Esses and the art of motorcycle publishing

by Steve Watson in January 2014
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Cycling has enjoyed something of an independent publishing boom in recent years, and Esses has arrived on the scene with the aim of doing the same thing for motorbikes.

Small format (something around A5) and packed with really great stories, it focuses on the world of motorcycles rather than the bikes themselves and totally succeeds in making biking accessible to a non-rider like me.

Issue zero hit the shelves last year and issue one arrived earlier this month, so I caught up with editor David Burton to find out more.


How did you come to make Esses?
I’ve been making customer magazines for about 15 years and riding for the same amount of time. There are two of us working on the magazine – myself and Jon the designer, and we’ve both got full-time jobs so it’s very much evenings and weekends.

I read the bike press and it’s fantastic for group tests and product reviews, but I always felt there was something missing. So the idea with Esses was to do something that’s very much human interest, very people focused.

That really comes through – you’ve got some fantastic stories in there.
The first issue, issue zero, took us a while – we were probably working on it for a good nine months before the magazine actually came out. And for probably 12 months before that I was picking up stories that interested me and speaking to people. Once you start speaking to people about this stuff, it turns out they all know somebody else with a fantastic story, so it snowballs and you just pick it up as you go.

So was it a different experience making issue one?
It was much quicker – we’d kind of figured out what we wanted to do and I think we’ve taken it up a notch with issue one. The stories are event more offbeat, which is what we wanted. There’s the guy in New York who uses his workshop to help kids who have got into trouble with the law – that’s much more the sort of thing we want to do.


Independent magazines are often started as a response to the mainstream – it looks like that’s true in your case too.
One of the big things we talked about while we were working on issue zero is that there’s nothing really out there doing this for motorcycles, in the way that magazines like Rouleur, Ride Journal and Boneshaker do for pushbikes.

I don’t ride pushbikes myself but Jon is massively into them, and we both love the direction those magazines take, from the layout and the photography to the stories. It seemed like all of a sudden the pushbike market just took off, and it was very cool and urban and street, and it felt like it would be amazing if there was something like this for motorcycling.

Do you think motorcycles are about to go through a similar jump in popularity?

There’s a massive underground scene to motorcycling – custom bikes in particular are really big. And if you look in London, for example, lots of people use them for their commute.

There’s a whole culture behind it, and this is absolutely no disrespect to the likes of Bike and Ride, but there’s an element of rebellion to motorcycling, certainly in film and music going back to the 60s and 70s. Maybe it’s not quite so rebellious any more, but there’s still an aspect of cool to it, and we wanted to capture that essence of how cool motorcycling is, and how exciting and dynamic it is, and find stories to represent that.

This may be a little bit pie in the sky and we’ll see how it sells, but we’d like to think we could reach out beyond bikers and appeal to people who don’t ride. I know it’s going to be minimal – the vast majority of the readership is going to be bikers, but by telling genuinely interesting, beautifully designed stories we might appeal to people who don’t ride, and who certainly don’t read the mainstream bike press.


So how are you going to get the magazine in front of those people?
At the moment the majority of sales are through the website, and we’re working on getting it into shops and newsagents. We’ve managed to get it into Foyles on Charing Cross Road, and we’ve sold copies to a few magazine shops abroad as well.

Are you planning to sell through bike shops?
Yeah we’ve got it in a few bike shops and bike cafes as well. The first stage was to make sure we could get it into biker cafes, and it’s probably in about 10 or so in the south east, and that gets the core market.

But we’re learning all the time. We worked so hard on that first issue and making something we’d be inspired by and would want to read ourselves, and we got it printed and felt fantastic, and then we said, “Oh my god we’ve got to sell it!”

Neither of us work on the commercial side – we’re both on the editorial side of magazines in our day jobs, so this is very much suck it and see, which is great and really interesting.

How many copies did you print?
We printed 600 copies of issue zero, and we’ve sold about 90% of those. The money from that was enough to pay for the second issue, and we’ve printed 1,500 copies of that, and we’ve sold about half of those already.

That’s great!
Yeah – it’s picked up a lot. We’re trying our best to use social media as well, on Twitter and Instagram. Of course people following you doesn’t necessarily translate to sales, but we’re trying to grow that side of things and build a community around the magazine.

A couple of bike blogs picked the first issue up, and we sent copies out to bloggers, and then you notice a little influx, say 30 or 40 sales over the next couple of days, so there’s obviously a culture and a scene and it’s sort of trying to tap into that and make people aware of it.

We’ve been really happy with the feedback we’ve had from people – we’ve had loads of people email us to say they like it and there’s nothing else like this out there, and that’s really lovely. The hard part is just getting it in front of people’s faces – the feedback once people have seen it has been great, but this is all new to us. So small steps I guess.

But we’ve now got enough money in the bank from sales of this issue to print the next one, and that was always the goal. We’ve set ourselves the target of five issues, with the aim of selling enough to print the next one, and then we’ll see after four or five issues if we can’t grow it a little bit.

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