Danielle Pender, Riposte
In the third interview from his 2015 book ‘Independence,’ Jeremy Leslie talks to Danielle Pender, founder and editor-in-chief of Riposte. The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, in Spring 2015.
Jeremy: Before you launched Riposte, had you made magazines?
Danielle: I’m a curator by trade. I used to curate exhibitions and festivals, I still work at KK Outlet on their gallery program. There’s a quote about the outlook of a beginner: If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can do really interesting things. Whereas if you know all the restrictions and what you should and shouldn’t do, then you play safe too much. Not having a traditional editorial background has helped.
So you have no assumptions, you dive in.
Yeah, I have no idea what I’m doing!
You’re on your fourth issue. Do you feel you’ve learned a lot already?
Definitely. We’ve learned so much since the first issue. I looked back and we planned to go to print in two weeks but we still didn’t have photoshoots for two of the interviews, and the designer was saying we need images! I was like, oh yeah! Such a super-basic thing.
We now have a style guide for our writers, that was a big thing that I didn’t realise you needed. Everyone we’ve worked with has been really patient and got behind us and really helped out. It feels like we’ve moulded it as
a team together. We’ve worked with a lot of the same people from the start.
Let’s go back a stage even earlier, why a magazine and not a website?
I’ve always been interested in magazines, since school. I wanted to do something in my early 20s but it never worked out.
It felt like a magazine was a bit more tangible. I could feel that people were moving away from constantly being online, they were talking about taking a digital breaks. That overwhelming sense of sitting at the desk all day and you’re looking at stuff but not necessarily reading it, with a magazine you actually sit down and you pay attention to what you’re looking at. I wanted it to have more gravitas than a website.
There are other independent women’s magazines, of course. There’s The Gentlewoman, Libertine and one or two other small, independent women’s magazines. Do you see a growth in that area, of trying to change the way women are portrayed?
There is a huge conversation about the fourth wave of feminism, I think people are pretty sick of how women are portrayed in the media. It’s great that there are people doing things that are different. There are zines like The Mushpit, Laura Laverne has just launched The Pool, a website that talks to women in a different way. It’s about time that women were portrayed differently and spoken to differently, it’s been patronising in the past and it has to change.
You were looking back to Nova in the 60s. That was a magazine that was far more forthright and trying to make a change. That attitude seems to have faded away.
Yeah, I spoke to Harri Peccinotti at the QVED conference in Munich last year. He was talking about why Nova didn’t go very well. There wasn’t the drive to make it work maybe, the team was in flux, the business wasn’t set up properly. It maybe wasn’t the right time. But now there has been a shift in the way women are thought about in the media.
Describe the Riposte set up. How do you work? Where are you based and who’s in the team?
The sofa! We’re planning bigger things for the second half of this year, we’re going to hopefully go more full time and do a lot more events, more online, and try and build up the audience. Right now, we’ve got such a skeletal team, and money has been non-existent.
There’s you, there’s art director Shaz, who are the other people?
There’s a team of freelancers and contributors that we work with for each issue. Who are amazing. Nobody else that is full time or anything.
For the first issue did you use Kickstarter?
No, I just naïvely put it together and we did a pre-order online before it came out. KK Outlet covered the print run and then I paid them back. There was that bit of cover financially, and then through sales we covered the second one. Now we’ve got a bit of money from a brand, and it’s built up like that.
And you’re looking to do more events around the magazine?
Yes. We come out twice a year, and in that lull between issues we want to do events that readers can come to, to get a better idea of what we’re about. We did an event last week, a live version of the latest issue. We had three women featured in the magazine and they all gave presentations. We want to do dinners and workshops to build up more of a program around each launch.
There seems to be an enormous growth in events and live shows. Why have these things become popular?
It’s the experience thing. People can buy whatever they want, people have disposable income, they can buy trainers, but there is a lot more interest in learning and developing. People are looking for experiences a lot more rather than just buying random stuff.
Tell us about the latest, fourth, issue of Riposte. Are there changes?
Not huge ones. We always have an insert in-between the interviews and features. For the next issue we’ve worked with Anonymous Sex Journal.
It’s a website that you can submit sex stories around a theme, we’ve worked with them and we’ve done a little insert. But it’s not going to be in every issue. We did some illustrations and they are super-rude. Some of the stories are very graphic, they made my eyes water, so we’ve decided to put that in only with the online sales – so you know what you’re getting! Not some 60-year-old women picking it up and feeling sick…
That’s an interesting point. When you’re in control of all the content, you’ve got a clear structure and clear idea of what you’re bring in, do you have a sense of censorship beyond explicit sex stories. Are there other things you might drop or cut?
Sometimes we get ideas for stories and they’re either not quite right. We have a clear idea of the type of women and the type of stories, if they’ve been seen elsewhere or if they’re patronising or if they’re obvious, the thing I was saying with Francois – it’s these hidden stories that I’m quite interested in.
The next issue we’ve done a feature on Zoe Bell who is Uma Thurman’s stunt double in ‘Kill Bill’. She’s amazing. You might not know about her but she’s such a badass, so we’ve done a story about action heroines based on her. We’re interested in these less obvious stories.
And do people ever say no when you ask them for interview?
All the time. You think, oh yeah I’m doing a magazine, emailing this long wish list, and you get knock back after knock back. It’s like, come on! People say no all the time. Or they just don’t get back to you.
Do you feature men?
We do. Ewen Spencer, the photographer, has selected his icon for issue four, and we’ve interviewed Femi who runs NTS in the food and relationships feature. It’s not an explicit no-men attitude, it’s more if it fits, it works.
Which other magazines from the independent sector do you enjoy?
I think that The Gourmand are on top of their game. Dave and Marina do a brilliant job. Apartamento, Printed Pages, are really good and have a fun approach. Can’t think of any others off the top of my head, but they’re the ones that whenever they have a release I’ll buy.
What about the bigger magazines?
I normally buy weekend papers, the supplements. I always get the Sunday Times, The Guardian, I get The New Yorker now and again. I bought Vogue a few months ago. It’s supposed to be this style bible but there is literally nothing to read in it. It was all adverts. I don’t get it. It’s quite baffling.
There are some great magazine brands like that which are losing themselves somehow. If you look at some of the old Harpers, they really were culturally involved with great features from leading artists and photographers of their time. Almost the people that you’re working with now.
Yeah. They were really authorities and the art directors and the people who commissioned the artwork were real artists themselves. I don’t know whether they have to make certain about of money and so they can’t take risks, or I don’t know. They’ve definitely lost their appeal.
As your project grows, and you are moving into not advertisement but building a relationship with brands, do you worry about commercial pressures coming in? And perhaps denting your ambition?
Definitely. At the start we used the inside cover pages for an image relating to whoever is on the back cover, but we’ve sold those two pages now because we have to make money, Shaz was really devastated because it spoilt her layout. But yeah, you have to make money, and I get that with the bigger magazines. But because we’re really small still, I would be more on the side of just saying no to a brand if it didn’t work. You do more harm then good if you do something that you really compromise for. It’s not worth it in the end.
It’s quite an achievement getting a brand at this stage anyway.
Yes, because they’re all about numbers. Our readership is growing but it isn’t huge. The smart brands are the ones who are not even taking a risk. Our readership, the readership of The Gourmand, Printed Pages, they’re smart people, they have disposable incomes, your going to be one advert in a beautiful magazine rather than an advert in 20 pages of other adverts.
Who is the brand in the new issue?
That’s an interesting brand for you to be involved with. Are they changing there presentation now they removed Dov Charney?
Yeah exactly. They’ve changed their approach.
I think what Printed Pages do with Paul Smith is a really interesting example of a brand working closely across a series of issues. Will that be a long term relationship?
Definitely for four and five issues and then we’ll see.
You mentioned readership. How much do you know about them?
We did a survey monkey. That’s always useful. We have events that we get feedback from. It’s always good because we meet people and they’ll say, you should feature this person… It’s always good to hear ideas that you would not have necessarily thought of yourself.
Do you get feedback in the sense of why did you put that person
in there? Is it always positive?
Sometimes. I got a really, really horrific email from someone, around the launch of the third issue, about the magazine. It was – ugh.
The whole magazine?
Yes. So it’s not always good feedback. But when people are mean, it sometimes spurs you on to do better or more.
It goes back to one of the points from the intro, it’s better to have an effect than have everyone think, oh it’s okay.
Exactly. I wouldn’t want to have another one of those emails, though. But yeah it’s nice to know that people like reading it. It’s good to stick with what you believe in, and if people don’t like it, that’s fair enough.
When you meet the readers are there any surprises? Who is the reader? Is it self-evident?
It was similar to what we thought. There is a photograph that someone tagged us in, a guy lighting a cigarette with a knuckle duster, and he’s holding a copy of the second issue and I love that photograph. It’s totally unexpected. Some men buy it, men who are interested in art and design. But it’s mainly women, 25-40, a few older women. Quite a lot in Australia. It’s quite well stocked over there and we have a big readership there.
The independent scene is a global thing, isn’t it?
Definitely. There was your conference in Singapore. We have orders from all over. I got an email from a guy in Idaho who had a beautiful independent bookstore and he wanted to stock it. It’s a worldwide network. It’s just difficult with distribution, to reach all those little pockets, shipping costs, all that, it’s quite crippling.
Did you use a professional distributor right from the start?
We’ve always worked with Antenne and New Distribution for America and the rest of the world.
Generally talking to people in the business, distribution’s the hardest part. Do you find that?
Yeah it’s ridiculous, you spend so much time putting the content together and making it really beautiful, and then you want to get it out to readers but the money you make through sales with distribution is tiny. The shipping costs, it’s such a backwards business model. Dave Lane from The Gourmand told me how he was talking to a distributor about making it more flexible, these types of magazines are in-between an actual magazine and a book, so thinking about it sitting in the middle between the two. It has to change, I don’t see how it can carry on.
For the weekly’s and monthly’s, the magazine’s you’re a riposte to, they have a quick turn around and so many get wasted or pulped. All the effort gone. The big difference being that magazines such as yours are twice a year, it’s much more of a book time line. One of the speakers in Singapore was Nathan Williams from Kinfolk, and he’s been using the book networks to distribute, which I thought was an interesting idea. Also, you’re working on a sale and return basis. You might supply the distributor with 600 copies, you don’t know how many are going to sell, you don’t know how many you’re going to get back, you might wait three months to get paid. In terms of your cashflow, you’re screwed. It’s a bizarre business really.
Hence the events. You also mentioned doing some more stuff digitally. Our website is pretty lame at the minute. We’re going to develop that, do more film, podcasts, update on a daily basis. We would never put the content from the magazine online, but there is space to post briefer, digestible reads.
Presumably you sell copies online. If you increase the traffic online, you’d hopefully sell more directly, which you’d make more money from anyway. That’s the plan.
Is there a plan for when you get to a point when the magazine could be self-sustaining and you don’t have to work part-time on something else?As soon as possible basically. We want to beef it up and make it more of a business and more sustainable. I work all the time on it, that in itself isn’t sustainable. It’s not that much fun after a while. We’ve got stuff in mind and plans in place to change that.
The period you’ve been publishing has seen a huge growth in smaller, independent magazines, which is very exciting. Your magazine, these magazines, they’re all doing something in their own way, in their own direction. But there’s a bit of background noise of people saying they all look the same, they’re quite repetitive. There are people raising concerns that actually maybe it’s becoming a ghetto of self-limiting ideals. Do you worry about that?
A little bit. It’s the same as anything, the good will carry on and the bad will fall by the wayside. I think there are some really great independent magazines and there are some really terrible independent magazines. Same with music, same with film. There will be an audience for the really good ones. Readers will decide. I think that’s fine.
Not necessarily everyone will agree which are the good ones anyway. What I think is terrible, someone else might love. So each to their own.
If anyone here is planning to launch their own magazine, do you have a single, golden piece of advice?
Have a real point of view. Do something that you believe in, and have something to say, so that you don’t just be another independent magazine that has pictures of girls with pink hair. Have a business plan if you want to do it properly and get past two or three issues. Work out how you’re going to make money and how you’re going to sustain it.
Did you have a business plan?
A really shitty one!
This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015. The printed edition is sold out but a PDF of the book ia availbale via the magCulture Shop.
Portrait of Danielle by Ian Pierce.