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Can Indie Magazines Launched on Kickstarter Not Only Survive, But Thrive?

Any guy with a hankering for potato salad can get funded on Kickstarter. For these independent magazines, it's the daily grind of keeping a print publication afloat after the campaign is over that's the real challenge.

Alec Dudson couldn’t have picked a better time to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Former interns at W and the New Yorker had just sued Condé Nast for violating labor laws. A few blocks uptown, a Harper’s Bazaar intern had filed a similar lawsuit against Hearst. 

Over in Manchester, England, Dudson was hoping to create an independent print magazine for and by interns to tackle the increasingly thorny issue of apprentice culture. To take a stand against unpaid work, all contributors would be paid for their submissions. He opened a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication on July 8, 2013, and one month later, he had raised £7,115, well over the £5,500 he had requested.

Cut to the present day. The 30-year-old Dudson just released the second issue of the magazine, aptly titled Intern, for which he increased the print run from 2,000 to 3,000 and worked with 41 contributors. He's assembled a freelance editorial team that drops in to help him when a new issue goes into production. For the rest of the year, Dudson goes at it solo, carving out enough time to make money for himself through other work. He’s far from paying himself a salary from the magazine's revenue.

Intern is one in a number of independent print magazines that have launched on Kickstarter in the last few years. The advantages of crowdfunding are clear: A successful project can elicit a burst of media attention and draw a slew of subscribers right off the bat, along with enough cash to fuel an initial production run. Intern got a write-up in Bullett, after which Vice, New York and Dazed Digital jumped on the story, an auspicious start to things.

But print is expensive, and when the Kickstarter money runs out, founders are faced with the growing pains of building a viable business based on a medium that’s increasingly difficult to sell. That is, paper.

“The struggle for me personally is to make the financial side of it weigh up,” Dudson says. “Obviously with a 2,000 print run, there’s not much money to be made... I at least had the experience to know that this would never be a full-time, paid position for me. The moment I try to pay myself as a full-time employee, I don’t have the money to pay contributors.”

As soon as it became apparent that Intern would cross its Kickstarter goal, Dudson realized he needed to get a business plan in order. He had no idea where to begin when it came to structuring his company, so he turned to Blue Orchid, a UK-based service that doles out free startup and business advice, for guidance on everything from bookkeeping to cash flow projections.

Covering the costs of printing the thing and paying contributors are Dudson's main priorities at the moment. Any money on top of that from advertisers and sales goes back in the pot.

“I entered this knowing that it’s not a money spinner. These things are passion projects,” Dudson says. “The satisfaction I can get from my contributors liking how it turns out, from readers emailing me and telling me on Instagram and Twitter how much they love it — that’s the real payoff for me.”

Cherry Bombe, arguably the most professional and well-known of the lot, broke past its $30,000 funding goal last May to raise $42,675 for the publication of a biannual print magazine celebrating women and their love of food. Karlie Kloss, hot off her cookie collaboration with Momofuku Milk Bar, graced the cover of its first issue. The latest edition features a beaming Ruth Reichl, the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and a food world demigod, wearing a chic striped shirt and clutching an old-fashioned ice cream sundae. 

The paper is hefty, the stories are non-obvious and the design is beautiful. In an industry filled with monthly glossies of fluctuating weight covered by the same rotation of celebrities, Cherry Bombe feels like the real deal. The content ranges from an eight-page profile of Julia Child’s publisher, Judith Jones, to Chloe Sevigny’s musings on her favorite cocktail (a vodka martini up with olives, very cold). In short, it's a treat to read.

So it’s somewhat surprising that founders Claudia Wu and Kerry Diamond haven’t developed a business plan for their magazine just yet.

“We should have done it six months ago, we just didn’t have time,” Wu says from the sidelines of a recent cover shoot in the West Village. “We say this every issue: ‘After this issue closes, we’re going to do a real business plan.’”

“Hopefully we’ll be able to sit down after this," she adds. "It’s about time. We’ve been doing it kind of blindly and now we should focus on the future, because in the beginning it was just, ‘Oh, let’s see what happens. Let’s do this magazine.’ It has been fun, but now I think we have to start getting a little strategic.”

That's not to say they've been totally helpless. Madewell has sponsored Cherry Bombe since its second issue, a partnership that entails minimal ad space and some in-store events. The brand also helped with Cherry Bombe’s launch party. Otherwise, production and publication of the magazine is funded through subscriptions, newsstand sales, and Wu and Diamond’s personal bank accounts. As Diamond points out, they would have backed the magazine themselves if the Kickstarter hadn’t worked out — they were too far in.

Cherry Bombe, which operates at a print run of 10,000, is now engaged in the balancing act of having a lot of brand equity, the need for more manpower to harness that growth potential and a very tight budget.

“It’s still really just me, Claudia and a paid intern,” Diamond says. “I think we’re facing the classic entrepreneur issue of, you’re not making so much money that you can hire a full team, but if you don’t hire a team, you’re not going to make any money.”

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The growth solution for so many startups, of course, is to take on investors. But Diamond says she and Wu are wary of having to answer to anyone at this stage. 

“We’ve had some interest, which we’re grateful for, but the second you take a dime from someone, I feel like you’re beholden to them, so I want us to be really careful,” she says.

For the time being, the next steps in transforming Cherry Bombe into a true business will involve selling advertisements and creating sponsored content, Diamond says. The magazine held its first sold-out conference in New York this March and recently launched a radio show on the Heritage Radio Network hosted by Julia Turshen, the co-author of Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook “It’s All Good.” These auxiliary projects hint at the multi-faceted media company Diamond and Wu want Cherry Bombe to become. Vice and Martha Stewart are inspirations in that regard, Wu says. Books, bi-annual newspapers, conferences throughout the country and cooking products are all in her and Diamond’s dream pipeline.

Cherry Bombe is still a work in progress — it still needs a proper website — but with the support of an eager fan base and interest from investors, it has the opportunity for growth. 

Some publications born on Kickstarter have had significantly rockier trajectories. Or maybe they've just had longer to find their pain points.

The Paris-based magazine Fashizblack, which started as a blog in early 2008, was intended to be niche from the get-go — as co-founder Laura Eboa Songue describes it, a "high-end fashion magazine dedicated to people of African descent." Having launched an English language version of the site in 2010, Songue and her team opened a crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2011 to fuel the publication of a print magazine. They successfully raised north of $45,000. 

Despite the team's age — Songue was the oldest, at just 22— they turned out a professional-grade product, shooting Solange Knowles and Kelly Rowland for two of the covers. But eventually cash flow troubles caught up with them, and they put print production on ice after nine issues. The last one came out in December 2013.

“The thing is, with advertising money or selling issues, the money comes way after and you have to produce ahead of time," Songue says. "Printing and distributing is really expensive because we are more of an international magazine."

Over-printing was one mistake they made along the way, Songue says. They also lowballed the magazine’s retail price; while most independent magazines sell for 15 or 20 euros to accommodate limited distribution, Fashizblack was priced at less than a third of that, more in line with a French Vogue.

“We didn’t want to do it because we weren’t sure if people would buy it if it was too expensive,” Songue says. “Knowing that we were already talking to a minority, we were already niche, so we didn’t want to be super niche [because of an exclusive price point]. Looking back, we should have pushed that a little bit more.”

For now, Fashizblack is back to being an online-only publication while the team pitches to investors. They have day jobs consulting, and launched a small range of t-shirts and sweatshirts that brings in extra cash.

Of course, the uphill battle of making it as an upstart magazine begs the question: Why attempt print at all? The answer, pretty unanimously, is that the founders still believe in the experience of purchasing and holding a physical product.

“No photographer makes work so it can sit on a screen. They make work so they can hold it. It’s the tactile nature of magazines,” says Max Barnett, the founder of Pylot magazine, which wrapped up its Kickstarter campaign in April.

Barnett has gone so far as to make his publication a purely analog affair: No digital photographs, no retouching. Just as Intern launched at a moment when debate over the legality of certain internships was at its hottest, Pylot enters the fray at a point when brands like Bongo and Aerie are making the news for going Photoshop-free.

Barnett knows his way around finding the most cost-effective ways to shoot, develop and scan photos, but just getting the images still clocks in at a few hundred pounds per issue. On top of that, there's the cost of the print run. Still, he's optimistic about advertisements covering the costs of production. 

It's not like Barnett or Diamond or Dudson or Songue are oblivious to the challenges they're facing. It takes a healthy mix of determination and realism to bring a project of this magnitude to life while carrying on a day job. 

Dudson put it the most succinctly: “I’ll do it as long as I can.”