Creating a brand in an overcrowded market: an interview with Amy Middleton

Amy Middleton is the founding editor of Archer Magazine, an award-winning print journal about sexuality, gender, identity and diversity. Since its launch in November 2013, Archer has become one of the most talked-about magazines in Australia’s literary landscape. We talked to Amy about her experiences in creating a magazine from scratch.

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Grattan Street Press (GSP): There’s no denying that creating a dint in today’s publishing industry – whether in books or magazines – is a fairly difficult thing to do. What were some of the responses you received from friends, family, colleagues and people in the community when you started Archer?

Amy Middleton (AM): I’ve received so much support, from the writing community, funding bodies and especially from my nearest and dearest, which has been crucial to the project’s success. People loved the idea, and donated to its initial crowdfunding campaign, which was great.

That said, I learned early on that I needed a clear justification for why I was starting a print magazine, specifically. This idea that ‘print is dead’ has a lot of airtime, and people loved to challenge me on my decision!

My justification for print is that I want Archer Magazine to represent an artefact, reflecting changes in social attitudes and customs. Already, looking back on issue one highlights how our discussion of sexuality and gender has shifted, even just in the past four years. It’s difficult to create a relic using digital formats: technology changes, design adapts to suit those changes, and digital publishing doesn’t allow us to pore over an object in quite the same way.

The second reason is that people with diverse identities deserve to see themselves reflected and celebrated in the media, especially in glossy, high-production formats. I reckon this is crucial to self-confidence and empowerment. I grew up seeing almost no representation of my sexual identity in the media, and I held onto movies that often depicted LGBTI characters befalling tragic ends. It was a depressing and alienating experience.

These days, the print and digital arms of Archer Magazine are quite distinct, but the magazine is fiercely loved. If I ever threaten to go digital-only, for financial reasons, the uproar is loud enough to make me reconsider.

GSP: Can you give us some idea of your marketing plan behind Archer? What audiences were important to you, and how did you aim to reach them specifically – apart from getting the magazine into bookstores and retailers?

AM: Accessibility was always super important. Archer Magazine‘s mission statement is to share lesser-heard voices on issues around sexual and gender diversity. We provide a platform for voices, but we also have a responsibility to get that platform in front of the audiences that need it most.

Initially, I thought accessibility looked like the magazine’s presence in stores across Australia. Now, I’ve realised the importance of having free, accessible content online, with a solid social media presence, so we can be discovered by the highest possible number of people, anonymously if necessary. Funnily enough, I also gradually realised how expensive it was to ship print magazines to far-flung locations. As a result, our stockists have become much more targeted, and a lot of energy has been spent on sharing stories on our website.

GSP: Is there a significant difference between your initial vision for the magazine and how it ended up in print?

AM: The biggest shift for me, editorially, was our gradual adoption of the personal essay format for the majority of our content. Initially, I’d commissioned more journalistic approaches to the issues we covered, but over time I’ve seen the value of human stories in what has become a highly politicised and dehumanised debate about people’s sexual and gender identities. LGBTI+ refers to a whole bunch of actual individual people: we are living our lives and trying to get by, and the mainstream media tends to gloss over that.

I also realised how crucial it is to present stories on certain identities or expressions written by the people who are actually experiencing them. So, rather than commission a journalist to investigate polyamory, we’ll ask a polyamorous person to reflect on their own life or relationships or community. Similarly, we wouldn’t commission a third-person account of transgender issues, we’d ask a trans person to write about their own experience.

Again, we see this as setting an example for the wider media, urging them to share the voices of humans, rather than report on their experiences from a distance. It’s more resonant storytelling, for starters, but more importantly activates a reader’s empathy, rather than their opinion.

GSP: What has been the most challenging thing about starting a new magazine?

AM: Oh gosh. Where to begin? Learning to run a business (which began with the surprising hurdle of actually admitting that I had started a business – I was in denial!) has been an enormous challenge. I was a young journalist with a passion for storytelling, and I’ve had to learn on the job about the logistics of accounting, staffing, postage, distribution and a plethora of administrative tasks I won’t even bother mentioning because they are simultaneously boring and anxiety-producing. (I recently tried to write my position description as founder/publisher/editor, and the list was so absurd that after three pages I just laughed and gave up.)

A sense of responsibility to the readers, the contributors and my team of volunteers probably weighs on me the most. I feel I have a duty of care to a lot of people, and coping with that sense of responsibility has been a really steep learning curve.

Luckily, I have an amazing team (we’re currently 12 volunteers strong) and once I learned how to delegate and entrust people with hefty jobs, the load started to lessen. Now, I’m training up my first ever incoming editor, which is a massive step. The best part is, I’m not even nervous. I genuinely can’t wait to see where the magazine goes with someone new at the helm.

GSP: What has been the most rewarding thing about establishing a magazine, despite the difficulties involved?

AM: We receive emails from people telling us the publication has improved their life in some way – by strengthening their relationships, or improving their sense of identity and their position in the world. This is of course very encouraging and rewarding.

We recently conducted a reader survey which asked, ‘What is your favourite thing about Archer Magazine?’ and for me, reading those responses can be very helpful for getting through the hardest times.

Managing to overcome challenges, and getting the business to a point where it’s starting to pay its own way, is also personally very rewarding. It feels like quite the accomplishment, given how many hours I’ve spent on the floor crying and wishing I could just work for someone else for a little while.

Occasionally we win awards, too, which is nice.

GSP: What was the most unexpected or surprising thing you learnt along the way?

AM: That it isn’t just me who doesn’t understand the world. No-one really does! They’re all just pretending. That has been a very empowering and liberating realisation, which is ongoing.
Also, my least favourite tasks – ad sales and budgeting, for example – have become some of my favourites. That was definitely surprising, but something my mentors warned me about. I’ve created a monster.

GSP: What do know now that you wish you had known before starting your own magazine?

AM: This is a tricky question, because I think a level of naivety is crucial to embarking on any creative project, or postgraduate degree, or significant life change, or any other adventure. If I’d known then how hard it was going to be, I might have found an easier way to publish the stories I wanted to share. But I don’t regret anything that’s happened, so I’m actually really thankful for my initial ignorance.

GSP: For you, what is the most interesting thing happening in Australian magazine culture right now, or Australian literary culture more generally?

AM: The enormous blossoming of new independent magazines, and seeing them go from strength to strength, despite the overall financial downturn of larger media platforms is so bloody amazing.

I did an entrepreneurial workshop once where the facilitator said ‘If you’re heading for an iceberg, you’d rather be in a row-boat than the Titanic.’ This is true for media, too – the industry is going down the toilet in some ways, but small magazine creators can tweak their approach, experiment with form and content, and slowly grow their audiences with relatively small revenue and readership requirements.

This excites me because there has to be some future for media, and I reckon it lives among these smaller independent publications. We mag editors sometimes get together and share our experiences and knowledge – there’s tons of reciprocal support, rather than antagonism or competition. It’s a beautiful thing. And, crucially, we’re creating blueprints for other independent creators to make their moves, which will allow for more diverse and important voices to reach wider audiences, for the betterment of society as a whole.

GSP: Where do you hope to see Archer in 5 to 10 years?

AM: Still around, still growing, and starting to give more substantial remuneration to artists, writers and editors with marginalised identities. We’ve started paying very small honorariums to our volunteers, and I’d like to continue to build this. I’m keen to break this mythology that artists must work for free for the privilege of creating. Literature is part of the fabric of society and should be valued as such.

GSP: What piece of advice can you offer anyone hoping to start up their own magazine, press or publishing project?

AM: Do some quick planning, and then dive in: don’t think too hard. That said, during my planning stage, I asked very supportive editors and writers from the literary community a bunch of questions, which was really, really helpful.

Incidentally, I’m always glad to meet with new magazine creators and share knowledge, but I’ve banned myself from meeting them at deadline time, because I’m usually beside myself, on the brink of breakdown, and hence tend to tell people to stop, get paid jobs and not go any further.

Not very inspiring.


See more from Amy and Archer Magazine at http://archermagazine.com.au/ and via their facebook page.

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