Start the Presses: The survival of print
Publisher of Guts magazine Roisin Agnew speaks to Cáitríona Murphy about producing an independent print magazine
The cover of issue 5 of Guts magazine.
Print media may be dying but some independent publications refuse to go online without a fight. One such magazine is Guts magazine. With a focus on long-form storytelling and quality design, Guts magazine has provided members of the Dublin literary scene with a platform to get their ideas down on paper.
One of the benefits of online journalism is that journalism has become more accessible, not only to consumers but also to the creators. Anyone with something to say can start a blog and write to their heart’s content. It is from this blogging culture that Guts magazine was born. They are a “collectible bimonthly magazine of confessional writing and personal essays, which has used the blogging culture and applied it to a print format,” says Roisin Agnew, the publisher of Guts magazine.
Needless to say if Roisin wanted this magazine to get printed they needed money and with no wealthy suitor for Guts in sight they decided to crowdfund: “Kickstarter had just moved to Ireland and because we were one of the first Irish Kickstarter campaigns we reached out and asked if they wanted to help us,” Roisin says.
With Guts being a completely new business and Kickstarter being new to the Irish market Roisin suggested to Kickstarter that they could work together and promote each other. Kickstarter was not interested, initially. No harm no foul, Guts continued with their campaign.
“I’m not too sure if it’s because we reached out or because we were one of the first Kickstarter campaigns in Ireland, but then they ended up putting us on their Staff Picks blog which is a newsletter which goes out to millions of people about campaigns that they like, and that definitely helped,” Roisin said.
So after reaching their modest target of €3,000 in four days and just over €5,000 in 28 days they were ready to start printing and this was the extent of the magazine’s economic model as Roisin says: “Each issue costs almost €2,000 and that is just printing so the Kickstarter allowed us to pay for the first three issues which meant that we didn’t have to worry about money for at least six months.”
After the initial six months Guts relied upon the magazine sales and money that they made at their events to cover their costs going forward.
However, these costs were only able to cover the printing alone, as confessional writing is not the only aspect of blogging that Guts has inherited - Guts does not create a lot of revenue and it does not pay its writers.
The fact that Guts is such a niche magazine gave it life with it’s initial followers but has also made it unprofitable, as Roisin outlines: “the only way you could realistically pay everyone would be if you had an actual commercial set up, but we stopped looking for ads because when you're doing this kind of indie magazine with such a small patronage you're doing it as a passion project.”
And print is what Roisin is passionate about, so this aspect of the production was non-negotiable as she says: “you get a sense of what vision of life is being proposed when you have a print product which you don't as much in a blog.
“There was just an over saturation of blogs and we wanted to do something different, something striking, something beautiful.”
However it is undeniable that there is no avoiding the necessity of having a social media presence. And even though Guts survived the first year of production without a Facebook or Instagram account, Guts eventually gave in and joined the online world, and became one of the many voices eager for people to see their product. And after a few months of shameless self-promotion “you can stop pushing so hard because finally it got a momentum of its own and a little bit of a fan base, so it just kind of carries itself now and you don't need to ask people to share and retweet as much,” Roisin says.
Although Guts is inarguably a niche product they are part of the indie magazine scene that has emerged in Dublin over the past few years, and in that community Roisin has found support online, “there's a whole network of people who promote each other, that's just what Dublin is like.
“You have to swallow your pride a bit and ask people to support you and do you favours and push things for you because maybe it's not happening organically,” she says.
In this way Guts has been able to increase their readership, increase their sales and get the word out about the events that they organise for each issue launch.
Using the social and cultural capital of the people who Roisin recruited to help make and promote the magazine Guts has survived two years in the market.
From the beginning the people who have been published in Guts are people who are already established in the creative industry. Names such as Nialler9, Neil Watkins, Maeve Higgins, Ana Kinsella, Sarah Griffin and Alison Spittle all feature in the magazine and already have a high profile or one that is growing. Roisin says that having high profile people has been important but the reason she wanted these kinds of voices in Guts is because she “wanted to reflect what was happening in Dublin, and for Guts to be a cornerstone of the last few years of Dublin life through their stories.”
However the question remains can a niche product really last? The answer is of course, no. Not in the manner in which they began. But they can adapt to survive. For Guts that entails launching one last issue, and then launching more when they see fit or when there is money available: “the format I am looking at now going forward is doing special editions of guts for different things that appeal to guts and fall in line with our aesthetic,” Roisin says.
Similar to the edition Guts did for the Bram Stoker festival she says “we plan to create an issue for International women's day in March, and hopefully we can apply for a few festival grants and cover the festivals using themes that appeal to us.”
Roisin talks about using the idea of risk and relating it to festivals which allows Guts to discuss a theme that interests them and is a relevant to Irish society but still allows them acquire money to produce a print product, as organisations such as the Arts Council and Fáilte Ireland provide festival grants for such projects.
Lastly, the notion of going full-throttle in the commercial magazine market was mentioned by Roisin but “that idea is only half-boiled,” she said.
In the highly competitive media market the business models of these kind of independent publications needs to be adaptable, and they need to be willing to go where the money is; whether that is in grants or advertising or like with Guts’ original model in the pocket of the fans.
Print is making a comeback in the creative scene and other magazines have emerged since Guts began, including District magazine, We Are Dublin and Frank Magazine. While it may not have been profitable for Guts and it may not have been sustainable they have proven that it is possible with the right people behind it and the willingness to adapt.