The man behind Manzine

by Steve Watson in March 2010
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As well as Fire & Knives, Stack subscribers received a copy of Manzine this month. Made by a group of seasoned men’s magazine writers, editors and designers, it’s their attempt to get past the focus groups and the aspirational advertising and create a magazine for the bloke down the pub. But what exactly does that mean?

Why does Manzine exist?
It exists because a group of us wanted to do something new. There’s Peter Lyle, Mark Hooper, Woz and me. We’re all pretty seasoned men’s magazine journalists, but that market is obviously in decline – there are problems there. Arena closed and Maxim’s gone and the more intelligent magazines like GQ and Esquire, they’re great if you want an aspirational magazine but there’s a part of men’s lives that’s not being talked about. That’s the side that’s not about aspiring, it’s more the stuff that men talk about in the pub, so the idea was just to reflect some of that. It’s good to have a little project that we’re all passionate about, and I don’t really like that word, but we were all really excited by it and wanted to make something happen.

I also think fundamentally it exists because it’s funny – a lot of magazines these days are far too serious, so in our case there’s no great meaning or narrative or message to what we’re doing, it’s just funny little thoughts. I gave it to Simon Mills, who’s another seasoned men’s magger, and he said it’s sort of like Seinfeld, because it’s a magazine about nothing in a way, but it’s all the nothing stuff that’s entertaining.

A lot of commercial magazines are very scientifically produced now. They’re so focus grouped and so sophisticated in what they do, but in a lot of cases the conventions are what make them feel kind of dead. So category conventions like cars, football, babes and watches are all well and good, but it’s all rather straitjacketing, so we felt that we wanted to do something outside that and challenge a few conventions really. We’re not trying to reinvent the men’s magazine, but we felt that we could do something different.

You’re up to issue three now – when did all this start?
It was the summer of 2008. I fiddled around with InDesign and made a cover and sent it to Mark and Peter and they were like, great, let’s do it, and Peter got Woz involved and he sort of defined the visual language. My idea originally was to make it column-heavy and very textual, but Woz said no, it needs to be more like a fanzine – it needs to look DIY and amateur, and that’s what he did. And I think the way it looks is a large part of its appeal. It’s interesting because when we get written about it’s often as a design thing, which is really good because it gets us noticed.

How hard have you found it to make the magazine? Because although you all have lots of experience writing and editing men’s magazines, you presumably don’t have the experience of physically making them and getting them out there.
It’s all a learning curve. There’s all sorts of stuff like dealing with printers, building relationships with bookshops and things, and doing everything from scratch is a process full of mistakes. The actual making of the magazine is pretty simple – you flat plan it, Woz designs the pages and sends them to me and I sub them and we carry on fiddling around with it over the space of two months.

We got the first issue back from the printer just before Christmas 2008 and we published it in January 2009 and then there were six or seven months before we did the next one and there’s a good reason for that, because it’s not meant to be work. It’s meant to be a hobby, and the moment we try to impose deadlines and discipline on it there’s a risk that you turn it into less of a creative, organic exercise and you might as well be in one of the big publishing companies.

You say that, but I remember issue two came with a sheet of advertising and sponsorship info. Do you have ambitions for Manzine being something more than just a hobby?
The key thing is to get it to pay for itself first and foremost because we can’t subsidise it out of our own pockets, and I think that’s achievable. When you start a business the expectation is that you have to write a mission statement saying ‘we want to be the number one men’s magazine in the world by 2011 and we want to be turning over $11m, you know? And we don’t want to do that. We want to make something that, A) we’re proud of, B) is entertaining for people and C) generates a small niche audience.

I think that’s the future of publishing. That’s what we hear time and time again – we’ve put it in front of publishers and consultants and advertising people, and they all say that at the moment, a niche title that knows its audience very well is the most interesting publishing model. So that’s where we want to be. We’re never going to be Maxim or FHM, because we’re not mass market, we’re talking to a narrow but very well defined demographic of men who aren’t really into aspirational magazines any more – I think that’s the point.

But really we want to get the creative bit right before we start selling it, and that’s why we’ve done three issues and we haven’t tried to get it sponsored or sell advertising space yet.

Could you tell me how many you’re printing and how many you’re sending out?
The print run for this one was 1,000 copies and it’s gradually climbed – the first one was 600, the second was 800 – so that’s our growth curve on it. In terms of what we do next time I’m not sure yet. We’re still proving the concept and proving the audience, and I don’t think it has to be a colossally huge audience but one that’s very engaged.

You talk about men who are not aspirational ‘any more’. Is Manzine aimed at a slightly older audience, or do you think men’s magazine readers in general have moved on from where they were a few years ago?
When the credit crunch happened, anything that was selling an aspirational lifestyle suddenly looked a bit strange. Suddenly banks were collapsing and people were getting their homes repossessed, so if you were selling a £100,000 car you looked rather daft. I know Simon Das [Senior Lecturer, London College of Communication] says that people always want to dream, and that’s kind of why you buy very high end aspirational magazines, so I think there will always be a market for aspirational content, but the point with Manzine is that we’re aiming at something outside that. We’re not offering you an aspirational lifestyle.

I suppose the conventional thinking on men’s mags is you’ve got three clearly defined archetypes. One is the sort of 80s aspirational guy, the Halifax advert easy like Sunday morning sort of person, who lives in a loft in the Docklands with his Filofax, and that’s where you got Arena and the first wave of men’s magazines from. Then the lad thing in the 90s, which obviously reinvented it again and it was colossal, and then in the 00s the big story has been fitness titles and things like Another Man, GQ Style and that sort of stuff, and for me they’re all part of the same thing, which is all about narcissism and vanity really, whether it’s about having the right set of abs or looking like a Dior Homme model.

But our point is that a lot of those archetypes haven’t really been revised for a long time and I think that in the era of web 2.0 when you’ve got a plurality of opinion, the way that a magazine sort of makes assumptions on your behalf – ‘you’re our kind of guy so you’re going to like that’ – the whole point of Manzine is that it doesn’t make a proposal to you, it doesn’t say to you, ‘this is how your life ought to be’. It kind of goes, ‘this is what the lives of our contributors are like, and if that’s echoed in your life then great’.

And also it deliberately plays with those archetypes doesn’t it? In the piece that’s about how to find your girlfriend’s clitoris, you’re clearly lampooning each of those men’s magazine archetypes.
There’s this whole supposed crisis in masculinity, and when you talk to people that work in branding and advertising there’s a question of what’s the point in men today and who are they, and there are always these attempts to invent a new archetype. Arena’s done it recently and Men’s Health has done it, and they’ll come up with something like the Urban Playboy or a new typology of modern man, and it’s all saying the same thing generally. My point is that the reality of men today is far more confusing and blurred and contradictory than it’s ever been, so it’s perfectly possible to enjoy Ferrari cars at the same time as ornithology, for example. Actually there isn’t a new archetype, there are millions of archetypes. Men today are defined by lots of interests rather than a certain set of consumer choices.

How to find your girlfriend’s clitoris, that must have been run 20 or 30 times in all the different men’s magazines in the last 15 or 20 years, and it’s such a cliché. I mean it’s not that hard, let’s face it! But any category will have its clichés. I suppose the point is that what Manzine does, and this is going to sound sociological and I hate it when we talk like this because it’s supposed to be entertaining, but what we do is comment on the modern male experience, and part of that is in commenting on how men experience the media and advertising that targets them. So brands going around and telling men that they’re lads, or that they’re urban playboys, all that stuff is just crying out to be critiqued.

That leads on to my last question, which might be sort of an impossible one to answer… How do you know that a story is a Manzine story? Because there’s stuff in there that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. You’d never see a homage to a hand dryer anywhere else, but how do you know that’s right for Manzine, and do you end up turning some things down or is it kind of anything goes?
It’s not anything goes – it’s actually the opposite. There are a couple of answers here. One is that everything that went into the first issue had been rejected by another magazine, so that’s part of the methodology. If they couldn’t run it in, say, Esquire, because it’s not on their agenda, then it’s usually right for our magazine. And the second thing is that I’ve had a lot of pitches for stuff that feels too much like it was premeditated for our magazine if you know what I mean, and that always sets alarm bells ringing.

If I find myself talking to a guy and he’s going on and on about something then usually I end up thinking that there must be a story in that somewhere. And often the way the stories work is that some of the stories aren’t written by journalists and they’re just spoken to me, and I’ll listen to them and type it out and that becomes their monologue, that becomes their story. So it’s not trying to tell you how to live your life – that’s the key. When you scratch the surface with people you find that they have all sorts of odd little likes and eccentricities and on the whole they don’t conform to the archetype of a guy who wants to be James Bond and sleep with supermodels and drive a Bugatti Veyron, and that’s what we’re interested in. It’s when you discover a kinship and think, ‘this guy’s as weird as me’.

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