A bright Future for magazines

Understanding cross-stitchers, geeks and mountain-bikers is the key to a publishing phenomenon, says Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

The launch of Simply Knitting might not seem the magazine event of 2005, but industry rivals can no longer afford to ignore the West-Country-based publisher that firmly believes that pearl stitches and casting off is what the readers want.

The launch of Simply Knitting might not seem the magazine event of 2005, but industry rivals can no longer afford to ignore the West-Country-based publisher that firmly believes that pearl stitches and casting off is what the readers want.

Future has designed Simply Knitting to introduce a new generation to an activity that has become fashionable again after being for many years the domain of grandmothers. Everyone from Geri Halliwell to Winona Ryder and Naomi Campbell, it seems, is taking up knitting needles these days.

It is canny thinking such as this that has turned Future, based as it is amid the Georgian splendour of Bath, into a publishing giant. And well before Future's 25th anniversary, in June, the company that started with a single computer magazine produced on a kitchen table should have reinforced its position by completing the takeover of the fellow specialist publisher Highbury House - a deal worth £96.5m, including debt.

The deal means that once-tiny Future will leapfrog the BBC to become the third-largest magazine publisher in the UK, with total magazine sales of £145m a year, and the second-largest specialist publisher.

The Future chief executive Greg Ingham purrs with pleasure at the very thought of getting his hands on Highbury's 68 monthly consumer magazines, which include Patchwork, Fast Car, XBM and Play.

"These are our sort of people, people who get special-interest publishing and are very focused in their particular areas of activity," says Ingham, who joined Future in 1988 when there were less than 40 staff. Now the total of the combined group will be around 2,000. The Highbury House acquisition will take Future into new areas such as gardening and motor cycles, with Gardens Monthly and Fast Bike, and add technology titles such as iCreate as well as games and computer magazines.

"Its all about practical hobbyist stuff where you have a combination of kit to review and technique to inspire people with. The other bit is no wastage with the advertising, although you don't necessarily get a huge amount of mainstream brand advertising," says Ingham.

The Future boss is brimming with enthusiasm about the prospects for Simply Knitting, which he thinks will sit nicely alongside existing Future publications such as Cross Stitcher. The initial print run for the magazine, which will sell at £3.99, is 65,000.

The new magazine is a perfect example of what Future is all about: identify a group of at least 200,000 enthusiasts for almost any human activity, then sell around 50,000 of them a slickly produced monthly magazine devoted entirely to their interests, with a juicy cover price - average £4.55, and you have a business producing profits of £25m a year.

"An awful lot of what we do is inherently incredibly boring to anyone other than fans. Our appeal is narrow but deep, and those who get it are absolutely locked into it," says Ingham, who is responsible for a diverse portfolio of titles that ranges from X-Box World, PC Gamer and MacAddict to Total Guitar, Mountain Biking and Redline.

Different floors of Future's main building in Bath are devoted to different enthusiasms and have completely different characters. The domain of Redline, the magazine devoted to customised cars, is littered with alloy wheels. There are games and computer rooms to try out the latest releases and, naturally, the area where Simply Knitting and Cross Stitcher are produced is calm and quiet.

The floors also have large, caged secure rooms - but not to incarcerate errant journalists. The lock-up cages are there to ensure that expensive kit such as £2,000 guitars or the latest computers in for review don't go missing.

Despite the fact that Future is going to increase greatly in size, the company will remain firmly in Bath, where it is one of the largest employers, although the firm's London presence will be considerably strengthened.

In the early days, as the company began to expand, the founder, Chris Anderson, took a vote on where Future should be located. Should it stay in Somerset - the site of the original kitchen table where Amstrad Action was produced - or move to Bristol, Bath or London? Bath won the vote, and the city has been attracting staff ever since. Many people walk or cycle to work, different offices are only two minutes walk away from each other, the culture is relaxed and there are many Future friendships and partnerships.

Apart from being located in a beautiful city, Ingham believes he also has an advantage in recruiting staff with specialist expertise, who feel neglected at more mainstream publishing houses. "Specialist titles are seen as not so good, or they don't get the same corporate profile, so those involved feel like lesser souls. For us it's what we do, there is nothing separate to aspire to," says the Future chief executive, whose private passions include Portsmouth Football Club and rock music.

Future was sold to Pearson, the owners of the Financial Times, in October 1994 for £52.5m, before Pearson pulled out of consumer magazines and sold the company back to the management five years later. The company floated on the Stock Market but, during 2000, underwent 12 months of mayhem after embracing, more than a little too warmly, the dotcom boom.

"There were some daft concepts of what internet time was, and the need for land grabs - 'Build, Grow, Now'," says Ingham of the time when the company had 175 people working on internet projects in the UK alone. There were no profits, yet the City valued Future's internet business, with revenues of £4m as being worth more than £400m.

It had to end, and jobs had to go. Ingham refuses to buy the attractive storyline that the internet adventures took the company to the edge of collapse - although it could have been sold at the time - and that now it has risen miraculously from the ashes. "Well no," he says, with passion. The truth, he believes, was that the underlying publishing business had been strong all along and there had simply been "a reversion rather than a massive great change around", once the internet activities had been cut down to size.

"It was one crap year out of 20" says Ingham, who now believes it is "rock solidly clear" that the internet is not going to supplant magazines. The internet will however continue to be part of the future of publishing, because of its strong characteristics such as timeliness and ease of price-comparison.

Ingham feels so strongly about the issue he has even changed the name of the company from Future Networks, which sounded a bit too dotcommy, to plain Future.

Now the aim is to continue to expand through doing more of what it does already - internal growth, new launches and further acquisitions, this time almost certainly in the US, and taking UK magazines to other countries. "We have a lot of growing to do. We have plans to double the size of the business in four years," says Ingham.

Future's next launch will be a genealogy title called Scrapbook Answers, devoted to helping people create better scrapbooks of their lives - both paper and digital.

"Scrapbooking is huge in the States post-9/11. Its about reality, people wishing to control and record their own lives," says Ingham. The British edition will launch in June, with the US version out in September.

Whether many people in the magazine business notice or not, Scrapbook Answers could turn out to be as big for Future as Simply Knitting. And, maybe, even Amstrad Action.