I just can’t believe more people aren’t doing this

by Steve Watson in March 2010
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Speaking on the phone with Fire & Knives editor Tim Hayward makes for an inspiring 20 minutes. He’s hugely excited about the opportunities afforded by independent magazine publishing, and little wonder when he’s just sold out of his second issue and has got customers clamouring for reprints of issues one and two. But that’s only the half of it. From pre-selling issues to exploiting the material that big media organisations don’t have the time or resources to monetise, he’s rethinking what an independent magazine can be.

I’m interested in why you started Fire & Knives. You’re a food journalist, so surely you could already write as much as you wanted about food?
I don’t think you can write as much as you want to be honest, and I try not to call myself a food journalist because it’s not the background I came from. If you asked me to do something investigative or that involved too much research I’d be hopeless!

What background do you come from?
I worked in advertising and television for a long time. I’ve always written just for fun, but I regard what I do as very different to the people who go out there and find out what’s going wrong with the supply of Fair Trade coffee, for example. I’m coming up against a lot of people these days who are professional journalists, and they’re having real trouble dealing with what we’re having to do now, so it’s all very confused.

Basically the only reason we’re getting hired at the moment to write about food is that food has been turned into a lifestyle issue. For a long time food writing was about an agreeable little 300 words in the back of something like The Spectator or Punch or Vogue or something like that. Elizabeth David wrote 300-word columns for Vogue for most of her career and it was never a specialist interest.

Now we’ve got food TV, we’ve got food online and a food section in most newspapers and magazines, and what that means is that everything you write has to be dumbed down to some level. I got sick of not being able to write more than 600 words for a feature, and then getting it sent back by the editor, saying ‘can you take out some of the long words and can you add in a few celebrity chefs for search purposes’. And that’s happened to all of us. Or at least many of the food writers I know, and we’re a tight little community. They all really know their stuff – they could write you 5,000 words on a particular variety of cheese and would love to do so – but nobody would buy it.

And  you’re basically saying, here’s an opportunity for long-form food writing and that’s the attraction?
That’s it. Bear in mind that we are enthusiasts – most of us are doing it because we love it. I don’t think you can make a huge living out of food writing but we love it, and also most of us are doing it [Fire & Knives] because there’s a feeling that if we can get better stuff out there it will affect the people who do pay us to do stuff. You can get work off the back of the magazine quite easily – I was on Market Kitchen the other day because someone had seen the thing I wrote about Thermos flasks [in issue one of Fire & Knives] and that wouldn’t ever have got out otherwise. But that inspires them, they hire you and then they pay you.

Okay, so in that case, why not start a blog or a website? Why make a magazine?
A bunch of things. I think most of us who have come into it through the new media realise that we can easily put stuff out there, we can easily self-publish, but we all have a secret desire to be in print. There’s still nothing like seeing yourself in ink on paper. And also most of the writers who write for a living, we really don’t like putting stuff out in the public domain, because it gets reused and reused and reused and we don’t get paid for it at all.

Now here you’re not getting paid either, but at least it’s only going out to an audience of about 1,500 people, around half of whom are movers and shakers in the food industry. So it never goes online – it doesn’t exist in an electronic format other than a PDF, and because of that it’s never going to leak. All the writers own the rights to their piece after our first use of it, and if they can sell their piece into a magazine three months after it’s appeared in ours, then they’re welcome to do so, or they can put it on their own blog.

So in part you’ve made a magazine because of emotional reasons about wanting to see work in print, and in part it’s a pragmatic response to not wanting to have your work wandering around on the internet?
It’s partly the absolute joy of having a printed object. I don’t think you’ll ever get away from that, because all of us are book freaks otherwise we wouldn’t be writers. But it’s a weirdly circular argument, because a lot of us who work for newspapers now are having to do a lot of stuff for online, but our bosses cannot work out a way of pay walling what they do. So in a sense it [Fire & Knives] is kind of like a blog, where instead of putting up a pay wall that means you have to become a member and pay a subscription to get access to the site, we’ve simply taken the damn thing off the web altogether and made it into a book that people have to buy and have sent to them by post. So it’s the perfect pay walled blog really!

Haha! Well you’ve created your perfect pay walled blog, but how did you find the process? Was it harder or easier than you thought? Did you have any previous experience making magazines?
I had no experience at all. I had some experience of working with printed material in marketing jobs, just basically talking to somebody and getting 12,000 copies of something delivered, but I had no real knowledge of it beyond that. I wasn’t aware of the whole zine scene at all, but I thought that if somebody can make some small parish magazine or a small literary quarterly, then it should surely be feasible.

I’ve got a friend who worked in magazines and has her own independent magazine [Cathy Olmedillas, editor of Anorak] and she said, well, yes, it’s easy enough to do. I’d turned up with quite a lot of money I’d saved up, because I’d been thinking about it for ages and I thought, ‘okay I’m going to take a gamble on this and sink a load of money into it’, and she sat me down and with a very straight face told me how incredibly expensive it was going to be, and the number she told me was so low I laughed!

What it actually costs for a print run these days now we have digital printing, and what it actually costs for a designer… having worked in the media for years I’d been thinking in terms of, ‘you’ve got to have an office, you’ve got to have someone to handle advertising sales, and they need a car and a parking space,’ and you just don’t need that stuff any more.

Funnily enough I’ve just had an email from a kid who wants to be an intern, saying he’d love to come and be involved in the team! And I’ve had to write back and say that me and the team meet for about two hours per quarter, and the rest of it is done via a drop box online and I fit it all in between paying jobs. And that’s it! I just can’t believe that more people aren’t doing this, because it’s so exciting for special interest groups.

Can you give me a rough idea then of what it does cost to make the magazine?
To actually make it, production costs are about £3,000 per run, and then on top of that you have print, which depends on the size of the run, but at the moment I reckon you’re looking at about £5,000 per quarter, and then you’ve got postage on top of that.

But because of the web and social media I was able to sell subscriptions in advance to cover most of the production for the first half of the year. So I’ve still got to sell twice as many over the year, but before we actually hit print on the first issue we had nearly enough money to cover our first print run, so I only ever had to lend it a few grand.

And so you’re finding that because the magazine is selling well you’re able to cover your costs and you’re not losing money on the deal?
I’m not losing money but I’m not making any money either and the writers aren’t getting paid. We have done one or two things with economies of scale on things like packaging and posting. We went out first class with the first issue but we’ll go out second class from now on. And we halved the cost of our packing materials and all that starts to make it possible that we can theoretically break even at the end of the year.

I’m very worried that because of our scale we weren’t able to set up any kind of direct debit scheme, so 75-85% of our audience are going to be gone by the end of the third quarter, and I’m expecting big problems getting them back in again. So that’s going to be problematic, but having said that we now have a distributor, which means we can sell through regular and independent bookshops, and that’s picking up nicely so with a bit of luck in a couple of issues we could be selling as much over the counter as we do online, which would give us a bit of a buffer.

And of course that logo would look lovely on aprons or bottles of olive oil – do you have ambitions outside of the magazine?
Absolutely. We do already have some merchandising, so for example we have some lovely t-shirts and espresso mugs, and we’ve got aprons too.

I haven’t publicised it very heavily, but basically the logo as you say is completely lovely, and food lovers love industrial stuff, so by jazzing up a proper chef’s apron or a proper restaurant quality espresso cup we’re able to add a lot of value to it and these are things that could add profit. But we’re not selling in any kind of great numbers.

To be honest most of the plan with the brand is other media stuff. We’re getting stories coming in that will repurpose beautifully as podcasts and radio programmes and short TV documentaries and so on, so because I have a background in TV production we will be moving those stories over into those fields and trying to make money that way. When a writer has been able to write something long form and really let themselves fly, we think, ‘wow, well we could rewrite that as a script and sell that as an idea,’ so the aim is that we’ll end up with some kind of semi-agency, semi-production company thing going on with other food media.

There are other independent magazines doing that, like Little White Lies with its TV channel interviewing directors, and I can imagine a lot of other magazines following that model.
Well it’s an interesting one because with TV production companies, everything costs so much it’s just not true, and we’re always doing things for nothing. I think what we’re looking at is the writer keeping the rights to what they do, and making money from the back end. When you’re commissioned to do something for a magazine or a newspaper you give them the rights to everything – online, offline, everything. If you record footage they keep hold of it and they might one day use it on their website.

But we say that what we need to do is take over the means of production to some degree, so basically then you just do a back end operation. So if I do something for the Guardian that involves video, actually I’ll take my own camera person along, I’ll shoot the stuff, and for the price they pay me they’ll get one use of it, but then I get to repackage that as a podcast, as audio, sell it to a cable channel in Finland, and that way I make a living out of it that I can’t otherwise. Because actually the big organisations don’t have the time or the resources to make money out of all the stuff that they do have the rights to.

Speaking to somebody involved in independent magazines, but with experience in other media and an idea of how to make it all pay is very interesting.
It’s bloody frightening is what it is mate! The industry is in such a mess that the nice thing is it’s a frontier at the moment. All opportunities are open.

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