Steve Watson, Stack
In the fourth interview originally published in his 2015 book ‘Independence,’ Jeremy Leslie talks to Steve Watson, the man behind the magazine subscription service Stack, about his service and the magazines it works with. 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: Can you remember how you first discovered what we now easily refer to as independent publishing?
Steve: I was working in a fairly dull and uninspiring editorial job, which just happened to be almost immediately above Magma on Clerkenwell Road. In the afternoon I would lose the battle with myself staring at the computer and I would drift downstairs to have a browse. At that time, there weren’t quite as many magazines as there are now these days. I was totally fascinated by these exotic creatures. I was involved in making ad-driven cooperate publishing. So to see these magazines that were made as a result of passion and love was amazing.
That was where I first came across Zembla magazine, which was a literary magazine that had fashion-y leanings. It was edited by Dan Crowe who is now the editor of Port and Avaunt, and designed by Vince Frost and Matt Willey. It had headlines you couldn’t read and did all sorts of weird stuff.
It was also fairly irregularly published. I would go down to Magma and ask ‘Is the new Zembla out?’ That for me was the first introduction to what you’d now recognise as independent publishing, before I really knew what it was.
Then you moved on to work with some of the people making these magazines?
While still working the fairly uninspiring job, I basically had this idea that I wanted to be a film writer. I started writing freelance for Little White Lies, and when I say freelance I mean I went to their parties and that was the payment for writing for them. I became really good friends with them, and had a really great time. Then, years later, Little White Lies’ publisher the Church of London won the contract to publish a magazine for Google, and they suddenly needed someone with experience making corperate magazines. So that was the opportunity for me to join them, which was brilliant. Up until that point I’d been running Stack from my home and all of a sudden I got office space, I got to work with people who knew what these magazines were about. The Church of London were involved in creating Stack right from the start, so it really was like coming in from the cold and bringing all these parts of my life together.
Presumably at that time you started seeing some of the faults of the distribution system?
That actually came right at the beginning. Apologies to the guys I used to work with, but I didn’t like that first job very much. I took a day a week, I went down to four days a week at my main job, took a day a week to write freelance, with the idea that I’d try to get more by-lines in things like The Guardian and places like that. At the end of the year I reflected on it and realised that I’d not made the same money as if I’d just worked full time. I’d got some bylines, but nothing that was going to change things radically.
I thought, what I need to do is start my own business. I started quite cynically looking for a business to start. I happened upon the idea of Stack, and at that point went to Danny Miller who is the publisher of Little White Lies and asked, what are the problems you face? It was talking to them that I realised there were problems with distribution. Right from the beginning, I built Stack as something that only worked with independent publications. I tried to make it something that would be great for them.
Were there already other people doing similar subscription schemes for other products?
I’m sure there were. One of the things that gave me the idea for Stack was a t-shirt company that my friend’s wife set up. Subscribers got a limited edition t-shirt each month. Subscriptions have definitely boomed since I started. I think we’re spending more time on the web, we’re more likely to outsource that bit of our lives to somebody else. Now you can get subscriptions for everything. Cake. Tea. Coffee. Beer.
When you talk to the people who are make the magazines, they come to it from a creative standpoint rather than a business one. They have to learn the business very quickly. It sounds like you came from much more of a business perspective initially…
I’m glad it sounds like that! I wrote a business plan.
So you’re already ahead of most magazines!
Yeah. I always say to people, write the business plan. The Stack business plan is now laughable, I look back on it, and if you look at it, then I’m a millionaire. I think it’s a useful exercise to go through, just because it forces you to ask questions about where money is going to come from, where are the pinch points going to be when you run out of money but you need to spend it on something else.
To start Stack I borrowed £3,000 from my dad and £3,000 from my mother and father-in-law. To show them I’m serious about this they got 3% each of the business. It’s only last year that that’s started to mean anything, because there are now shares in Stack. I wanted to show them, look, I’m not just taking your money and gonna have a laugh with it, this is what I intend to do. And even though things have gone differently since, that’s still the only money that has ever been put into Stack. It’s run itself from that point. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d done that work upfront.
The basic premise is a different magazine each month, which means there are 12 magazines a year. How do you select those magazines?
I’m now at the point where I’m actually quite strict and careful about it. There are 12 magazines in a year, I have 30 magazines on Stack as a whole. Most of these magazines aren’t published monthly, so you need to have a supply of mags, you need more than 12 to do a year. But I’ve now made it so that it’s one in one out.
It was just announced today that Fiera magazine is on Stack. For that to happen, I can’t remember which magazine had to step off, but it was a magazine then had to go. That means I have to be really selective with what I put on. I’m always looking for magazines that have something to say for themselves. There are a lot of mags out there that look lovely but as soon as you start reading them, they’ve not got real content. I’m looking for magazines that are open and accessible, so they absolutely should be niche, but they should be a niche that you can get something from if you’re not in that world.
And I look for a balance of magazines. At the moment, I could literally do a years worth of design-based titles. But that’s not as interesting to me as doing a completely different magazine every month.
Give us a flavour of the variety of magazines.
This month we sent out Makeshift, which is about unexpected creativity. It’s people who are hacking solutions all around the world, and the magazine itself is a real example of that. They are making it from locations all around the world, in the cloud, and then publishing it. It’s really exciting.
There is Cereal, which is a travel and style magazine, The Gourmand which is food and drink. We’ve got Little White Lies which is movies. A really broad spectrum. The thing that unites them is that whereas normally we buy magazines on a certain interest, you walk into WHSmiths and all the fishing magazines are there, and all the football magazines there. Stack says forget interests. Think about the type of person you are. If you’re the type of person who wants to see something from outside the mainstream, these are the magazines for you.
How many subscribers do you have?
This month was 3,100, but I got stuck on about 1,300 for about 18 months.
I’d left the Church of London, joined an agency called Human After All, (who grew out of Church of London) and I was editorial director for them two days a week. I was running Stack three days a week. Editorial director was not a two-day a week job, and Stack was not a three-day a week job, and I look back at that time and the numbers just flat fall for a year-and-a-half. That’s when I realised I had to either stop doing Stack or stop doing Human After All. I started Stack because I didn’t like my job, and then I got to the point where I had two jobs that I really liked. But no life! So I decided I had to get rid of one of them. I left Human After All at the start of last year, since when it’s more than doubled in size.
Obviously working full time you have more time to put into the project, but what actually makes material difference do you think? Have you been better able to promote it?
The promotion definitely helps. Once upon a time coming and doing this interview would have been a really big chunk out of my week; it’s not so much now. The biggest thing, really, is that it’s the sole thing that is in my head in terms of work. I used to be cycling home from work, and one side of the brain would be chewing over this problem that we’ve got with a Google marketing message, and then there is another part of the brain chewing over a Stack thing. The scale is completely different, and it was difficult. Now, I don’t have to worry about anything else. Just Stack.
As independent publishing grows, is there a danger that it becomes a self-limiting world? There are plenty of really exciting magazines, but there is also a sense that some repeat themselves, both in subject and design. They become ‘The Idea of an Independent Magazine’ and that immediately figures something in your head, and you know what it’s going to be. Do you worry about that?
There is definitely a danger of that. I’ve just reviewed a new magazine called Odd One Out from Malaysia, and it looks a lot like Apartamento. So that was a bit of a worry when I first saw it, but when I started reading it, I realised that they are using this independent magazine vernacular – in terms of typefaces and the way people are photographed – but actually there’s so much there that’s of interest because of the specific Malaysian context.
There is a piece where they talk about a local language not used in common conversation. It’s actually something that is an older language that people use more poetically. The editor writes this really interesting piece about what does it mean to make a magazine in a country where your national language is not really used in everyday conversation. So there are really fascinating insights. There’s a piece with a news anchor who reported on the MH370 disaster. Again, seeing this disaster from a specific, different, Malaysian point of view, completely fascinating.
So the content wins you over?
Exactly. But there are other examples where things do start to get predictable. I think one of the wonderful things about magazines is that you can do something different every time. Most independent magazine makers that you speak to, they came to it with passion. Ask them ‘What’s your favourite issue?’ and they’ll answer, ‘The next one’. They’re always looking to the next one because they want to fix something from last time or take it forward. As long as that’s happening, it’ll be a good place.
Do you think independent publishing will carry on growing like this?
I think that the genie’s out of the bottle now. People, not just in independent magazines, people in all media know that they can create their own content and get it out into the world. Whether your making films on YouTube, or making music, whatever it is, this is just the new world we live in now.
What we really need are distribution systems that keep up with this incredibly exciting, 21st Century way of making magazines, where you get people that are driven by passion coming together and making something. They still hit that brick wall when they’ve printed their magazines. The big challenge is coming up with ways – and you need more than one way because there is more than one type of magazine – you need lots of new ways of getting these magazines in front of audiences so that they can become really healthy, sustainable businesses.
Do you think it’s possible for this many magazines to become fully sustainable businesses?
Absolutely. When you look at the size and scale these magazines are working at, once you get to around 3,000 subscribers – subscribers not copy-sales – and people are paying say an average of £10 for their magazine, that’s a tidy little business. If you’ve got a small team working very efficiently, these magazines can be the foundation for a really healthy, sustainable business. We’re seeing that already with a bunch of the magazines. They’re blazing a trail for others to follow.
You’ve described the basic Stack service, you subscribe and get a magazine a month. That in itself is quite a limited scale. You’ve also started a monthly event?
Stack live. The idea is to bring the previous month’s delivery to life. The first one we had Ryan from Hello Mr. who flew over from the US. We put on a conversation night in London. And also in that month’s delivery I’d sent out a food magazine called Root and Bone, and so we got the guys from Root and Bone to come along, and we ate one of the dishes they had in their magazine. It was a fantastic night. So much fun. Then we had Huck magazine, they came, and we had a 19 year old rapper from Brighton who featured in that issue come. We had an interview with the editor and afterwards Ocean Wisdom did a half hour set.
It’s really bringing the excitement and the life blood of these magazines into a real physical setting. The snag is not being able to do them every month – if you can’t get the editor of Makeshift over to London, then you can’t really do it.
You did one in Amsterdam?
We did one in Amsterdam, Peter Bil’ak from Works That Work. But for me to fly to Amsterdam is fairly easy.
You’ve teased us with the idea that you have something else up your sleeve? Could you tell us about that?
Next month the new service is launching, which I’m keeping fairly under wraps at the moment. The basic idea is that it’s going to make it easier for more people to get hold of more of these magazines. People are going to be able to sign up to an email and they’ll be presented with a new magazine every week, which you can buy, have it delivered for free in the UK, Europe or USA, at 10% off the cover price.
This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015 and now sold out. Some of the figures quoted will be out of date now.
Portrait of Steve by Ian Pierce.