From its 2013 launch, Cereal quickly established itself as a key part of the independent magazine scene, with significant sales figures and an interntaional reach. In this seventh interview from his book ‘Independence,’ Jeremy Leslie talks to editor and co-founder Rosa Park about her magazine and how she and partner Rich Stapleton launched it.
Jeremy: I’d like to go back to when you were planning the magazine, three years ago. Had you been working in magazines before?
Rosa: I didn’t have very much editorial experience prior to launching Cereal, Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. My background was in marketing in the fashion and beauty sector. I’d been living and working in New York for about six years and I realised that I didn’t really like my job, so I decided to switch my career. When I was working as a publicist, I was always very jealous of the magazine editors!
It’s quite daunting to change career half way through, so what I decided to do was quite my job, move to England to get a Masters in English Literature. Not that that necessarily correlates with becoming an editor, but I needed the breathing space to think about what I wanted to do. When I graduated I started looking for jobs in magazines. I ended up working for a local title called Bath Life, because I live in Bath.
During my 11 months there I helped the company launch a food magazine called Crumbs; I was so excited to be part of that process. It was a really small team, just me and one other editor. My love of magazines had always been there, but then the desire to actually make my own kicked in. It made me realise I could maybe start my own magazine with my partner, Rich.
What were the first magazines you were looking at?
Cheesy ones as an adolescent. Well, I used to read my mother’s Vogue.
That’s not cheesy!
I’ve started with Vogue so you don’t judge me! My mother got Vogue, and I never let her throw any out, so there is a stash of copies still in my room at my parent’s house. When I was 13 I read Young Miss and Seventeen. That’s what you read when you were a 13-year old girl in America.
I thought Young Miss was very cool, but I’ve seen it recently – it’s terrible. As I got older, my interest in magazines broadened, and the true classics for me are still National Geographic, The New Yorker, Paris Review and New York. And now I have a great interest in indie titles as well.
Was it very obvious what your new magazine would be about?
Yes, it really was. Rich and I were doing it together and both of our interests are quite similar; we knew that it had to be about travel and food. We let go of food, it was an official part of our strap line for the first year, but that happened because you could always talk about food through travel and we didn’t want to pinpoint it as its own thing. I knew that it had to be a magazine about travel because it’s something that I love.
The first issue was one of the most complete, finished launches I’ve seen. How much planning did you put into the magazine?
I’m glad you think that, because I hide copies of volume one now. All I can see are the flaws! Rich and I spent four months on the title prior to launching. I don’t know if that’s long or short because neither of us had that much experience, we just kind of gave ourselves a deadline of Christmas 2012. I think we made the decision to make the magazine at the end of that summer, we just went for it.
That’s quite a short time.
In hindsight, it’s a relatively quick turn around, especially because we both had full-time jobs. We were moonlighting as Cereal editor and creative director before we actually launched.
What process to you go through – did you research all the travel magazines or did you just go for what you wanted?
We didn’t do a lot of market research, but what I knew was what existed in the mainstream market, the glossies. They do what they do well, but the way we wanted to approach travel was quite different. We asked ourselves what do we want to talk about? And we made a list. We had our audience in mind – for me, it was just my friends and myself. What would they want to read in a travel magazine?
Can you describe that difference?
Condé Nast Traveller is the most recognised travel title out there. But I never feel that I get a sense of place when reading it, because they have so much content, they really can’t dedicate that much real estate within their pages to a single place. They do round-ups, lists, restaurant reviews. There is nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what we wanted.
I said, wouldn’t it be nice if we could give 30 or 40 pages to a single place? So that you knew about the culture, the history, before you visit, and you have a wider context of understanding before you get there. That was our number one goal.
And we are of a generation where the way things look is important, and having a brand identity that filters through all of your images and design was very important to us. Those two things led to Cereal.
The magazine does have a very specific aesthetic and palette. Do you ever worry that makes the places you feature look a bit similar?
We’ve had that conversation many times! It’s a hard question, because I think ultimately, we find the ‘Cereal’ in the places we go, and some places lend themselves much more easily to that aesthetic – any of the Scandinavian cities or countries, it’s super easy and awesome for our photographers.
But if you’re going somewhere like say Marrakech, it’s not as easy to find the serenity at the souk on a hot July afternoon. But that’s what makes it fun. You get there, and you still find elements of everywhere that you go that fits in with the way you look at the world, for better or for worst. Our goal is to show people different places around the world, and to cover as much ground as we can, but to ultimately present it in a Cereal way, because I think that’s what our readers want, and that’s what we enjoy doing the most.
You’ve grown very fast in terms of readership.
I suppose we have. I don’t actually know the numbers of other titles, I only know our own, but for us we have been happy with the rate of our growth, having said that I am very wary of growing too quickly. That is something that has really become at the forefront of my mind this past year. As we grow our circulation and distribution, how do we do it in a way that doesn’t cannibalise the sales of our independent stockists, while being readily available elsewhere? And that has been quite a challenge. But we have grown, and I think we have done it in a way that we are comfortable with.
How many are you selling?
This issue (volume nine) we printed about 27,000 and we’re happy because we are down to our last 100 copies already, which is awesome. For our next print run we’re looking at 30 – 35,000 because we are printing a separate print run for America. America is a very big country obviously, and we feel as if we haven’t maximised our potential there simply because we’re in the UK, and shipping logistics have always been the biggest obstacle for us. We’ve found the solution to that, which is to print specifically for the States, and get it over there, and work with distributors there. I think volume ten will see another big step in growth.
In the context of independent publishing those are big figures. Have you relied on specialist distributors from the beginning to help you manage it?
We didn’t work with a distributor until volume three. I realised I could no longer pack and send every issue from my living room. After that I hired a fulfilment house and a London distribution company who I absolutely love, they’re called MMS, they distribute a lot of the independent titles in London. I worked with them well into the first year, and then I realised I needed more help. It came in increments. We started with an international distribution company starting with volume four. We still do a lot of our distribution in-house. We sell direct to vendors ourselves, but, we do that in tandem with five distribution companies.
Were you surprised by that side of the business?
You don’t really think about all of that stuff… I always say to people when they talk to me about starting a magazine that they should be prepared to spend a hell-of-a-lot-of-time selling, shipping, packaging. You think, oh what stories am I going to make? How am I going to shoot it? Who is going to write it? That’s the best part. But 60-70% of my time is spent on the phone to shipping companies and ordering boxes and figuring out how it’s not going to get damaged. It’s great if you love that side of things but for me it was a challenge, I wasn’t prepared for that.
But you have to sell your mag. A lot of people say independent magazines are a labour of love, which they are, but it’s a business, and when you want to run a legitimate business where you’re paying your contributors, where you’re expensing all your trips around the world as we have to as a travel magazine, you have to sell magazines. In our case, we ended up carrying ads in our second year. That’s what you have to do to be sustainable!
There’s sometimes an assumption that independent magazines don’t carry ads because they’re loftier or higher than that, but actually most of them sell so few copies that advertisers aren’t interested in them.
When we launched, our sales were low and I knew it would be foolish to try to sell ads. I knew the calibre of advertisers that I wanted. We worked on raising our profile and sales to a point where I could go to those advertisers and have something to offer. We waited an entire year before looking at ads. It’s the same as how we approached distribution, you have to take it at your own pace. We wanted ads, but to go from none to 50 would be jarring. We took it in very slow increments. The first issue that had adverts had three adverts, two Rich photographed and designed himself in tandem with the brand, and now we have 15. It’s been slowly growing, with no complaints from our readers.
You clearly had a detailed business plan underpinning all this.
We have overall goals, a list between Rich and myself of what we want to achieve every issue. Rich will always say he doesn’t want the advert which I think is interesting. As a designer he is so concerned with the purity of the magazine that it’s a constant battle between myself and him. I think that’s why we were able to grow at the pace that we did, and then get to this point where we’re very comfortable with the ads and we’ve been able to work with brands that sit well with our aesthetic. It was the balance of both our perspectives that has brought us here now.
Not many independents can boast your sales figures. What is it about your magazine that has made it so successful?
I don’t know. I never really ask myself that. When you’re working on something day in and day out, it’s difficult to take a step back, and look at what you’re doing. I should take myself out of the situation, and figure out what is going on. But for Rich and I it has just been so busy for the past two and a half years since we launched the title, and we have our head down.
I think you have to make a decision as a title, what niche do you occupy on the market? Because then the lines between independent and mainstream gets very blurred once you get to a certain size. Where are you stocked? And where do you want to be stocked? Will you still be stocked in the cool museums and galleries if you’re also found in supermarkets? I’m still figuring that out. I do have a sales figure in mind that I’d like to ultimately hit.
You’re not selling through supermarkets yet are you?
We’ve not taken that step. Yet. But I have looked into it. At the moment the biggest thing that we’ve done in terms of mainstream channels is we’re now available in WHSmith at key train stations and airports in the UK simply because you don’t have independent boutiques in those areas.
We knew that people often buy magazines when they’re travelling, so it seems foolish for us not to be there. Working with WHSmith has been the biggest learning curve of my life. No other vendor that we work with is like them. The fees they charge, the system you have to go through, the cut they take. I’m not openly criticising WHSmith, they are who they are, but for independent publishers it’s very challenging to make that work in tandem with other things that you’ve got going on. Obviously it’s cooler to buy your magazine at Tate Modern than WHSmith, Tate helps creates your brand perception to your readership. I don’t know if it’s always about being cool or being practical as well.
There is obviously an element of being cool.
As an independent title, cool – whatever that might mean to you because it’s obviously fluid – is important. Especially with advertising. Either you’re a niche, independent title with smaller figures but you target influencers, and you’re stocked in these very cool places, or you have huge sales, and you have power by numbers.
When you get stuck in the middle, you’re really neither here nor there. That’s why, in terms of our growth, we’ve slowed it down. Our projections for it were much higher at the beginning but I’ve had to hold it back because I realise that I don’t want to end up in a situation where we’ve grown too fast, and we’ve offended a load of readers and stockists, and we don’t really know where we are anymore.
Cereal has a very clear, identifiable brand identity. That presumably came from your background and your previous work in that area, and must have been a very deliberate part of the project.
Both of us came at it from a very different place, but we ended up at the same point. I worked in fashion and beauty, and you could say that that’s quite a superficial industry, being occupied with how things look. Richard came from an engineering background, and I have never met anyone more meticulous and obsessive. When he decides something, he’s super stubborn.
I would never win a fight against Richard at work. I have a certain sense of aesthetics that I think kind of comes from my parents, they are ultimate minimalists. When my friends come over to my family home they’re like ‘Oh, this is where Cereal comes from!’ One chair, white walls. It all makes sense if you get to know me, and then Richard’s meticulous about planning and designing, he’s about symmetry and muted tones and a very controlled environment.
He’ll never take a photo between sunrise and sunset when people are actually out, because our rule is that there isn’t allowed to be a single person in our photography. That is something that we’re very adamant about. I don’t know if people notice that. That’s the aesthetic that we’ve driven forward. We’re both happy that we have a very recognisable identity which works well for us when people are looking to purchase the magazine. They recognise something, the familiarity keep people coming back.
You have come up with strong, familiar brand, but you have made some significant changes too. With the latest issue you changed the cover design. Is that the result of your own personal decision making, or, are you getting feedback from distributors or buyers?
I work on this title with my partner, we’re a very small team, so things do become personal, even if it’s work. I like to say that we’ve never moved that far from our core, but there have been a lot of iterations within those boundaries. It’s still kind of the same, but there have been semi-significant shifts. Not just in design, but in editorial style and tone and the ground that we cover.
The reason for that is very simple. You have to keep evolving, it’s crazy how fast things are now, the rate at which things change and become trendy or not trendy and the rate at which magazines are launching. To stay relevant you have to constantly push yourself to evolve. Never change what you are about, stay within that framework, but challenge yourself and see what else you can do to make a better product.
That’s one of the joys of making magazines, isn’t it? But that’s easier, perhaps, when you’re a quarterly. Now you’re biannual, those changes are going to be slower.
Going bi-annual was not an easy decision. We had that discussion for a while. But I knew that it had to be done because I also didn’t want to fall into a trap where you feel like you’re churning out issues. Three months may seem like a long time for a reader, but as a producer it’s not. You spend one month in production, another month planning, another month to create a hundred and forty to two hundred pages of content. And two full time employees.
It’s a lot of work, especially when you throw in the travelling. I said to Rich, we have to go biannual, because I don’t understand how we are going to make each issue better than the one before at that pace… so we went biannual and for that very simple reason – we wanted to make the magazine better. We felt we’d be doing a disservice to our title by forcing ourselves to stick to this quarterly schedule.
You must have had people asking, why are you doing a magazine? Why not a website?
Of course, it’s just one of those things that people say to you when you say you’re going to start something printed. That’s also something quite simple for us too. I just like print. It’s not that I don’t like digital, digital is great, and it serves a very different purpose, but print is print and there is something really wonderful about how final print is, when you have it in your hand and you can’t change it. I think digital feels a lot more flexible, it’s not that permanent.
My contributors always want to work on the printed magazine. If I gave them a choice: I have a feature that I would like for you to write, do you want to write it for print? Or for online? Ten out of ten times they will choose the printed version. It just feels more substantial, more permanent.
Cereal does have a website, of course, and with six months between each print issue, the site is going to become a lot more important.
Yes it is. Our web numbers are higher than our print numbers, so we treat the site like a window shop to the world. People may not have even have seen our magazine, but it’s very easy to access our website. For Rich and I it must be an accurate representation of what we do, so that it actually entices people to buy the printed publication. I don’t think that digital is on a different par to print, it’s equally important. But it’s difficult to compare because they are so different. They’re dependent on each other.
Were the guidebooks always part of the plan or were they a natural development?
We knew that the magazine would develop and grow in different ways, but we didn’t know that we would do printed guides. It became very clear, a year after launching, that we needed to do city guides. In the magazine we don’t have a lot of content that tells you what restaurants to go to, or what hotels to stay at like traditional titles. We needed another component that did that. I think with the printed title and our city guide you have a very complete view of a place.
Tell us about your partnerships with brands – do they subsidise the magazine?
It varies. We will work with partners on a project and it’s not financially driven. But obviously we do do consultancy work for brands where we do get paid by the brand to create content for their website and provide them with a service. That other stuff isn’t necessarily linked to Cereal at all, it’s very separate. But the partnerships that I’ve pointed out are just that. It’s collaborating with the brands to do something fun.
You’re making things together as partners, but other times using your expertise in content and design, and selling that as a service to client.
You talked about the difference, or the perceived difference, between independent magazines and mainstream magazines. Where do you think you sit at the moment given your sales numbers? Do think of yourself as a small, independent magazine?
Very much so. We’re still a tiny independent magazine. Rich and I are the only full-time employees of Cereal. We have two part-time employees, one doing ads, one doing sales. We’re looking to hire one more part-time person to be part of our team. It’s a really, really small team. So I think we’re still very much independent.
Do you look at a lot of other independent magazines?
Yes I do. I read magazines all the time, so many, very different ones as well. Magazines that maybe people wouldn’t think that I read. People make the assumption that if you work in independent magazines then by default you must read a lot of independent magazines. I don’t know if that is necessarily true. I do read some magazines, but I predominately read mainstream titles.
But looking at the independent scene, are there ones that you admire? If you go into a shop and you see the indie mags, who would you like to be next to?
Oh wow. I’ve never really thought about that. The independent magazines that I greatly admire – I love The Gentlewoman, I think it’s very intelligent content, I love Fantastic Man. I’m a big fan of Inventory. Port does what it does very well. Lots of menswear magazines, oddly. I guess I have a masculine taste. I really like Apartamento, I mean it is a world apart from our aesthetic, but I still appreciate it and I still respect it, I think that they do what they do extremely well. Those are the independent titles that I really love.
Do you see the indie scene continuing to grow?
Somebody asked me that the other day, and I think, if you go to WHSmith, let’s use that as an example, and you look at all the mainstream titles that exist, I mean, there are so many. I don’t know how many they have, but when I met with their rep, they said that their Selfridges store has over 500 titles. Mostly mainstream, and some independent. That is perhaps the direction that independent magazines are headed in, to have as much variety and breadth as glossies.
Do you worry, or are you conscious that some of the independent magazines are beginning to look like each other?
I think it’s inevitable. In every industry you have trends and within that trend things that come about that seem very similar when you’re skimming the industry. I don’t think that you can let that effect you or bother you too much, it’s just how every industry is. You have to do what you do to the best of your abilities, and hope that people like it.
In a sense it is a sign of a successful industry.
Absolutely. Every time I go into a store and see the many independent magazines, it’s very reassuring, this is a market that is thriving and growing and it is very much in demand. I can’t complain.
This 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 Rosa by Ian Pierce.