic. It’s too elegant to be a zine, but too shoddy for the newsstands.

Our zero-dollar budget and complete lack of marketing training also add to the challenge. We’ve also encouraged our readers to be critical of marketing and of capitalist excess, so any attempt at marketing by ourselves looks suspect and hypocritical.

It’s no bestseller but, New Escapologist is a rare example of an independent magazine that actually does quite well. It contains no advertising and receives no government funding yet it has survived for eight chunky issues and we’re working on a ninth. Each copy generates a profit of about $3.80 (depending on page count, economies of scale, and discounts; all of which vary between issue and print run). The sum of these per-copy profits is reabsorbed by future print runs, the companion website and the occasional launch party. Overall, the project fails to turn a profit but it doesn’t lose any money either. Financially, it’s a perpetual motion machine: a mythical entity in the world of indie publishing.

We have a bigger circulation than several of the arty magazines sold on newsstands and a more dedicated readership than the “new writing”-type journals, but because of our unusual subject matter and curious format we’re yet to land a distribution deal. We’re all alone out here on the fringe of print publication, itself a rapidly receding fringe in an increasingly digital era.

So how did we do it? How did we turn nothing into something? How did a pirate ship of comedians, philosophers, artists, students, bloggers, and telephone repairmen actually get this folly off the ground?

1. We did it with love

Before marketing came integrity. We created a product we cared about and wouldn’t be ashamed to market. Door-to-door salespeople used to say that you have to believe in the product you’re selling. Instead of convincing ourselves to see merit in dubious dietary supplements or crap cosmetics, we made a strange and witty publication that we’d be proud to tell the world about.

Tactic Rating: 5/5

2. Endorsement. We aligned ourselves with a few heroes

Our first big endorsement came from Tom Hodgkinson of the ever-popular Idler magazine. His work had been influential in the thinking behind New Escapologist and we’d be proud to reach out to him. As luck would have it, one of our editors was also the designer of Tom’s website so we had a convenient introduction. Tom mentioned us on his blog and we sold our first 50 copies on the strength of it. This taught us the value of endorsement.

Tactic Rating: 4/5

3. Our own websphere

Even though New Escapologist is a print publication and eschews modern toss like social media, we always knew that a web presence would be important. We set up a companion website to the magazine. Again, integrity lead us to think of the website as its own work rather than a marketing machine: we made sure that the site had good-quality content, a well-tended and meaningful blog, and that the design complemented that of the magazine. We also vowed to duplicate content between our two platforms as infrequently as possible. Through integrity, the site has proved to be a vital marketing tool. We sell almost 90% of our magazines through it.

We resisted Facebook and Twitter for a long time, but eventually gave in to the strongest force known to physics: peer pressure. You can now like us on the former and follow us on the latter. We’re very neglectful though and don’t do much with either facility beyond allowing our booby-trapped trigger system to update them automatically when something new is posted to our blog.

Tactic Rating: 5/5

4. Paid ads

We took out a quarter-page advertorial in the Chap magazine. We quite like the Chap and figured that many of their readers would have a similar worldview to ours and could benefit from reading our stuff. We negotiated a reasonable deal with their marketing person (a fan of New Escapologist, naturally) and were honoured to see our specially-typeset advertisement in their pages a fortnight later. The proceeds from the resulting sales almost covered the cost. We decided against doing this again because of the costs involved, but it was fun to feel like a media mogul for a couple of seconds, placing ads in the popular press. Whatever next.

Tactic Rating: 1/5

5. Bookfairs

We attend strategically relevant book fairs. Most years will see us at Expozine and the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair. We’re doing the London Anarchist Bookfair this year too. We meet a lot of cool people this way and get our product known. If we ever hit the bigtime, thousands of bookfair customers will be able to say “I was there at the beginning”. It’s been a brilliant way to meet existing readers and hear what they think of us. We usually sell 25-50 copies at a given bookfair, which is apparently very good. We personally attend the event for the entire duration: people are often surprised to meet us at all — the actual creators of the magazine rather than paid-off or volunteer gnomes. The main advantage of attending bookfairs is the indelible mark we make on the hipster cultural consciousness. They remember us better and better with each passing year. Soon we will meet a singularity of recollection and become an unforgettable classic.

Tactic Rating: 4/5

6. Writing for other magazines or blogs

Soon after setting up New Escapologist, I began receiving invitations to write for other magazines and blogs. This had been part of the plan, of course. I’m a writer first and foremost and I wanted New Escapologist to serve as a springboard to other places. I love writing for other magazines and blogs because (a) it creates an original work in itself, (b) I sometimes get paid for it, and (c) it allows us to reach a new body of people. If 5% of a large-circulation magazine readership drift over into ours, we do quite well out of it.

Tactic Rating: 3/5

7. Stockists

For many people in the indie press, a big part of their satisfaction comes from seeing their work on the shelves of shops and of talking to cool shopkeepers. Not me. I have little interest in shops or their keepers. Unless they happen to sell healthy vegetables or origami kits. It’s a demeaning effort trying to convince a shopkeeper to stock your magazine, to periodically check their stock levels, and to extract the money they owe you from sales. Often, the stock doesn’t sell at all because a cynical shopkeeper (perhaps understandably) won’t give your dubious-looking product a good spot on the shelf. When it does sell, the shop is likely to take a 30% cut. This completely destroys our profit margin. Still, New Escapologist does appear in a few arty bookshops around the world, mainly for the sport of it. The process costs us time and money but I like the idea of someone discovering us by sheer serendipity. I also write it off as a marketing effort. If our masthead is seen by just two people a day in a bookshop, it’s a better market penetration effort than if the same masthead were collecting dust in our stockroom (under my bed).

Tactic Rating: 2/5

8. Launch parties

Every so often, we have a launch party. We probably have one for every second issue. We press two issues per year, so I suppose that makes it an annual party. Sometimes they’re biggish events with DJs or performances. Sometimes they’re last-minute gatherings in a local pub. Whichever tone it takes, a launch event is a good way of pulling friends, readers, and newbies together to get drunk, exchange ideas, and buy copies of the new edition.

Tactic Rating: 3/5

So that’s about it. Those are the modest marketing efforts we’ve made in order to push our magazine into the twilight zone between zinespheric ghetto and mainstream press acceptance. The latter will never happen and the former will never take us back, so we’re stuck here. But it’s a nice place to be. The key lesson if you’d like to meet us here in the twilight zone is to turn your marketing efforts into worthy pieces of art — or at least enjoyable parties — in their own rights. It also helps to cut the fat and eliminate less useful approaches (in our case, paid advertisements and multiple stockists). But above all, market something you’re proud of and keep your integrity forever.

The Escapologists have sold a lot of ink, launched a beautiful web community, held a few parties and some sprightly performances. The future? More of the same please.

(Megan asks: So – what do you think? Do you subscribe to any print publications? Do you think it’s still a viable model? Have you ever thought of incorporating one into your business? What would YOU recommend to Rob for New Escapologist?)

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