Saturday, April 29, 2006

SLOW publishing ~ authentic publication of a niche magazine

Brew of the day: Peppermint and Licorice (Don’t look at me like that. It tastes fabulous. Honest! Now, put your feet up, and drink!!)

We live in a manic culture desperately hurrying to…er, where is it we’re hurrying to exactly? I’ve forgotten. Most of us probably have! Despite this, we’re starting to hear more about living a slower life and often hear it reflected in terms like ‘slow food’…where we make our food slowly, eat our food slowly, ideally even grow our own food, live more simply, etc. I’ve recently read a wonderful book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore. Though being notorious for reading quickly, I didn’t read it that slowly.

So for our Saturday Morning Cuppa here’s a tale of slow publishing. It’s my tale.

The Mother magazine’s evolution when compared with some other publications is not too different to the story of the tortoise and the hare and hopefully illustrates that in the world of natural parenting publications, slow and steady authenticity wins the race.
When I began The Mother magazine I went to print with a first edition print run of 1000 copies and with just 30 pre-launch subscribers. GULP. I’ve never been so nervous (and I’m NOT a nervy sort of girl ~ ask my husband) as the day I left that first issue for printing. Oh My God!! Apart from the fact it truly felt like I’d left my vulnerable baby with a stranger, I also wondered if it would sell; would anyone ever buy it? I had no fingernails left that week, I can tell you. Well, I had 60 subscribers by the end of the first week after the magazines were posted out. Thank goodness! By the time I was ready to take the second issue to the printer, I felt confident in the growth which was happening. And it has grown faithfully ever since. I’m currently preparing our eighteenth issue for press.

My day to day work life revolves around full-time mothering. Apart from attending to business phone calls and checking emails, I actually do the administrative or editorial work at night after the girls go to sleep. In the early days I worked day and night around the girls. But I’ve learnt the hard way. To do a job properly you have to focus on it and you can’t do business work AND be present with your children at the same time. Now the girls are 8 and 10, I can get comfortable pockets of time in the day to catch up on bits and pieces. They’ll disappear up the village and climb trees or pop down to the bottom of the garden to bake mud pies ~ that’s my cue to make hay while the sun shines, so to speak. If we do any home education stuff I really need to be in earshot so I can answer their questions.

Our readership defies stereotyping! I’m often amazed when talking with subscribers that they don’t fall neatly into one category but come from all walks of life. And despite the title of our publication, not everyone who reads The Mother is a mum ~ or even plans to be. Some people choose to subscribe because they like what it represents. Some hope to have children. Some have five kids and no life partner. Some are lesbian and did a DIY conception job; some are gay and love how femininity is portrayed in our pages. We have menopausal breastfeeding mums and mums who’ve completely vaccinated their kids. Mums who are happy to let their kids eat junk food day in, day out. And still, these mums, despite our strong ethical stance, get something enriching from The Mother and keep re-subscribing.

We have career mums and stay-at-home mums. And we have many dads who subscribe and are more passionate about the ideals we present that their partner is. Grandmothers subscribe so they can get a better idea of how their children are raising their grandchildren. Our readers span every economic level. They include teachers, health care professionals and, of course, journalists. What I do know is that if someone is prepared to spend money on an annual subscription then they clearly get something from this publication.

I don’t actively promote The Mother magazine and have always trusted it to grow organically, healthily and, most importantly, ethically. And it has. There’s no point unnaturally forcing something that is meant to be wholesome (else it loses its flavour). Somehow (thanks no doubt in large part to the internet) it has found its way into the homes and hands of families from more than 45 countries. We have a US publisher and a NZ publisher ~ two passionate, dynamic and thoroughly gorgeous mums (Cindy and Lynda) whose work enables the magazine to reach some of these places while allowing us to reduce air miles by not having to post everything out from the UK.

The magazine touches a chord in people who don’t want to be fed diluted editorials (where the editor is too scared to take a stance) or to be bamboozled with page after page of in-your-face glossy adverts. An editorially led magazine doesn’t rely on advertising to function well as a business. Our economy is always fluctuating so in lean times when people choose not to advertise, a magazine needs to know it has the financial support of its subscribers. My pet hate with magazines is when adverts are placed right next to articles on the same topic. Personally I find it very disrespectful not to mention downright insulting to the readers.

I’m not drawn to the idea of lying (which is the only word for it) about readership figures to advertisers in order to get in revenue. This is widespread in publishing even among the self-touted ‘authentic’ parenting publications. To be honest, it makes me nauseous to the core and I genuinely feel sick at the thought that anyone in this field could do that. And yet it is happening. Unfortunately, I hear about it far too often.

More than a handful of times I’ve suggested to an advertiser that they might prefer to advertise elsewhere because we don’t have the readership necessary for their product to sell well. Lately more than a few businesses have contacted me after having been *bullied* by another magazine (in the natural parenting field) to advertise with them. I’m not joking! All their stories have the same theme, yet none of these business people know each other. Nevertheless it has caused me to stop and reflect on my own publishing journey.

The one thing I’ve really learnt about my magazine is that the only form of advertising that works for The Mother is good old fashioned word of mouth. People either love or hate The Mother magazine...they aren’t neutral about The Mother any more than the magazine itself is neutral on any given topic. Racing to become a fast-growing magazine or claiming high circulation figures to ensure advertising revenue isn’t my goal. If The Mother is going to be here for the long haul, then she has to continue as she started. Slow and steady and subscriber-supported.

My vision has never been to lure advertisers in for the sake of a quick buck but to keep my readers challenged, informed, inspired and interested. Sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. I know I can’t keep everyone happy with every article I publish. I take editorial risks all the time. You see, it is important that I grow too. The Mother represents my own evolution. If I’m too afraid to challenge myself then the magazine will stumble.

We have a very high re-subscription rate and I think that speaks for itself.

Truly the thing that brings me much joy is what I call the gift subscription chain. I make a note next to a subscriber’s name of who has gifted their subscription. To watch that new subscriber fall in love with The Mother and then go on and give a gift subscription herself which then goes on to another mum and another mum is truly rewarding. In fact, for me, it is priceless.

If a magazine wants to claim high figures to boast its circulation status then ETHICALLY (for the sake of authenticity and transparency) it should print within its pages a statement of ownership and circulation and be prepared to be audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). The other side of this is that unless the magazine chooses to be audited (thereby showing their authenticity) by the ABC, their advertisers are never going to be honestly told how many magazines have been sold.

A magazine like The Mother, because it doesn’t go out of date quickly; has a high educational content and is often pictorial, can be said to have as many as twenty readers per copy IF (and it is a very big if) it is found in doctor’s waiting rooms, libraries etc. It may of course take a year to get this many readers but what good is that to an advertiser wanting quick results? I, however, would never claim a readership level like that even though it does sit in public areas. Three readers per copy is more likely for ANY natural parenting magazine, regardless of where it ends up. One has to be realistic though. If a magazine is in a public waiting room, it is almost impossible for someone to read the whole issue while sitting there so it doesn’t really count as a reader, does it?

I am often asked by subscribers why The Mother isn’t sold in mainstream chains like WHSmith or in supermarkets. Here’s why: We operate on a cash payment for goods basis. Chain stores only operate on a sale or return basis. They have NO INVESTMENT in making sure the magazine sells. If it doesn’t sell they haven’t suffered any loss. I’ve seen the magazines of my competitors sitting behind other magazines on shelves which are so stuffed with publications that they’ll never be found. And because it is sitting on this shelf all alone and unseen, it is STILL considered to be *read*. At the end of its shelf life, the front cover is ripped off the magazine and sent back to the publisher. It can’t be resold and, environmentally, is an insult. No ethical publisher committed to green or natural living would operate this way. Our ethos at The Mother is to support independent shops NOT supermarkets or chains. Why would a magazine promoting conscious, ethical, green or natural parenting actively encourage its readers into a supermarket to find them? Sorry, but it is like putting a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t FIT!!

So while you won’t find The Mother in a supermarket you will find it in the hands of genuinely ethical businesses such as the Born nursery shops (Bristol, Bath and London), Seven Generations, Free Range Kids, natural health clinics (like Shiatsu, Chiropractors, Reiki practitioners etc,.) independent midwifery clinics,, yoga classes, with birth pool distributors, health food shops and independent bookstores. Our priority of course is to make it available through subscription and the upside of this for advertisers is that they receive genuine readership figures not a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

I really admire the work and thoughts of Neil Crofts, founder of Authentic Business and author of Authentic: How to Make a Living by Being Yourself. Key questions in his Authentic Business checklist ask: Is the company respectful of others? And does it avoid exploitation of resources and customers?

He says that an authentic business “understands that profit is like breathing – you have to do it, but it is not why you get up in the morning. The purpose of an authentic business is positive by definition because authenticity is about the fundamental purpose of a human being. To understand positive we use the Native American belief that our responsibility for our actions extends seven generations forwards.”

So when a business allows, or indeed encourages, bullying tactics for the sake of raking in advertising money, what is this teaching the children? And how does this impact us for seven generations.

Discussing integrity, Neil Crofts says, “Authentic businesses are by definition respectful, honouring and non-exploiting.”

If we stand up and tell the world we’re living a conscientious life then this HAS to be reflected in all areas of our life, including (and especially in) our business. There is no point wrapping our kids in pyjamas made from fair-trade, organically grown cotton or hemp if our business actions are deliberately deceitful. Honesty is always the best policy and if that means SLOW publishing using SLOW money (that is, NOT sale or return), then surely that can only be a win win for everyone?


Carla said...

Brava, Veronika, brava. I've had a look at Honore's book, In Praise of Slow, myself. It's wonderful. Your ideals regarding the creation and development of The Mother are admirable indeed. When I become a certified midwife, I shall make sure to contact you to ensure that I can distribute The Mother to all those mothers with whom I interact. (Yes, I am changing from environmental history to midwifery...)

Veronika said...

hi Carla ~ how exciting that you're doing midwifery. Do let me know if you want some book or video recommendations. Also you might like to look into the course being run by Source Foundation's the cream of holistic midwifery/birth care.
Jeannine Parvati Baker's work is great too. Love, Veronika