Interview with MagCulture’s Jeremy Leslie on Independent Publishing

“Independence” by Jeremy Leslie

Creative director Jeremy Leslie is a true believer in the idea of magazines as a media form that continues to be uniquely relevant and vibrant, despite the challenges to the industry wrought by digital publishing. For many years, Leslie has been the irresistible force behind MagCulture, a web site and London-based studio devoted to the “ever-developing discipline” of editorial design. Recently, Leslie published “Independence,” a book that surveys the current landscape of distinctive, adventurous independent publishing. In it, Leslie interviews twelve “makers” of some of the most interesting indie mags in the market today. I interviewed Leslie about the book, his thoughts on how this particular strain of publishing is changing, who the readership for these magazines is, and what lies ahead.

Khoi Vinh: You wrote a book twelve years ago that also focused on small, independent magazine publishers—you called them “microzines” at the time. What’s changed since then, and how does this new book reflect that?

Jeremy Leslie: In that book I identified a new interest in making and buying small mags. The term “microzines” never stuck, but since then the breadth and range of the magazines has grown enormously and we now know them as “independent magazines.” Not a name of great clarity, but it does reflect the difference between them and the titles published by the big publishers.

The main change is that many of these magazines have ambitions beyond just being labors of love. The new book contains interviews with the makers of twelve such magazines, each of which is seeking to assert itself beyond being well-regarded among a cognoscenti and reach a wider audience and become successful businesses on their own terms, independent but ambitious.

Can you expand a little on “ambitions beyond just being labours of love”?

Many small magazines start off with ambiguous expectations; often as an experiment or trial, a reaction to frustrations in other areas of the protagonist’s work lives. An attempt to see what it is to make a magazine. At this stage they are labors of love, produced out-of-hours like so many personal projects. Often (but not always) there is little thought put to assessing success; the act of doing is what counts, even if there is a background dream of sheer success. After several issues the makers can learn a lot about their publication and their audience. Other factors come into play: can we improve the finances, the creative approach, the content… can we make it into a sound business?

You write in the introduction that “today the best-selling independents can match the smaller mainstream titles for sales.” Some might argue that’s more of a comment on how difficult the mass market publishing business is these days than a comment on how healthy the independent magazine market is. What’s your take?

It is both; the failure of so much of the mass and the success of the indies means the figures meet in the middle. At that point our notional ideas of “mass” and “indie” might be called into question, but the key point is that the indies are on their way up.

Because they’ve grown from zero sales and zero costs, the successful indies have controlled their growth (expense, income and scale) very tightly. They have invested in quality as opposed to quantity, and have a stronger sense of who their readers are and what they want. Their readers are highly engaged. These magazines are better positioned to succeed than a failing “big” mag. I hear mass publishers offering sound words, paeans to quality, but they have legacy costs—big offices, large staffs—that they struggle with.

How useful is it to group these publications under this single umbrella term of “independents”? What are the common characteristics that you see in all of them?

For the sake of discussions like this it’s useful to have a term that separates these magazines from the mass market. But inevitably “independent” is a shorthand, and not all the magazine makers who participated in the interviews fully embrace the word. Wrap’s Polly Glass doesn’t see their magazine as part of a broader publishing scene, while Delayed Gratification‘s Rob Orchard goes a step further, expressing concern that the independent label might be a self-defining restriction to their growth.

What is common is a desire to do things their own way, ignoring convention in favor of self-learning. Some conventions are turned on their head, others confirmed.

The term “independent” is constantly questioned. What does it mean? I suggest it represents a working process where creative and financial decisions are made in tandem; the vision underlying these projects supercedes short-term financial gain in favor of longer-term creative ambition. The mass market by its very business model defaults to quantity over quality; these magazines value quality over quantity first.

Let me ask that again from a different angle. It seems as if all of the publications featured in this book are more or less targeted at the same kind of reader: a knowledge worker, member of the so-called “creative class,” upper-middle class, probably with a higher education degree, and disposable income. Is that fair to say? Is this wave of independent publishing primarily aimed at these kinds of readers?

Both the people that make the magazines and the people that read them are part of the broader “creative class” you describe but are more diverse than your description allows.

Different magazines have different readers;Cereal portrays a lifestyle beyond the reach of many but for £12 you can have a window on that world, a very traditional role for a magazine; Intern supports the work and endeavours of the younger creative class as they start their careers; Weapons of Reason seeks to deliver its environmental message beyond the converted to the people of all ages and classes (it’s distributed free). It’s notable that most of the interviewees pay little attention to the other magazines, they are focused on their particular subject area rather than the indie magazine world.

These magazines are specialist and by necessity limited in their distribution; but most are pretty uncomplicated and clear in their intent. Their uniqueness initially draws the creative class but the sales figures some are achieving suggest they are reaching beyond that world alone.

How about design-wise? Are there common traits to be found in their approach to layout, photography, typography?

There are common traits to the way the indies present themselves, and there’s been some chatter and noise about how they’re “all beginning to look the same.” This is nonsense; like any endeavour that comes to be seen as successful or directional, there are copyists trying to catch the bandwagon, but they’re a small part of the whole and besides, different people have different ideas about “who came first.”

A more fundamental design trait is simplicity; these magazines have small staffs so their options are limited in terms of complex style sheets, grids and typographic effects. Their pages are not dense patchworks of commercial dependencies slotted between advertising pages. Instead, stories have space to breathe across multiple spreads and there’s an assumption the reader wants to read rather than has to be attracted/persuaded/led by the hand. Thus monochrome design is a common default, letting imagery provide the color.

Editorial design concerns the relationship between function and character, and in the indie magazine both are dealt with quickly and then worked hard. As ever the detail varies: a magazine like Weapons of Reason is highly regarded for its illustration, but is typographically naïve. By contrast The Gourmand has worked closely with Monotype to rediscover and digitise early versions of individual characters from some of their most famous typefaces (check out their Monotype Grotesque ampersand).

Do the founders of these independents have more—or less—design in their DNA than the editors at major publications?

In the broadest sense, the people behind the independents are certainly more concerned with design than mainstream editors. They design their magazines as physical objects, they have the option to select different/mixed types of paper, add special print effects and finishing techniques. Touch, sound and smell tend are added to the visual in a way mainstream mags can’t manage.

Zoom in on the more traditional aspects of editorial design (typography, layout etc) and things are a little more mixed. If a founder is a trained designer you can expect the highest standards of detailing and design. But others are less thorough, and learn issue by issue.

For instance, a common problem is printing body text too small, and sometimes with poor hyphenation and justification control, affecting legibility.

It’s not as simple as indie equals good design, mainstream equals poor. There are editors and designers in all sectors of magazine making that are natural visual journalists, and those that aren’t.

If you had to guess, what do you think independent magazines will look like twelve years from now? Will print still be with us? Will the notion of “digital magazines” be viable, finally?

In twelve years time I expect things on the surface won’t look so different. Some of the mags we regard as indie now may have become a new mainstream, and the gap between indie and mainstream in physical production terms will have closed considerably—high-end quality will dominate the print sphere. Newspapers will exist as weekly magazines that owe a lot to today’s indies. So in that sense what we regard as “indie” may have turned “mainstream.”

The immediate future will be influenced by the countries that are now joining the global interaction, China et. al. There’s a huge print heritage from the Far East that will add direction to what we’re all doing, we’re already looking to cover more of that on the MagCulture Journal.

But really, the exciting thing about publishing and media is that whatever we try and guess will be wrong. The central concerns of people making magazines haven’t changed ever; the way they express those concerns have.

Print and digital will both still exist, the concept of “digital magazines” will be laughed at, just as we giggle at “radio with pictures.”

It will also be fascinating (as ever) looking back at today’s magazines from that distance. I wonder what we’ll make if them, which ones will be held up as the leading examples of this time? I think that will be pretty surprising too.