The Grub Street Journal

We just published the second issue of The Grub Street Journal, a magazine for people who make magazines. The path that led us to make a print magazine is fairly long and winding and we won’t bore you with it here. We will, however, share what we learned in the run up to launching Issue 1, The Don Quixote Issue, in April this year and through launching Issue 2, The Jerry Maguire Issue, on August 1st.

1: Know your motivations

There are three things that make any job worth doing: Money. Learning. Enjoyment. You might make lots and lots of money, but if you don’t learn anything or have some fun along the way, well, you’re probably a hedge-fund manager.

Money is not a big factor for an indie magazine startup, but the learning and the laughs… there’s loads of both.

So far, Grub Street has been about learning how to make a print magazine, and making a magazine that we really enjoy reading. We had the privilege of being able to pay our first print bill, regardless of income, so with our learning and laughing motivations front of mind we were delighted when we made enough money to pay for Issue 2. Big tick.

2: Print is different – really different

Planning a print publication is not like anything else. Sure, many of the same editorial skills apply to digital, but a flat plan is a very different beast than a content calendar.

To be completely honest, we were way better at this with Issue 2 than with Issue 1. The balance of pages in our inaugural imprint isn’t quite right; there are too many ad pages and the content flow could have been better. Smarter people than me might argue, but I think we got the mix of short and long, funny and serious, text and images just right in the second issue.

We don’t remember the last time we had that kind of conversation about digital media. Topic mix, sure. SEO scores, of course. But thinking about how one story sits next to another, absolutely not.

3: Magazines are manufacturing

We can sit at our desks, see a story break and a couple of hours later it’s in our newsletter or on our website. We’re in charge and there’s no one between us and the reader.

Print is a much more involved process. From transcribing interviews to getting it into the shops, there are so many people and processes that are completely absent from digital publishing. Digital is good from the standpoint of speed to the reader,  but is it good for quality?

Subs, designers, proofreaders, distributors and retailers all have a view and an interest in the end result. That makes for a better product even if fixes have to be made over several issues and not instantly in the CMS.

4: Covers still matter

Our ‘What kind of idiots still make magazines?’ cover won us so much attention online. We showed it to people before the fact and they showed it to each other afterwards.

It’s Sales & Marketing 101, but giving people a reason to buy your product is crucial. However, sometimes that is less about the product than the packaging and a magazine cover image on social, search or Shopify is pretty much the only chance you have to signal your intent.

We won the BSME’s Instagram cover of the month competition in April against iconic titles like Which? and The Observer Magazine. That brought us a profile that we just wouldn’t have got with a standard cover shot. That felt great, but it also got us attention – and attention matters.

5: B2B doesn’t have to be boring

The Grub Street Journal is a B2B magazine. It’s for people who make magazines, and the people we speak to are either people who make magazines or people who can help them.

That doesn’t mean that we only cover business benefits and bean counting. The closing gap between B2B and consumer publishing has been written about for a long time. Blame extended working hours, social media or just the simple recognition that people are still people even when they are at work. Whatever the cause, we were delighted at the feedback we got from readers who have told us that we made them laugh as well as think.

We’re working to create our own B2B niche for professionals that want ‘brutally honest, but eternally optimistic’ commentary on an industry that is often challenging. Our ‘Are designers just colouring-in monkeys?’ feature offers practical advice for working with design colleagues, but can be summed up by, “Don’t be a dick!”.

6: Selling magazines is really hard

We have worked in magazines for close to 50 years between us (OK most of that is Peter) and we were 100% confident in our ability to write, edit and publish a magazine. Selling the thing, not so much.

Our background is in newsstand and B2B publishers where, once you’ve done the content stuff, someone else takes care of the distribution and the retail. With an indie startup that’s absolutely not the case. We have relationships with the lovely people at online retailers Newsstand and distributors Ra & Olly, but when it comes to shifting the bulk of our copies, that’s all us.

Once it’s up and running, Shopify is a godsend, but to get people to the store requires a constant drum beat of social media activity, and I’m not sure we’ve got that down yet.

7: F*ck the ‘digital or print’ dichotomy

Our reliance on Shopify and social media tells you everything you need to know about the stupidity of publishers that say they are ‘print only’. There’s no such thing anymore (unless, maybe, you’re Private Eye).

As Jeremy Leslie at magCulture told me in our first issue, it’s not print or digital, it’s “print and digital”. Indie publishers with any ambition to sell more than a couple of copies to their pals need social media, online commerce, and they need a way to connect to the audiences they are trying to reach.

Print brings a whole other dimension to digital, but print needs digital to do its thing.

8: Community is everything

What’s the difference between a cliché and a truism? There’s a real danger that community is becoming publishing’s latest buzzword, but it has become so clear to us that your friends are everything in this game.

We’ve been lucky enough to be supported by organisations like The PPA and The International Magazine Centre and the welcome we’ve had at events like the FIPP World Congress and BSME’s lunch with Dame Anna Wintour has been awe inspiring.

However, individuals are every bit as important. The ‘1,000 True Fans’ dictum is important, but being ‘Famous to the Family’ is imperative when you’re targeting such a tightly-defined group of readers, and we have learned to lean heavily on our magazine-making friends and colleagues.

9: You can’t do everything

Our website is completely functional from the point of view of buying issues. We’ve even been told the ordering process is “the best”. But we need to do more to share the content inside, to build the buzz, to build that community.

We also haven’t put any real effort into selling advertising; we don’t have a subscription option; and we haven’t thought through how we can offer a digital edition. We have a lot of work to do.

We’ve learned though, that prioritising making a kickass magazine is the best foundation for building a sustainable, print-first magazine brand. Without those issues, we’d be a headline without a story.

Grub Street’s Editorial Director, Joanna Cummings, is a freelance editor & writer. Grub Street’s Publisher, Peter Houston, is one third of the Media Voices team. If you’re in the UK, you can buy The Grub Street Journal here. If you’re overseas, you can get it from Newsstand.

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  1. I would’ve loved to send this to a colleague, however I am prohibited because of the language used in #7. Sorry! No sharing this one in our corp culture.

    1. Have edited with an asterisk Liz if that heps you share.

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