Steve Watson celebrates independent magazines, sharing his love of print with the world through his London-based subscription service: Stack Magazines.
With Stack, Steve set out to make quality independent titles available to a global audience, removing the costly distribution issues they usually face and allowing them exposure and expansion. Each month subscribers to Stack receive a magazine from an unknown, yet discerning selection, delivered straight to their letterbox.
Can you take me back to the moment that made you fall in love with magazines?
I used to work for a dot-com content agency and I would spend my days writing corporate content for brands. We were located on top of the Magma shop in Clerkenwell at that time, so I’d find myself down there gazing at all these beautiful indie mags—with their weird perspectives and passions. That’s what got me. It made me question how I had to make this soul destroying, boring stuff while others spent their time making those kind of magazines.
What sparked the idea for Stack?
Stack came along much later. At that time I was editing magazines for brands, and doing a bit of writing in my spare time for Little White Lies.
I was particularly struck by the fact that so many of my friends, who would have loved the mag, had never heard of it. At first I assumed that was down to money: there wasn’t a lot of cash for marketing, so people just didn’t know it existed. But once I started looking into it I realised that the big problem is distribution.
Most magazines are sold on sale or return, which means that publishers only get paid for the copies that sell. That works fine for corporate publishers because they make a big chunk of their money from advertising—so the main aim is to get as many magazines in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and it doesn’t matter if you only sell 40% of what you print. But if you’re a small independent with little to no advertising and a cover price around the £10 mark, you really need to sell as many of those copies as you can. This is where Stack comes in—we pay for all the magazines we take, and aim to introduce people to new magazines they wouldn’t otherwise have come across.
Do you ever feel like you want to change sides—as in, making magazines instead of just looking at them?
I have this idea for a magazine that has been bugging me for ages that I just know I want to make but I can’t. I can’t do that as well. Stack takes up 100% of my time and I am not gonna start something else in the meantime.
London - a paradise for magazine lovers
Steve recommends to visit these five spots:
“I’m not looking for publications that just look nice, that’s not enough.”
How do you select the magazines with that wide audience in mind?
The magazines need to have something to say for themselves. I’m not looking for publications that just look nice, that’s not enough. They need to have something really solid behind them. They have to be open and inclusive. All indie mags are niche, but they should still be accessible to a wider audience. This morning I was reading a magazine about sneakers. It’s really cool and the guys have done an amazing job, but someone who does not feel passionately about sneakers will find the magazine is not for them. So that, for example, is not right for me to send out on Stack. After that, there just has to be a good variety. If I send out a food mag, I know I won’t be sending out another one that year. I want to be able to keep and offer a varying subject matter.
Do you really never have moments when you feel bored of magazines?
Honestly no. I don’t feel like I do with my laptop, when I do spend too much time with it, I need some time away from it. I think it has something to do with the fact that the magazines out there are so varied in the way that they feel, smell and all the rest of it. If I want to put one down, it’s because I want to pick another one up.
“The challenge for me is to then find the magazines that stand out and help them find a bigger audience.”
Where do you see print magazines heading?
When I started making magazines 15 years ago I had to work for publishers because they were the only ones with the technology and machinery to publish. These days, all you need is a computer and maybe a working Wi-Fi connection and you are good to go. People all around the world are doing that, which means you get a lot of pretty bad stuff. But you also find some real gems built on love. I think we are gonna keep on seeing this proliferation of print. The challenge for me is to then find the magazines that stand out and help them finding a bigger audience.
What do you think makes print magazines so desirable in the digital age?
The clue in your question is the bit at the end. This is the digital age. Digital media is so ubiquitous and we spend so much of our time on computers, in front of our screens. I think that print is finding a new role for itself. It is a process. Someone, I forget who, compared this whole process to horses. They did not go away after the car was invented. Their function just changed. Instead of being the best way to get around, they became symbols of luxury, leisure and affection.
There is something similar happening with print. Print is no longer the fastest and cheapest way to communicate, but that leaves this other space for the things that it is really good at doing. It is good at creating this very slow, intimate connection with readers. My favorite thing about print is that it cannot do much. It is dumb. It just sits there. It does not ask anything of you. It does not need you to update it at any point. It is just there. Within those limiting restrictions you can actually build a really close relationship with it.
That is the beauty of print in the digital age where otherwise, this connection gets lost.
Thank you, Steve, for your time and taking us on a journey through the independent publishing landscape. Curious about finding an indie a month in your letterbox? Find more info here. For more reading inspiration head to Stack’s Instagram or tune into Steve’s podcast.