Marvin Shanken to Samir Husni: My Stomach Usually Leads My Mind, and Other Words of Wisdom from the Editor in Chief and Publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Wine Spectator and Whiskey Advocate. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

September 14, 2012

Marvin Shanken is a man who operates on instinct, a man who says his stomach usually leads his mind, and a publisher with a heart bigger than his pocket book. His passions lie with the subject matter of his publications. If you know his magazines, then you know Marvin. His modesty is apparent; he calls his roster of lifestyle publications, “A small family publishing company that doesn’t compete with the big boys.”

In 1992 Mr. Shanken launched Cigar Aficionado. “Many people thought we were crazy,” read an ad on the back page of The New York Times’ Business section. “Two decades later – We’re Still Smokin’!” Not only smokin’ I may add, but smoking with passion, a lot of passion. I reached out to Mr. Shanken, “the publisher with a heart” and asked him about his passions, his secrets that lead to his success in the publishing world, the future of print and his advice on launching a magazine in 2012.

His answers are atypical for your normal run of the mill answers from a successful publisher. His answers, the same as his publishing philosophy, came from the “stomach” and the “heart.” So, without further delay, sit back and enjoy the very lightly edited interview with Marvin Shanken, starting by the typical Mr. Magazine™ Interviews sound bites followed by the transcript of the interview.

The Sound-bites:

On how he views Cigar Aficionado today:

The charter of the magazine hasn’t changed in 20 years. It was intended to be a men’s magazine on the good life. So, from day one it covered many of the interests of men, whether it is drinking and traveling, collecting, golf, whatever it is. And that hasn’t changed.

On what his advice would be to someone wanting to launch an ink on paper publication:

If they’re creating a magazine and their goal is just to make money, that’s an iffy proposition. But if they’re following a passion, that’s the difference.

On whether or not he believes there is still room for passionate publishers who aren’t looking for statistical analysis on whether their magazine is going to make it or not:

I’ve never done feasibility studies. I’ve never done focus groups. Usually my stomach leads my mind. I basically operate on instinct, for better or worse.

On whether or not in this digital age there is still room for ink on paper and how he differentiates today’s ink on paper from 5 years ago:

It’s a tougher business. Mass print is different than niche print. I’m in niche print. I don’t have a lot of competition in my niche. And I put out a very high quality product.

And now for the lightly edited interview with Marvin Shanken.

Samir Husni: You are one of the few remaining publishers in our industry who is passionate about the subject matter much more than the ink on paper or on the pixels on a screen. What drives you; what makes Marvin click every morning?

Marvin Shanken: I get up and light a good cigar, which by the way, I’m doing as we speak.

Samir Husni: I can smell it through my speakerphone. Although you know, the university started a rule this year also – they banned smoking from the entire campus. You have to go outside the university limits to be able to smoke.

Marvin Shanken: You mean even outside?

Samir Husni: Even outside.

Marvin Shanken: Well that’s no different than when I used to go on weekends to Central Park and sit on a bench and have a cigar with friends and watch people go by with their dogs and I’m not even welcome in Central Park, which is huge, outdoors. The whole thing is so un-American.

Samir Husni: Is it affecting the magazine, The Cigar Aficionado?

Marvin Shanken: Strangely, no.

Samir Husni: How do you view the magazine today? Is it an escape vehicle? What drives you to keep the magazine coming? You create excellent magazines. They are a joy to read, a joy to flip the pages. Mentally, when you are flipping through those pages, do you say like, wow, I wish I could light up one of those cigars?

Marvin Shanken: Well, I do light up those cigars. The charter of the magazine hasn’t changed in 20 years. It was intended to be a men’s magazine on the good life. So, from day one, it covered many of the interests of men, whether it is drinking and traveling, collecting, golf, whatever it is. And that hasn’t changed. We have many of the same writers and the same topics, but we take a different point of view, and of course, comprehensive coverage of cigar selection and enjoyment.

Samir Husni: Do you think you can sustain this formula, specifically with Cigar Aficionado?

Marvin Shanken: Yes. It’s never been an issue. People used to say in the beginning, what are you going to write about? After the first two or three issues there’s going to be nothing to write about. But we continue to find interesting things to write about.

Samir Husni: What would be your advice if somebody comes to you today, Mr. Shanken, we live in this digital age, but I still have an idea for a magazine, I want to do something with ink on paper. Do you tell them to go away, there’s no more room – or what advice would you give to somebody.

Marvin Shanken: If they’re creating a magazine and their goal is just to make money, that’s an iffy proposition. My magazines are about my interests, about my passions. The Wine spectator, I got into because I loved wine. I wasn’t really a journalist, I wasn’t really a writer. But I learned that trade was really about the journey of wine appreciation. Cigar Aficionado came about because of my lifelong enjoyment of cigars. After I went to Cuba, I just didn’t want to die without having a Cigar magazine. I never really expected that it would be profitable. It was just something that I wanted to do. I know it sounds stupid. I have an MBA, and you’re told that you should do these things for a business reason, but I just wanted to share the enjoyment with other people and introduce them to the pleasures of a Cigar. So I never had any expectations. Maybe if I had a goal, it was to break even. I had the wine magazine, which had done very well, that was really what was going to support the cigar magazine. And of course I have other magazines in the wine and spirits trade. So, I was very lucky. I was in the unique position to be able to do it for the pleasure of doing it. The outcome was unexplainable and unpredictable.

Samir Husni: And you continue to do it. I just noticed that just this year you re-launched The Malt advocate and renamed it Whiskey Advocated. Do you still believe there’s still room for passionate publishers that aren’t really looking for statistical analyses to see if their magazine is going to make it or not?

Marvin Shanken: I have never done feasibility studies. I’ve never done focus groups. I’ve never done any of this stuff. Usually, my stomach leads my mind. I basically operate on instincts, for better or worse.

Samir Husni: We know it was for better.

Marvin Shanken: I survived.

Samir Husni: You’ve survived and you’ve survived well. My other question to you – in this digital age – is there still room for ink on paper and how do you differentiate today’s ink on paper from five years ago, 10 years ago.

Marvin Shanken: Well, it’s a tougher business. I think that mass print is different than niche print. I’m in niche print. I don’t have a lot of competition in my niches. I put out a very high quality product. So, if there are people interested in subject matter, then I’m going to do okay. You can’t force things on people; it has to be what they want. Wine, cigars, whiskeys – these are things consumers are having an affair with.

Samir Husni: If you are going to give me a tweet about launching a successful magazine in 2012, what would it be?

Marvin Shanken: Pursue things that you have a passionate interest for. Maybe don’t worry about the financials. Of course, have the staying power and make the sacrifices in the beginning, so you can survive a few years to see if it’s going to work.

Samir Husni: What do you consider Marvin’s biggest pitfall in publishing?

Marvin Shanken: When I had to face some hard decisions. For the first 10 years, my business struggled. And I acquired The Wine Spectator, it was a tabloid newspaper in 1979, and it was very unprofitable. As it kept growing, I kept feeding it. At one point, I had to make decision to go to four color. And my accountants told me if that if I was unsuccessful, that in two or three months I would be out of business. That was sort of a crossroads. Fortunately it worked out and paid off. And I’ve never looked back.

Samir Husni: Is there one high moment in your career that was like… this is it, I’ve made it?

Marvin Shanken: I wake up every morning and I pinch myself. I’m always, every time I get a magazine back from the printer, and I examine it to see what things I could have done better. And I’m always looking to improve all my magazines. I have terrifically talented people that I work with who have been with me for 20, 30 years. And I’m never satisfied. Whatever it is we do — print, events, Internet, whatever it is we’re doing, we’re always trying to be better, which I think is a common quality of good publishers.

Samir Husni: Being a good publisher, I remember John Mack Carter introducing me to you and he told me right before you came to that room, he’s one of the few publishers in our industry that publishes with his heart and not his pocketbook.

Marvin Shanken: That’s true. But understand, I started without a pocketbook. I mean everything we have here, we built ourselves.

Samir Husni: If you were to meet with a new novice publisher, a graduate from school, my student, all of them develop business plans for new magazines and they come to you as the publisher with the heart, not the one like asking them to look at the business plan, what would be the three things you would tell somebody today before you even launch a magazine, before you even go into print, you have to do one, two three…

Marvin Shanken: Basically, you have to have a passion for the subject and the business plan has to make sense. I don’t know what the three things are. You know, periodically people come to me with ideas. You know, it’s really hard to find a good idea. I look at space in the publishing world, but at the end of the day, if I don’t have an affinity for the subject matter, then I have no interest in the magazine. I do have some areas of interest, and you know, so I am fulfilled but unfulfilled if you know what I mean.

Samir Husni: What was the reasoning behind your latest launch, The Whiskey Advocate, changing The Malt Advocate name?

Marvin Shanken: First of all, I love whiskey. I’ve been in the whiskey, the wine and spirits industry my whole life. I have other publications in the field for the trade. I saw enormous potential. The people that started it have built a great business, because it does very successful with events across America. It’s a husband and wife, they’re great people. And their strength was events and writing, but they didn’t have the resources to bring to bear a quality magazine with the organization that I have. The name, Malt Advocate, was a confusing name, where Whiskey Advocate made a lot of sense. We redesigned it so we could appeal to a larger, wider audience. Now we’re in the process of building that magazine, which I would expect to take a number of years, but has great potential.

Samir Husni: Are you a believer of print in a digital age?

Marvin Shanken: Yeah. I’m a believer in print and I’m a believer in digital. We have websites for each of our magazines that do very well. If you go to winespectator.com or cigar aficionado.com or whiskyadvocate.com, they’re all different. But they’re interesting vehicles for people that are interested in those subjects.

Samir Husni: My final question for you: I’m talking with you in 2020. Where’s the Shanken Empire? I know you said we have no empire when you first started, but now you do have an empire…

Marvin Shanken: I have a small family publishing company. We don’t compete with any of the big boys. We do our own thing. We’re very independent. We love what we do. I mean we really, really love what we do. The people that work here can’t wait to come to work in the morning. We’re a family. Many of my people have been with me 20 or 30 years. It’s hard to explain, but this is not work. It’s like going to camp.

Samir Husni: Do you expect 2020 to be the same camp?

Marvin Shanken: Absolutely, I mean we don’t have retirement. I don’t ever expect to retire. There are a lot of people who are here that we’ve never discussed it.

Samir Husni: Well, I really appreciate your time. It’s a great magazine.

Marvin Shanken: If you see my magazines, then you know me. I mean, I would say maybe one of the most interesting decisions in Cigar Aficionado is in the letter section from day one it wasn’t dear editor, it was dear Marvin. I was making a personal statement.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

To learn more about the ACT 3 Experience click here.

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