Of all the independent publishers we've interviewed so far, the publisher of WineMaker and Brew Your Own magazines is probably the person who prepared the most thoroughly for a career as a magazine publisher . Find out about Brad Ring's background, his magazines, and his advice to new publishers in this interview.
How long have you been
WineMaker was launched in 1998 as a spin-off of a winemaking column appearing in its sister publication Brew Your Own. I purchased the magazine in 1999 after working on it for one year as a consultant under the prior owner, Niche Publications. I moved it to Vermont in late 1999 and increased the frequency from quarterly to bi-monthly.
How long have you been publishing BYO?
Brew Your Own was launched in the summer of 1995 by Niche Publications in Davis, California. I was hired in 1998 to run their circulation and marketing efforts from my office in Vermont. One year later I bought both Brew Your Own and WineMaker magazines moving them across the country to Vermont where they have been based ever since.
Were there any lessons you learned from publishing the first magazine that you could apply to the second?
I think the key to running several magazines is understanding each audience independently and what works best for each. For example, when WineMaker was first spun-off from Brew Your Own we basically copied the editorial departments and tone from Brew Your Own changing beer to wine where needed. We ended up finding out after a few issues that while the audiences were similar demographically (mostly male boomers with a decent household income) they approached beer brewing and winemaking in very different ways. The brewers liked more humor and while they wanted solid and good information, did not take the hobby too seriously. The winemakers on the other hand wanted a more refined, straight-forward and sophisticated approach. So the first few issues of WineMaker modeled on Brew Your Own’s lighter tone generated quite a bit of negative mail about jokey cover images and more light-hearted approaches that worked well for brewers. So get to know your audience first and then see what you can copy from your existing publications.
Is there life before publishing? What did you do before you began publishing magazines?
For the ten years prior to starting my own publishing company and purchasing Brew Your Own and WineMaker I had a series of jobs on the business side of magazine and book publishing to better prepare myself for running a small publishing company. I worked for larger circulation magazines such as the personal finance title Worth, medium-sized magazines like Saveur and Garden Design, as well as smaller magazines like ArtNews. These jobs all gave me insights into various publishing models and the key business measurements to keep an eye on to be successful. Before getting into publishing I was a television reporter for a few years after completing my master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.
Brew Your Own is written for people who want to brew beer at home. According to our most recent reader survey our readership is 97% male with an average age of 40.9 years, an average household income of $99.892 and a strong level of educated (94% graduated from or attended college).
WineMaker is written for people who want to make wine at home. According to our most recent reader survey our readership is 88% male with an average age of 46.7 years, an average household income of $126,714 and a strong level of educated (94% graduated from or attended college).
It is important to use regular readership studies to get to know your audience better. It helps both with potential advertisers but also with editorial planning. We ask not only for basic demographic information but also feedback on current content and design and solicit ideas for future articles as well. And with web-based surveys it has never been easier and cheaper to conduct these surveys.
Do your two magazines have a large crossover market, or are they largely separate?
As far as readership we see about a 10% overlap. We do cross-promote subscription offers in both print and on the websites. We see the real overlap among our advertisers who more often than not sell supplies or equipment for both hobbies.
What needs in the market did you meet that made Winemaker successful?
We have made a conscious effort to serve all levels and kinds of winemakers. We try to have a mix of content in every issue that will have something for everyone, whether they are a first time winemaker to a seasoned expert and whether they make wine from kits, fresh grapes or other kinds of ingredients. Hobby winemaking is a small enough niche. There is no need to alienate certain segments of potential readership and make a small niche even smaller. We also added events to build a greater sense of community among our readership and now run the world’s largest amateur wine competition as well as a successful annual conference filled with seminars on how to make wine.
Does your magazine provide good opportunities for revenues from advertising?
About 30% of our overall revenue comes from advertising (with 60% coming from circulation and 10% from events). From the beginning I have pursued a circulation-based model of publishing since I think it represents the best chance of success for a small niche publication. If you have readership (and make money from that readership), the advertising will more naturally fall into place. If you rely too heavily on advertising you stand to have greater peaks and valleys than with a steady stream of circulation driven money.
What's the ratio of editorial to advertising in your magazines?
Our goal has always been to have 60% editorial and 40% advertising in any given issue. We adjust an issue’s page count to keep that ratio.
Do you pursue advertising yourself, use a rep, or does it mainly come to you?
We pursue advertising and have two full-time advertising sales people in-house. I do make some advertising sales calls and participate in our regular weekly sales meetings, but my main duties are overall management and circulation.
What is your circulation?
Brew Your own has a paid circulation of 40,000 with a readership over 100,000 per issue. WineMaker has a paid circulation of 35,000 with a readership of over 100,000 per issue.
How often do you publish?
Brew Your Own is eight times per year (monthly during the Fall and bi-monthly for the remainder of the calendar.) WineMaker is bi-monthly.
I noticed your website says you distribute to several English speaking countries. Have you encountered any difficulties in distributing your magazines outside the US?
No, not at all. We use a combination of airmail and international courier services. For international newsstand distribution we work with our national distributor to sort and ship copies to bookstores around the world but focusing mainly on English-speaking countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Are your magazines available on newsstands?
Yes. Both magazines are available through major bookstores chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble in the US and Indigo/Chapters in Canada. We are also in a variety of grocery store and specialty retailers and a selection of independent bookstores. In addition we are sold through a network of homebrewing and winemaking supply retailers.
How do you market WineMaker and BYO? What has proved your most successful marketing venue?
We have a mix of promotional streams to boost circulation. Direct mail has gone down as a percentage over the years but is still an important vehicle for us. Both our websites generate an increasing number of print subscribers with good pay-up. We have also had success with package inserts placed in outbound boxes being sent to winemaking and brewing supply customers from a variety of mail order companies.
Where do you find your writers and photographers?
We network through our own contacts in the hobbies and professional brewing and winemaking ranks to find new writers. For photographers we have a local photographer shoot most of our covers and then use specialty stock houses focused on wine and beverage or use our own staff photos for other artwork.
What is your magazine's editorial mission?
Our main mission is to deliver good, well-researched information in a clear way to help people pursue their passion for making either great wine or beer at home.
How would you describe your magazine's editorial style?
We try to be informative without being intimidating. This is after all a hobby not a job so we try to give good information in an entertaining format that never looses sight of the how-to mission we have with both publications.
What are your biggest challenges when it comes to content?
Striking the right balance between the various needs of our readership, from beginner to expert, and for the various ways people make wine and beer, from kits to scratch.
Comparing your latest issue to your premier issue, how has WineMaker Magazine changed since it first launched?
As mentioned in an earlier answer, when WineMaker was first spun-off from Brew Your Own we basically modeled the editorial departments and tone from Brew Your Own changing beer to wine where needed. We ended up finding out that while the brewers liked more humor, the winemakers on the other hand wanted a more refined and sophisticated approach. As a result WineMaker’s current tone better reflects what the audience wants from the publication.
Your website, winemakermag.com, has a lot of web-only content. Is the entire content of each issue also available on-line at the site?
We only put up a small fraction of our print content online from each issue. Usually we post one feature story and two departments. The rest is only available in the print publication. I think this gives enough of a taste for web visitors to get a better sense of what the magazine is about while keeping enough incentive to actually sign up and pay for the print publication. With over 10 years of adding new content online in this manner it has resulted in a pretty comprehensive archive of online material while not hurting our core print product. We have also taken advantage of what the web can do by adding some content only available online such as calculator, blogs, etc.
How do you see the pairing of your website and your print magazine. Does one cannibalize circulation or advertising from the other, or do they complement each other?
I think they complement each other. For me the website is first and foremost a subscription tool. Yes we gain a bit of advertising and product sale revenue from the web, but for me the real financial justification for our investment in the website is to generate more print subscriptions, which it has been doing.
Has the Internet helped you with your subscription sales?
Yes, each year since 2000 the number of subscription generated has increased for both publications. We offer a free trial issue as our main promotion online. The pay-up on these soft offers has been strong and much higher than pay-up rates from direct mail efforts.
With the internet being touted as a resource for information, how are you faring in terms of competition with the Internet and what challenges do you face?
I think we are doing just fine since we have a great archive of solid material that attracts visitors. In the last few months we have also started up a presence on Facebook and Twitter to take better advantage of the boom in social media and try to drive more traffic (and ultimately print subscription sales) to our main websites. We have also invested in a redesign of both websites in the last year, have some of our writers blogging, podcasting and we’ll have some short instructional videos on the web before the end of the year. Just as we want to be the leading source of information for these two hobbies on the print side, we also want to be the leading source of online information for the hobbies as well.
What was your initial investment, approximately, to start your first magazine?
I purchased two existing publications, although one was in its first year of existence and still very much in launch-mode. While I put down a small up-front payment about equal to buying a new SUV, I was lucky enough to fund the majority of my purchase through royalties based on annual revenues paid to the prior owner over the course of several years. The royalty payments were covered by business cash flow and required no additional debt.
How long did it take before your publication began to see a profit?
After the 18 months we were profitable and I was able to begin drawing a salary.
Did you seek government subsidies when starting or after you began publication? Outside investment?
No. We have funded all growth out of the business cash flow.
What opportunities do you see for your magazines in the future?
Luckily much of our content is evergreen so it doesn’t become less relevant as time passes. As a result we will continue to spin-off special issues and books filled with repackaged content from past issues. The four special issues and two books we have published to date have all done well and we will continue to pursue this strategy.
Events have become a more important part of the mix in the last two years. I think we will continue to add more conference and in-person workshops relating to the two hobbies since the reaction to date has been very positive and the margins tend to be pretty good. It is also such a natural spin-off of our core mission to provide information about making beer and wine.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the magazine publishing industry over the next year?
Monetizing digital information efforts. How do you make more money off your website and other digital efforts.
In your opinion, what sets apart successful independent magazines from those that are not successful?
There are so many people out there who look at a magazine and say, how hard can it be to do that? Then they quickly find out. That is why the mortality rate for small publishing companies is so high. It is not enough to have a great idea or be a passionate enthusiast involved in the subject matter you want to cover. You need to know what you are doing and have some background in magazine publishing, preferably on the business side of publishing, since at the end of the day if you can’t pay your bills you are done.
In general, what would your advice be to someone considering publication of their own magazine?
When I was looking at my long term dream of owning my own small publishing company before I did anything else I sought out the opinions of over 50 different publishers of all sizes and stripes. I asked them if they were just starting out and wanted to end up running a successful small publishing company what would they do? Over 75% of these publishers said to learn circulation inside and out. It is the lifeblood of a publication and also often the largest cost center. It is also the main skill blindspot for most publishers who have traditionally graduated from the ad sales ranks. So I listened to the advice and took a series of circulation and marketing jobs with a variety of publications to learn the skills I now use everyday. I really believe advertising revenues will always follow a successful circulation model. I’m glad I got that advice and built up my experience to the point I was truly ready to take the plunge into running my own business ten years ago.
I would also say that you need to really be passionate about the subject matter. That passion and interest will come through clearly in your end product. I’ve been brewing my own beer and making wine before I was ever involved in publishing. These two subjects are ones I really care about and enjoy. That authenticity comes through when you talk with advertisers or readers. You are one of them. Plus it makes the long days of work that much more enjoyable. I can’t imagine spending the hours and effort I do working on a subject I am lukewarm about, even if it was lucrative. I am lucky that I have had the chance to combine my personal interest in beer and wine with my professional skill set of publishing.