Magazine subscription service Stack has sent out a different independent title to its members each month for the past ten years, giving founder Steve Watson a unique insight into the state of the publishing industry.
“It says a lot that I can’t remember the last time I saw a brand new magazine launched by one of the big publishers on the newstand,” he tells Press Gazette.
“It feels to me that all the innovation is happening on the independent side while the mainstream media tend to be struggling.”
“Obviously it’s hard to compare them with something coming from a big publishing house, they can stand on the same shelf but they come from such radically different places.
“The independents just don’t have to play by the same rules as the big publishers.”
When Watson (pictured) launched Stack in 2008 he says he did so as a “simple way to help people find independent magazines”. The service, which costs £7 per month, now has 3,800 subscribers.
Watson says he came to the idea while writing for independent bi-monthly film magazine Little White Lies and “was struck by the fact that I knew some of my friends would love it but didn’t know it existed”.
“It started as a hobby in my spare time and I thought the best way to do this was to get people to subscribe and every month send out a different magazine,” he adds.
Magazines sent out to subscribers over the past ten years range from slow journalism quarterly Delayed Gratification, poetry magazine Hotdog and literature and arts title Berlin Quarterly – many are largely unknown.
When choosing which magazine to send out to subscribers, Watson looks for titles that are “fresh and original” or have an “exciting idea or point of view that I’ve not seen before”.
“Our subscribers tell us that the main thing they want is to be surprised so we make sure that we keep the variation in there,” he says.
“If we send out a food magazine we wouldn’t send out another one in the next 12 months. Equally if we were to send a very text heavy magazine, the following months we would send a more visual one.
“We want to make sure that when that envelope drops through the door you have no idea what’s going to be in there.”
Watson highlights two particular changes to the industry brought on by technological developments. One was the advent of Apple’s iPad in 2010, and the creation of the page-turning digital edition.
“For a little while it looked like people might stop reading magazines in print,” Watson says.
“Going hand-in-hand with that, there was a realisation that magazine sales were slowing. Print houses and independent publishers realised that the role of print had changed.”
Another significant development was Adobe’s Creative Cloud in 2012, giving the man in the street access to the latest design and editing software.
“It’s something that’s not really talked about, but overnight [Adobe] made sure that someone sitting in their bedroom had access to the same pieces of software that the guys at [publishing giant] Conde Nast are using.
“So really it’s all about democratisation of the medium.”
Despite declining sales at magazine titles owned by major publishing houses, Watson claims the independent sector is in an “exciting” stage.
“Looking across to the mainstream they don’t have the same level of agency and when you’ve got the costs and liabilities that they have it looks like a difficult time,” he says.
Although he believes that “there is no question that the role of print has changed” Watson says he is committed to keeping Stack strictly print only.
“Print used to be the best way to put words and pictures in front of someone and these days it’s not, but print is still really good at doing other things,” he says.
“When you create magazines you want a beautiful product. With digital you can’t control the size of the screen or the weight of the thing you’re holding whereas with print you absolutely control all of the variables.
“When starting Stack I thought there must be other people out there who appreciate these beautiful and fascinating magazines.
“That impulse is absolutely the same today, so Stack is 100 per cent all about print.”