After six years of writing about the future of journalism I wanted to try something new. Not just write about something new, but publish in a new way. The ambitious aim: to build an unexpectedly in-depth magazine, about a topic I only knew a little about, and hopefully make some money. You know, no biggy.
The result is four issues of Inside the Story Magazine, a web-native quarterly about the process and techniques of telling non-fiction narratives that come alive on the web. In an industry where everyone calls themselves a storyteller I found very few actually talking about how it's done. On a crowded web, you need to be telling remarkable stories.On a crowded web, you need to be telling remarkable storiesAdam Westbrook
A year on I've been doing a lot of reflecting on what worked and what didn't. My conclusion is that running a micropublishing business – a one-person operation that thinks in a microbusiness way – is hugely rewarding and one of the great privileges of this chaotic digital age. I am astounded more journalists – especially young ones – are not all over it. How rewarding? Don't worry, I'm going to be fully honest about numbers.
Embracing the slow web
I could have just blogged about how great non-fiction storytelling works, openly and for free, but my decision to publish a magazine was intentional. In a world where blog posts are scribbled off in 20 minutes and skimmed over by readers in 20 seconds, I wanted to write something that stuck.
I wanted to spend weeks researching essays, designing bespoke illustrations and scouring lost books. The result, I think, is a magazine made with love that demands your attention. I begin each issue suggesting the reader clears an hour from their schedule, switches off their 3G and pours a coffee. It's an antidote to listicles and fast-moving information, and has defined other slow-web publications, like Aeon, too.
It's also designed to be made of and for the web. Inspired by Craig Mod's well-read essay on Subcompact Publishing, I asked what does a magazine made for a browser look like? The result is something deceptively simple: one column, no adverts, just two typefaces and two colours throughout. Each issue has between six and 10 long-form articles, which are either essays, interviews or masterclasses. Everything else is stripped away.
- Aim for simplicity
- But don't do it alone
- Be available
- Being small means changing fast
The paywall dilemma
What you really want to know is how much money I made. At the time of writing, I have sold access to the magazines to 359 people, making just shy of £3,500 in revenues. Depending on how you look at it, it's either pretty embarrassing or pretty excellent. When I talked about Inside the Story Magazine at news:rewired in April, opinion was towards the former (I was sandwiched in-between two hyperlocal businesses making more than that a week).
I'm going to try and convince you otherwise. It only cost about £600 to produce in total, and all the revenue comes to me. Again, the crowd at news:rewired weren't convinced this was worth the 150 plus hours it takes to produce each issue. I disagree. £3,500 is great for a first year of a business.We describe the paywall as, well a wall, but actually it acts more like a cage, trapping ideas inside where they can chirp, but they can't flyAdam Westbrook
It's given me the chance to interview some of the best non-fiction storytellers working today and study the craft in a way that few are able to. Most importantly, I've been able to bring 360 people along for the ride and, I hope, make a difference to their work.
Revenue of £3,500 buys me the chance to do it again, and better, if I want. But the test for me from the start was not money, but connection. Would the magazine start a conversation? Would people write and tweet about what they learned from its pages? Would people complain about it? The disappointment, after one year, is that none of those things have really happened.
We describe the paywall as, well a wall, but actually it acts more like a cage, trapping ideas inside where they can chirp, but they can't fly. This isn't unique to me. Marco Arment, founder of IOS publication The Magazine found it limited conversation; meanwhile Matter has just opened its doors fully after a year of paid-for publishing.
When something isn't working, micropublishing affords you the chance to tear it up and start again. Inside the Story Magazine will remain online, at least for another year, and now I'm developing new ways to share the idea.
Finally, although 359 readers isn't many by today's standards, I am grateful for every single one of them, and at the same time, extremely proud of what I've made. Committing to tangible quality is a slow burner but ultimately a race to the top.
Adam Westbrook is a digital producer and publisher. He tweets from @AdamWestbrook