The Rise of the Artisanal Magazine


Death and dying are so hot right now — or at least it seems that way, if you spend your days trying to comprehend the changes in how we traditionally consume information. Lectures? Those might be D.O.A. Bookstores? Yeah, those could use a burial plot. The book publishing industry? That’s basically a zombie film waiting to happen. Magazines? Oh wow, that’s a really slow and cruel death; causes include a frightening combination of blogs, microblogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook timelines, listicles, and Reddit. The media (which also might be a dead man walking) is fixated on inanimate things leaving this mortal coil; we simply love a good demise. And while it will probably be a very long time till we’re reading exclusively off iPads and Kindles, sooner rather than later, most of our favorite magazines and newspapers will either be completely digital or will have seriously cut down the amount of physical copies they publish. SPIN and Newsweek (who, after 80 years, had to face the realities that “cannot be ignored” as editor-in-chief Tina Brown put it) have already gone that route. While it was a practical financial decision, Brown noted that, “Exiting print is painful, and poignant, for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the magazine’s ‘close’ on Friday night.”

Romanticism aside, anybody who has had a hand in putting together a magazine, be it a homemade music zine or a big glossy mass-market production, knows that it isn’t cheap. You might not be dealing with the same numbers as Newsweek, but the paper, ink, and staples add up. So by that logic, it isn’t impossible to imagine a supermarket checkout line without copies of Bon Appetit, or your local newsstand selling digital subscriptions to Rolling Stone. The magazine might not be dying, but big business would probably say the magazine is obsolete. However, that thinking doesn’t totally match up with the current boom of impeccably laid out, limited-run magazines that are being put out independently of big publishers like Hearst or Condé Nast. How can we be hearing the death rattle of the magazine if we’ve got a stack of pricey indie rags piling up on our coffee tables?

Necessity, it would seem, is one of the main reasons. At least that’s the case with The Travel Almanac, the bi-annual publication that focuses solely on the art of traveling. “Traveling is quite a rich and diverse topic if viewed from the proper perspectives and we were unable to find any publications around that represented and made use of this potential,” founder and editor-in-chief, Paul Kominek, tells me over email. The editors say that the 6.5” x 8.5” magazine with the thick cardstock cover wasn’t based on any publications they’d seen before; instead, it “was born more out of trying to create a publication that didn’t yet exist in order to give a voice to a new generation of travelers that we felt weren’t already represented in print.”

The New York- and Berlin-based publication tends to sell out of its small print run, and aside from a sparsely laid out website and a Twitter account that, as of this writing, hasn’t been updated since December 5th, 2012, The Travel Almanac maintains very little internet presence. The editors stress that they’re less interested in boosting their SEO, and more concerned with expanding the magazine itself, and introducing new sections. What’s most striking to me is the fact that The Travel Almanac isn’t filled with ads. In fact, you can count the advertisements on one hand. Instead, the small magazine is filled with stories, resort reviews, interviews with the likes of Udo Kier and Will Oldham on their traveling habits, and a blank travel log in the back of each issue for readers to use as they wish. Kominek stresses that The Travel Almanac is a labor of love, born out of the sheer desire to see such a publication exist, but it is hard to deny that in this brave new world of non-media media, the founders of these niche magazines might be brilliant entrepreneurs, not brave libertines who want to see print persevere. While the mass-market magazine, the $5.99 glossy we pick up at the airport or the local Walgreens, might indeed be a thing of the past, we might be witnessing the rise of the artisanal magazine.

Observe The Travel Almanac selling out, and Kindling Quarterly, described as an “exploration of fatherhood through essays, interviews, editorials, art, and photography,” getting written up by The New York Times as examples of this crop of sleek new magazines aimed at niche readerships. David Michael Perez, one of Kindling Quarterly’s founders, told the Times that he believes his magazine (which retails at $14 an issue) is a good business model that he and his business partner, August Heffner, jumpstarted using personal funds. There’s the Canadian menswear magazine Inventory, which retails for $20 in the States, and Babes Quarterly is billed as “a modernized version of the classic 1950’s and 60’s pocket men’s magazine” that is “designed to a creative, babe loving guy in all of us.” These magazines are also thinking of new ways to promote their product, and also new ways of doing business overall. The Portland magazine Kinfolk explicitly states on its website that it is a “collectable print magazine” aimed at growing a “readership of young artists and food enthusiasts by focusing on simple ways to spend time together.” The Chicagoan, a Jazz Age Windy City magazine that was relaunched in 2012 by Stop Smiling publisher J.C. Gabel, says it has “embraced the vintage newsstand as a metaphor to bolster our message of substance and style” by setting up pop-up newsstands throughout the Chicagoland area meant to function “much like food trucks.” The Toronto fashion journal Worn comes out biannually, with a stated mission “[t]o show a wide range of beauty, one that includes diversity of culture, subculture, gender identification, sexuality, size, race, ability, and age,” as well as “To answer, always and above all, to our readers and not our advertisers.”

Some may see the idea of starting a new magazine in this age as quixotic. As I stood on the floor of the latest installment of the semi-annual Pop Up Flea, a high-end menswear market put together by bloggers Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean and Randy Goldberg of UrbanDaddy, holding a free copy of the first issue of Man of the World, quixotic was certainly the first word that came to mind. The 220-plus-page magazine looks and feels more like something you’d pick up in a museum than something you’d compare to a GQ or Esquire. Two issues in, there is no list enumerating ten things that will make you a better man, or clunky front-of-book micro-feature that some magazines use to sell more ads. In fact, so far the magazine has remained advertisement free, leading readers to ponder how exactly Man of the World expects to make any money.

For the answer, I simply looked at my own cache of another publication that has a somewhat similar feel to Man of the World, Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle. Flipping through any of the over 20 issues that I own (each retail for $10), I see high-end advertisements for Swiss watches, Spanish art museums, J.Crew, and airline companies from all over the world. Brûlé has, without a doubt, tapped into some vein of the zeitgeist; at least, the magazine’s advertisers tend to think so. Catching the eye of people who have the money to fly all over the world and drive fancy cars, or at least make people think they have the money to do those things, isn’t always that easy. That’s probably what led Andrew Goldman of The New York Times magazine to press Brûlé over the fact that “[c]ritics have written that people want to be seen carrying Monocle more than they actually want to read it.” To which Brûlé replied, “we wouldn’t be having the conversation five and a half years after launch if people just wanted to be seen with it.” Brûlé, whose first magazine, Wallpaper*, was started with a small business loan, is a pioneer in a new crop of magazines that start out independently, think big, and have a niche audience with capital to spend. According to the popular Manhattan indie bookstore McNally Jackson, 1,387 people bought copies of Monocle in 2012 – making it the store’s top magazine revenue earner. If Man of the World is planning on growing its brand the same way, it too might need to position itself as something of an affluent, high-culture signifier, even if it later denies that fact in print.

While some might ridicule the idea of the magazine as a status symbol, I say the following in response: Is the person trying to show off his jet-setting ways with a copy of The Travel Almanac any different from the MFA student trying to show off her sheer charm and wit by letting the latest issue of the New York Review of Books peek out of her n+1 totebag? A new, 30-something father living in Brooklyn, Chicago, Austin, or any other “hip” city might find solace and a feeling of community by flipping through the pages of Kindling Quarterly in the way that a suburban punk girl might devour zines she bought for a dollar via mail order. And while the future of all print media is still unwritten, it might just find its pulse in a new generation of forward-thinking “artisanal” publishers.