The emag that wanted to be printed

by Steve Watson in December 2009
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Whenever anyone talks about the future of magazines it’s not long before the subject of emags comes up. And there aren’t many things as divisive as an emag.

Do people actually read them or are they a complete waste of time? Are they a brilliant promotional tool or do they spell the end for print? One person who should know more than most is Bec Brown, editor of Blanket, a PDF magazine she created in 2006 and started charging for earlier this year.

London College of Communication graduate and new Stack staffer Allie Baker-Reggio spoke to Bec about charging for an online-only magazine, the respect that comes with money (even $2) and how she became an accidental pioneer.

First things first – what is Blanket?
Blanket is an online PDF magazine that uncovers emerging and established artists, designers and photographers from all over the world. Since its launch in December 2006 we’ve released 19 issues on a bi-monthly basis. The day to day of Blanket is effectively run by one person, me, but I work with a whole team of contributors who help me out with content, stories, locational interviews, and sometimes design if I need it. I have an editorial assistant who helps with a bit of everything and gives moral support too. But, the day-to-day task of actually putting the magazine together is all done by me.

How many paying readers do you have?
It varies  from issue to issue. It’s hard to put a figure on it because it used to be thousands of downloads when it was free, but now it’s more in the hundreds. It was only six months ago that I changed to a paid version, so it was almost as if I needed to rebuild and restart the magazine from scratch and build my subscriber list.

When you commented on the blog earlier in the year you said your readership had gone down since you started charging – have the numbers changed since then?
I’ve been really surprised actually. The response for the latest issue has been amazing. The numbers are picking up again which is really exciting. Obviously at first it was a bit of a struggle, and I did wonder if I’d made a terrible decision. It was really hard going from having thousands of people downloading it, and then have them turn around and say we’re not prepared to pay $2 for it. It was a bit of a shock. I have to try to not take it personally because it’s not about $2, it’s about the fact that people, in general, aren’t as willing to pay for things online. There aren’t that many e-magazine publishers that charge for their issues. Not that I mean to, but I guess I’m leading the way.

The decision came out of necessity because I didn’t earn any income on it, but I worked on it full time. The reality was, though, that I had nothing to lose except my magazine. Without any money coming in I was going to have to stop producing Blanket anyway, so this was really the only option in the end. And if I ever wanted to take it to print form some day, then I needed to have some money behind me to take it to the next step. Before it was just going along and more and more people were downloading it and that was really good, but it wasn’t a business. The decision was taking it to a business level and saying my product is my magazine, that’s what I put all of my time and attention into.

I would never ask anyone else, any artist or anyone who I feature in the magazine, to work on something for two months and then give it away for free. Yet, I was doing that. So I thought, I’m not setting a good example am I? I think there is kind of a mentality like that, that artists should give their stuff away for free. It was hard because I wanted to create this community and have this place where people could come, but I knew in reality I couldn’t keep that going if I didn’t somehow earn a living from it. And it’s still a constant struggle. I don’t really earn a living from it yet anyway, but I’m trying! I just hope that maybe if I put my head down and keep working really hard and keep producing something of good quality, then one day it will turn around and people will start recognising that. It does feel like in the last issue that people have started to recognise that a bit.

Why do you think people are so unwilling to pay for a piece of content online that took the same time and effort to create in print? Do you foresee a time when that will change?
It’s a really hard question to answer because it is different for each individual. But if I had to give my personal opinion I think it is psychological – people are familiar with the tangible element of buying a magazine and holding it in their hands and reading it. There is a comfort to that. And an online magazine isn’t the same experience. It can’t compete on a tangible level. I think it is slowly changing as we are beginning to buy more and more things online. I think the music industry has certainly lead the way and I think publishing will follow suit. I think in the end what we will find (or what I hope!) is that publishing will be taken to a whole new level. If publishers do decide to create something in print it will need to be a more considered approach and I think the potential of what we could see in the future is exciting.

You’ve said in the previous Stack post that being able to charge for content created more self respect. Is the content being taken more seriously now that readers pay for it? Do you take it more seriously?
I want people to treat Blanket as a serious publication because that’s how I perceive it – and by charging for the magazine it has changed people’s perceptions. As soon as you put a price on something people find value in that. They are making that conscious decision to pay for it. I have always put my heart and soul into producing each and every issue, so much so that I am emotionally and physically exhausted afterwards, but I do feel an extra pressure to keep pushing the boundaries and producing the best publication I can. But I think that should be the attitude of all publishers.

Even though Blanket is an emag, you’ve designed it to relatively standard proportions of a print magazine. Why?
Because the goal was always to have a print version one day. Basically, I am old school. I design the magazine as if it would be sent to a printer – it just never gets there. It’s quite frustrating actually! I pre-flight the whole thing, which sounds really weird for an e-magazine. But it just comes from my background as a graphic designer and getting things ready for print. And if I just keep believing for each issue that eventually it will go to print, someday it will manifest itself. I don’t know why I do it. I even use high resolution images which you don’t need to do because it’s all dependent on screen resolution anyways. But if a publisher was to come along and say, ‘hey here’s some money, why don’t we print this’, then I would be ready! But I do think it has helped Blanket stand out among other online magazines because people do see that extra effort that goes into the design – it’s not your usual PDF magazine.

Based on your experiences, would you advise a new emag publisher to charge or go free?
As an emag starting out I don’t think I would ever recommend going paid until you have established your magazine and built up a readership. It took me over two and a half years before I went to a paid version and I learnt a lot of lessons over that time. I think it’s a really good training ground for new publishers because you can make mistakes and learn from them. Print isn’t as forgiving.

It’s important to have established your magazine and for people to be able to trust your product. I think the only reason that it’s worked for me is how long I waited before switching over to a paid version. During the beginning, the readers were getting used to the idea of Blanket. Readers knew the magazine and what to expect. You have to build that awareness first. It took a lot of issues for me to know what was working and what wasn’t. Starting out, it’s hard to know what readers want. But, given time, the readers will end up telling you what they want.

And of course it isn’t just about running and producing the magazine. It’s also about all the other elements that come along with starting a new publication that many people don’t even consider. Producing the magazine is just one small part of the whole production. I wear many hats in my role as a sole publisher – including marketing, PR, admin, website maintenance, blogging, looking after the online shop, subscriptions, advertising, managing a team of contributors, liaising with artists, etc.

Where do you want Blanket to go in the future?
A print version is still the ultimate goal for me. The next issue I actually want to call “The Print Version”. If you will it, maybe it will come. But, if not a printed Blanket issue, maybe a mook (magazine book) highlighting some of the artists we’ve featured. We’ve had some really amazing artists over the past three years. So it would be nice to have a pretty coffee table book to show the three years of Blanket. I would really just like to get to a point where I could pay my contributors because they work for free and they work really hard and they believe in what Blanket is, so it would be nice to repay them for that. One day.

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