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The Mr. Magazine™ interview: Samir Husni speaks with Jeremy Leslie, owner and curator, Mag Culture

“I’ve always had a fundamental belief in it (print), but what encourages me to continue that deep belief is the wave after wave of new magazines with fantastic ideas and fantastic values; just the good stuff that’s being made is what continues to inspire and excite me.” Jeremy Leslie, owner and curator, Mag Culture

 

Mr. Magazine Interview ()

 

Jeremy Leslie is an author, a creative director, a designer, blogger, and owner of the London-based, brick and mortar shop, Mag Culture. Jeremy has 30 years of experience in magazine making. He has been art director for weeklies and monthlies and spent the nineties developing magazines for clients as diverse as BSkyB, Nike, Virgin Atlantic and Waitrose. He has written four books about editorial design and launched Mag Culture as a blog in 2006, adding the design studio in 2010, and shop in 2016. He is a man who believes in print and in the beauty and power of magazines.

Since 2013, Jeremy has hosted ModMag, an annual event in London, which brings together a group of magazine-making talent from the UK, the United States and across Europe. It is organised and moderated by Jeremy himself and this year he is bringing the highly successful conference to New York.

I spoke with Jeremy via Skype recently and we talked about the ModMag event which will be held on May 30th at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. This is the first time ever the event is being brought to the states, even though Jeremy said he’d been thinking about an NYC gathering for quite some time. For the two weeks leading up to ModMag, there will be a preview of the event as Mag Culture is launching, in collaboration with Vitsoe, a British furniture company, a pop-up venture that will bring about 100 magazines from Jeremy’s London shop to a temporary shop in Manhattan, allowing people to meet and greet local magazine-makers and commentators.

It should prove to be a very successful event and one that Jeremy hopes will be repeated many years to come in New York. So, I hope that you enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ conversation with a man who is as Print Proud as yours truly, but remains Digitally Smart as well, recognising how important technology is in today’s magazine and business world.

And now, Jeremy Leslie.

 

Jeremy Leslie ()

 

But first the sound-bites

On his take of the state of magazine media in 2018: I think there is this sort of curious paradox of the situation where, on the one hand, there are very major business challenges for the industry, and yet at the same time, it’s a hugely creative and innovative time for the industry. That would be my underlying story of where we are. Because of the business challenges the creative side of the industry has stepped up and has the opportunity to try things in a way that they haven’t had for quite some time. So, you see lots of experiments, lots of self-publishing; lots of projects where, frankly, the financial and business aspect is set aside and they’re concentrating on making lovely things, which is healthy for the industry, in terms of being inspirational.

On his definition of the word content today: I think, certainly, everything we do at Mag Culture is editorially considered, so in a sense, even the shop and the conference, all of these things are carefully planned and curated, if you like, so there’s an editorial point of view applied to that. So, it is all content, but it’s content in the best sense. It’s not just stuff that we’re pouring in; it’s the best content. We need a better word.

On what continues his belief in the power of print: I’ve always had a fundamental belief in it, but what encourages me to continue that deep belief is the wave after wave of new magazines with fantastic ideas and fantastic values; just the good stuff that’s being made is what continues to inspire and excite me. After quite a few years of work, we have established ourselves, and Mag Culture, as a lightening conductor for people who are doing interesting work in the magazine area. And it keeps coming; we don’t have to search for it.

On why he thinks magazines are continuously being made and shared all over the world: I think there are multiple reasons. Essentially, I believe there’s a difference between what people expect and what actually happens. And I think what many people in our industry expected and many foresaw, and they were wrong, was that digital would completely overtake print. One of the reasons that I started moving into the events and conferences was that I was tired of going to conferences, and yours is an exception to this, I was tired of going to publishing conferences and being faced with tech geeks telling me that everything was going to be on the robot plan. And I have my phone; I live on it; I need it; I wouldn’t be able to run my business without it. I’m not in denial about its role and its importance, but the idea that would sweep everything before it away and destroy print was always absurd in my view. And I think that’s now beginning to be established as the case.

On his most pleasant surprise since taking Mag Culture worldwide: The most pleasant surprise is the thing that contradicted perhaps what many people’s expectations were. And that is both here in London and when I travel, when I’m speaking at someone else’s conference or doing something myself abroad, the people you meet who are interested in and who are making magazines or who are interested in buying the magazines, are everyone. They’re not just art students or hipsters; they’re not a single type of person, they’re young people and old people and middle people, women and men; people of different backgrounds; it’s just a universal thing. People love it when they get the chance to see it.

On having an actual physical store where he sells magazines: One of the great things about having a physical space and having a shop that’s in the same space as my studio, is that I’m here all of the time, even though I’m not in the store all of the time. I get to meet a lot of people who come by to drop off their magazines themselves, so I get to meet a lot of the people making the magazines and I find out what their orientation and their reason for doing it is, and that’s always interesting.

On what has been the biggest stumbling block he’s had to face: The hardest part of the whole business remains the fact that one magazine is really easy to pick up and enjoy, and that’s part of the joy of the magazine, they’re made for your hands. But as soon as you put 20 of them in a box, they’re very difficult to handle. (Laughs) So, the biggest stumbling block is the distribution and logistics around the business. I think a lot of the young publishers making independent magazines are being very intelligent about how they are reinventing the making of magazines. And I think on our end, myself and other people are looking at how the retail side of it works.

On the genesis of the ModMag conference idea and why he decided to bring it New York later this month: We did the first ModMag, it was called The Modern Magazine then, which was named for my book of the same name. So, that was in 2013, and we’ve done five of them now. I published my book, The Modern magazine, and I wanted to mark its publication, so I planned maybe an evening with a panel discussion. And that developed very quickly and it became a whole day, because the book contained interviews with various leading lights in the industry, and when I spoke to some of them about how they might be involved, it quickly became clear that everybody wanted to be involved. So, we did the whole day event. And that was mainly to launch the book. But it was successful enough that everybody said that I had to do it again the following year. And we did. And now we’ve done five years and it has grown and moved to a bigger venue. I came to realise that there are two big publishing cities in the English language publishing world and one is my city, London, and the other is New York. I had had the ambition to launch New York for some time. And it suddenly happened very fast.

On what he would hope to say about the New York conference a month from now after it’s over: We’ve done five in London, so I would like to think – I mean, it is the first time and I realise it’s an unknown quantity for a lot of people who might be thinking about attending, but what I would hope to be able to tell you in June, say to you is that the response was good enough that we’re going to do it again next year. That’s what I hope.

On whether in five years he believes that we’ll still be celebrating the power of print: I believe so. I think as an industry we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that we got to the stage where there were too many magazines. There were just too many magazines, too many, too often, too alike, too familiar. I think we’re optimistic about the near future, in terms of we’ll see a return to better quality, better made things, there might be less magazines, but the magazines that remain will be better made and better produced, less wasteful of resources, and more desirable and will have a far deeper relationship with their readers.

On anything he’d like to add: Yes, just one thing I’d like to highlight. The ModMag takes place all day on May 30th, but in the two weeks running up to that, we have a collaboration with our friends at Vitsoe, where we are bringing about 100 of our magazines from the London shop and we’ll have a shop in Manhattan. And we’re calling this collaboration “Mag, Mag, Mag.” And alongside the shop we will have a programme of smaller events, which will be free for people to come in and meet one or two people from local magazines, some of the local independents, and some local commentators. So, there’s a two week run up to the event. And that starts on the 15th of May and ends on the 29th.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: To clear my mind I swim regularly, watch soccer and read. But true unwinding means with my wife Lesley, our sons are home from University, and we’ re playing cards and working our way through a bottle of wine.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: That I love magazines.

On what keeps him up at night: (Laughs) Managing the cash flow. It actually does; the economics of the magazine shop are very complicated. It’s very worrisome.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Jeremy Leslie, owner and editor of Mag Culture.

 

Mag Culture shop 2 ()

 

You’re much more than just a creative director; give me the Jeremy Leslie state of magazine media in 2018 from your point of view.

I think there is this sort of curious paradox of the situation where, on the one hand, there are very major business challenges for the industry, and yet at the same time, it’s a hugely creative and innovative time for the industry. That would be my underlying story of where we are. Because of the business challenges the creative side of the industry has stepped up and has the opportunity to try things in a way that they haven’t had for quite some time. So, you see lots of experiments, lots of self-publishing; lots of projects where, frankly, the financial and business aspect is set aside and they’re concentrating on making lovely things, which is healthy for the industry, in terms of being inspirational.

In that last statement, I talked about the business challenges that face the magazine industry, but it’s not just the magazine industry, it’s actually the publishing and content industry as a whole that faces one fundamental challenge, and that is will people pay for content, that’s the challenge. And I think we’re beginning to see now that people are willing to pay.

The content wants to be free, that was always the idea behind the Internet. The information, the content wants to be free and it will be free, but it might not be very good content that’s free. So, people are beginning to realise and are getting used to the idea of subscribing and paying for a Netflix or The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other subscription vehicles. And this will filter down.

The overall business and finance of publishing and making things online or in print will never be even, it will always go up and down, up and down, but I think we’re about to see an up, as quality sees through and people begin to realise and accept that they need to pay if they want good stuff.

As I talk with magazine editors, publishers and designers, even the definition of the word content has changed. How do you define content? Here you are, someone who’s sole job in the beginning was as a creative director, then you became a watcher of the industry; and then you opened a shop; Mag Culture is all over the place. Is that still content? Is the brick and mortar store; your commentary on the industry; the conferences that you’re doing; is that still considered content in this day and age?

I think it is, yes. I use the word content all of the time, and I’ve just repeated it about 20 times in my last sentence. But I’m not comfortable with the word. I think the word content is slightly dismissive and slightly undervalues it by its very nature. It sort of implies that there’s a space that needs to be filled and you pour it in, or shovel it in, that’s my issue with the word content, but I’m not sure we have a better word as of yet.

I think, certainly, everything we do at Mag Culture is editorially considered, so in a sense, even the shop and the conference, all of these things are carefully planned and curated, if you like, so there’s an editorial point of view applied to that. So, it is all content, but it’s content in the best sense. It’s not just stuff that we’re pouring in; it’s the best content. We need a better word.

You have been a driving force, even through the shop, of bringing in all of these new talents, bringing in all of these new magazines. What continues your belief in the power of print in this digital age?

I’ve always had a fundamental belief in it, but what encourages me to continue that deep belief is the wave after wave of new magazines with fantastic ideas and fantastic values; just the good stuff that’s being made is what continues to inspire and excite me. After quite a few years of work, we have established ourselves, and Mag Culture, as a lightening conductor for people who are doing interesting work in the magazine area. And it keeps coming; we don’t have to search for it.

There’s all sorts of great magazines being made and interesting digital projects, exciting things going on, not just here in London, not just in your country, New York, the big cities, but from all over the world. There are people who really love and want to make magazines and want to share them. It’s an international phenomenon.

Why do you think that’s happening?

think there are multiple reasons. Essentially, I believe there’s a difference between what people expect and what actually happens. And I think what many people in our industry expected and many foresaw, and they were wrong, was that digital would completely overtake print. One of the reasons that I started moving into the events and conferences was that I was tired of going to conferences, and yours is an exception to this, I was tired of going to publishing conferences and being faced with tech geeks telling me that everything was going to be on the robot plan. And I have my phone; I live on it; I need it; I wouldn’t be able to run my business without it. I’m not in denial about its role and its importance, but the idea that would sweep everything before it away and destroy print was always absurd in my view. And I think that’s now beginning to be established as the case.

Of course, some areas are very affected by the free access online to mobile content. News and immediate headlines, things like that, print can’t compete on that level. But I think people are beginning to realise that there’s a place for both. That you can be waiting for a train and have your phone and then when you actually get in and sit down you can have the magazine. You use both. And I think people are realising that sometimes they want to get away from screens, they want time away from the big screens we’re looking at now or the little screens that we have in our pocket. They want to get away from that and have an uninterrupted run at some content that they’re enjoying, some reading, some great articles, some great pictures. And just lose themselves and rest in a way that you can’t with digital screens.

What has been the most pleasant surprise that you’ve had since you opened the shop, since you took Mag Culture, sort of worldwide, in terms of conferences and events?

The most pleasant surprise is the thing that contradicted perhaps what many people’s expectations were. And that is both here in London and when I travel, when I’m speaking at someone else’s conference or doing something myself abroad, the people you meet who are interested in and who are making magazines or who are interested in buying the magazines, are everyone. They’re not just art students or hipsters; they’re not a single type of person, they’re young people and old people and middle people, women and men; people of different backgrounds; it’s just a universal thing. People love it when they get the chance to see it.

 

Mag Culture shop ()

 

Having a physical store, do you ever watch people coming into your store? Do you ever ask them why did you buy this magazine or that magazine? Or do you just watch?

I just sort of watch. One of the great things about having a physical space and having a shop that’s in the same space as my studio, is that I’m here all of the time, even though I’m not in the store all of the time. I get to meet a lot of people who come by to drop off their magazines themselves, so I get to meet a lot of the people making the magazines and I find out what their orientation and their reason for doing it is, and that’s always interesting.

And then watching people. People come in and get the idea behind the shop, that it’s a space that shows off the magazines with as much care as the magazines show themselves off. So, it’s peaceful and gallery-like and people are encouraged to come in and browse and look and sit down. There are chairs, people can sit down and read, make a decision in their own time. And that’s my favorite thing, that people come in and spend an hour looking at everything. And then they’ll go and pick three or four magazines and you know that they’ve really thought with care and have decided that they really want those particular magazines.

Especially with the cover prices.

These are not cheap magazines, these are things that you’re buying to enjoy and value and appreciate for time.

What has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

The hardest part of the whole business remains the fact that one magazine is really easy to pick up and enjoy, and that’s part of the joy of the magazine, they’re made for your hands. But as soon as you put 20 of them in a box, they’re very difficult to handle. (Laughs) So, the biggest stumbling block is the distribution and logistics around the business. I think a lot of the young publishers making independent magazines are being very intelligent about how they are reinventing the making of magazines. And I think on our end, myself and other people are looking at how the retail side of it works.

And we work with some very able and enthusiastic and optimistic people on the distribution side, but that distribution side is the hardest part of the business and it remains really difficult. It’s very slow and cumbersome, and it’s a broken part of the industry that somebody needs to take a really good look at. In Europe it’s bad, but I suspect in America it’s even worse, because of the scale of the country.

One of your solutions was doing the physical shop. The other solution is you started the ModMag conferences. Tell me about the genesis of that idea and why you decided to bring it to New York later in May?

We did the first ModMag, it was called The Modern Magazine then, which was named for my book of the same name. So, that was in 2013, and we’ve done five of them now. I published my book, The Modern magazine, and I wanted to mark its publication, so I planned maybe an evening with a panel discussion. And that developed very quickly and it became a whole day, because the book contained interviews with various leading lights in the industry, and when I spoke to some of them about how they might be involved, it quickly became clear that everybody wanted to be involved. So, we did the whole day event. And that was mainly to launch the book.

But it was successful enough that everybody said that I had to do it again the following year. And we did. And now we’ve done five years and it has grown and moved to a bigger venue. It has become established as a “thing.” And as I mentioned earlier, it was also partially in reaction to so many conferences where everybody stood up and said forget about print and make everything mobile.

So, whilst we’re celebrating and promoting the idea of print, at every event we make sure that we have someone involved in digital as well, because I always like to be very clear about this, I couldn’t run my business, none of these magazines that we’re supporting could run their business, without the Internet. It’s integral to any new business, any startup business. You have to have a web presence and be using social media, these are all absolutely vital parts of the magazine process.

From the very first ModMag day, we had Richard Turley, British designer and much-awarded former creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, backstage. He came over to speak. Each year, we’ve had an American speaker, and I came to realise that there are two big publishing cities in the English language publishing world and one is my city, London, and the other is New York. I had had the ambition to launch New York for some time. And it suddenly happened very fast. I was talking to a couple of people and I have worked in New York before and I have quite a few contacts there. And I’ve been involved with judging SPD (Society of Publication Designers) awards and the like. I’ve spoken at your conference, and I’m aware from our figures that our second biggest audience beyond London and the U.K. is New York on the website.

So, it suddenly fell into place that we had the opportunity to work with Parsons School of Design and then AIGA (the professional association for design), their New York Chapter was very keen to support, so the three of us came together to collaborate on doing ModMag. And kind of do the same with New York speakers, with one or two from other countries to maintain that international aspect.

 

ModMag logo ()

 

What’s your expectations? If you and I are talking again in June and I ask you about the New York ModMag event, what would you hope to tell me then?

We’ve done five in London, so I would like to think – I mean, it is the first time and I realise it’s an unknown quantity for a lot of people who might be thinking about attending, but what I would hope to be able to tell you in June, say to you is that the response was good enough that we’re going to do it again next year. That’s what I hope.

One of the things that always works well and happens in London every year is that we get a lot of people who work in the industry in the audience and we have our guest speakers, and during the day everyone mixes, it’s a very social and open; it’s very much a celebration of the industry you work in. So, I want people to go away feeling inspired and saying “do it again.” (Laughs)

As you look from your position, seeing that you’re not only an author, you’re also a creative director, designer, shop owner, conference leader, what do you see in your crystal ball? If you and I are sitting and talking five years from now, are we going to be celebrating and burying everything the naysayers believed about print, that it’s dead?

I believe so. I think as an industry we have to be honest with ourselves and accept that we got to the stage where there were too many magazines. There were just too many magazines, too many, too often, too alike, too familiar.

There was a very interesting piece on the Nieman Lab website recently, talking about how the 1960s, 1970s huge, appetite-led revolution in newspapers was really a small phase in history, and in that period and for those who lived through it, it felt like that was how it had always been. But it had not always been like that. The industry is forever shifting and changing and adapting to new technology, by which I don’t mean digital technology, better and faster printing; all the way back to the beginning of magazines, it’s all been about what technology is available for their production. With the introduction of the half-tone, and the introduction of colour, etc.; all of these things have shifted the way the business and the industry works.

And so it will always be. It will always have to react to everything else that’s around it. So, it can’t always be up at the top, a huge, booming business. We’ve come off the back of a huge boon at the end of the previous century and now I think we’re just sort of bottoming out, coming out. I think we’re optimistic about the near future, in terms of we’ll see a return to better quality, better made things, there might be less magazines, but the magazines that remain will be better made and better produced, less wasteful of resources, and more desirable and will have a far deeper relationship with their readers.

I remind people all of the time that paper is a good technology. With all of the tablets, everybody wanted to be like paper, and I wondered why do they want to create something like something I already have.

Exactly. We know our hearts are in exactly the same place and it’s what you just articulated. I always say that I lived through the promise of the iPad and the tablet, and there are one or two cases where it still has a valid role to play; for certain publications it’s very useful. But essentially, I sat through lots of technology meetings where I just always felt in my heart of hearts, if somebody walked in with this new technology called “magazine” and put it down in front of them, everybody would say “Yes!”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeremy Leslie: Yes, just one thing I’d like to highlight. The ModMag takes place all day on May 30th, but in the two weeks running up to that, we have a collaboration with our friends at Vitsoe, where we are bringing about 100 of our magazines from the London shop and we’ll have a shop in Manhattan. And we’re calling this collaboration “Mag, Mag, Mag.” And alongside the shop we will have a programme of smaller events, which will be free for people to come in and meet one or two people from local magazines, some of the local independents, and some local commentators. So, there’s a two week run up to the event. And that starts on the 15th of May and ends on the 29th. And then on the 30th of May we have the conference.

 

mag mag mag NYC ()

 

If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else? How do you unwind?

Jeremy Leslie: To clear my mind I swim regularly, watch soccer and read. But true unwinding means with my wife Lesley, our sons are home from University, and we’ re playing cards and working our way through a bottle of wine.

If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

That I love magazines.

My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

(Laughs) Managing the cash flow. It actually does; the economics of the magazine shop are very complicated. It’s very worrisome.

Thank you.

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