Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Tearing up the rulebook – how independent magazines continue to shine

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A recent exhibition of independent magazines at Somerset House in London shed more light on the bright future of independent print publishing, than its rich history.

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Can you guess what British magazine titles such as Spirit, New Music News, King Mob Echo, Heatwave, Nuclear Times and Sniffin Glue have in common? Like Blast, Nasty Tales and Ink, they were published for only a year and a bit. None of these titles lived long enough to become toddlers.  

Take Blast, a literary magazine backing the short-lived modernist art and poetry movement called Vorticism, inspired by Cubism. 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, 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, however, mean these titles were failures? 

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 Wipers Times (1916 to 1918) and The Week (1933 to 1941) inspired Private Eye (since 1961), King Mob Echo (1968) and Suburban Press (1970 to 1975) inspired Anarchy in the UK (since 1976), feminist magazine Spare Rib (1972 to 1993) inspired The Gentlewoman (since 2010), and so the list goes on.

While ‘Print! Tearing It Up’ – the first exhibition to trace the journey of independent voices in magazines – did set out to explore the history of the British independent magazine scene, it also managed, quite successfully, to chart the impact of it. It’s one thing to exhibit how magazine makers ranted and raved against the establishment but much more challenging to show how the evolution of independent magazines influenced today’s diverse industry of innovative independent magazines. Those intent on breaking down paradigms took activism, satire, dissent, mixed it with fresh views on design and created masterpieces. This is steadily gaining even more momentum.

Or in the words of president and CEO of FIPP, James Hewes, those who are “unburdened by preconception or expectation are often at the forefront of creativity and innovation.” Independent publishers, he says, are bound to flourish in the current publishing environment. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and the recent wave of consolidation in the industry has created space for a range of new independent titles”.  

There are an abundance of creatives actively launching new independent print titles in recent years. Take YUCA, a magazine integrating art, photography, culture and literature and Backstage Talks, a magazine about how design can change businesses. But it’s not all ‘arty farty’. The topics being covered are increasing at a rapid rate. Or as the curators of ‘Tearing it up’ rightly point out, a raft of new titles launched in the last decade are now dedicated to themes such as migration, identity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation.

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. All these titles have a business model that legacy publishers are late to wake up to – subscribers pay for all of it.

Proud to be ‘Last to Breaking News’ #slowjournalism #slownews

A post shared by Delayed Gratification magazine (@dg_quarterly) on

Unpacking the process of magazine making has also become popular lately. Writer, editor and publisher Conor Purcell, based in Dubai, recently published The Magazine Blueprint: The ultimate guide to indie publishing. He interviewed more than 60 editors, designers and magazine makers around the world for what he describes is “a how-to guide to creating your own independent magazine”.

Yet, taken the very nature of independent magazine making, those who will be truly successful – and independent – will in all probability be tearing up the rulebook too, as those before them have done – successfully. 

Ironically, thanks to the benefits of a digital world, once thought to be the enemy of print, it has become much easier – and cheaper – to launch print titles. While it might be with some admiration that we look back at those who gave birth to satirical magazines such as Passing Wind (1977 to 1981), the reality is that it was created by the likes of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. Their names are well known in the publishing world today as editor of Private Eye and satirical cartoonist. Taking into account that the two met at Ardingly College, a public school in Sussex, and studied together at Magdalen College, Oxford, no prizes to those who guess how they could afford to launch Passing Wind. Many independent magazines of the 20th century had the same ‘fortune’ behind them. 

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.

By Piet van Niekerk  @PietNiekerk

Re-published by kind permission of FIPP, the network for global media