To say she is passionate about her job would be a major understatement. To say she is equally passionate about the magazine world would be yet another major understatement. The former publisher of The New Yorker magazine, and the current President and CEO of Garden & Gun magazine, Rebecca Darwin is more than passionate. She is in living a love affair with magazines. “I love anyone who loves magazines,” she told me during my interview with her via Skype.
Rebecca Darwin left New York City more than five years ago and headed South. She thought she left the publishing world behind her and was ready to start a new life in Charleston, South Carolina. Well, to paraphrase an old saying, “you can take Rebecca out of New York, but you can’t take magazines out of Rebecca.”
From the labor pains of the first year of life (costing almost 10 million dollars) to the ripe age of five, the story of Garden & Gun, and the women behind it, is unlike any story you may have heard about the launch and survival of a new magazine. Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO of Garden & Gun, shares that story and more in the Mr. Magazine™ Interviews below, followed by the sound-bites of the interview and the very lightly edited transcript.
On the reason she launched Garden & Gun: I did feel that there was a void, there was not a magazine that really spoke to people like me or to people who were very sophisticated, very worldly, but in love with where they’re from, which is this beautiful place called the south.
On the difference between being a publisher in New York City and in Charleston, South Carolina: It is very different when one sits in a room by one’s self and tries to start a magazine and you don’t even have paper clips.
On starting Garden & Gun: When you’re really starting, really from scratch, it is more of a challenge instead of an obstacle.
On the name of the magazine: The name was never an obstacle for me. The minute I heard the name, I thought, “Gosh, this could just be something incredible.” It will be something that will stop people. I know if you open up the cover and you look inside, you’re going to understand what this magazine means.
On the magazine going through 10 million dollars in its first year: That’s close.
On the ink on paper magazine: I always hear about the magazine and how people do love to touch it and hold onto it. I think part of our success is that we have, in some ways, brought back the beautiful, old magazine.
On the reaching the breakeven point: This is our year, this is our year, which is our fifth year. This pretty much puts you on track for what I would say is the benchmark for a successful magazine.
On what makes Rebecca tick: I love anybody who loves magazines. I’m getting to do what I always wanted to do in a place that I love to do it.
On Garden & Gun readers: Our readers are unlike anybody I have ever met in my life. They are so loyal; they’re not even readers, they’re fans.
And now for the very lightly edited transcript of Mr. Magazine™ Interviews Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO of Garden & Gun:
Samir Husni: Garden & Gun is a labor of love that you’ve been doing since you came from New York to Charleston and it was a rocky start; five years later, where are you now, why are you still doing it?
Rebecca Darwin: Well, you know, I would say, the start wasn’t so rocky. I think, if you remember, we were actually one of your top 15 magazines that year, number 2, I think we came out of the gate with gangbusters, but what happened to us is what happened to so many magazines, as you well know, over those couple of years that were really, really rocky for the economy. You know, I’ve often been asked in hindsight would we have launched the magazine if we’d known what was coming ahead and the same answer, would be no, wouldn’t have; but I’m not saying. I still would have done it and I think that, if anything, it just shows the perseverance that my employees, all of this group here, the team has, that our readers have, and that this brand has. We have come out on the other side and it’ll be our fifth anniversary this spring.
Samir Husni: Very few people really know about the beginnings; why would Rebecca Darwin after years at The New Yorker, after all that work, come down to Charleston, South Carolina and launch this soul-of-the-south publication?
Rebecca Darwin: Well, the way I got here was really because of my husband making a career change and going to seminary and becoming a Presbyterian minister. I had grown up in South Carolina, so when given the option of where we might move with his new venture, it was very appealing to me to come back to South Carolina, Charleston in particular, which is getting all kinds of kudos itself right now, it’s a very hot town and a beautiful place to live. But I did not come here with any intention of starting a magazine; I actually had two young children at that same time, my husband with a new life, me living in a new place, and didn’t anticipate that I would be starting a magazine. But two things happened, a number of my friends that I had known growing up started suggesting that we needed a great southern magazine; something like The New Yorker, I didn’t really think that that was going to work here, and then, as luck would have it, I met my partner, Pierre Manigault who is Chairman of the Board of the Evening Post, and the Evening Post publishes the newspaper here and was interested in the magazine business and asked me to come on as a consultant to help them look at some projects that they were working on. I did that for a couple of weeks and the next thing I knew I was writing the business plan for what came to be Garden & Gun magazine. When I got here I did feel that there was a void, there was not a magazine that really spoke to people like me or to… I think, people who were very sophisticated, very worldly, but in love with where they’re from, which is this beautiful place called the south, where you also live, so I felt like there was something there, that there was a void in the marketplace and did some research, put together a business plan and very, very quickly launched a magazine.
Samir Husni: What are some of the major obstacles that you have overcome since the magazine was launched?
Rebecca Darwin: Well, I would say that the biggest obstacle for me was having had an amazing career in New York with the best publishing companies that there are and always having had somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit even within those companies, I worked on some of the challenging products within those companies, so I always felt like a marketer, an entrepreneur, starting new ideas within those companies. But it is very different when you sit in a room by yourself, when one sits in a room by one’s self, and tries to start a magazine and you don’t even have paper clips. You can’t go down to the 9th floor and talk to the circulation department; you can’t go into the HR department and talk about benefits, you know nothing about buying paper. I tapped into friends in the business, a lot of resources, and not that it was an obstacle, but that was a challenge to me and something that I truly, truly loved. Also a testament to the magazine is starting as a single title publisher at this point, not having the bench of people to rely on, but all of those subscribers that if you’re launching a magazine, again, within a bigger publishing company you’ve got lots of places to market your magazine, subscription mailings, we have none of that. So when you’re really starting, really from scratch, as I said is more of a challenge instead of an obstacle. The name, a lot of people like to think or make an obstacle, was never an obstacle for me. The minute I heard the name, I thought, “Gosh, this could just be something incredible.” And it will be something that will stop people, but I know if you open up the cover and you look inside, you’re going to understand what this magazine means. And if you don’t understand, then you probably shouldn’t be subscribing to it or reading it anyway. Those are the major things. And then of course, there is was that little thing called money.
Samir Husni: Rumor has it that you went through $10 million in the first year?
Rebecca Darwin: That’s close. The Evening Post was a very good financial supporter of this magazine initially and I was devastated when they decided not to continue with it, but very appreciative of what they had invested into the company at that point. And it was a fortunate thing for Pierre and me to be able to buy the magazine at the point that we did when that kind of resource had been put against the magazine. But you know too, Samir, that $10 million, if that’s what the number is, more or less, that’s not really that much when you compare it to some of the launches that you and I have experienced, right?
Samir Husni: You are more than an ink on paper magazine now, you have the club, you have the retail, digital; what is the future of Garden & Gun? Is it going to continue to be grounded in ink on paper and spreading from there? Or one day you see the future as digital; or the future as retail, or clubs?
Rebecca Darwin: I think all of those. One of the things that I always hear about the magazine is how people do love to touch it and hold onto it. I think part of our success is that we have, in some ways, brought back the beautiful, old magazine. We do not have a tremendous demand for digital at this point, although it is increasing and something we are very seriously looking at. I think that the two can co-exist. Garden & Gun, I see as the lynchpin of this company. My vision is that this is not a single title magazine company and it’s not just a magazine or a publishing company. There are a lot of things that can come out of this. But you know, we are only five-years-old and it has been an interesting time to be in this business. For me right now, I want to really make sure that everything that we do with the magazine, it is the core of the branch, is solid, and we’re doing the best that we can possibly do while we explore other things. But not to step out too far, too quickly, and really protect this amazing brand that we have built. Our readers are unlike anybody I have ever met in my life. They are so loyal; they’re not even readers, they’re fans. And so every decision that I make about this company, I think about them. I want them to come along for the ride. And they do want more. They’re always asking for more. And that’s why we do lots of events; that’s why the club was really initiated. The retail, the demand was there for something like, but I know that they are very outspoken, they love to call us, they love to talk to us, and I don’t want to make any missteps that are going to make them stray away from us.
Samir Husni: Are you at the break even point, close, or we are still swimming underwater?
Rebecca Darwin: This is our year, this is our year, which is our fifth year, as you know pretty much puts you on track for what I would say is the benchmark for a successful magazine. And business is really good; we just closed our April/May issue which is technically our fifth anniversary issue and it is the largest issue that we’ve ever had and way, way exceeded what we had in the budget for it.
Samir Husni: What keeps Rebecca up at night?
Rebecca Darwin: You know what; I’m pretty exhausted when it’s time to go to bed between all my children here and my child Garden & Gun and my two girls and my husband, who’s kind of a child too. I’m ready to go to sleep when I hit the sack. I tend to be one that wakes up more in the middle of the night because my head is racing and it’s all those things that I want to do. It goes on into when I get in the shower and I need to keep that little piece of paper next to me. So going to sleep isn’t the problem, but when I wake up I’m ready to do it all.
Samir Husni: Ten years from now we’re doing this conversation; what would you tell me about Garden and Gun, in 2022?
Rebecca Darwin: Ten years from now, I think that Garden & Gun will certainly be around. It’s hard to say exactly how big the magazine itself will be, in terms of circulation; I always pictured the magazine would kind of net out somewhere around 400, 500,000 in terms of total circulation. We will be either a monthly or coming out 10 times a year, I don’t know…will it still be print, that’s a hard one to predict. Although I do know that when I was publisher of The New Yorker many years ago, I was asked to talk about the end of magazines then and we’ve all been talking about it for a long time and they’re still around. I think that Garden & Gun will be, not a household name, but part of the language in this country. When you hear the words Garden & Gun, or G & G, which I think a lot of people will say, that you know what that means, if something is very G & G, it conjures up an image in your mind. And I think that we will be surprising people with some of the things that we’re going to do in terms of ways that the brand is going to grow. And we’ll be throughout the southeast and beyond, not just the magazine but other ventures that we have in mind.
Samir Husni: Anything I failed to ask you that you’d like to add?
Rebecca Darwin: I don’t think so. No, I always enjoy talking to you. I love anybody who loves magazines. I’m getting to do what I always wanted to do in a place that I love to do it. I’m just incredibly, incredibly proud of the magazine.
Samir Husni: The magazine has become the “talk of the south.” Is it strictly a magazine for the South?
Rebecca Darwin: I think that the magazine’s appeal (reaches) beyond the South and the people who have visited the South or lived in the South or have some kind of connection there, but I think it is the literary quality of the magazine. Great writing is something that, it doesn’t matter where you live you enjoy reading those kinds of articles and seeing the incredible visuals in the magazine. You know Dave DiBenedetto, who moved up into the editor-in-chief spot when Sid (Evans) left has done just an incredible job, he just stepped right in. In fact, his first issue was the last one that had the dog on the cover, not the drinks one, but that issue has sold incredibly. Barnes & Noble is kind of our sweet spot and we were selling at levels that would really amaze people in places like that. So he’s doing a great job and I also would be remiss if I didn’t just give a little kudos to Barbara Bing, our publisher, who lives in Atlanta, and is someone who I have known over the years on most of the magazines that I have worked for. She is doing an amazing job, really getting out there with the magazine and is a big piece of our success too.
Samir Husni: Thank you.