5 important things we learned from The U Symposium
Want to start your own indie magazine? Keep calm, carry on and take notes from The U Symposium, who’ve pooled together the likes of Cherry Bombe, Cereal Magazine and Offscreen for insider tips
Even we have to admit it: There's nothing quite like print. Sure, you might have read it first on our website (or so we'd like to think), your social media feeds or other sites you've religiously subscribed to, but nothing quite replaces the rewarding experience of leafing through your favourite monthly to marvel at stories and spreads that come alive. It's sublime — unfortunately, no amount of gifs or pop-up ads can replace that tactility.
Which is why labours of love are extra special. The U Symposium returned last weekend after a successful run last year, where they brought together representatives from the likes of Kinfolk, The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man to speak on the issues surrounding independent publishing. This year, they've pooled together speakers from indie titles such as travel and style guide Cereal, tech tome Offscreen andfashion and foodie favourite Cherry Bombe. What's particularly charming about an independently-made title is their alternative (Tom Tom, a publication for female drummers is one example) and niche voice (Puss Puss, one about fashion and cats)and unique aesthetic that's a refreshing alternative to glossy magazines.
"In my view there are just two types of magazines: Good and bad magazines," quips Jeremy Leslie, the founder of magazine consultancy, retailer and designer studio magCulture. The first speaker cum moderator of the symposium, he sparked things off by shedding light on what's a vital asset to any magazine: The reader. "Without the reader, there's no magazine," said the publishing veteran. Here are four other takeaways from the insightful weekend:
1. There's no such thing as a perfect product. "Not everything you do has to be the next New Yorker," said Kai Brach, the founder of Offscreen. The Melbourne-based German started the magazine after he felt increasingly disconnected (hence the title) working as a web designer for a decade. He started his title from scratch and did all the layouts himself, without even a prior knowledge of InDesign. A quote he lives by? "Success means having to forgive oneself the horrors of the first draft", from The Book of Life.
Meanwhile, co-founder of Cereal Rosa Parks also claims that there's no such thing as a perfect product. While Cereal's pared down aesthetic was distinct from the start, she has had her fair share of revamps in the cover and content. Her advice is to spice things up, but with reason. "It always comes back to content," she affirmed. 2. Don't become a brand. We could all use a little bit of humanity. Brach shared that readers don't want to just be customers — they want to be part of a community. Up your social media engagements, reply to comments and emails personally, and be transparent in both your triumphs and mistakes when you're just starting out. It makes pieces of paper just a little bit more human.
This humanity can court 1,000 true fans. A true fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. According to a theory by founding executive editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly, you only need a 1,000 true fans to make a living out of your work. The strategy is not to sell as many magazines as possible, but to get 1,000 true fans. These people are your safety net who'll subscribe to you no matter what, and you'll also benefit from their direct feedback.
3. You're not just a magazine, you're a media company. "You're not a magazine, you're a media company," said Claudia Wu from Cherry Bombe. The co-founder attained this nugget of advice from someone she met at a party who worked for Vice. "We don't just do magazines, we have to do other things," Wu continued, hinting on the fact that as a small company, you'll have to dip your toes into other creative arenas to be sustainable. After starting the bi-annual title with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, she shares that Cherry Bombe also gets involved in podcasts and consultancy for brands such as Nike and American Express. They hosted their first conference, the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, after reading a Time Out article that only singled out male chefs as the "Gods of Food". The event — which happened after just two issues — celebrates women in food with panels, talks and mixers. Cherry Bombe has just signed a deal for two cookbooks as well, so look out for them. 4. Have an opinion. "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it," shared Brach. Indie brands aren't afraid of standing out, and they certainly don't shy away from having opinions — fortunately or unfortunately for them, the hold that commercial giants have over them is unlikely.
The U Symposium was organised by Underscore Magazine. To find out more, click here.