“Housty, I’m a new magazine publisher, how do I get better fast?”

Each month we pose a question to the amazing Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, and magazine consultant extraordinaire, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. 

Housty, we have a problem

“I’m a new mag publisher, I know my subject but I don’t know the industry, how do I get better fast?”

For any magazine publisher, knowing your subject is a hell of a start; some of the most successful publishers never really move much beyond that. They see themselves purely as part of the cultures they cover, consumer or business, and that’s enough.

What worries me about that approach is what it costs the individual publisher and what gets lost to our industry.

The opportunity cost for publishers working without a broader magazine publishing context is real. Knowing something about the decisions other publishers have made, the strengths they’ve played to and the pitfalls they’ve avoided, saves time and money. Magazine publishing is not rocket science, but reinventing the wheel every time a new title launches is such an incredible waste.

The farmers market of magazines

And, as our industry profile shifts from monolithic publishing houses to smaller, independent publishers – what I’ve called ‘the farmers market’ – we risk losing so much of the magazine craft that goes into making the best magazines.

So, I applaud your instinct to know the industry better and, luckily, there are so many ways to get up to speed quickly.

In thinking about how to answer this question, I’ve actually realised there is an incredible range of information available to people interested in learning more about magazine publishing. Magazine people are not shy about letting people know what they think – from first-time indie publishers sharing the lessons they’ve learned launching to former corporate execs analysing the likely success of major corporate players.

Find your favorites and dig in.

But before you start reading the books and magazines and blogs, subscribing to newsletters and podcasts and signing up for webinars and social media feeds, think about what it is you want to be better at.

A few fundamentals

Magazine publishing might not be rocket science, but there are a few fundamentals that, if you get to grips with them, you will be better at it. I regularly use the analogy of a three-legged stool to talk about the three main elements of a robust magazine publishing strategy.

  • Content – Without good content, nobody will care about your magazine
  • Audience – Good content is pointless without people to care about your magazine. 
  • Revenue – Without money coming in, you (eventually) won’t care about your magazine.

Look at how you make your magazine and try to work out which, if any, of these three legs is the weakest. That’s your starting point.

If your wobbly leg is content, learn about commissioning. Build up your knowledge of formats. Find out about cover and page design. Research ways to repurpose the content you have across multiple platforms.

If it’s with audience that you’re in danger of falling over, focus on circulation and subscriptions. Develop an understanding of audience development. Research reader metrics and analytics. Work out your audience personas.

And if you’re doing everything else right, but not making enough money to balance the books, learn how to sell. Get your head around cashflow. Spend time with spreadsheets. Make the numbers make sense.

I’ve been working with Nikki on the curriculum for the International Magazine Centre’s 21st Century Magazine Publishing course, coming soon, so you could start there.

Of course none of these disciplines exists in a vacuum, they all have to work together for that three-legged stool to be sturdy. Part of the fun is in learning how changes in one area can impact on the others.

Don’t underestimate the power of subject matter expertise. It really is the fuel for your magazine. But knowing the mechanics of the publishing process will make it easier for you to communicate your passion and for your audiences to appreciate your genius.

As always, if reading this brings anything specific to mind, drop me an email.


Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, and a freelance writer.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.