Interview with Helen Gilchrist editor and publisher of Stranger Magazine

How did the concept for Stranger Magazine come about?

I’d been working as a freelance journalist in London for around 3 years, and had loads of ideas for articles that didn’t really fit into any existing publications. Also, I couldn’t find many magazines on the shelves that I enjoyed reading: they all seemed to be pigeonholed into either stereotypical male or female interests, or all about city life, shopping, style and consumption. The idea for Stranger came out of wanting to combine my and my friends/ contemporaries’ interests into one publication: lifestyle, music, surf, the environment, current affairs, film, graphics etc. The lifestyle in Cornwall, where I grew up, was the key inspiration and influence for the editorial ideas – I thought it would be good to create a publication that didn’t just revolve around the nation’s capital, something that people in Cornwall and other regional areas would identify with. Last but by no means least, I wanted to move back to Cornwall and live by the sea!
What were you doing before you started the publication?

I was a freelance journalist working for Time Out, The Independent, The Observer, and various contract publishers, as well as being contributing editor at Adrenalin magazine.

How hard was it to get this project off the ground?

Very! It’s a highly competitive and volatile market, my knowledge of publishing was incredibly limited (I was an English graduate with a background in editorial), I had no financial capital or ‘war chest’ to launch the magazine with, and I was pretty much on my own (although I had lots of friends helping with the editorial, I had to manage the financial and publishing side myself).

What are the most important key areas you need to look at before you try and start a publication?

Advertising, distribution, marketing & promotion, accounting… these are all absolutely critical. Editorial is the easy part. Most people, including me, starting independent magazines get wrapped up in the excitement of their creative ideas, and don’t give the business side enough attention. But unless you give these other areas the attention they need, you won’t get past the second or third issue. In hindsight, I could have avoided a lot of stress and saved a lot of money if I’d realised this earlier on.

You have a hectic schedule as Editor and Publisher of the magazine, what is a typical day like for you in the office?

I normally get in around 8.30am, to try and answer some emails (I receive around 300 a day) and see to other bits and pieces before everyone else gets in and the phone starts ringing. Lotte (assistant publisher/ advertising director), Lauren (marketing and online advertising manager), Luke (deputy editor) and I have a quick team meeting at 10 to go over what we’re all doing each day. I normally spend my days liaising with freelance writers, illustrators and photographers; editing copy and layouts for magazine production; allocating stories and reviews for our website to our writers; discussing advertising sales with Lotte and Lauren; dealing with business enquiries/ proposals for partnerships etc; planning events and other promotional activities with Lauren; and managing Stranger Collective (the copywriting and creative services arm of the business). I’m out the door around 6.30pm on a good day – it can be as late as midnight when we’re on deadline though. Don’t get into this business unless you’re prepared to work your ass off!

What do you look for when you looking for contributors like writers, journalists, photographers etc. and do you have in house or do you use freelance staff?

The main thing is focus and a good knowledge of the magazine. I get emails from people just saying they want to be a writer and they love Stranger, but unfortunately that doesn’t really help. I’m looking for a strong idea that would fit in well with the magazine’s editorial (When is the next publication date? Who are our readers? What have we covered in past features? What’s the geographical balance? Average article length? Where would it fit in the magazine? Editorial voice?) If someone sends me a short email summarizing a good idea (I don’t have time to read unsolicited articles – 90% of our editorial is commissioned after a discussion about the best way to write it/ angle for the feature), I’m likely to look into it more. I’ll always be considering how it would work visually too – people who approach me with a feature idea along with a visual suggestion/ quality photographs to go with it are my favourite! We are always looking for new freelance contributors as we don’t have time to do it all ourselves, but everyone at Stranger contributes to the editorial in some way, even if it’s not their main job. Luke, Lotte and I write some features, and everyone writes music reviews. We also have five contributing editors – freelancers who have been contributing to Stranger for some time and have helped build the Stranger voice.

Is it possible to start a publication by yourself or do you need a team of people around you to make it work?

Well, I did it by myself but it was incredibly difficult, and I often wished I had had someone to share the burden with. I have a fantastic team around me now, but if I’d had the resources to have them from the very beginning, things would have been 100 times easier and the magazine would have grown much quicker. You also have to be prepared for the fact that you have to pay everyone, and if there isn’t enough money left in the pot for you, hard luck!

A publication isn’t just about its content as marketing is equally important. How competitive is the publication market at the moment?

It’s very competitive indeed. Print advertising revenues are generally in decline across the industry, and there are a huge number of magazines targeting the same companies’ marketing spend. You have to be dedicated, resourceful and hard-nosed to survive – as an independent, you’ll often be competing against publications with two or three times your manpower and money. It also helps if you can diversify – events, merchandise, partnerships etc can all help to bring money in.

How hard is it to get a publication in to national chain stores like Borders which many of their branches stock Stranger magazine?

It’s difficult, because most national chain stores only deal with a handful of recognized distribution companies. So you have to get a distributor onboard before you can even consider it, which also takes a lot of time and negotiation. It took us about a year to secure the Borders deal.

Has the rise of the internet helped or hindered the publication industry?

It’s quite early to tell the longterm effects. Although print advertising budgets seem to be down, the internet is a brilliant way of reaching new audiences. We relaunched our website in January this year, and it’s worked brilliantly in conjunction with the magazine. Our website reaches much bigger audiences than the magazine (around 40,000 unique users a month, with 30% of them outside the UK), but it seems that a fair few of our regular website users go on to subscribe to the print version. Stranger’s graphics and illustration appeal to print and magazine obsessives, who will always relish the texture and smell of a real, freshly-printed magazine in their hands.

How hard is it to make a profit or a living in the publication industry?

If you’re doing an independent publication, pretty damn hard I’m afraid! I’ve got a few friends who have set up their own mags too, and everyone is just about scraping by, or doing other work on the side to pay the bills. If you’re in it for the money, you might want to think again! But non-financial rewards/ perks can be great, you get to work with some really inspiring people, and the satisfaction of seeing your finished product on the shelves after all that hard work is brilliant.

What advice would you give anybody interested in either working for a publication or wanting to set one up?

You need to be 100% committed, prepared for a tricky ride, and make sure you research all aspects of your idea thoroughly before committing any money/ signing up to loans etc. However, don’t give up – when things come together, it can be the most exciting job in the world!