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Sept. 19, 2014, 10 a.m.
Business Models

A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly

“I hear the argument, Oh, these poor little magazines with their tiny readerships, if only people appreciated them more. It’s partly true. But the bigger side of that is, well, if only you knew how to read a budget. If only you actually knew anything about publishing.”

When I sat down with John Summers to talk about the publishing strategy of The Baffler, he told me that if I really wanted to understand the business of small magazines, there was one man I simply had to talk to — David Rose.

Rose started working full time at the London Review of Books in 1998. He worked there as associate publisher for 15 years before decamping to Lapham’s Quarterly in 2013, where he currently serves as publisher. While at the LRB, he wrote two books — They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books and a sequel, Sexually I’m More of a Switzerland. In 2008, he spearheaded a move to Brooklyn for a small part of the business staff.

In our interview (lightly edited below), Rose says he moved to Lapham’s, which has a staff of 15, for the opportunity to work with its namesake — Lewis Lapham, the magazine’s founder and editor (and former longtime editor of Harper’s). In a recent podcast appearance, Lapham spoke about Harper’s famously anti-Internet publishing strategies and delineated some of his own views about the present and future of little magazines:

As you’ll see, Rose is highly critical of the bevy of small magazine founders working today. His is a very distinct perspective, one shaped by his nearly two decades in a struggling business. But the clarity of his advice — and his general optimism — are both refreshing and useful. This is less a lesson in innovation than a pragmatic exhortation to return to basics.

David Rose: Part of the problem that the industry faces is that the rush of small magazines that are appearing have terrific intentions, and their editorial mission statements are very noble and should be applauded, but what’s missing is publishing expertise. There are no publishers at any of the magazines that you’ve mentioned1 and I think that’s very revealing about the attitude emerging in the small magazines. This Etsy-based marketing strategy. I wouldn’t even call any of them marketing strategies, to be blunt about it.

I think an awful lot of the magazines are stuck in terms of audience development. They don’t really get much further than their existing audience. They can keep hold of a certain percentage of their readerships with very rudimentary renewal techniques.

As far punching above their weight, editorially, that’s true, but the business side of those kinds of publications is much more hapless. The audience is definitely there, but they’re failing to get hold of it.

Caroline O’Donovan: Is it your impression that there are more of these small magazines — you said a rush — or are they more visible because of the Internet? Is the ease of publishing online meaning that more people are taking a stab at it?
Rose: I do think there are more people publishing small magazines. An awful lot of people are doing post-graduate courses. You see an awful lot of magazine publishing courses — Columbia, New School, NYU. It’s revealing that, on any of these courses, there isn’t a single magazine publisher. What’s happening is you’re getting kids coming through MFA programs, and, quite correctly, they’re full of this marvelous confidence that they should have, that they can go out and really make a difference and produce excellent editorial pieces. But what these courses aren’t teaching is anything whatsoever to do with the business of magazine publishing.

So magazines rise up like effervescent bubbles from the creek bed, and then they very quickly disperse. They find themselves in trouble remarkably quickly. American Reader is a very good example of that. These kids come out of whatever post-grad they’ve done, and they produce this magazine, and have tremendous intention, but they have absolutely no ability whatsoever to manage a budget.

Go to any one of these magazines you just mentioned and ask them what their subscription liability is and none of them will be able to tell you. I think that’s very troubling. Actually, I think that’s a damning indictment of the industry as a whole — that there are no people with that kind of expertise coming through the system.

O’Donovan: Do you think it’s a lack of interest? A condescension to business interest?

Rose: There’s a touch of arrogance about it, that you can produce a magazine without knowing how to go about the daily mechanics of a magazine. The notion that as long as the editorial quality is good, it will sell is kind of a Field of Dreams logic — if you build it, they will come. I’ve worked in magazines for 18 years now, and it’s never been the case that as long as you have a good editorial product you can sell the magazine. In fact, the opposite is true: You can have a terrible editorial product, and you can sell the magazine as long as the business makeup is sound. Shelves at supermarkets are evidence of that.

The real shame is the magazines that are producing terrific pieces — The Baffler, n+1 — they’re producing some terrific editorial content but they can’t get to more people, because they simply don’t know how to do it. I think that’s a real missed opportunity.

O’Donovan: Do you think, over your years in the industry, that has changed or worsened in any way?
Rose: It’s certainly worsened. One of the effects of the Internet — we talk about the Internet having a detrimental impact on reading. I’m sure that’s true to a degree, but I think one of the impacts on the industry is it’s no longer sexy to be learning about print publishing.

You used to be able to find vocational courses at institutes on circulation modeling, for example, on marketing metrics. They were the hardcore bones of publishing. You don’t get those things anymore, because people stopped learning about print publishing in the early 2000s when they said print was going to be dead. It’s increasingly difficult, for example, to get good ad sales staff on magazines. Nobody knows how to do it. To find someone who actually knows about the mechanics of circulation is impossible. You just can’t do it.

Not one of the magazines that you’ve mentioned will be able to tell you, for example, what their renewal rate is on conversion.2 I’d be very surprised if one of these magazines was able to tell you what a conversion rate was. There are so many things that are being lost. There’s a whole lexicon of publishing that’s being lost. There’s expertise that’s being lost.

And what happens is the newer ones — and I’ll use American Reader again as an example, although it’s unfair on them because I think it’s a good product — but these magazines emerge, and very quickly they find themselves in trouble and within a very short space of time they close. And then it raises questions: Are we losing audience interest in longform nonfiction? Are we losing our ability to read? Has the Internet destroyed everything? And really, the focus should be on how that magazine has operated.

If you have a magazine that’s run very badly, that’s the reason that it’s closed. Not because the readership is deserting it. That is actually very rarely the case.

O’Donovan: So when a publisher comes to you, what do you tell them to do? What do you say to them?
Rose: It depends on the magazine. But I’ve worked with an incredible number of magazines and normally, if I’m asked to help on a magazine, typically it’s already too late. They’ve been repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum, and it’s an unholy mess.

I would like to go into a magazine and talk about very simple metrics, very subtle ways of improving percentages across the board. But instead I go in and ask: How are you recording your subscribers?

Oh, we have Excel.

You’re recording the very backbone of your business — your subscription revenue — on somebody’s laptop?

O’Donovan: How would you do it?
Rose: There’s an infinite number of subscription packages out there, but nobody looks that way. They just think, Oh, we’ll acquire subscribers and that’s fine. Nobody really looks at acquisition costs. Nobody will be able to tell you what their acquisition cost is. There’s so many things they won’t be able to tell you. It’s infuriating, because this is an industry I care very deeply about, and I just see the same mistakes over and over again.

You very often dust up upon Founder’s Syndrome, where the founder believes whatever he or she said right at the beginning of the project, that’s what goes, and that’s the only logic.

I hear the argument that, Oh, these poor little magazines with their tiny readerships, if only people appreciated them more. It’s partly true. But the bigger side of that is, well, if only you knew how to read a budget. If only you actually knew anything about publishing.

You get into situations where interns aren’t paid. I think that’s disgraceful. All of these magazines, except for The Baffler, take interns, and not one of them pays. I think that’s absolutely appalling. There’s no reason for that other than bad management. If you can’t afford the staff, you shouldn’t have the staff.3 It’s encouraging only one type of person to come through the system, and that’s the person who can afford taking an unpaid internship. There is nobody from a nontraditional background emerging through the system.
O’Donovan: For the most part, would you say small magazines should be supported by subscribers — that the majority of revenue should come from the subscriber base?
Rose: That is never true, and certainly has never been true in this sector at all. All these magazines — and I’m talking right across Europe and in the U.S. — magazines in this sector, which we will broadly call the cultural literary sector, are completely dependent on deep pockets.

Take away the donations, take away the private investments if they’re not nonprofit, and they are completely dependent on private investors. And they are massively loss making. The London Review of Books, I think the latest figure, they’re in debt to the Wilmers trust to the tune of 27 million pounds. The idea that these magazines can ever be self-sustaining is a fundamentally false one. They can’t.

No magazine in this sector has the readership to defy or pull in significant amounts of ad revenue to sustain it, so that’s completely out. They will never make enough ad revenue in this sector because the figures will always be too small. So they will always been dependent on two sources of revenue, and that’s subscription revenue (newsstand sales are completely ambiguous, the wheels have come off the newsstand industry already) or private investment or donation.

O’Donovan: What do you usually advise in terms of digital strategy? How much content should you put online, and what should the layout and content of a website be compared to the level of focus on the print side?
Rose: A website that coexists with a print magazine should be there primarily to complement it and encourage it, to pull in a broader print audience. There’s no reason for a website to exist for a print magazine other than to sell print subscriptions.

The idea that you can generate revenue from it is, again, a false one. You can get maybe a marginal amount of ad revenue from a website, but what it should be doing is selling print subscriptions.

O’Donovan: So no online-only subscriptions?
Rose: I mean, the first rule of business is if someone wants to give you money, don’t stop them. It all helps the bottom line. But you take a look at these websites and very rarely will you intuit that there’s a print product behind them.

Certainly that’s been the case at Lapham’s Quarterly. We’re right now in the middle of redesigning our website and that should be up and running at October the latest this year. The whole focus of that is to show this is a print product. The Internet’s great, but we are a print product.

O’Donovan: I am curious to know what you’re doing there — what your big plans are and why you decided to work at Lapham’s.
Rose: It’s a very, very straightforward mission at Lapham’s Quarterly, which in practice is the same mission of every magazine, although they may not say so. And that is simply to produce the best content possible, and to put that content in the hands of as many appropriate people as possible.

We can expand out on that and say: We behave very sensibly at Lapham’s Quarterly. We don’t lose money on acquisition, which is highly unusual in this sector.

O’Donovan: Can you explain what that means?
Rose: Well, most magazines will lose money on acquisitions. For every new subscription they take, they’ve lost some money. Say a subscription costs, for example, $30, it may have cost them $50 to solicit that new subscription.

We work on the principle that a percentage of those readers are going to convert into longer-term subscribers. At the end of their first year with the magazine, we know that a percentage are going to renew and take another subscription. And then at the end of that second year, we know that a different percentage will renew, and the same thing at the end of the third year. And we work for those very specific percentages. They tell us how much we can spend, how much money we can lose, if any, at the beginning of the cycle, on acquisitions. We play a little gamble. We know broadly we will have a deferred break-even in year two, make a profit in year three. That’s a standard magazine model — that’s the model that all big magazines operate to.

At Lapham’s Quarterly, we don’t operate to that. Because we’re a nonprofit, and we have to behave ourselves very appropriately, we work to cash-neutral goals. We solicit lists, we have a very conservative direct-marketing campaign — that means that we lose no money whatsoever — and in fact, the circulation grows very healthily every year.

So right now, looking at the figures for the last couple of years, we would anticipate this year a growth of 3,500, and that’s in the face of the last two or three years, which makes Lapham’s Quarterly right now the fastest growing magazine in America.

O’Donovan: Is your top goal to grow subscription?
Rose: My end is to make sure the business is sustainable. If we can branch out and have a book series, if we can do interesting events, well, that’s a bonus.
O’Donovan: What’s your plan for the website? How much of the content is going to be online?
Rose: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a copy of Lapham’s Quarterly, but it’s mostly excerpts from extant material. The bulk of our expenditure is on permissions acquisition. It’s often difficult for us to be able to secure rights for the entire content, to be able to put them online. It’s very unlikely that we’d ever be able to do that.

O’Donovan: Why did you decide to join Lapham’s?
Rose: This is an industry that I dearly love, and I got a chance to work with one of its legends. Lewis is by far the best editor I’ve ever worked with, and that’s because he understands the business, he understands the mechanics. There are very few editors like Lewis left. I’ve worked with a lot of big-name editors who simply have’t got a clue.
O’Donovan: I guess that happens a lot. People have a skittishness about knowing if what they’re doing editorially is resulting in more money or more subscribers.
Rose: There’s an awful lot of cases where it’s simply a dogmatic refusal to engage with the business process. And instead, you come up with crazy ideas on your own without any reference. That’s really frustrating. You work with someone, you have all these plans, you’ve worked out a very careful mathematics of the model, you know what to do with a specifically marketing attempt — and then somebody will have an idea over a bowl of Corn Flakes in the morning, and by the afternoon, that idea is being built out. There’s an awful lot of that in small magazines.

“Guys, I have a terrific idea! We’re going to have a market store at a farmer’s market!” It doesn’t work like that.

O’Donovan: Can you think of any magazines that you think are doing it right? That you think will be around for a while, that you think really get it?
Rose: A lot of them will be around for a long time. The New York Review of Books is going to be around for a long time. The London Review of Books is going to be around for a long time. They’re very well funded by their private investors.

I think n+1 will be around for a long time. It’s done well to get past its ten-year stage. As long as it doesn’t get any crazy ideas to invest massively in a direct-marketing model going forward, and it just keeps its figures at what it is now, which is around about 5 or 6,000, that’s probably healthy. I would add, as a caveat, it doesn’t pay its interns, and it depends very heavily on its interns. If they were to reassess their budget, they would realize they need bigger injections of cash.

But I can see n+1 being around a long time, I can see The Baffler getting through. Virginia Quarterly, Dissent — these magazines have heathy institution support. Magazines like American Reader I can’t see surviving. It’s noble that they’ve done it — they have a team of very, very nice people, and I think they have a mission which is bold and noble. But I can’t see them surviving very long.

This is part of a broader stagnation for circulation in the industry right now. Harper’s is having a time with their circulation. If you look at the advertising in Harper’s, all what was traditionally back-of-the-book — the publishers in the arts and culture section, right at the back — once you see that creeping forward, and those non-endemic lifestyle ads — airlines, cars, alcohol — they’re disappearing from the front of the book, that’s a sign that advertising is abandoning the product. And you can be pretty sure it won’t be too long before readers start to as well.

When these magazines start up, the question is: How are you going to pay for it? The response will almost always be: Well, we’ll get advertising. That really isn’t the way it works.

Illustration by Jon Han.
Notes
  1. not true of The New Inquiry as of June, after Rose and I spoke
  2. Jacobin’s is “around 65-70 percent,” according to Bhaskar Sunkara
  3. In my reporting, Jacobin said they do not use any unpaid labor. The New Inquiry does use volunteers but says “everyone shares the ‘grunt work’ and gets a title so we’re not perpetuating that system.” n+1 has 13 regular volunteers and 3 to 4 unpaid interns at any given time.
POSTED     Sept. 19, 2014, 10 a.m.
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