Read the talk our Creative Director gave at The Modern Magazine conference
Boat Magazine was lucky to be a part of The Modern Magazine conference Wednesday 16th October at Central St. Martins College of Art in London. The day was put on by MagCulture’s Jeremy Leslie for what he called “a close-up look at today’s golden age of magazines”. Below is the talk our Creative Director gave. We thought you might enjoy this slightly behind-the-scenes look at Boat Magazine!
Why do we make an independent magazine?
That’s a very good question.
Let me introduce the magazine to you first, as I’m sure many won’t have heard of us. In fact, even if you have, you may not be able to find us, because we’re more often than not put in the Boating section.
Boat Magazine isn’t a boating magazine, it’s a travel and culture publication that decamps to a new city for each issue and invites writers, photographers and artists to join us in really getting under the skin of a place.
Just yesterday the team returned from Reykjavík where we are making Issue 6. Each issue seeks to understand a city and the people who live and work there. It doesn’t neatly fit into one particular category, or live on a particular shelf. It’s not really a travel magazine, there’s no top ten spas, no restaurant guides, no maps inside. But it is geographically focused. It’s an independent publication about a city, and more often than not, a complicated city. 50% of the stories come from local contributors, and 50% by talent who come with us so it has a joined up, inside/outside perspective. Photographically, there are very few landscapes in it, it’s a postcard constructed from human narratives.
Anyway. So that’s the introductions out of the way.
Why do we make an independent magazine?
That’s a question we probably ask ourselves every six months.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Despite what some reviews have said about the idea behind the magazine – It’s not a holiday! Erin, the editor of the magazine, said last week that after making 6 issues of Boat, she knows less about journalism than ever but could run a pretty damn efficient B&B.
So why do we do it? Because it would be impossible to stop.
Boat Magazine began as, and remains, a passion project. We run a small design studio in East London. It’s called Boat Studio, which is where the name of the magazine comes from. In a low period of work in our first year we decided that while our clients took their Winter breaks, December would be a good month to embark on a project, or go on an adventure. So we went to Sarajevo.
At the time, on Google Maps, Sarajevo was just a dot. There was no 3D view, no listings, it went no further than that. And we knew as much about the city as Google did – there was a horrific war there in the 1990’s, it used to be Yugoslavia… That’s about it. When we searched, we could find no interesting, recent information in English about the place at all, just black and white images of the war. But we knew that there must be some incredible stories out there. So we left for Sarajevo, rented a house for a month with the objective to come back with interesting stories to turn into a project of some sort. We invited some creative friends and found ourselves hearing insane tales and meeting incredible people, from an Oscar-winning film director who is now a town councilor in charge of refuse collection, to the 80-year-old book-lover whose library was torched in the war.
When we got back, we assembled a team and turned it into a magazine. We had confusing meetings with distributors. We pissed off entire Post Office queues. We lugged boxes around shops in both England and France, dusting off some GCSE French to pitch the magazine at the counter of the bookstore at the Centre Pompidou as if it was some sort of task on the Apprentice. We’d never created or sold a magazine before. I guess you could say we were a little naïve.
It certainly wasn’t screamingly commercial. A biannual publication, with an unhelpful name, very broad content areas focused on a very specific subject area, and then there’s factoring in the travel costs and the time we spend in field when we can’t work on paying client projects. But then we weren’t trying to start an empire. We didn’t have a particular model we were copying. It started as a desire to do something different, to create something fresh and free of convention, and the best format for what we wanted to achieve was a magazine, a beautiful, physical magazine, through which the reader is taken on a journey from page 1 to 96 (or 112, depending on our bank balance).
We didn’t know what would happen after launch, so we didn’t offer subscriptions, but after Issue One, we wanted to make another. There were so many things we wanted to do better this time, and we were fired up by the challenge of going to places that either the media landscape had forgotten or weren’t doing justice.
Detroit came next. We chose that incredible city as a response to some of the ‘ruin porn’ we were seeing on design blogs and in coffee table books. A 16-page supplement fell out of the Daily Mail ‘From Motown to Ghost Town’ and wrote the whole place off. Surely this city of 152 square miles must have more to offer than ruins. In fact it is amongst the single-most inspiring places we have ever visited. Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides wrote the opener for us, Giles Price rented a helicopter to see the city from the air and then take portraits of the people who lived and worked there on the ground, we spent an afternoon with an NBA team, hung out in some of richest suburbs in America, and found that the people who chose to stay in centre, downtown, when everyone else was fleeing, had more fire than anyone I’ve come across in my time in agencies and studios in London, present company excluded. We spent three weeks in Detroit and let that spirit shape the content in the issue.
London came next. It was 2012, Will and Kate, Olympic fever, and everything was very pomp and ceremony. The picture the world was being shown of London was very different from the London I knew. Ken Livingstone had a line he used to trot out ‘7 Million Londoners, 1 London’ what a load of bollocks. There are 7 million Londons, each one is different for each person who lives here. Now we have a simple formula for where each issue of our magazine begins. We try to start where an outsider starts. With Sarajevo it was the horror of war, with Detroit it was ruins. With London it was different because we lived here. Nick Hornby kicked off this issue talking about the evolving nature of the city, how the London from his teen years is almost indiscernible and yet, ‘Dickens’ London is still our London.’ But from there we quickly go off and explore the stories each city throws up, from the first time Olympic athletes to the nonagenarian memoirists, views of London from different cultural perspectives, from the top deck of a bus, and everything in between, these are modern portraits of an old city.
We don’t sugar coat places, we try to celebrate them as we find them. But we’re also not about trying to be reductionist and put labels on places and sum it all up in 140 characters.
The thing I love most about print is that there is an editor. There is somebody who decides the best order things should be read in. There are no snarky reader comments at the bottom of each piece. Of course you can flick around and dip in and out, but it’s a different type of control from a man with the mouse. The order of each issue is carefully considered, in an issue of Boat Magazine there’s an intentional thread from cover to cover, but the place we always leave you is in a piece of fiction at the end. Fiction paints in some gaps with splashes of colour, but invariably leaves each city unresolved, with something hanging. Like the end of the film Chinatown with the car horn playing out over the credits.
I guess our biggest reason for making a magazine is that we want to make a magazine – we have something to say – and we can. It’s semi-affordable. We break even. We are sold in three continents. Our readers are loyal, and write us incredibly nice emails. We’re never going to be able to retire at 35 and drink bloody marys with Jack Dorsey on a Wednesday morning, but it has proved to be the best thing we’ve done as a studio. Both in terms of the new work it has brought in, and it’s also taken us to some interesting places and thrown incredibly interesting people into our path, who have become contributors, conspirators and friends. And we go away with them twice a year. Though it’s not a holiday!
To places like Athens.
Which wasn’t like that at all by the way. We had a couple of contributors who were caught up in a protest. It would have been no more than 1000 people. Towards the end a couple of troublemakers got involved in a scuffle. The next day we were flying home. The lady next to me was reading coverage of the protest in a British newspaper. ATHENS ABLAZE AS 150,000 RIOT. Sensationalist crap. But there you go. It sells papers apparently. That’s why we make our magazine.
So I guess, here we are, we’re five issues in – 5 and a half if you include the free newspaper we were commissioned to make for Derry-Londonderry to celebrate the European City of Culture, we’re making Issue 6 right now.
Lots of people call this the golden age of magazines.
There are more independent magazines starting up right now than there ever have been. And so long as people have something to say that’s a great thing.
When people ask me why we do it. It’s clearly not for the money. 4 of our 5 current issues have just broken even and the other we took a huge financial hit on – it didn’t sell as we’d expected, but we believe no less in the importance of each story in that issue. And then our last issue, Kyoto, sold out in 10 days, and gave us enough of a boost to go make another one.
We make our magazine because we have something to say.
And think print is the best way to say it.
We make our magazine because we’re control freaks.
And think print is the best way to be a control freak.
We think we know how to tell a good story from front to back, and want to lead you through it.
We make Boat because it’s a good excuse to get out into the world and let it shape and change us.
Because we get to work with people who are better than us.
It’s a human operation.
Getting real with you, it takes up 50% of our time as a studio and contributes only 7% to our turnover, and after every issue we ask ourselves why do we do this?
But then an editor at The Independent sees a story in Boat and commissions one of our photographers.
Or we get an email from a lady in Detroit who has lived there all her life and has never read a better encapsulation of her city.
I’ll end with a little story. Before working for us, Dan, a designer at Boat came into the studio when he was in his final year of his Degree course. He was discussing his final year project. He had an idea he called the nomadic designer which involved travelling round different design studios in Europe trading two days of his time for a typeface, or an illustration or something he could use in his final project. On a train to Belgrade he met a lady from Sarajevo, and getting his copy of Boat Magazine out of his bag, he told her the story of the magazine and showed her how we’d portrayed her city.
He sent me this:
Her reaction is why we make the magazine. Or, more honestly, why we find it impossible to stop.
Just don’t call it a holiday.
Oh, and you can pre-order our Reykjavík Issue.
It’s out at the end of November.
Read the talk our Creative Director gave at The Modern Magazine conference