Hyper-Niche Zines: To the Coffee Table & Beyond
Hyper-Niche Zines: To the Coffee Table & Beyond

Print magazines are looking better than ever, and it’s more than jacket-deep.

With the advent of radio, then television and then the internet, print journalism, and especially the newspaper, has been eulogized at least a thousand times. But while newspapers really do seem to be making their death rattle, one form of print journalism seems to have found a new lease on life: independent, niche magazines.

But why would people want to read magazines again? Isn’t there enough clickbait to keep us occupied indefinitely?

Special-interest publications like these have been around for decades, but they have been rebooted with a focus on high design that is not meant to be backlit – it’s intended to be on display.

According to this article from The Guardian:

A smart new breed of print titles is growing fast, with numbers more than tripling in five years. Some of the publications, such as Accent, a magazine that celebrates “misfits and free spirits”, make a virtue of their niche appeal. Stitch, Bitch!, which aims to “make fashion better and fairer for young people”, and the London-based Sonshine, offering tips for those “raising boys for an equal world”, also fall into this category. Others tackle the broadest of topics. Ernest, biannually printed “for curious and adventurous gentlefolk”, takes “curiosity and slow adventure” as its theme. Yet, whether readers are choosing to read a magazine about travel, food or feminism, the real attractions are a maverick editorial attitude and high design values.

Moreover, because of the Internet, these magazines are finding new avenues of marketing and distribution. One of the most popular magazine subscription services, Stack, sends subscribers new, “surprise” indy niche zines every month that capture an art that is somewhat lost to the on-screen environment: slow journalism. Founder Steve Watson says in this interview from FvF:

This is the digital age. Digital media is so ubiquitous and we spend so much of our time on computers, in front of our screens. I think that print is finding a new role for itself. It is a process. Someone, I forget who, compared this whole process to horses. They did not go away after the car was invented. Their function just changed. Instead of being the best way to get around, they became symbols of luxury, leisure and affection.

There is something similar happening with print. Print is no longer the fastest and cheapest way to communicate, but that leaves this other space for the things that it is really good at doing. It is good at creating this very slow, intimate connection with readers. My favorite thing about print is that it cannot do much. It is dumb. It just sits there. It does not ask anything of you. It does not need you to update it at any point. It is just there. Within those limiting restrictions you can actually build a really close relationship with it.

That is the beauty of print in the digital age where otherwise, this connection gets lost.

AM’s Henry Martin, who subscribes to Stack, says the subscription has connected him to content he would not have otherwise encountered:

I've been a subscriber to Stack for a few months now and it's an interesting service. Every month you get a magazine in the mail. There's no preview or way to choose what you want—it's a complete surprise every time. In the past few months I've received a magazine devoted to dogs and art and a magazine committed to the resurrection of post-Soviet eastern Europe.

The "surprise" factor really makes the most of the medium's value. In the digital world, print seems to have found a home as an inviting, slow-moving, valuable way to spend a lot of time with a subject you don't encounter on your Twitter feed.



But is this like having a record collection? Is it more about owning them than actually reading them?

This is a difficult question because on the one hand, these magazines are definitely meant to be on display, and that is certainly something brands should consider when creating or advertising in niche magazines. Our people had some thoughts on this:

Debby Johnson doesn’t think the display value alone is worth the high price tag.

I know these are promoted as zines but in my head, they're closer to good-old-fashioned coffee table books. Anyone else remember those? The ones your parents or grandparents proudly displayed? Over-sized. Great paper stock(s). Unusual binding. Interesting fonts. Glorious photography. Long articles. On topics you cared enough about that you'd proudly display them.

Okay, so I have bought a couple copies of zines on topics that are near and dear to me: Gourmand and Toothache. And the guy who used to cut my hair loved the concept and had copies of niche pubs from Shanghai, Hong Kong, UK, France... you never knew what he'd have at shop. All glorious to look at with articles that intrigued me. But... they never intrigued me enough to spend the $16-25 an issue with no idea of when the next issue was going to be, well, issued.

Henry Martin adds that the point of displaying them is to appear cultured.

Debby is on to something in referring to coffee table books.

One of the things we buy when we buy these magazines is the ability to display them. To remind ourselves, as we gaze past our coffee table where these vaguely intellectual, artistic magazines rest, toward our fourth hour-long Netflix episode in a row, that we're the types of people who own vaguely intellectual, artistic magazines. Or, critically, to signal that to anyone who comes over.

These magazines have become very important status symbols in the information age. When absolutely everything you could ever want to read on any subject is online (including most of the articles found in these magazines, frankly), how do we separate ourselves from the digital common folk?

We buy beautiful, thick magazines and leave them tastefully scattered around us.

Ryan Winkler-Herr thinks the display value is an integral consideration from a business standpoint.

I would argue that an excellent business strategy for these publications would be to specifically think of this: who is going to display them and where?

Because it IS coffee tables, but it is not just there. It's doctors' offices in the waiting rooms, it's cool coffee shops on a rack, it's in a lawyer's office as a status symbol, but it isn't always a status symbol. You cannot physically hand someone a digital anything, and it makes for poor decoration.

There is definitely more to it than looks, though.

Otherwise people would only be buying enough to fill a coffee table, but independent magazines are thriving, so it’s safe to assume people are buying more than that. The display value, as Henry said above, is a mark of culture, but it is a mark of culture because of the depth of content within. Our people had some thoughts on what content is valuable for this medium.

Meg McElhaney says content should stand for something the audience cares about.

The industry at large isn't looking to be anyone's coffee table book - while they are producing objectively beautiful magazines, that isn't why they are still in print. They're looking to push boundaries, question what is considered traditional content and are generally getting more robust. Niche magazines aren't just experimental or for that one guy who's really excited about his obscure hobby anymore - they're looking to stand for something & possibly prove something.

Alexandra Bohannon says she has bought magazines to support artists she enjoys.

Ruby Tandoh from Great British Bake Off may not have a lot in common with drag queen Sasha Velour, but they both make art in different ways. Purchasing these magazines gave me a sense of getting closer to people I admire and the things they like. A brand can use this concept to its advantage.

Others agreed with Steve Watson, founder of Stack, that the niche quality of these magazines builds more personal connections with readers.

Niche content is King. If you know your audience and are intimately aligned with what they want, you will be able to make a quick connection and be better positioned to deliver an experience unique to them. – Ashley Hackler

In the world of Fake News, we know faster is not always better and mainstream journalism often trades thorough, complex stories for surface-level analyses. The boom of niche print is not based on nostalgia of the medium, but also a desire for thoughtful, well-written articles. The fact that these stories are then compiled together in a beautiful package for a hyper-targeted audience, only adds to the desire to buy print rather than read the same article online. – Carly Jimeson

Ultimately we think niche magazines (and brands considering them) should focus on these values:

  • Display Value
    Because one of the biggest benefits to these magazines is their physical presence, the design should be high priority. Keep in mind, however, that display value is also tied to content quality - we are showing off these magazines to reflect our intellectualism, culture and expertise.

  • Content Value
    These magazines need to say something important and say it well to justify their existence. In an age where we have access to so much fast information, we need a reason to take our time and read something that is well-defined and that goes deeper than a Google search.

  • Personal Value
    It goes without saying that niche content is meant for a specific audience, but as Meg iterated above, this isn’t about some guy with an obscure hobby anymore. These magazines should aim to make a connection with their readers, draw them in, and even help them to find new interests. Another quote from the Steve Watson interview mentioned above: All indie mags are niche, but they should still be accessible to a wider audience.

  • Distribution Value
    Because these magazines have limited runs and marketing budgets, the distribution of indie publications should be considered from the get-go. If a celebrity is headlining it, the publicity will drive it. If the niche has something to do with wellness, perhaps doctors would want to display them in their waiting rooms. Is it accessible and something Stack would be looking for to find new audiences? Do the research.
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