Thursday, February 26, 2009
We knew it all along
Stacey May Fowles is the circulation and marketing director at The Walrus and volunteer publisher of Shameless, a feminist magazine for teenage girls. She has also published two novels, Be Good and Fear of Fighting, and her writing has appeared in several magazines, including Broken Pencil

Everywhere you look right now media and magazine experts are preaching the value of the web. It’s not enough just to have a print magazine, they say. Hard times mean you have to take full advantage of what the web can provide. The funny thing about this thinking is that independent, small circulation magazines have been working the web to their advantage for years, simply by necessity - none of them have the capital to send out a 60,000-piece direct mail campaign or put their subscribers on a sophisticated billing cycle. Small maggers make do.

Big magazine folks often look at the small mag world with sympathy, disdain, or even confusion.  You had a party to launch an issue? There’s no seven -series renewal coming at expiry? You do this for free? Truth is the web has been an easy, cheap, DIY fix for small maggers for years; we’ve been pulling in subscribers via MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, Twitter, BCC’d emails, and busy high traffic blogs because that’s all we could afford to do. As a result we’ve gotten very good at it. It’s hard for us not to chuckle when all of a sudden the bigger side of the business is embracing it in the face of hard times. (The web is not the only thing we’ve managed to master. We’re also damn good at relationships. We love our giveaways, contests, contra, sponsorship and strategic partnerships.)

Recently I had a conversation with an older, respected circ pro who offered up his credit card number so he could sign up his daughters for subscription to Shameless. “It’ll save you money. You won’t have to send a bill,” he said. I let him know that Shameless didn’t take credit card numbers and didn’t send bills (two things we simply can’t afford.) We ask for “well-concealed cash” on our minimal mailings and take our credit card payments via Paypal. Hearing myself say that made me feel insecure, aware of the immediate surprise from a person who had been in the industry far longer than I and knew the value of tried (tired?), tested and true circ rules.

Then I remembered—our system works. For us. It may not work for, say, a Rogers publication, but it works for our readership and it works for our business model. It works because we’ve gotten damn good at it. While the magazine business as a whole seems to think bigger is better, some of us know the value of keeping things small (and affordable). We know the value of creating an “online community,” using the tools available to us, and learning as much as we can about new ones as they appear. We’ll try anything, and we won’t have endless meetings about it before we do – we simply dive in and muddle through. Sometimes it’s messy and less than perfect, but we make it happen.

In some ways, small, independent magazines are always “succeeding in hard times,” regardless of headlines. Maybe it’s time to loosen up some of the more rigid circ rules, to talk to people who have been impossibly running small mags for years about how they managed to do the impossible. You just might learn some valuable lessons that just might keep you afloat.  And you’ll learn that now is a perfect time to muddle through.
- Stacey May Fowles
About Me
Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May is the circulation and marketing director at The Walrus and volunteer publisher of Shameless, a feminist magazine for teenage girls. She has assisted in circulation and business development projects for Descant, Magazines Canada and Hive Magazine.
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