End of an era

by Steve Watson in May 2022
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When we launched the Stack shop in 2018, I wanted to create the best place to buy independent magazines online. Looking back on what we’ve done over the last four years, I feel proud of what we built, but we struggled to make it work financially and I’m sad to say the time has come for us to stop. As of this week we’ll only be adding occasional new titles to the Stack shop, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what we did, what went wrong, and why (after a lot of heartache) I’m excited about the opportunities ahead.

First up, it’s worth pointing out that ours was never a normal magazine shop. I got into selling magazines via the weird construct of the Stack subscription: Every month we deliver a different independent magazine to thousands of subscribers around the world – people never know what they’re going to get next, but they do know it will be a beautiful, intelligent magazine they probably wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

We’ve delivered a brilliant new magazine every month for the last 13 years and I love the whole process of picking a great title, working with the publisher to send out the copies, then sitting back to watch the response. The surprise subscription has always been the bit of Stack that people respond to the most enthusiastically, and the major benefit of closing the shop is that I’ll now have more time to spend on developing the subscription – more on that later.

But the problem with the subscription is that we only get to pick 12 titles per year. That means leaving loads of other brilliant magazines out, and my hope with the shop was that we’d be able to use it as a way for people to discover lots more great independent publishing. I started Stack because I wanted to help people discover new magazines, and the shop seemed to fit perfectly with that initial aim, broadening our range far wider than the subscription allowed.

If you’re going to sell somebody a magazine they’ve never seen before, though, you need to tell them exactly why they should care about it. To do that, each listing in our shop includes the cover, some sample spreads, a short overview, a story list, and core information like number of pages, size, and place it was published. But then we might also include a video review, so you can see a guided flick through the magazine; or a podcast episode, so you can hear the people behind the magazine speaking about their inspirations; or an interview with the editor highlighting their favourite bits. It was a massive undertaking and I’m really proud of what we made, but it just wasn’t sustainable – we couldn’t create meaningful editorial to accompany that many different shop pages.

We also made problems for ourselves with the way we bought magazines. I’ve always been uncomfortable with sale or return, and the whole idea of unsold magazines having their covers ripped off and sent back to publishers. Around half the magazines we bought were firm sale, meaning we bought them outright, and of the magazines we took on sale or return, we almost never did the returning bit. I thought this was one of the great benefits of running a magazine shop that only exists online – we could keep on adding more titles and building up our stock, without worrying about running out of space like you would in a bricks and mortar shop.

To an extent that’s true, and lots of our sales include old magazines that were published years ago. But we were still paying upfront for those firm sale magazines, and we paid for the shipping to get all the stock to us, so there was a steady flow of cash going out, and in the last couple of years I’m afraid it exceeded the cash coming in. We’d made a great resource, but it was losing money.

And even the sale or return magazines created a problem. We kept a record of copies sold, so that every three months we could let publishers know what we owed them. But as we added more and more magazines, the quarterly invoicing became more and more time consuming, and although we tried to simplify the process, we couldn’t find a way of significantly reducing the amount of time and effort involved. Our aim had always been that the shop would grow over time, but as the shop grew, so too did the losses, and in the end I’m afraid it seemed unavoidable that we’d have to take drastic action.

So where does that leave us now? Our shop isn’t going to disappear altogether – the stock we own outright is still available to buy and I’m sure it will gradually sell through over time. We’ll also keep on adding our subscriber magazines to the shop at the end of each month, and occasional special products will appear in there too.

All our sale or return publishers have been contacted and we’re offering to either send the magazines back to them or have the copies donated to charity. (Since we paid to have the magazines sent to our warehouse in the first place, publishers who do want their stock returned will need to cover the cost of the shipping.) Once we know how many copies we’re dealing with we’ll put the call out for charities, schools, universities and community organisations to contact us – I’d far rather these magazines went to a good cause than just being destroyed.

Closing the shop wasn’t a difficult decision, but it’s been a pretty horrible experience. I’m sad that we’re having to dismantle this thing we built up over the last four years; it’s frustrating that we won’t be able to sell exciting new magazines as we see them appear; and most of all I’m very sorry that I’ve had to make our shop manager Heval redundant. She’s done a great job since she joined us at the start of 2020, running the shop through the pandemic and Brexit and all the challenges we’ve seen over the last couple of years, and I’m really going to miss working with her.

But, as I said at the start of this post, I’m also excited at the opportunities created by the change. The shop was a hungry beast and it took up a lot of my week, so shifting away from it will free me up to spend my time on other things. A lot has been written recently about the Great Resignation, and that’s not quite what this is – I’m certainly not walking away from Stack. But I do feel a sense of liberation.

It feels good to acknowledge that we’re not a magazine shop. There are lots of people out there who do that much better than us, and I’m full of admiration for them – the last few years has shown me first-hand just how difficult their job is. I’m not ruling out the idea of Stack ever having a magazine shop again in the future – I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I can imagine how it could work with some investment and a tighter rein. For now, though, I’m seizing the opportunity to refocus on the things we do well, and figuring out how we could do them even better.

The subscription is going to be at the heart of it all, and I’ve already started working on some new features that will give our existing subscribers a better experience, and help us find more new subscribers. I’m also interested in doing more to engage with and expand the independent magazine community as a whole – we held our Independent Magazine Fair at Mortimer House in London this weekend, and it was a wonderful reminder of what I love about this world of independent makers. There’s something special about the way magazines bring together writers, designers, photographers, illustrators, artists and producers to create a printed object that they can feel intensely passionate about, and I don’t think I realised how much I’ve missed being in a room with those people.

We’ll definitely be organising more events to help publishers showcase what they do, but I’m also interested in exploring other ways we can amplify the community, turning Stack into a way that people come together through independent magazines. And in doing that, I hope we’ll be able to make more use of arguably our most important asset – the subscribers who receive a magazine from us every month. I love the idea that being a Stack subscriber could become more open and inclusive – I think it’s already about more than just receiving a magazine each month, but we can definitely do more to understand that and build on it to provide an even better experience.

If you’d like to be part of that, head over to our subscription page and sign up to join our independent magazine club, or watch out for announcements over the coming weeks and months as we start to put our new pieces into play.

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