Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Launching a Magazine the Un-Dumb Way

Dave Eggers, on launching magazines:

With Might, we did it the dumb way. We thought we had to do 100,000 circulation and we had to have all this advertising, and it was never going to happen and no one got paid, we were all perpetually disappointed, and it folded. We found out that wasn’t the way to do it.

With McSweeny’s and The Believer we decided to do the math better, to depend on the readers, not on advertisers or anyone else. If the readers think it’s good, it will keep growing. That way, there’s no compromise. The Believer ahs a circulation of 17,000 to 20,000 and I don’t know if it will ever surpass that. And get this: Because of reader support, McSweeney’s, the literary quarterly, is able to subsidize some of the more eccentric projects we take on. It’s bizarre but it can work if you depend on the wisdom of your readers.

I love this quote on so many levels.

One the one hand, it’s a wonderful insight on the state of print in the digital age. The magazine business was built on gatekeepers. To get a magazine into a store requires working with a chain of middlemen, each adding to the final cost. The math just didn’t work unless you have huge numbers. So to get them, you dumb down the content and pray for ads. In the end, the magazine becomes more about securing eyeballs for advertisers than serving the community that inspired it in the first place.

The internet allows consumers and creators to connect directly. So for the first time, it’s possible to skip those middlemen. Putting ink to paper is always going to be more costly than putting pixels to screen, but now that a group of talented people can collaborate, create, and sell directly to consumers, it’s actually possible to jump the middlemen – a community can support its own content creation. (This is a lesson the record labels, TV execs, and WGA members are in the process of learning right now.)

On the other hand, well, duh. Communities have always created their own content. In fact, this bizarre affliction of blockbusters and mass media is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Chris Anderson so skillfully wrote in Wired (The Rise and Fall of the Hit, July 2006), “the era of the blockbuster was an anomaly.” Mass media created the era of the megahit, and mass media has changed.

Content may want to be free, but it doesn’t always want to be big.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.