The niche magazines riding out the gloom

Inatough economic market, there are a number of specialist - and expensive - publicationswhosecirculations are soaring.

By Charlotte Philby
Monday 16 February 2009 01:00

Something is happening in the West End of London. It’s a brisk morning in Covent Garden, and while business is slow at the boutiques and cafés, an impressive number of shoppers are finding their way towards the doors of the specialist bookstore Magma.

Inside, browsers gather before a great wall of magazines, about 80 titles – obscure fashion glossies beside self-published literary reviews. At the till, a rakish Scandinavian man hands the Muslim fashion journal MSLM to the cashier, while his partner peruses the children’s lifestyle manual Milk.

For many reasons, this doesn’t make sense – not least because we’re in the throes of a recession, the banks are teetering on the brink of collapse and, along with so many industries, the magazine market is in crisis. Isn’t it?

According to the bi-annual report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, released last Thursday, magazine sales in the UK are indeed down. But, while many publications are struggling to survive in this economic chill, certain areas are bucking the trend – not least, a wave of emerging titles.

Sales of self-published, niche-interest magazines are thriving, according |to the assistant buyer |for Magma, Kate John. “These magazines exist apart from the mainstream,” she says. “When something is produced |as a work of passion, customers feel passionately about the product. As |a result, there is a constant audience.”

The independently funded “tattoo/crossover” journal Sang Bleu is an example. “A labour of love,” according to its creator, it is now in its third edition and boasts a fiercely loyal fan-base. It would have to: the latest copy – a 600-page double issue – costs £33 a pop, a pretty hefty sum by any standards. And yet it’s selling.

The title’s translation from French – “blue blood” – is not only a reference to one of the magazine’s main themes, tattoos. Sang Bleu’s founder and art director, 30-year-old Maxime Buechi, reveals a further relevance: “This magazine is essentially about the invasion of temporary, ‘underground’ cultures, some fetishist. Sang Bleu is making the statement that these are not vile things, as perceived by parts of established society. These are important subjects, and they deserve to be seen as noble.”

Whatever his message, Buechi is clearly not alone in his opinion. His magazine has sold 10,000 copies per issue so far, and four have been published. What’s the secret? “Sang Bleu touches people living between cultures, those who aren’t addressed by other media. People who buy the magazine need things like this. It’s not a commodity, it’s a voice.”

The idea of representation is significant, but it is the tone as much as the voice that is important. Philip Diprose set up the fixed-gear cycling magazine The Ride with his brother Andrew and friend Dean Taylor in order to complement, not compete with, existing cycling publications.

“Of what was available, nothing spoke to us,” says Diprose, 34. “We appreciate what they offer, but we are interested in the experience of cycling. Other magazines do reviews and products, but we wanted to address the soulful aspect.” The aesthetic was important, too, so Diprose enlisted a design team who were also cycling enthusiasts to create an ethereal cover illustration.

Nurturing a relationship with the cycling community was a primary objective. “Everyone who contributes to The Ride has a keen interest in cycling. Technology enables us to reach enthusiasts across the world.” |

A significant community there is, too. Only one issue of The Ride has been published so far, and 2,000 copies – at £7 each – sold out in six weeks. There were internet sales in Honolulu, Malaysia, Africa and beyond.

UK-based FUN magazine is also making a stir worldwide. Distributed in targeted bars, cinemas and shops across Europe and the US, this is essentially a satirical cult rag, with a clean, thoughtful design. The independently funded project has a fast-growing niche following. It is a free publication in several senses: it doesn’t cost readers a penny, and carries no advertising so can say whatever it wants. The integrity that comes with this is fundamental |to its appeal.

“We are answerable to no one except our consciences,” says co-founder, Ben Freeman, 30, who is responsible for editorial, while his partner, Deano Jo, 22, oversees publishing. FUN gathers content from established journalists who, under pseudonyms, address issues that have no other platform. So far, interviewees have included the BNP’s first elected member of the London Assembly, Richard Barnbrook, and the UK head |of the Chinese Falun |Gong movement.

Now in its third (quarterly issue), FUN has a DIY approach to getting things done. “Deano and I share the attitude that if you want to do something, you can’t sit around and wait for it to come to you,” Freeman says. “Rather than worrying about demographics, target audiences and business plans, we just got on with it.” The appeal of FUN lies in its uncompromising approach to issues sidelined or ignored in mainstream media, according to its fans, and this relies on its independence.

So could it be that we are witnessing the dawn of a new media age, where ideals and passion trump financial targets and cynical boardroom tactics, a brave new world that finds the little men beating the fat cats at their own game? Perhaps not. Maybe this is just another cycle of naive idealists, doomed eventually to succumb to the lure of advertising.

But one thing is for sure; for the moment, these guys are not feeling the pinch. And that, at least, is something to celebrate.

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