Jeremy Leslie interviews Anorak magazine’s founder Cathy Olmedillas, from his 2015 book ‘Independence.’
Jeremy: You launched Anorak because you felt that all the branded magazines available for your young son weren’t as good as what you grew up with. So you just dived in and did it?
Cathy: I had experience working with other magazines, I knew how a magazine worked. I knew what mistakes one shouldn’t make when you launch an independent magazine. I just looked at the kid’s magazine market and thought, okay, I’ll talk to ask many people as possible about doing it and then, because I had said to everyone I’m going to do this, obviously I had to do it, because I would have looked like a complete idiot for not doing it.
I found an art director, Supermundane, and he introduced me to a lot of illustrators and we just put it together like that. It took about a year to define what it would be, but it seemed to be a really simple process. A lot of people have said that it reminds them of their annuals that they used to read as a kid. But I used to work at The Face, so for me it was more like The Face for kids, that was my template really.
Tell us about your experience at other magazines.
I was on the commercial side. I had no experience of writing or commissioning, and had no idea I could do it until at least two years into it. At the beginning I had writers and an art director and then, for financial reasons, I had to streamline things and ended up doing it all myself.
Can you remember receiving the first boxes of the magazine?
The first thing I received was a dummy which I paid an absolute fortune for and it was absolutely amazing. The first thing that struck me was the smell, because it was using vegetable ink and it really smelled quite a bit. In a good way. Although when I got the boxes back into my house, it just started smelling a bit too much, so I had to put them in a spare room because we were getting a bit high on the fumes.
Apart from that, it was just amazing, it was unbelievable that we’d managed to do this. I was very, very lucky because I put out a press release roughly a month before the magazine was going to press, making a great big announcement that the magazine will be published, and that caught the eye of the H&M marketing team and also Borders, so they saw that and said we would love to stock it, and we’d love to advertise in it. So that crystallised the project really. This is great, money is here, distribution is here, creative is here, let’s go. It was that simple.
At that time, did you have any idea that eight years later you’d be doing what you’re doing now?
No. I never have plans. That’s one of the great things about Anorak and also maybe not so great. I’ve never had a great strategy behind it, all I wanted to do was have fun and do something that was different, something that I could read with my son and that we could both share. Then four years into it, I decided to turn it into a business. That’s when the roller-coaster started.
How much of a business is it? What kind of sales are you achieving?
We just had to up the print run again, because we’ve been selling out of issues, Easter caught us off guard, it was a fantastic Easter, almost as good as Christmas which was incredible on the online side. We’re upping to 15,000 now per issue.
You talked about mistakes. Could you share a couple of key things that you regret from which you learned?
Mistakes are great. Not great when they happen, but they’re great a few months later when you realise, ah, that wasn’t a mistake, that was a lesson, a lesson disguised as a mistake. The one probably that stings the most from a pride perspective has to be about two years ago at a magazine conference. I was full of peps and happiness and had decided I was going to launch a teen magazine, basically an Anorak for thirteen-fourteen year olds. It was going to be called Teepee, I had the cover, all the editorial and I announced full of confidence that it will be launched against all advice, and then I didn’t launch it. I couldn’t find the funding for it, and I wasn’t going to do the same thing as I did with Anorak where I just thought I’d launch it and see what happens and within a month we had funding and distribution.
With Teepee, I just thought, the amount of work, the amount of effort, versus the reward financially was just going to be too wide. I thought, I can’t do this. So if anyone heard me doing that talk…
So is it on hold permanently?
It’s on hold for now, yes, and will stay on hold for a little while I think. We’ve got Dot to focus on.
Yes, so instead, with Dot, you’ve gone for the under fives. Did you go into that in the same way as with Anorak? Or did you do a bit more research and talking to people?
No, I didn’t do any research. But it did take a little while to put together because we were just busy, designer Anna Dunn and I were just too busy to get it done any earlier. It took about a year to put together, to figure out what it would be and what kind of content will be in it and that sort of thing. I launched it knowing that I had a lot of people asking me for it. That was the major difference between that and Teepee, there was and is demand. Dot doesn’t carry any advertising and it’s only 36 pages so it’s much cheaper to print and put together than Teepee which would have been 80 pages.
Even without seeing a copy it seems to click much closer with what it is, I can imagine the aesthetic will be more similar.
Yes. It’s all done by Anna, who designs most of Anorak. So yes, it’s very, very colourful, very high-brow when it comes to design for children, and very sophisticated, but that’s how I think it should be. Things are too dumbed down when it comes to kids design or culture.
There’s a huge growth in illustration in terms of quantity but also the interest in illustration. You see it more in advertising and marketing, it’s far more common around everywhere today.
Absolutely. It’s great, in 2006 when I launched Anorak, we had a choice of about ten illustrators, now we receive roughly five portfolios a day. The quality is insanely good. There used to be more forward-thinking illustrators and an illustration culture in inland Europe, but now the UK has caught up amazingly after being slightly behind. The UK now definitely leads the way.
I was brought up with a very simple illustration style, simple books that had simple techniques but which used a lot of imagination. These inspired me hugely. Then in the 80s and 90s things just became very Disney-ified and everything had to look the same. It felt to me we were missing that kind of imaginative illustration, and different styles.That’s what I want to champion always with Anorak and also Dot. I’m
not an expert in child education, but I do think that the more varied things you are exposed to, the better the imagination and creativity will become.
When you’re working with illustrators, what comes first? Do you talk to the illustrator about a story?
No. The way it works is that I look at the portfolios, and write a story, and then depending how I visualised it within my head while writing it, I will find an illustrator that matches that. And once the illustrator is commissioned, he or she is completely free to do whatever they want. There are only a couple of bits and bobs that I ask them to bear in mind this is for children so fonts have to be fairly legible, although we have had some stories where even I couldn’t read half of it, it was still beautiful so I was just like ‘let’s run it, it’s fine’, an interesting challenge for everyone to read. Then they’re just free to
do whatever they want really.
And do you take illustrators who work from all around the world?
Yes. Most of the people who work for us are literally from everywhere. Which means we don’t have Christmas parties, because they’d have to be in Brazil and Switzerland and France and –
Yes it does but we just don’t have the budget for that!
I love the idea that you have kids as editors who contribute and join in. Do you get to meet many of the readers?
Yes, they send me emails. There are families who have become really good friends through the process. There is one illustrator who came to work with us and she confessed that she used to read Anorak when she was young, which made feel really, really old. It was a real compliment though, because she said we inspired her to become an illustrator. We meet them at events and workshops. They send emails and sometimes postcards when they’re on holidays, it’s just amazing. It became this thing that grew, pretty much at first it was just friends of friends of friends, then it became all over the world. And we visit schools as well, where we’ll pick illustrators and little editors.
One of the differences between being a children’s magazine of course is that it’s probably not always the children who are buying the magazine.
No it’s definitely not. It’s the parents who buy the magazine, and then the child will be part of this club Anorak if you like, if you want to be part of it by contributing to it. Yeah. It’s absolutely the parent who buys it.
We have 2,500 subscriptions. So, it’s good, but we could do better. The rest is mostly sales from our online shop, because distribution is quite difficult. I’m sure everybody has moaned about that, anyone who works in the independent publishing world will tell you. Distribution is really difficult, distribution to shops and bookshops and newsagents is kind of a bonus really, you don’t rely on it that much. Most sales come from our online shop, which is why we are so strong on social networks, because that’s where traffic comes directly from.
The marketing part is really important. You find the social media is powerful in that respect?
I got very lucky in that when I first launched Anorak I was working in the digital industry and met a lot of very clever people who told me about social networks. I used to think it was just for dating, I didn’t realise it was for marketing. This was four or five years ago. I was a bit shocked when someone said Anorak should be on Facebook, I was like, really?
But it was a very good idea because this is how I built the business. This was four, five years ago, so right at the beginning of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook I think is a bit older than that, but yeah, that’s
how I built the audience and the business.
As you say, distribution is the key thing. When all those boxes of the first issue arrived and they were clogging up your hall and your spare room, at that time, were you using a professional distributor do get them in shops?
Yeah. Because I’d worked in independent magazines before, so I’ve been working with COMAG for years, and they do all the newsagents, some bookshops but not all of them, and they do international as well. We sell in a lot of kids boutiques too, and we deal with them directly.
We’ve seen a great growth in the number of independent magazines, whether they take on a traditional genre of publishing like you are or are more freeform. There are shops full of these magazines. Do you look at a lot of other magazines?
I love magazines, otherwise I wouldn’t have launched one, but I don’t have time to read as many magazines now. I subscribe to two. One is Brownbook, a really brilliant lifestyle magazine coming from the Middle East. The other one is The Believer, which I love.These magazines send me somewhere. They teach me, they inform, they educate. The other magazines, I just don’t have the time. Also there are so many, sometimes it’s difficult to find the one that’s going to grab you.
I absolutely admire and love what the independent publishing industry has become. It’s really thriving, thriving form a launches point of view. People are finding many different ways of creating and sustaining, whichis really good. But I’m not the greatest reader. So this industry will definitely not survive because of me!
I suspect that Anorak has been hugely inspirational to a lot of people.
Well I hope so. I hope so.
As well as the quarterly magazine you’ve got the books, the other projects, and you’ve just launched the studio in a formal way. Is that part of your desire to make it more of a business-orientated project?
Yes. I think at one point a lot of independent publishers hid the fact that they also had a studio and were surviving by doing brand work. I thought about it and thought that’s silly because the more people who know about it, the more work that I’ll attract, and then I can launch more magazines and create really nice pieces of communication for brands.
So I just thought I’m going to make it official, but we’ve been doing it for quite a while. I was always a little bit, oh yes, of course, we survive through sales, which we don’t. And very few magazines do. A lot of magazines will survive through brand work or doing workshops and things like that, so I just decided to be proud about it.
So even with a print run of 15,000, quarterly, that’s not enough on its own. You need other income.
It’s not enough because I pay all my contributors, and I’m very proud to pay them. That’s one reason, the costs are not high but they are costs associated with making Anorak. And also, I live in London, and I’m also trying to pay a salary for myself, so I think if I did that in any other places around the UK it might not be as expensive, I might not have to do Studio Anorak. I don’t just do it for financial reasons, I genuinely love creating something that’s a little bit different, a piece of communication that’s slightly different from the rest of the stuff that you see.
Do you have a sense that it’s had an influence on other things for kids? Other children’s projects maybe? Other magazines?
I see a lot of Anorak-looking magazines launched, which is fine. I don’t know what influence Anorak has had on the brand world or anything like that. I’m too humble to even start thinking we are influencers in any way. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing and whatever we get from a brand or cultural organisation perspective, I’m just grateful for that. Others can do what they want.
Being quarterly you use some of the other projects to fill the gaps. Have you ever considered taking Anorak more regular?
We have 36 issues and eight years, so for a year I did a fifth one and it almost killed me. It was funded by H&M but it was just too much. There have been a lot of people telling me, because we’re doing so
well and because we’re selling out the last issue, you need to increasethe frequency. But I never want the magazine to lose what’s special about it. For me, it’s this little box of surprises that you get every quarter, and I feel that if I do that more regularly it will lose its intensity about it.
People buy Anorak because they love beautiful illustration but also because their kid can spend two or three hours with the magazine and they’ll spend only ten minutes with another one. I worry that if I publish six or eight a year, that that will be lost, and actually it will be a huge amount of cost for very little return.
It strikes me that the magazine is so much a part of you.
Right. Is that good or bad?
In the best possible way, that’s great. The intensity is a part of it. That’s vital. But I’m sure what those business people who are advising you to go more frequent are suggesting is that you hire a team, and start devolving it down to other people, and it’s at that point
that it would perhaps lose its specialness.
Maybe. I don’t know how to do that yet. I’ve got a great team, Anna is obviously an amazing designer, I’ve also got Stephanie, who is doing the blog. But anything to do with the editorial or creative side, I won’t delegate just yet. It’s a slow process. It will happen.
I would rather put my energy at the moment into really reaching out to people – I think Anorak hasn’t reach its potential yet. I’d rather see four editions sold at 50,000 then six sold at 15,000. The way for me to reach out to more people, that’s why I do Anorak TV, because I think that’s a much wider and global platform. Episodes are going to come more frequently.
Do you get a sense that that’s feeding back into the magazine?
Yes definitely. I do. That’s where I want to be, if I’m thinking very ambitiously, I’d like to have a decent presence on YouTube and just influence that side of kid’s culture.
Kids spend a lot of time on YouTube and social media. Do you think they can also love print? Is there are part of you that hopes lovers of Anorak are going to grow up and have that same memory of comics and annuals that you had?
I hope so. It’s definitely much more rewarding. But maybe I’m saying that because I wasn’t brought up with the internet, for me it’s a much more of a rewarding relationship you have with a book or a magazine than with something on the screen.
However, I’ve got friends who are parents to two year olds who know exactly how to use an iPhone. So I’m not sure what books are going to mean. It will always be something that will have come from the parent, rather than the child. But hopefully not. We’ll see.
There’s still a plenty of fantastic kids books out there, which could be just as engaging for kids as an iPhone. I think they’ll be doing both.
Yes. It would be very sad if they disappeared completely. Or maybe we just need to let go, and know that the next generation are only going to want to read screen things. There is an old-fashioned thing associated with print already which I think people cherish, whether kids cherish it I’m not sure. But parents definitely do.
The interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015 and now sold out. 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.
Portrait of Cathy by Ian Pierce.