Publishing niche magazines, with shoestring budgets, little fanfare, is a labor of love. (By Young Chang. Seattle Times Sunday edition feature, 9/21/03)
Andrew Monko publishes Resonance magazine out of his attic in Wallingford, but if anyone asks, he works at Resonance Towers. His staff takes breaks in the kitchen, writers do interviews in the dining room and archives collect dust in the basement, near the laundry machines. But there are no towers. The music magazine's newest intern, who recently got lost on his way to the office, looking for tall buildings, can promise you that. Monko jokes readily about the grandiose way he presents Resonance, circulation 20,000. (He once rented a voice-mail box in New York for the prestige of having a 212 area code — and the illusion of also running a New York office.) But beneath the jesting and facade-painting, Monko might as well be the proud dad of a baby's many firsts.
Here's the first all-glossy issue, the first all-glossy cover, the first perfect-bound edition and the one that got Resonance written about in Details magazine.
For the last nine years and 38 issues, Monko has run his Seattle-based quarterly on a shoestring budget and through countless late nights. But the outcome has surpassed the former teacher's initial goal of having something to do until the next substitute-teaching gig. His harshest lesson learned?
"The maxim 'do what you love and the money will follow' is not necessarily true," said Monko, 36. "Not yet, anyway." Still, like the 289 new magazines launched nationwide last year, Resonance relies on a quirky idea and devoted readership to stay afloat — even in this economy.
"It is enormously hard to launch a magazine. It's harder today
than it was 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago," said Nina
Link, president and CEO of the New York-based Magazine Publishers
of America (MPA). "But
we still have lots of new magazines being launched. I think the great
thing about magazines is, with each generation, there's a fresh new
take that people come up with."
Last year's most popular category for new magazines — metro/regional/state — produced 32 new titles nationwide, according to the MPA. Special interest magazines came in second with 29 new titles, sports publications held 17. Other notable newcomers: 11 computer magazines, nine pop culture magazines and eight for art and antiques. A handful more total magazines were launched in 2001, with 40 new special-interest titles and 39 new metro/regional/state magazines. According to the National Directory of Magazines, 17,321 titles were published nationwide last year. That number is about 370 less than in 2001, and the smallest since a magazine-launching boom in 1998 (18,606 titles published — the most ever).
At least 40 magazines are published out of Seattle, according to a 2003 list from Ulrich's Periodicals Directory.
"I think some parts of the business have become stabilized or less expensive because of technology, but it's just harder to reach the consumer, it's more expensive to mail, there are more media choices, it's more challenging to get in front of the advertiser," Link said. Trade secrets depend on the genre (did you know there are magazines about oils and fats?), but Link offers the following tips to all magazine starters:
• Strong content: "You really have to have a strong clear message, and you have to be able to stand out in terms of a particular topic or niche that you're in."
• Mailing lists: "You want to find the best opportunity to find the reader who would be interested in your content."
• Money and patience: "Having enough money behind you to be able to stay the course, to be able to have the time to find your reader. You need to have support and staying power."
Serving a need
You'd be surprised at how many professional-looking magazines were produced in someone's bedroom, said Jason Verlinde, who launched The Ukulele Occasional in spring 2002.
The classical-music and jazz editor for Amazon.com, who works out of his Ballard bedroom, debuted his first issue last year and expects his second issue to be available this month.
The 128-page magazine, which looks more like a thin book, is sold at instrument stores, through his Web site and shipped often to England and Japan (ukulele hotbeds — who knew?)
"It just seemed like one facet of the musical universe that hadn't really been written about and could use its own magazine," said the 29-year-old.
In the Occasional, ukulele fans can learn about repairing friction tuners, famous ukulele-ists (Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder is pictured in the first issue with a slicked-back Mohawk) and histories of ukulele-making companies. Verlinde tries to balance the obscure, often arcane flavor of his subject matter with celebrity sprinklings. This month's star? Actor William H. Macy, also a ukulele fan.
Verlinde's writers hail from around the country. Some are journalists, others are ukulele experts, but everyone writes for free. Verlinde edits, designs and writes. His only major expense is printing. "Ever since desktop publishing became popular 10, 15 years ago, it's getting cheaper every year, it seems, to do something like this," he said. This may be true for Verlinde's publication, as the subject serves a tight niche. The first issue, which was black and white, cost about $3,000 for 1,850 copies. Verlinde broke even then and expects to do the same with next week's 2,500 prints.
"But you're never going to get rich doing something like this," he said. "If you try to start slowly and small and then gradually grow bigger, it's better than trying to take over the world and put out the next Rolling Stone."
Robert Jeffrey Jr., publisher of ColorsNW Magazine, says launching a magazine should not be seen as a hobby. He started his monthly publication, which circulates in the Northwest and draws about 62,500 readers, two years ago to meet the needs of a diverse area. Jeffrey has published 29 issues. "There's a growing number of people of color coming into the city," said Jeffrey, who is considering partnering with a business in the near future to launch another magazine. "There really wasn't a publication to talk about the communities of color across the different ethnicities in the Northwest."
Juan Mayans publishes Persona magazine, which debuted this month and can be found at some grocers and selected Azteca restaurants, also to give voice to different cultures.
"There is no magazine here that addresses the Latino culture from both (American and Latino) perspectives," said Mayans, also the co-founder of a Bellevue marketing agency.
Krysta Gibson, who started The New Times in 1985, said you also need patience to make a magazine work. Her monthly New Age paper took about two years to start gaining an audience and start making money. "The distribution is one of the hardest parts," said Gibson, whose paper was free. "You've gotta hoof it and walk in and say 'Can I leave this here?' "
The Monroe resident sold The New Times in 1996. She says anyone thinking about starting a magazine should answer yes to the question: "Is this something you would do for free?"
Monko was starry-eyed at first.
Resonance debuted after an electronic-music magazine now based in San Francisco moved out of Seattle in the mid-'90s. Monko honed in on the same music scene but soon included anything eclectic and on the fringes, musically. Today, Resonance is about 60 percent music and 40 percent film, books and arts. He doesn't want a niche.
"I would be completely bored if we were doing a single genre," he said. "If I'm not getting a monetary reward, I at least want to get intellectual stimulation."
He printed 5,000 copies of the first issue (a stapled, 16-page booklet) for $400. Costs increased incrementally as the magazine grew in circulation and sophistication. His printing costs today range from $10,000 to $16,000 for 20,000 copies.
Monko, who published his 38th issue earlier this month, remembers being in the red for the first couple of issues, before enough advertisers stepped forward to cover printing costs. His writers don't get paid; his part-time editors do. Monko has always been the publisher/managing editor/art director/ad seller. By the 10th issue, after a turnover of designers, he also took on magazine designing.
Monko confesses to having been so self-conscious of his own work that he credited a made-up design firm (Evil Robot Design) instead of his own name. Three to four years into publishing Resonance, Monko quit his part-time and substitute teaching jobs because he made enough to live on. Magazine headquarters moved from a one-bedroom apartment to Monko's current house, which he shares with two others.
"We're not in as much debt as we used to be. We seem to have weathered the storm and are still weathering the storm fairly well," he said. "I'm thankful for that, especially because of the economy." Monko says he would do it all over again.
"But I would not name it Resonance because of the hundreds of thousands of times I have had to re-enunciate the word over the phone," he said. "Now I would name it 'Boom!' or 'Dogs and Cats' or something very easy to understand."