Monday, 9 February 2009

Magazines - Are They Worth Starting

Is this a good time to be running a magazine? Probably not. Research at the Institute for Welsh Affairs shows that newspaper consumption is in significant decline. The regional press more steeply than the UK nationals. On the net everything is free. Twenty-four hour news television is ubiquitous. Mobile devices that allow us access where ever we are – bed, train, settee, restaurant, street – are owned by increasing numbers. Against this background who would want to venture into print? And having ventured how would they sell their products? Yet in the Welsh literary world brave souls still do.

In English Planet, Poetry Wales and the new New Welsh Review still dominate. In Welsh Taliesin rides on alongside Tu Chwith. And Barn, the long-lived cultural heavyweight fights it out against Lolfa’s newcomer. No sign there, apparently, of circulation doom and mass transfer to new technology. But then the thumb-keying young who live by the screen have not yet taken over the world. But they soon will.

One of the great myths of Wales is that somewhere, out there, are thousands of untapped readers. All we have to do is find a way of accessing them and our Welsh periodical publishing problems will be over. It is a litany I have been hearing now for many decades and it still echoes on. When the late, great Robin Reeves edited the New Welsh Review he came up with the promotional scam of offering bone china mugs with poems on them to new subscribers. There was an R S Thomas and a Dylan Thomas, both in fine and tasteful white. You couldn’t buy them unless you also subscribed. Subs soared.

Things came to a head a year later when subscriptions came up for renewal. Readers seemed to be leaving the magazine in droves. A certain fall off is expected but not as much as the Review was experiencing. A bit of investigation threw up the fact that there were more china collectors in the UK than readers of literary magazines. Collectors were subscribing just for the mug and were throwing the print into the bin unread. Why am I doing this, Robin said to me. It would be cheaper if I just gave the magazines away.

Elsewhere further ploys are in use in the hunt for new sales. These include free chocolates, free beer mats, free pens, free hats, and a free first year so long as you sign up by direct debit. The money slides from your account, annually, almost by stealth. The Welsh Union of Writers’ magazine, The Works, which last appeared around ten years ago still has a number of dedicated subscribers resolutely paying by standing order. Despite what you hear the banking system is a wonderful thing. Where would magazines be without it.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail


Anthony Brockway said...

There's something romantic about starting a magazine though, isn't there? That's why there'll always be people prepared, thankfully, to give it a bash:

Personally I would love to see a decent online Welsh cultural magazine along the lines of '3AM' or 'Salon'. There's a bit of a void at the moment.

I'd also love to see a regular literary insert in the Western Mail. Interviews, features, as well as reviews. I know that would probably cost an arm and a leg, but even if it only appeared on a quarterly basis it would be a huge boost to literature in Wales. I'm sure it could be put together easily enough with all the writers at Academi's disposal.

And I'd also like to see a yearly Granta-type themed magazine featuring 10-15 page articles (non-fictional) by Welsh writers. That kind of writing isn't really catered for at the moment.

sarah said...

'And I'd also like to see a yearly Granta-type themed magazine featuring 10-15 page articles (non-fictional) by Welsh writers'

There's Almanac, which is similar to your suggestion, allbeit a journal with a Welsh Writing /comparative lit focus.

Wales is missing out on quality broadsheet cultural journalism - Western Mail is far too concerned with the celebrity aspect of culture... an online magazine would fill this gap, but how it could be established is another matter.

Anthony Brockway said...

'Almanac' - that's the new name for the 'Yearbook of Welsh Writing in English', isn't it? (or the 'Yearbook of Welsh Writing in English About Dylan Thomas', as I always think of it). I had in mind something slightly less academic with a broader appeal to be honest.

As for the quarterly literary supplement idea I think it could be put together outside of the Western Mail. Asking them to actually produce it would be just too expensive. Persuading them to carry it, though, as an insert is not beyond the realms of possibility. Academi ought to check ought how financially viable this would actually be.

sarah said...

In it's new form as Almanac (complete with new publisher), the journal is different - and 2008's edition featured no Dylan Thomas
(and the R.S Thomas articles offered new comparative approaches to his work), but yes, it is still an 'academic' journal.

NWR has come to occupy this space of literary/cultural dissemination - at least, that's what we on the editorial board hope...

Anthony Brockway said...

Any idea how much Almanac costs to produce and what its readership is? I'd love to know.

I was thinking of a yearly mag where one might, for example, find an extended article on Welsh motorcycle gangs; or the rise of Welsh pornography; or a feature on vampire boy Matthew Hardman. Absolutely no poetry (nobody's interested in poetry), no short stories, just good non-fictional writing. Plus a few interviews (because people like reading interviews). I don't think there's anything at all wrong with being populist as long as the work is intelligently written. It might even sell a few copies.

sarah said...

No idea on the Almanac figures sorry.

A yearly review mag would be good, but who would fund it?

I think what south Wales (at least) needs is a listings/cultural magazine - an equivalant to Venue in Bristol and Bath. Interesting and wide-ranging articles, popular without being dumbly populist. Buzz magazine is a joke - just adverts and froth.

Anthony Brockway said...

Funding? Dunno. What's Academi's total budget? Maybe we could have a Granta type yearly mag instead of the somewhat ludicrous Dylan Thomas prize?

I disagree with you Sarah about the listings mag. You can get listing details from numerous sources in hardcopy or online. It'd be a waste of money.

Peter Finch said...

hello I am a test

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Love the story about the china mugs. Only just found this blog - can I put it in the links list on mine?


Anonymous said...

Full of adverts it may be, Sarah, but as a free magazine how do you think the overheads are covered? And the printing? Even more so now in the current climate would a new magazine rely on advertising, unless of course the creators were extremely minted and willing to make large losses. Or give away free china mugs.

sarah said...

Anonymous - I know that Buzz relies heavily on advertising as it's free; i'm involved in magazines in Wales and understand the financial constraints. I also take issue with Buzz's focus - despite being a south wales magazine, it's focus is consistently Cardiff-centric.

My argument is that Venue magazine (Bristol and Bath's paid-for listsings and culture magazine) provides a model that could prove useful for a similar magazine here in Wales. Venue continues to thrive despite the current financial climate, and the rise of web-based listings. It's a substantial, well written magazine, with a wide scope and is the sort of thing south wales in particular needs.