Independence: Marcroy Smith, Print Isn’t Dead

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In the second of the interviews from Jeremy Leslie’s 2015 book ‘Independence,’ he talks to Marcroy Smith, the man behind People of Print and the magazine Print Isn’t Dead. The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, between 24 April and 4 May 2015.

Jeremy: You don’t come from a publishing background, you come from a design background. Graphic design?
Marcroy: Yes. I’m learning as I go along, attending your Printout talks and other events like that, learning from what’s happening around us. But I’ve never been one to stick to it completely. But yeah, I’m from a design background, which is why you’ll notice issue one was very visually orientated. For issue two we hired someone to do some writing and have a bit more say about topics. And then in the third one we’ve really delved into the editorial side of things.

You’ve got the blog, so you’re publishing content regularly, you’ve got the magazine, which comes out regularly, then there’s the book. Do you find you approach the content of each of those in a different ways? Do you write differently for those three different platforms?
We definitely do. As I said, the blog started just as my little bookmark area, I like this, this and this. But it was public, people could see it. People were sending me print in the post, and that’s how it sort of developed for me to want to take it further and turn it into a business. The way I see digital and the blog, is very much ‘this is happening now.’ It should be a snippet. Print is more considered, we take our time, we don’t want to make a mistake because it’ll be there forever, you can’t just go click, edit and go back and remake. So yeah, total different things.

So People of Print is quite an empire…
I wouldn’t say it was an empire but it’s definitely grown since we started. We like to get as many people involved as we can and work with people from all different levels. The main core of People of Print is a group of friends, really, a lot of people are from Brighton or Brighton University. Less of an Empire and more of something that I hope is influencing people in a positive way.

How many of you are there?
There’s 12 people that work together closely. We used to describe ourselves as a liquid community which sounds a bit wanky. We have friends that live in New York, people in Berlin, Paris, all over the place. We kind of work with people within their area, in terms of exhibitions and shows, but more recently we’ve been focusing on client work.

You’re based in London now?
Based in London, in Hackney Downs Studios.

And there are 12 of you there?
There are six there, and then we have freelance writers. There are two open desk spaces where people just come, and sometimes we have a full studio, sometimes we have three people in the studio, depending.

Going back to the difference between print and digital, there is a difference in the making, and also a difference in how people read it. Content disappears on a blog.
That’s something we’re hopefully going to move onto with issue three and beyond. We’re developing something with HP and Pureprint. It’s called Variable Data Publishing. We want to be able to create a database of all the things we’ve read about that people will be able to pull that information out according to a category or a particular location, so you’ll be able to go ‘London-based screen printers’ and it will show you all the articles that we have based on those people. It will format it into a PDF and you’ll be able to get it printed yourself, to order. So it’s your own magazine and your own content, or other people’s content because we might commission. It’ll have a branded way of design, which will keep it unified throughout.

Are you doing it with an algorithm or are you physically laying it out?
We’re physically laying each article out. It’ll take time to build that up. We have 60 articles at the moment. So we can start rolling it out. What I’m trying to say, bringing that information that has dropped to the bottom of a post, the only way around that is to have related articles at the bottom. And they go ‘oh I like that’ and keep people on your website.

But it’s not nice to spend so much time on a piece of writing that’s gone after two days. I’m trying to figure out a different way of using print and digital and technology, and to use these three to make something very personalised. The end result would mean something to someone because they would like every single article in it – and that’s because they’re the one who would have put it together.

The first two magazines were funded on Kickstarter. Tell me about that experience.
So issue one – we reached our initial goal of £4,500 so added a stretch target and added things on the way, we added spot colours. We got maybe £6,800 and the goal was £6,500. Kickstarter takes 5% plus 20p per pledge, you end up getting about 12% cut from it. Plus, you lose income when people haven’t entered the right credit card details.

We were already out of pocket, and for the first one we had things like t-shirts, jumpers, trying to get more money quicker which worked but then you have to produce all those things. Then we paid £800 or something to put on the launch.

Then we did the Kickstarter for the second one. We had a chunk of money and we wanted to add extra pages, extra spot colours, do another launch and screen printed covers, which were expensive. So we did that, and we had the stretch goal thing again. You end up losing money through a Kickstarter. But it’s great because it makes you fulfill the project.

It’s great for magazines. I’ve used it with Fiera and it’s effectively a pre-order system. You can gauge how many you’re going to make from how many orders you get, but you have to hit the target for it to happen – that’s hard work.
Yeah, it can be very stressful. The other way around it is to get the money through sponsorship or advertising, which I don’t know if I would’ve done. Kickstarter works really well for me. And then you’ve got the pre-orders. But with the pre-orders, it also means that you’ve lost that amount of stock already. So there are pros and cons to it all. At the moment, we’re approaching it through a pre-order system and customised, personalised covers, and then also we’ll have a batch of covers which are the artists’ series. I think that this’ll mean we can create a safety net for ourselves.

So with these pre-orders, you’re fulfilling them?
We have a fulfilment centre, we use Newsstand. We work closely with them. For issue three, each issue will have its own front cover, and then your address is going to be printed on the back, and your name on the spine. And then this slots into an envelope and there is a little window and then it just gets franked and sent to the printers. So we’re cutting out that extra cost. A little 20p here and there per copy.

But then you’re also putting it into shops.
We have an artist series of special covers. We want to distribute them and we’re going to use Antenne throughout UK and Europe. And we’ve increased our print run on the issue. The ideal thing would be to sell as many as we can with pre-orders so that we cover the cost to print it, and then sell the rest through our Department Store website. Because, let’s say they take 60% commission with distribution, I’m only getting 40%, but when I sell it from the store, I’m getting the whole lot minus the shipping.

Just to make that clear: when you use a distributor who is going to take magazines from you and send them to all of the shops, they take 60% of the cost price?
Generally speaking, you would end up with 40% of the retail price.

What’s the retail price of your magazine?
Generally £10, but this time it’s £20 for the for the customised covers, and you get shipping.

So if you’re buying it for £10 in a shop, £6 goes to the distributor.
Yeah, and you’ve had to make it, so you’ve got that cost, so you’ll have even less. The best idea is to sell it yourself! There’s not a lot of money in it unless you’re doing huge print runs and selling it yourself which – is hard because you’ve got to drive everyone to your shop.

What we’re trying to do is this: do our special run, sell the same amount in our store, and also have some in shops. We would have been losing a bit of money had we not increased our run, because the printing costs would have been more than the commitment. So this time round we’ve put it into shops.

Do you break even?
It’s making money, but we’re also spending it on events and promoting the magazine. We had a launch at the London Graphic Centre and paid for 300 t-shirts to be printed down there all for free for people who came to the event. We make a little bit of money from it, definitely, we will for this issue, but nothing to write home about. It’s purely for the love of magazines.

I would like to say that in a few years time we’ll be selling 7,000 copies and that we’ll be on par with Wrap, Eye… they are more frequent than us, but it’s a business then, and I want it to be a business. I don’t want to just keep treading water for the rest of my life.

We’ve teamed up with HP to create a commercial side of People of Print, which will fund the creative side of what we do. Which we already have, to some degree, with the clients that we work with, the sponsorship that
we get with other things that we do. But we want to be able to do something using our skills corporately so that we can do the magazine without whacking loads of crappy advertising in it and depending every single time on pre-orders. We’re getting there.

Do you enjoy the business of magazine-making?
I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, but I do it. Do you know what I mean? I don’t like having to worry about it but it always works out somehow anyway. I don’t know how! It just works!

Then the other side is the fun side, which is making the magazine. The name of the magazine sets itself up as an appreciation of print. But what’s its remit? What’s it about?
It has a story really. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a guy called Felix Dennis, one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the UK, famous for his larger-than-life character, I looked up to him massively. I suggest you read his books, magazines, and poetry.

He bought out one of the oldest printing houses called Butler and Tanner, and he renamed it Butler, Tanner and Dennis. That was where we were going to print as it made a nice story, this idea that Felix was involved. So we set out the costs for the Kickstarter, and we get the Kickstarter money in and we’ve designed the magazine and then we’re just about to go to print, and Butler and Tanner have gone into administration.

I sent the Kickstarter alert out to everyone saying ‘Look, we’ve got to find a new printer, we’re having a slight delay on our publishing date’. Just so happened that a lady at PrintWeek magazine was one of the backers of the magazine, so I’d given her hot news just before they were going into administration. That day it was in PrintWeek: Butler and Tanner have left People of Print in the lurch. We had phone call after phone call of ‘Oh yeah, we can do it for you for about £7,000’. Loads of them.

So we found a new printer, and then just as we are going to print, Felix Dennis passed away. So we dedicated the issue to him, he died on the 22 June 2014. In issue two we did a whole piece on Oz, we’re actually going to be working with Dennis Publishing for the VDP publishing thing and using his poetry and allowing people to select the poetry. That’s one of the commercial projects… so what was the question?

What’s the remit for the content?
The content, so, for the second issue and our piece about Oz, we printed our cover with pink and blue, and then featured Felix Dennis in it, and we used those colours throughout and we used elements of Oz and spread them throughout. He’s known for counter-culture so we had counter-culture as the theme.

And then the third issue has the personalised cover, all the content is based around instantaneous print. The issue has other examples of people using variable print, Wallpaper*’s DIY front covers, other projects. The theme of the magazine is content based around how the magazine is printed. We’re going to do a fully letter-pressed version, so that magazine will be produced like newspapers once were. And we will feature things that are letter-pressed, and old newspapers.

One of the reasons we’re here talking today is that there is a growth in the numbers of independent magazines. The scene is getting picked up on by Newsnight and other mainstream media. It’s getting noticed. Do you see a boom?
Definitely. It’s down to the economy as well. Things are changing massively since the crash, and people are spending money again on nice things. There are simply more and more people wanting to make magazines, which emphasises that print isn’t dead. Yet there still seems to be a lot of people out there for whom it is a shock that that’s the case.

Like I said, it’s partly to do with the economy. I think that when people see a nice thing that other people have achieved and go to inspiring talks like your Printout evenings and they find out how they did it and it’s independent and it kind of allows people to go ‘I can do that’. So, I think it’s a positive thing rather than ‘Oh you’re on the independent magazine bandwagon’. Why not do it? It’s an outlet and something you can be creative with. Once you’ve done it, then it can be judged whether it’s good or not.

I’d like to get more to looking at the reasons why there is this boom… The economy, talks like yours, people being inspired. People seeing other magazines that are able to do it. Kickstarter – crowdfunding came out of the economic crash. People were asking, how can we get around this? Everyone pulled together to fund a project. Someone wrote a dissertation about how good crowdfunding is for independent projects. We need to make £5000 every time we print like 1,000. If we want to do more, we need more. People are starting off low and people are starting of with 500 risograph copies and building up from that. There’s Belleville Park Pages, that’s just a sheet of paper. People are doing it independently by any means, and I think that people are inspired by the flourishing. I’m inspired by it.

So you see it continuing to grow?
Oh definitely. I mean, everything plateaus at some point, doesn’t it?  When’s that date gonna be? I don’t think… I think it’s a ride the wave kind of thing. I don’t think it should matter, it doesn’t matter. You should just do it if you want to do it. Just do it.

Which magazines do you admire in that scene?
My favourite magazine of all times is Oz. Independent magazines which I really like? You’ve got them all on your roster here this week.

I’m interested to know which ones you really count.
We had MC1R sent to us, which was a mag for red heads which is a niche magazine, but that’s cool. And then on the opposite side of things is Adbusters. I love Adbusters. It’s a completely user-submitted magazine. Obviously, they have a say of what goes in. I don’t like stuff which is a template, like here’s my thing, here’s my title, that’s the way I’ll lay it out. Now we need an editor to put some stuff in for us, and then we’re set. I like things that switch up and change and have a different thing.

Do you worry that there are independent magazines that are falling into that trap?
Absolutely. Some people call their publications independent magazines
but then turn it into a commercial magazine, definitely. It’s easy to do it, because you can hit that point where you make money and you lose the love for it, which hopefully we won’t do, because the more money we make the more we spend on the magazine.

Is independent about being non-commercial?
Well Vice was independent, wasn’t it? And now it’s not independent. But it had the roots of it being independent. So no, I think there is a cut-off point, definitely. When you’ve racked up loads of money from advertising, you’ve got a huge, huge run, and you’re just distributing everywhere and stuff, then I don’t think it’s quite as independent. It’s kind of like a cottage industry, and then a huge massive commercial company. Independent to me shouts out cottage industry. Bringing it down back to the people, grassroots.

Doesn’t it kind of depend on what you do with it when you get that kind of success? Whether you keep that cottage industry feel, to use your phrase, or whether you keep that ethos behind that, even if you are successful?
What happens as well at certain points commercially is too many cooks spoil the broth. It becomes engineered by people who are supporting it. To me, an independent magazine is if you’re making it and selling it all yourself and you’ve got enough money to be totally in control of what’s in that magazine. That’s an independent magazine, because it’s a lean magazine of your content.

What single piece of advice would you offer somebody who is thinking, well maybe I could do this? What should they look out for?
Just go for it, try it. But obviously if you’re going to do a crowdfunded way, make sure you get your numbers right, because if you didn’t have the money (like I luckily did) I would be in debt, you know what I mean? By quite a fair amount. So get the numbers right, make sure what you’re offering you can achieve and find partners. Find people that you can work with, see if they can support you for what you’re doing. If they like what you do, make a proposal.

The reason why we did the first issue of this is because we wanted to make a book, we got quotes, it was going to come to 30K or something for a hardback book. We went to a publisher, we went to Thames & Hudson, and got a book deal, signed that, and we were like, we want a little bit more say of what paper it’s going on, what colours we can use, because at the end of the day they’re a huge company that have to keep reining it in a little bit.

I was like, ‘Right – let’s make a magazine ourselves, where we are in control!’  Maybe there’s a way that you could get it published through somebody, find somebody, it depends on what the content is. There’s different ways: a proposal, or crowdfund it, or do it yourself. Pre-orders, make sure you’re getting money up front before. Money is a big part of it, that’s what I think, just be safe with the money otherwise you’ll get screwed over.

This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015. The last few copies are available from the magCulture Shop.

Portrait of Marcroy by Ian Pierce.

peopleofprint.com

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