By Dawn Calleja and Susan Nerberg
Pete Nowak had just finished third year of Ryerson’s journalism program. He knew his final year was going to be a killer, what with being roots and culture editor at The Eyeopener and writing regularly for The Ryersonian. Still, he wanted to create something he could call his own. Nowak and his friends Antoine Tedesco and Tom Bacevicius came up with the idea of launching a magazine entirely devoted to beer — they were all self-proclaimed experts. They soon realized there wasn’t much of a future in that, so they did some research and found an untapped science fiction market.
“We all like comics, role-playing games and Star Trek,” says Nowak. “So we decided to start Realms.”
After scraping together the $70 to register their new company, ANTOPE Publications, they created three pages of proposed magazine, including interviews, articles and a schedule of sci-fi events. They took it to prospective advertisers at Toronto comic book shops and record stores. Everyone seemed enthusiastic and some even agreed to buy ad space.
The first issue of the free, tabloid-style biweekly came out on July 3, 1996, with a distribution of 2,000. It was published from Nowak’s basement, printed on cheap newsprint, using cheap ink, and no on got paid. In fact, that’s still the way it is almost two years later. They lost $180 on that first issue but from then on they’ve managed to at least break even.
Nowak thinks the secret to Realms’ success is the balance between feature articles and service pieces, such as an events calendar and a schedule of programs on Space: The Imagination Station, which alone has boosted readership.
The magazine’s core advertising base is mostly local, but Nowak is now going after bigger advertisers — and bigger ad revenues — like Alliance, which placed ads for the movies Spawn and Dark City in recent issues.
Ron Metella, publisher and marketing director of Motion, thinks big advertisers are the only way to go. He stresses the business side of launching a magazine, as advertising constitutes 65 to 70 per cent of a publication’s total revenue.
If you’re planning to start a magazine, “you need to find a market that isn’t already well-serves in the Canadian magazine industry,” says Metella. “There has to be something different about your magazine to attract readers and to attract advertisers who would find that readership lucrative.”
Or, in the words of Pete Nowak, “The most important thing is to do something nobody else is doing. You’d have greater success starting a magazine about the mating habits of tadpoles than about alternative music.”
The publishers of Realms knew what they had to do. But not everybody does. People call the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association every day to ask about starting their own magazine. The CMPA is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the Canadian magazine industry. It offers resources for people just starting out, including handbooks on ad sales, circulation, promotion and financial management.
Cindy Goldrick, the association’s general manager, refers callers to Beginnings: The Basics of Publishing a Small-Circulation Magazine. The booklet was written by Lynn Cunningham, head of magazine journalism at Ryerson, and outlines everything from how to choose a name and get a bar code to how to get a government grant. All these handbooks can be found at the CMPA’s public resource centre, along with back issues of hundreds of magazine titles.
But Kisha Ferguson, another Ryerson journalism grad, broke all the rules when she started the quarterly magazine Outpost in 1996. She had no business plan and no marketing experience, but she did have a great idea.
“Most travel magazines concentrate on destinations,” says Ferguson. “But Outpost talks about culture and people in different places. We focus on more active, self-propelled travel.”
And the idea caught on. What started as a grassroots, small-scale travel guide has grown into a national adventure-travel magazine with a circulation of over 20,000. Ferguson and her business partner Christopher Frey agreed that design and visuals, as much as the editorial content, were going to be extremely important. They came up with the thousands of dollars it would cost to produce a full-colour, glossy magazine and set to work finding volunteer writers and photographers.
Ferguson and Frey started out selling Outpost’s ad space themselves, but as soon as they had the money, they hired a marketing director. A little while later, they started to pay everyone — writers, photographers and designers — everyone except themselves. As with Realms, any surplus money still goes right back into the business.
Nowak and Ferguson make launching a magazine look easy. They didn’t follow the “rules” but they’ve managed to stay afloat and even expand. Still, both have other jobs to support their publishing ventures. If you want to start your own magazine — big or small — know what you’re getting into. Most magazines don’t make it to their first birthday.
“You have to be prepared to sacrifice your relationships and social life,” says Ferguson. “You have to put the magazine ahead of yourself.”