Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther Kezia Thorpe: How has your career grown over the years?
Bo Sacks: Serendipity has gotten me where I am. Truthfully, I’ve been in the right place at the right time, having nothing to do with talent. But I started a newspaper when I was 19 years old, not knowing how tough a weekly newspaper is, but we did it for a few years.
From that, it parlayed into starting High Times Magazine, which was a very controversial subject. Back in the 70s, we started High Times in 1974. And, again, serendipity, I didn’t know anything about publishing a magazine. Every one of us learned on the job, we made it up as we went along. There were rules, but we didn’t know what they were, so we didn’t follow any.
After that, I worked for other major corporations, Ziff Davis, which is a good one to mention, when you asked about how my career grew. By this time in my career, I was very excellent in the production of magazines, manufacturing. This is when America Online started to want to put diskettes into and onto magazines. The company jobbed me out to America Online.
It wasn’t just me, it was a team to figure out how to do that. At the end of the process, we figured it out. AOL gave me an email account. This is in 1988, 89 – what’s email? But since I had been a publisher since 71, the thought of sending words through the phone was mystifying. So I just started fooling around and oddly enough, by 93, I had 1000 subscribers.
So in that sense, I think you’ve said before that your newsletter is actually probably one of the longest-running in the world.
The oldest one that I know of, and I’ve been saying it’s the oldest one for 10 years, and nobody’s corrected me.
What’s kept it going?
That’s an interesting question. I didn’t design to do a newsletter. I was first intrigued by sending words over the phone. Then I figured if I knew how to do that, I’d be more employable than the next guy, I’d have an extra skillset. That was the modus operandi in the early days, I wasn’t trying to create a business, I was trying to stay employable.
When I started sending the stuff out, I had a criteria, the same criteria that I have now I had then. This is the stuff you need to know to keep your job. That’s my secret formula. Everything I send out, from my perspective is, ‘Yeah, you really need to know about this, to stay in the media field.’ That formula has been very successful.
Have you ever not sent a newsletter?
Yes, I wanted to explain to you and your readership, your listening-ship, how smart I am. The only time in almost 30 years that I did not send out my newsletter was on my honeymoon.
That is very wise.
Other than that, it goes out daily, no matter if I’m on vacation, it doesn’t matter where I am. It goes out.
So how do you find the stories for your newsletters? Has that changed over the last 20 years?
No, actually, that’s been pretty consistent, although I’m always on the hunt for news sites that are relevant to our industry. Here’s the other secret: if you go to my website, you’ll see 25 or 30 listings of where I source my information from. If I do find a new, valuable resource, I put it in that list.
So every day, I start at the top of this list of links, and I work my way down until I have three quality stories. Sometimes it takes two hours, sometimes it takes eight hours. This is what you need to know, the second criteria is I do not send junk. I will never ever send fluff. If it takes me longer to find it, so be it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll write something.
Was there a point when you realised that you could probably make some ad revenue from this?
I do make ad revenue from it. It’s not documented, but it’s at least 20 years, 15 to 20 years. The funny thing is that my first advertiser had to beg me. It took them a year because I just wanted to be employed and employable, so I wasn’t looking for revenue and the guy wanted to advertise. I thought ‘no, I don’t think so, I got a good thing going here. I don’t want any advertising.’ He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and he was with me for 10 or 15 years.
Wow. So given that you’ve got one of the longest-running newsletters in the world, what do you make of the sudden rush to newsletters that we seem to be seeing in the industry now?
I laugh every time I read that. Yeah, it’s a mystery to me that people have discovered newsletters. It’s sort of the difference between push and pull. If you have a website or even a newsstand, people stumble upon your product. If you sell a subscription, or in my case, you sign up for the newsletter, I’m pushing it out to you. You do not have to remember to come to my website, you don’t have to remember to come to the newsstand. As long as you produce quality work, people let you in.
I mean, that in a way was one of the early promises of platforms is that if you put your content on there, you push it to people, but then platforms almost turn that into a pull relationship, and then you had to pay to reach people, which just seems pretty scandalous in my opinion.
Over your career, you must have seen quite a lot of trends sort of come and go. Things like the move to subscriptions, newsletters, reader revenue, are things like that new or have they been and gone before?
There’s nothing we’re doing today that’s different, except for the platforms, except for the substrates. I’ve always been substrate and different. Whatever the reader wants, that’s what I’m going to deliver. Some readers want audio, some readers want print, some readers want an internet connection to get their news. Fine, we have to deliver what they want, and everybody’s different.
There was a time when every magazine publisher had pretty much the same business model as any other magazine publisher. I think you’re gonna find today that there’s no two magazines or media companies that have the same business plan. They’re all different.
Does that not make it quite difficult to define what is a publisher because you get publishers today that will make money from ecommerce and all these other things. So what actually makes a publisher now?
There is no clear definition anymore. We used to be in the magazine business, I used to be in the magazine business. Now they call it magazine media. What is that? It’s nothing. The lowest common denominator that I can make is that we sell words and thought for a profit. I’m indifferent on how we distribute it.
I suppose I’ve seen some publishers launch magazines on Instagram. That gets to the stage where it’s just pictures.
Yeah, but the thing is if you want to call it a magazine, so be it. As long as you can get your readers to understand what who you are and what you are and what your identity is, fine.
Talking of magazines, print is something that you comment on a lot in your newsletters. Is print going to have a resurgence or is it resigned to becoming a niche product?
Interesting, the way you phrase that: resigned to a niche product. I object. I don’t find niche belittling. Yeah, magazines are going towards niche and that’s a good thing. I think that’s a quality move for the industry, where once you can zero in on a particular section of readers, regardless of what the subject matter is, you now have a very, very good relationship with that reader, that enthusiast, that activist, in whatever field that is. Then that should, done properly, equate to a very lucrative operation. So small is good.
I suppose though, if you’re a print magazine or newspaper publisher in the 60s and 70s when print was huge and you were selling millions of copies, you might see it as being resigned. I suppose it’s making money in a different kind of way, but definitely not the millions and millions of pounds you were before.
No, life’s about perspective. When I worked at McCall’s magazine, we had a six and a half million circulation. We had half a dozen titles with which were over a million circulation. So yeah, that’s true. There was large circ then, but you either flow with the river or you drown. So I’m actually again indifferent as to well I once had a big circulation magazine, woe to my industry. No. Get out there and fight Make it right. Produce quality material.
And related to that, I think just before the pandemic struck at the end of 2019, you said that this is the new golden age of publishing. I know nobody could have really foreseen the pandemic, but do you still believe two years later that this is actually the golden age or as COVID dented that a little bit?
Not at all, I think COVID accelerated wherever the magazine industry was going. It’s accelerated it by five or 10 years. We’re doing things we never dreamed about doing before. New platforms come out every day that facilitate communication, taking the broad range of what publishing is. But if you go back to what I said, distributing thought and words for a profit, there’s never been a better time to be in publishing.
But is it then a golden age for publishers because, related to that, anybody can publish. I can go on Instagram or TikTok, or I can create a website and publish anything I want. But if you’re then a professional publisher, that presents some challenges.
I don’t think I agree with you. I was not a professional publisher. When I started High Times, I didn’t know what I was doing. We were remarkably successful. Just because you’re not a professional doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea and a good business plan and the capability to make revenue.
That’s the thing. There’s millions of Instagramers; how many are true influencers making money? Not a lot. But they’re out there. They were inexperienced until they got their message down. Now, they’re the professionals.
Yes, I suppose in that sense of publishing has been democratised.
Yeah, you no longer need to own the press.
Is that a good thing though? Because I think a lot of the misinformation problems and fake news and things have sprung up from that.
That’s the dark side. The democratisation of knowledge is theoretically a very good thing. The democratisation of lies is the converse. There’s no cure for that, certainly not on the horizon. It’s something we’re all going to have to grapple with.
Because you can get very, very rich from peddling lies.
Take any publisher you want. I’ll name no names, but some huge corporations are peddling lies and making a fortune. I used to think that quality will out and win in the end of the day. But I would suggest that those readers or listeners or watchers who are watching the lies believe that it’s quality, which is scary.
It’s difficult to see where that will end up. There almost doesn’t seem to be a good resolution to it.
It has to be legislated and I don’t know a single government in the world that has the sensibility to know how to legislate it.
The US is having a good attempt, but I don’t know how successful it will be.
I don’t know. I’m at a crossroads where I’m incredibly positive about the industry. Yes, I think it’s the next Golden Age and that following right behind us are all these bad concepts, bad material greed, lies, distribution of crazy ideas.
Going back to some of the opportunities, a lot of publishers are drawing up podcasts, but what do you think the next big thing will be in publishing? And, perhaps slightly more importantly, where would you put your bets if you were a publisher now?
I am a publisher.
If you were working at a big publishing house?
Clearly, what everybody needs now and what most people, large or small, even companies with two or three people, circulations of 5000 or 500,000, is diversity. Diversity of platforms is the only sensible path. You asked me what’s the next big thing? I have no idea. But I do know that every six months there is a new thing.
You’ve got to keep your eye on the horizon. Clubhouse is a big thing now. People are very enthusiastic that Clubhouse or Substack constantly move the ball, constantly stay ahead. If you’re stagnant, you’re dead.
How do you balance that, though, with the potential pitfalls of, I suppose, shiny new object syndrome, where you then jump on every new trend even though it might only last a couple of months.
I think there’s a difference between trend analysis and staying true to your vision. So whatever your particular niche is, if you can define it and understand that this is what your readers want, then I don’t think you need to go after every shiny new object, just the ones that will resonate with your readership, your listenership, your viewership.
I suppose yeah, you’re still using email, even though that was declared dead ten to 15 years ago.
Yeah. It’s odd that I’m still on AOL, but I’ve trained the world to be able to reach me on an AOL account and that’s why I still keep it.