Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question comes from Managing and Creative Director of White Light Media, Eric Campbell.
Housty, we have a problem
If you were given double your production budget for the next issue of Grub Street, what is the first thing you would spend it on?
Simple! Another issue.
We’re bootstrapping The Grub Street Journal right now, making the magazine for as little as we possibly can to keep publishing for as long as we possibly can. If we had double the budget, we would be able to publish two issues instead of one.
In all the chats I’ve had with indie magazine makers, taking a long-term view of your title is the secret to success. Yes, some magazines manage the print equivalent of going viral on their first issue, but sustainability comes from consistency: the more issues you can put out there, the better chance you have of surviving.
And this isn’t just some weird magazine makers’ mantra – it’s called the Lindy effect. Seriously, look at the Wikipedia entry, there’s a formula and everything.
The basic idea of the Lindy effect is that the future life expectancy of a non-perishable thing – an idea, a book, a magazine – is proportional to its current age. That means that the longer something survives in the present, the longer it’s likely to be around in the future. If the Lindy effect is right, the more issues of The Grub Street Journal we publish, the more issues of The Grub Street Journal we are likely to publish.
* I love that this theory is named after the New York deli where the concept was dreamt up by a group of comedians trying to decide how long their TV careers might last.
Investing in future issues
Of course, there’s a whole other way to answer this excellent question. If future production budgets have been secured, what would you spend more money on?
Again, for us, I think this is fairly straightforward. We would invest in commissioning and marketing.
We’re lucky that we can write and edit, and that we have a wonderful designer to work with. Between the three of us, we’ve been able to make three issues that we’re really proud of. But in the future, we want to bring in more viewpoints, more voices. With additional budget, we would commission both writers and illustrators to help us reflect more than just our own views of the magazine business.
Yes, we could ask people to do stuff for nothing, and people have. But long term, we don’t think anyone should have to work for free – it’s simply not a sustainable business model. So If we had twice the money to spend on an individual issue, we would use some of it to support writers and illustrators that would add real value to the magazine.
Selling Grub Street
If I had to point to the one single thing that we wish we could do better in our bootstrapped operation, it would be sales and marketing. There is absolutely no question that we would use the other half of our hypothetical extra budget to promote Grub Street through social media and industry outreach.
It’s been important for us to get the content right for our early issues, and that’s where our focus has been. But more and more, we are realising that great content and design is not enough. We’re going to have to figure out an effective sales and marketing strategy to develop single copy sales, subscriptions and, ultimately, advertising deals.
While it’s tempting to consider a gold foil Star Trek badge for our Next Generation cover, better content and bigger audience reach will be more important to the long-term survival of Grub Street. And while the Lindy effect doesn’t guarantee that the more issues we make the longer we’ll be around, seeing people buy back-issue bundles reminds me that the more we make, the more we can offer new readers and the longer they’ll stick with us.
Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, freelance writer, and co-publisher of The Grub Street Journal, a magazine for people who make magazines.