I’ve been doing my best to promote the New Escapologist book.
Marketing always makes me feel uncomfortable, partly for ethical reasons but mainly because I’d rather be doing something else, like reading P.G. Woodhouse books in my gently-rocking my hammock. That’s what summer is for.
Whatever the reason, even just politely inviting people to buy my stuff or asking them to tell others about it really takes something out of me. I largely enjoy tabling at book fairs, for instance, proudly representing New Escapologist and signing copies for friendly people. But even this level of promotion inevitably leaves me exhausted and spending the whole of the following week in a vegetative, convalescent state.
This puts me in mind of an article I wrote last year for a marketing blog. I met the nice lady who runs the blog at (of all places) the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair. I think she was looking for someone who wasn’t a natural marketeer but somehow muddled through.
I said I’d do it. No cash offered, of course, but I thought I’d win some of their readers over and make a few naughty jokes about marketing people (most of which, to their credit, made the edit).
In the piece, I express my aversion to marketing, explain how we sell New Escapologist, and also re-tell the magazine’s origin story. Here it is:
Hello there. I run a lifestyle magazine called New Escapologist. It’s an old-style print magazine but we offer a PDF version too. A labour of love, it’s mainly a one-person operation run by yours truly but there’s a volunteer house staff of five others (all of whom have phenomenal practical specialties) and a mostly-volunteer stable of some thirty or forty writers and illustrators who come and go as they please.
The magazine is a petri dish for alternative ideas about how to live. The ancient philosophers would have called it an ethics. It’s also quite witty, or so we like to think. We agree with Aristotle and Epicurus that the good life involves a lot of leisure and a kind of thoughtful simplicity. This, while the rest of the world is preoccupied with forty-hour weeks, glum professionalism, social status, debt repayment, and beeping gizmos.
We ask: how to escape? We use Houdini-style Escapology as a lighthearted metaphor for breaking free of the restraints of modern life. We’re Libertarians in the truest sense and our contributors come from many backgrounds: from tattooed dumpster divers to scientists and philosophers; from military pilots to waistcoated dandies.
It all started in 2007. Some peers and I were in the grown-up workplace for the first time, nonplussed by the unrewarding nature of white-collar work and unsure of what to do with our masters degrees. We secretly wanted to be artists but the tedium of grant applications and artist branding was another vale of tears. So we set up our own artistic circle in the style of the Romantics or the pre-Raphaelites or (most appealing to us) the Dadaists and the Situationists. The Dadaists wrote weird poetry, did performance art, mixed bawdy comedy with higher-minded principles, and splashed luminous paint on things. The Situationists were deeply critical, made avant-garde films, explored cities as psychogeographical flaneurs and reveled in leisure for its own sake. We–a sorority of whimsical and thoughtful dreamers too aloof for white-collar servitude–were the Escapologists. New Escapologist would be our journal.
HOW WE SOLD IT
Despite what I’ve felt in my bone marrow since the age of 17, there’s nothing inherently filthy or evil about marketing. Any number of good things–vegetables, feminism, origami–could be marketed and it would make the world a better place. It just so happens that some of the most powerful agents of marketing have dedicated themselves to sugar, misogyny and Asian misery instead. I don’t know why this is.
Against the grain, I market something that could make the world a better place: an impertinent small-press publication geared toward freeing minds and spirits from the shackles of modern humdrummery.
Needless to say, it’s an uphill struggle.
It’s not immediately clear what the product even is. It’s a magazine, but our printing techniques make it look a bit like a book. The approach is like a self-help guide, but the voice is witty and sarcastic. It’s too elegant to be a zine, too shoddy for the newsstands.
Our zero-dollar budget and complete lack of marketing training add to the challenge. We’ve also encouraged our readers to be critical of marketing and of capitalist excess, so any attempt at marketing by ourselves looks suspect and hypocritical.
It’s no bestseller but New Escapologist is a rare example of an independent magazine that actually does quite well. It contains no advertising and receives no government funding yet it has survived for eight chunky issues and we’re working on a ninth [an eleventh now--ed.]. Each copy generates a profit of about $2.50 (depending on page count, economies of scale, and discounts; all of which vary between issue and print run). The sum of these per-copy profits is reabsorbed by future print runs, website hosting, and the occasional launch party. Overall, the project does not make money but it doesn’t lose any either. Financially, it’s a perpetual motion machine: a mythical entity in the world of indie publishing.
We have a bigger circulation than several of the arty magazines sold on newsstands and a more dedicated readership than “new writing”-type journals, but because of our unusual subject matter and curious format we’re yet to land a distribution deal. We’re all alone out here on the fringe of print publication, itself a rapidly receding fringe in an increasingly digital era.
So how did we do it? How did we turn nothing into something? How did a pirate ship of comedians, philosophers, artists, students, bloggers, and telephone repairmen actually get this folly off the ground?
1. We did it with love
Before marketing came integrity. We created a product we cared about and wouldn’t be ashamed to market. Door-to-door salespeople used to say that you have to believe in the product you’re selling. Instead of convincing ourselves to see merit in dietary supplements or crap cosmetics, we made a strange and witty publication that we’d be proud to tell the world about.
Our first big endorsement came from Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler magazine. His work had been influential in the thinking behind New Escapologist. As luck would have it, one of our editors was also the designer of Tom’s website so we had a convenient introduction. Tom mentioned us on his blog and we sold our first 50 copies on the strength of it. This taught us the value of endorsement.
3. Our own websphere
Even though we’re a print publication and eschew digital toss like social media, we always knew that a web presence would be important. We set up a companion website to the the magazine. Again, integrity lead us to think of the website as its own work rather than a marketing machine: we made sure that the site had decent-quality content, a well-tended and meaningful blog, and that the design complemented that of the magazine. We also vowed not to duplicate content between our two platforms. Through integrity, the site has proved a vital marketing tool. We sell 90% of our magazines through it.
We resisted Facebook and Twitter for a long time, but eventually gave in to the strongest force known to physics: peer pressure. You can now like us on the former and follow us/me on the latter. We’re very neglectful though and don’t do much with either facility beyond allowing our booby-trapped trigger system to update them automatically when something new is posted to the blog.
4. Paid ads
We took out a quarter-page advertorial in the Chap magazine. We quite like the Chap and figured that many of their readers would have a similar worldview to ours and could benefit from reading our stuff. We negotiated a reasonable deal with their marketing person (a fan of New Escapologist, naturally) and were honoured to see our specially-typeset advertisement in their pages a fortnight later. It didn’t quite pay for itself, but it was fun to feel like a media mogul for a couple of seconds, placing ads in the popular press. Whatever next.
We attend strategically relevant book fairs. Most years will see us at Expozine and the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair. We’re doing the London Anarchist Bookfair this year too [we did!--ed.]. We meet cool people this way and get our product known. If we ever hit the bigtime, thousands of bookfair patrons will be able to say “I was there at the beginning”. It’s been a brilliant way to meet existing readers and to hear what they think of us. We usually sell 25-50 copies at a bookfair, which is apparently good. We personally attend the event for the entire duration: people are often surprised to meet us at all, the actual creators of the magazine rather than paid or volunteer gnomes.
6. Writing for other magazines or blogs
Soon after setting up New Escapologist, I began receiving invitations to write for other magazines and blogs. This had been part of the plan. I’m a writer first and foremost and wanted New Escapologist to serve as a springboard to other places. I love writing for other mags and blogs because (a) it creates an original work in itself, (b) I sometimes get paid for it, and (c) it allows us to reach a new body of people. If 5% of a large-circulation magazine readership drift over into ours, we do quite well out of it.
For many people in the indie press, a big part of their satisfaction comes from seeing their work on the shelves of shops and of talking to cool shopkeepers. Not me. I have little interest in shops or their keepers. It’s a demeaning effort trying to convince a shopkeeper to stock your magazine, to periodically check their stock levels, and to extract the money they owe you from sales. Often, the stock doesn’t sell at all because a shopkeeper (perhaps understandably) won’t give your dubious-looking product a good spot on the shelf. When it does sell, the shop is likely to take a 30% cut. This completely destroys our profit margin. Still, New Escapologist does appear in a few arty bookshops around the world, mainly for the sport of it. The process costs time and money but I like the idea of someone discovering us by sheer serendipity. I shrug it off as a mercurial marketing effort. If our masthead is seen by just two people a day in a bookshop, it’s a better market penetration effort than if the same masthead were collecting dust in our stockroom (under my bed).
8. Launch parties
Every so often, we have a launch party. We probably have one for every second issue. We press two issues per year, so I suppose that makes it an annual party. Sometimes they’re biggish events with DJs or performances. Sometimes they’re last-minute gatherings in a local pub. Whichever tone it takes, a launch event is a good way of pulling friends, readers, and newbies together to get drunk, exchange ideas, and buy copies of the new edition.
So that’s about it. Those are the modest marketing efforts we’ve made in order to push our magazine into the twilight zone between zinespheric ghetto and mainstream press acceptance. The latter will never happen and the former will never have us back, so we’re stuck here. But it’s a nice place to be. The key lesson if you’d like to meet us here in the twilight zone is to turn your marketing efforts into worthy pieces of art–or at least enjoyable parties–in their own rights. You might also want to cut the fat and eliminate less useful approaches (in our case, paid advertisements and multiple stockists, both traditional marketing media come to I think of it). But above all, market something you’re proud of and keep your integrity forever.
We’ve sold a lot of ink, launched a handsome web thing, held a few parties and some sprightly performances. The future? More of the same please.