A new book outlines a theory of the future of print—and it's not all doom and gloom for magazine publishers
If, like me, you share author David Renard's love of independent magazines then this book is unreservedly recommended. If you need a little persuasion to open yet another book about magazines, then think again. The Last Magazine is a very ambitious and timely book. That it fails to achieve some of those ambitions shouldn't distract from some key messages that it delivers to magazine publishing at the beginning of 2007.
The book arrives as the latest in a flurry of books about magazines. Steve Taylor's 100 Years of Magazine Covers is a sound history of that one key part of the magazine; Charlotte Rivers' Mag-Art highlights a broad range of recent innovative titles. The Last Magazine stands apart from these in that it concentrates on the future of magazines.
Renard's central theme is established with the opening sentence of the book. "Magazines, as we know them, are dying," he states bluntly, before enlarging in some detail why this is the case. Such statements, along with the book title itself, are obviously designed to grab attention, but Renard knows his stuff—he divides his time between running Mu/Inc, the US's largest nationwide distributor of independent magazines, and consulting for more established publishers. He has assembled a strong cast of essayists to flesh out the detail of his argument.
This is how it goes: over the next 20 years, mainstream magazines will cease to be distributed as printed items, as a combination of pressures pushes publishers to move to digital distribution. These pressures have been documented before, most memorably in British publisher Felix Dennis' description of the "four horsemen" converging on the magazine industry. They are "the harbingers of a long, slow, inevitable decline in the fortunes of newspapers and magazines," he wrote in 2004, "as our readers mutate into viewers; as our distribution, sales channels and margins shrink; as the environmentalists batter us with claims of social irresponsibility and as our advertisers... migrate to the electronic sea". He was talking about the end of an era; Renard's words are subtly different. He has moved on to talk about the next era, a time where readers expect instant information and advertisers expect an accountability similar to that which they now receive from the web.
In the world of magazine publishing this is not hot news, as the selection of quotes from leading publishing figures on the opening spread makes clear. When you have senior staff from Time Inc, NewsCorp and Hachette-Filipacchi concurring with this argument, it's time to listen. But these people aren't bemoaning their fate; they are preparing their investors for what's next.
While the process of designing and printing magazines has been revolutionised in a single generation of digitalisation, the financial model behind the making of magazines has barely changed. The model has been successful because of continued growth. But recently this growth has stopped. As one of the contributors here, veteran publisher Bob Sacks, points out, it doesn't seem to matter how many more magazines we produce, total sales remains the same. In the US that total has stayed constant at 366m copies a year since 1990. That's despite 1100 new launches last year.
The big publishing houses continue to make hay while they can. In the UK this has meant a move towards the weekly, a move that not only quadruples potential income from advertising and copy sales, but also helps sate the readers' desire for the latest updates.
But whether a magazine is published weekly or monthly, the current model causes massive wastage. On average, over 55 per cent of all magazines produced don't actually get sold, ie they get trashed or recycled. In the US that means 180m magazines a year are waste.
Meanwhile in the UK, the recently launched weekly title Grazia is regarded as a huge success as it reaches for 200k sales and basks in an ongoing stream of industry awards. Yet it is years from earning enough to pay off the £16m cost of its launch. No wonder the industry is readying itself for a digital future. Dennis has launched the UK's first online-only mass-market magazine, lad mag Monkey.com, while in the US the publishers of FHM have cancelled its print edition and reinvented it as an online-only title.
But lad mags are an easy fit in today's online world. Their design sensibility owes much to the bite-size multi-entry point world of the web, while their content increasingly resembles the online porn industry. But how do the big-selling women's titles fit into Renard's argument? Technologist Nick Hampshire is on hand to explain that online doesn't mean desk-bound, providing in-depth detail on the latest developments in e-paper and portable readers. His research is impressive and convincing. The long-heralded paper-thin electronic display finally seems more than a pipe dream.
So where does that leave the humble printed magazine and us magazine-lovers? This is where Renard adds his own twist: while the mainstream will rush to embrace digital delivery, his beloved independent magazines—what I described as "microzines" in my book MagCulture—will continue to use print.
This is an absolutely compelling idea. Most mainstream magazines are now commodities, disposable weekly entertainment to be read and chucked. Such magazines are ideally placed for online consumption. They won't use the helpless HTML of websites, but be updatable, digital documents subject to the design values of print magazines and presented electronically to be read then deleted.
Meanwhile the independent press, objects of absolute passion for both creators and readers alike, will continue to use print. These labours of love, rare items often produced in runs as low as 1,000, will remain dependent on a physical manifestation. As one contributor to the book, Jan Van Mol of Add!ct magazine puts it, the independent magazine is the "the canvas of the magazine artist". For such magazines the tangibility of print is a key part of their very existence. They are multi-sensual experiences, designed to be held, smelled, and touched.
The majority of The Last Magazine is given up to pictures of covers and spreads from these independent magazines. Renard presents a broad and international collection ranging from the relatively high profile (Carl*s Cars, Self Service and Mark) to the more obscure (Yummy, Daniel Bantam's Fan Club Magazine and Modern Toss). Vince Frost's design for the book is typically simple and strong, with black and white typography allowing the images to provide the colour, and the cover a striking graphic adaptation of magazines lined up on a shelf.
The magazines are loosely divided into themes such as Physicality, Content and Community. But great though it is to see these magazines together in one collection, this is where the book lets itself down.
Arguing the case for these magazines as the future of print demands more than just a nice showcase of images. The brief introductions to the themes aren't enough to provide real context. With proper captioning of the magazines, the book could have delivered stronger arguments for their presence and made a good book great.