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On Creating A Magazine “Well Worth Holding In Your Hands”: The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Steve and Debbee Pezman, Founders of The Surfer’s Journal

March 2, 2011

Would you believe it if someone told you that 20 years ago, a new magazine was launched with a cover price of $12.95. Yes, you’ve read that right: almost $13 for a single issue. The cost of this one issue was more than what other magazines sold their annual subscriptions in those days (and sadly for the majority of magazines, in these days too).

“Selling magazine subscriptions” became the goal of the founders of the aforementioned magazine, The Surfer’s Journal “rather than selling advertising to a volatile industry.”

I had the opportunity to interview Steve and Debbee Pezman, founders this “reader-supported publication” The Surfer’s Journal, the state-of-the-art surfing bimonthly magazine that is celebrating its 20th anniversary and that continues to cover surfing’s “people, culture, travel, and art from a purist point of view.”

A beautiful and very addictive magazine to hold and enjoy, even if you are not a surfer, TSJ’s founders share the genesis and conception of their idea from birth to 20 years and beyond. You can feel the passion in their answers and the love of the magazine and its subject matter. A story that need to be told and a business plan that was, is and will continue to be the best business model to launch any new magazine: find the customers who count and forget about the business of counting customers to sell to advertisers.

What follows is more than interview. It is in fact a road map to launching a new magazine. A new, ink on paper, successful, make that very successful magazine. Enjoy.

But first, as is with The Mr. Magazine™ Interviews, here are the sound-bites, followed by the Q and A with Debbee and Steve Pezman:

Each time we sweated over raising the cover price we discovered that surfers were willing to pay more if they really wanted something.

Our target readers had grown up, still surfed avidly, and their relationship to the sport had matured beyond that stage. No publication was targeting them as they aged because the advertisers didn’t.

Serving a passion by honoring it in a high quality, high-brow way, without pandering to the pressures or opportunities to commercialize our “reader-supported” approach.

The nugget of our idea applies to many topics, some with bigger potential than our own. It’s about creating compelling in-depth content in an uplifting package that makes the enthusiast feel good about their passion for that topic.

The major determinant for a printed magazine to survive in 2011 and beyond is to make something well worth holding in your hand.

And now for the full interview with Steve and Debbee Pezman:



Samir Husni: As The Surfer’s Journal approaches its 20th Anniversary, can you recall those moments when the magazine was launched? What was the idea behind the magazine?

Debbee and Steve: The idea was to publish a high-end periodical for the adult surfer (age 25+), a market that wasn’t being served. Both Steve and I had 25+ years publishing for this audience and recognized a need.

After years at Surfer, Debbee and I wanted to do our own thing. I had known a publisher of annual scholarly Journals who was able to charge a $100 for a 40-page one-color booklet because the info was absolutely necessary to the specialists in that field. That stuck in my mind. Another factor: at Surfer, each time we sweated over raising the cover price we discovered that surfers were willing to pay more if they really wanted something. The third factor: in 1992 we were in a downturn in the surf wear business and advertising spending was sinking. We thought about what would be a more reliable basis—a surfer’s undying stoke! That translated into selling them subscriptions rather than selling advertising to a volatile industry. What we wanted to publish was a pre-sold periodical book.

SH: What were you thinking charging $12.95 cover price for a magazine in 1992 when the average cover price back then was less than $4.00?

D & S: It was the highest price we then had the nerve to charge and it was how much we needed to make our idea work. It was also wanting to set The Journal apart—overall, to look, feel and read unlike anything else.

SH: What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to ensure that the magazine was going to make it?

D & S: One hurdle was that we were targeting a just a portion of a relatively small market, but it was the most dedicated segment. We started off with a direct mail drop of about 40,000 pieces, to Surfer subscribers who had renewed more than once and Surfrider Foundation members. We got a unheard of 8% cash response and we hadn’t published an issue yet. They responded to the fact that someone was finally going serve their level of sophistication. Because we wouldn’t be available at traditional newsstands we were counting on them to spread the word. At the time, the normal surf magazines were all focused on delivering 14-24 year-old eyeballs to their advertisers, whom they carried at a 50/50 ratio to edit. Our target readers had grown up, still surfed avidly, and their relationship to the sport had matured beyond that stage. No publication was targeting them as they aged because the advertisers didn’t. They felt abandoned until we came along.

SH: What was the most pleasant surprise during those 20 years?

D & S: Stopping at our post office box on the way to the small office we had rented, about ten days after we had dropped that direct mailing, and after 7-8 days of checking and seeing nothing there, finding the P.O. Box full plus a plastic bin overflowing with envelopes with checks in them. We took one look and Debbee shouted, “Bingo!”

SH: A lot of folks and major publishing companies doubted your venture and gave you zero chances of survival… how did you beat the odds?

D & S: Serving a passion by honoring it in a high quality, high-brow way, without pandering to the pressures or opportunities to commercialize our “reader-supported” approach. Our business model is not a “big money” idea, unlike a full-on successful ad driven publication. After we had survived for a while and appeared to have become stable, Surfer and few others noticed ran the numbers to see what we were up to. We didn’t look like much, so they shrugged us off. We were happy about that. We’ve also received sincere compliments from publishers that had done the hard labor of putting out major titles for years. They appreciated the pure esthetic of our approach. For example, the recently retired Publisher of Vogue sent us a letter congratulating us on our model. He explained that he was preparing to use a lot of our idea to publish a periodical based on the designs, culture, history, adventure travels and personalities surrounding a large premium yacht builder that would target subscription sales to their thousands of boat owners and the many more that would like to be. They were super expensive yachts. The owner demographics were through the roof. It felt almost automatic that a high % would pay a premium for a publication that enriched and glorified their boat ownership.

The nugget of our idea applies to many topics, some with bigger potential than our own. It’s about creating compelling in-depth content in an uplifting package that makes the enthusiast feel good about their passion for that topic. If you do it well, enough money comes with it to make it worthwhile, and it makes for a feel-good endeavor if you love that topic yourself! The reward is the esthetic of the model you get to engage in. The reality of the regular magazine business can get pretty ugly. This is the art gallery part of it.

SH: If someone comes to you today and said I am going to start a new magazine, what advice do you give them?

D & S: Most who come to us for advice seem to be editor types whose life is deeply engaged in the subject matter. Typically, they have an idea about a different slant or type of content package that they can’t put into play with a conventional approach. They are convinced they can compel their peers to respond to a fresh and compelling delivery vehicle. For an editor, the publishing and/or business aspects can be less developed than the content idea. You need both sets of skills at high levels to succeed. Then, you need real solid plus-factors in more than one aspect of the business plan. Of course, you always need more money than you start with. Finally, you need really great access to and familiarity with all parts of your target market (contributors, prospective readers, the specialized industry around it) as well as credibility within it. It really helps if they recognize you as an expert.

SH: As we live this digital age, do you think there a future for print and what are you doing to help amplify the future of the printed The Surfer’s Journal?

D & S: We see The Journal as a rather durable form of print: a highly specialized tangible object that titillates your brain and is rewarding to hold in your hand. For the foreseeable future, there will be a need for those traditional qualities, but the gap between traditional and new age delivery modes will become more and more extreme as generations pass.

SH: Where do you think you will be five years from now?

D & S: We will have earned an even greater sustainable base with TSJ, be evolving our model and adding and/or cobbling together a community of like titles on wide ranging subjects to share efficiencies and synergies.

SH: How can you, if you can, replicate The Surfer’s Journal business plan? Can you launch a magazine today and achieve the same results you’ve achieved with The Surfer’s Journal?

D & S: In a word, yes. It’s a simple idea that requires a team of unusual talent with thoughtful execution to succeed. Our idea is for each title to be built by a small satellite group of specialists, orbiting a central service structure that provides the non-specialized services at a high level.

SH: One final question, if you were to finish this sentence how would finish it…. The major determinant for a printed magazine to survive in 2011 and beyond is…

D & S: … Make something well worth holding in your hand.

SH: Thank you.

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2 comments

  1. That last line is beautiful! Make a magazine worth holding…. Thanks for sharing the story of The Surfer’s Journal.


  2. Really inspirational article! Though I’ve since moved from publishing an actual print magazine to a digital iPad one… there are a lot of gems in the article that apply equally.



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