Ten years ago, Tom Kirkman did what many people would say was nearly impossible. He launched a glossy, color magazine for a small niche market.
A decade later, his magazine, Rodmaker Magazine, is still going strong.
We interviewed Tom about his successes, difficulties, and lessons learned as a successful independent magazine publisher.
How long have you been publishing your magazine?
I began publishing RodMaker in 1998.
Tell us about your target market?
RodMaker is published expressly for folks who are involved in the custom fishing rod craft.
Did you have an interest in this niche before you started publishing your magazine?
Yes I did - I have been building custom fishing rods for about 15 years prior to starting the magazine.
Would you consider yourself an expert in your field?
I'd say that I'm extremely competent in nearly all phases of custom rod building. I think it's important that the publisher and editor of any publication have a good working knowledge and at least some practical experience in the field which their publication concerns. I have seen publications where this wasn't the case and it doesn't take long for readers to figure out if they're being provided with sound instruction, or not.
The advent of home computers made it possible for anyone to become a publisher of sorts. But it didn't and doesn't guarantee anyone's qualifications to be a publisher, editor, writer, layout person, etc.
We know that a bulk of revenues from magazines published by the large publishing conglomerates comes from advertising revenues. Does your niche provide good opportunities for revenues from advertising?
No, not at all. The custom rod building industry isn't very large and has never been very progressive from a marketing standpoint. So the advertising base I have to work with is quite small.
Do you pursue advertising yourself, use a rep, or a marketplace like mediabids.com?
I do it all myself and frankly, it's the one area I'm not very good at. I don't have the time nor inclination to pursue advertising leads. Most of my advertisers weren't solicited - they came to me asking to get on board.
If there was any one thing that another publisher shouldn't emulate from what I've done, it's the way I go about pursuing, or perhaps I should say, the way I haven't pursued advertising dollars.
By all means, if you have the size and capital to do it, hire a person experienced in advertising sales. At least if you intend to make money!
What is your circulation?
We mail to about 15,000 custom rod builders each issue.
How often do you publish the magazine?
Six times per year - about all I'd care to do considering this is a one person operation.
Are there any restrictions on where you deliver your magazine?
I only fulfill subscriptions inside the U.S. at this point. I had originally offered foreign subscriptions but the delivery losses were far too high. Almost 50% of the magazines I mailed overseas went missing. A small publication can go broke replacing those issues when you add in the high mailing cost for each one you have to replace.
Is your magazine available on any shop newsstands?
Not any longer. Another problem small publications have is the return rate - most newsstands are only going to sell about 30% of the copies they order and will expect credit for unsold copies. You don't get those unsold copies back - they're destroyed and you simply get the covers returned as proof of unsold issues. I can't pay for those 70% that get destroyed with the 30% that get sold. It's just not in the cards for a magazine of RodMaker's size.
How do you market your magazine?
It's difficult because there are no mailing lists targeting custom rod builders. For me, is was hunt one here and one there. Follow up on leads, borrow or buy dealers lists, etc. These days I'm far enough down the road that word of mouth works well. But that's not something a start up publication could possibly rely on.
I would highly recommend that anyone wishing to get a publication of the ground go the direct mail route. Particularly if they can obtain a quality, narrowly targeted and up to date mailing list. This is the least expensive and most effective way to reach your potential market.
The internet? Well you have to have a site these days and it will be the place where many will subscribe. But you have to drive them to the site with a direct mail campaign. Plenty of sales are made on the internet, but that's not where they're created. Direct mail is still #1 in that regard and by a wide, wide margin.
Where do you find your writers and photographers?
I knew quite a few from my own rod building days and once the magazine got off the ground many more came to me of their own accord. They were anxious to participate. You have to remember, until RodMaker came along there wasn't any other full sized, subscription based publication for our craft. A good many of them had been waiting for something like RodMaker to come along.
What is your editorial mission?
To further the craft by continually introducing new ideas, techniques and methods. I'm proud to say that in the 12 years that RodMaker has been published, the craft has seen more growth and expansion into new aspects than at any time in its previous history. Attend any rod building gathering or event in the world and the techniques you see being demonstrated likely came from the pages of RodMaker Magazine. Some progress has always been there, but not at the rate nor the amount that we've had since RodMaker became available.
How would you describe your magazine's editorial style?
It's intended to be almost as if somebody were standing next to you and giving you one-on-one instruction. Rod builders come from a wide variety of backgrounds so we have to converse in a way that is easy to understand. We don't want to bore anyone but neither do we want to talk above anyone. There is an old saying to the effect of "If you can explain it to your grandmother and she can understand it, then you know what you're talking about." That's how we try to approach our material.
What are your biggest challenges when it comes to content?
Keeping enough variety in place so that everyone, no matter what their particular interest in the craft is, can get something out of every issue.
Lately I've been running shorter articles, but more of them. More "how-to" stuff on a great variety of subjects. The response has been tremendous.
Do you have a website?
Is the content of your magazine available on-line?
With the exception of a few sample articles, no.
Has the Internet helped you with your subscription sales?
Somewhat, maybe. The thing is, most of those who spend time browsing the internet are there because they want something for nothing. I know, that sounds a bit harsh, but it's true. Many dedicated 'net users are simply tire kickers. What the magazine website does for me, is allow the buyers who hear about the magazine elsewhere, to subscribe or renew quickly online. But the internet and website itself does not create customers. I have the data to back this up and I think many other publishers will tell you the same thing.
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?
The internet has hurt most publications. People want information right now and they want it for nothing. Rather than buy a book or subscribe to a magazine, they just go looking online. Sadly, what they find online often hasn't been fact checked or is simply bad in some way. They forget that the internet doesn't create information, it just disseminates it from other sources. And you don't know what those sources may have been.
Here's the thing - the best information isn't on the internet. At least not right away. It's created elsewhere - in quality books and other publications. Eventually that information trickles down to the internet. But that takes a little time and even then the form it takes may be different from the original.
In all the years I've been publishing RodMaker, I can't think of single instance where we found or were put onto something new in rod building via the internet. We've always been a year ahead of the internet. In fact, most of the newest and latest stuff that rod builders are so excited about were born in the pages of RodMaker and then trickled down to the internet from there. Our subscribers get the jump on the non-subscribers in this regard. And even when the material does work its way onto the internet, it often lacks the detail and quality that it had in the original magazine form. On my companion internet forum, www.rodbuilding.org, it's not hard to instantly recognize those who subscribe and those who don't - the ones asking the questions are usually non-subscribers and the ones providing good answers are folks who subscribe to the magazine.
The hard part, of course, remains convincing folks that subscribing to a specialty publication will be more beneficial to them than simply trying to pick up bits and pieces on the internet.
How long did it take before your publication began to see a profit? If you're not yet seeing a profit, when do you predict you will?
The motivation behind RodMaker was never monetary profit - I was just a rod builder that had always wished for a specialty magazine about custom rod building. So I wasn't under the gun to turn a profit. Obviously, even so I didn't wish to go into the hole. As it was, I'd guess I went 3 to 4 years before I turned the corner and began to make ends meet.
Did you seek government subsidies when starting or after you began publication? Outside investment?
No, not at all. I suppose there are times when that sort of thing might be appropriate, but I was raised in an atmosphere where you were expected to "do for yourself."
What opportunities do you see for your magazine?
I guess they're the same as they've always been - to continue to introduce the next new thing, the next idea or technique that will invigorate our craft.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in your niche industry over the next year?
If the day comes where people stop or are no longer able to fish, then there won't be any need for anyone to build a fishing rod. So what I do; what the rod builders do, is very much dependent on the health of the world's fisheries. As the global population continues to increase, the pressure on those fisheries will become more and more substantial.
In your opinion, what sets apart successful independent magazines from those that are not successful?
The quality of the information or entertainment you provide to your readers will make or break any publication. I once worked for a brief time with another publisher who saw articles as mere "filler" - just something to stick in the magazine to take up space around the advertisements. He didn't care if the material was correct or current. He just wanted something to fill pages with. He's no longer in business, by the way.
In general, what would your advice be to someone considering publication of their own magazine?
I'd tell them to do their homework. Spend time learning the demographics of the market you wish to target. Decide if what you want they to do is even feasible. If it is, then move forward. But don't get too arty or cute in what you produce. You have to be objective and view your publication from the standpoint of those you hope will be your readers. It's always going to be about the amount of value you provide for the money your customers are asked to spend.