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:
Lewis Lapham: "I didn't share [Harper's president Rick] MacArthur's view of the Internet at all. And I don't now." http://t.co/FBDXj6bVhM
— Nicholas Jackson (@nbj914) August 17, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.