The Big Interview: Stack Magazines Founder Steven Watson

Steven Watson_crop (credit Anna Eckold)

Founded as a hobby, independent magazine subscription service Stack celebrates the medium in ways few others do. Fellow magazine aficionado Mike Pinnington caught up with Stack’s founder Steven Watson to get the lowdown on where it all started, and a decade on, whether reading for pleasure is still a thing…

It’s a scenario the vast majority of us can identify with. You’re at your desk, mind well on its way to being numbed by the monotonous task at hand. With the risk of your going postal growing, there’s only one thing for it. If you don’t get up and go for a walk now, it’s game over. Steven Watson doesn’t tell the story in quite so dramatic a hue, but it was in such circumstances that the seeds were sown for Stack, the independent magazine subscription service that last year celebrated its first decade.

Watson  tells me that, prior to Stack’s inception, he “was working for a pretty dull publishing company and, mid-afternoon, I’d lose the will to keep looking at my computer screen and go for a bit of a walk. It just so happened that our office was above Magma, and so I’d just wander down and stare at the shelves.” It was on one of his frequent sorties there that he came across Zembla, an independent “really ambitious” literary magazine with “challenging graphic design”. It was this “that switched me on to independent magazines as a whole,” he says, “[and] I just started writing for some of them in my spare time.”

“If Stack were a comic book character, consider this its origin story”

If Stack were a comic book character, consider this the beginnings of its origin story. After Zembla came Little White Lies, the movie magazine launched in 2005. “I discovered that about issue three I think, and it was all about A History of Violence, which I’d gone to see with my then girlfriend.” In a remarkable piece of serendipity, Watson recounts that the next day, his girlfriend (and now wife) “started a new job with someone whose boyfriend edited the magazine”. Shortly afterwards, he found himself attending a new contributor meet up in the pub. “That,” he says, “was my way into independent magazines.” His enthusiasm for the indie mags he was encountering led him to wonder why more people didn’t know or care about them. “I know that my friends would love Little White Lies,” he thought to himself, “it’s perfect for them but they don’t even know it exists.”

By this time, he had dropped down to four days a week in his “depressing job.” The idea was that “I would get more by-lines for other places, and I did that for a year; by the end of the year, I’d written a piece on the air-guitar championships for the Guardian Guide… but basically, I got to the end of that year and I hadn’t anywhere near as much money as if I’d just been working five days a week.” Worse still, he hadn’t made the expected contacts, which brutally put paid to the idea he’d “go to work for the Guardian or something.”

Stack of magazines

This was partially down to the well-documented changing nature of journalism at the time. “Back when I was editing for in-flight magazines, it was all a bit dirty and people looked down their noses at it, and by the time I left there, y’know, we regularly had big name writers pitching us stories, because it was becoming harder and harder to make a living as a journalist, and I was terrified, because these were relatively famous journalists and nobody knew who I was – I wasn’t going to be able to survive in this world, so I actively wanted to give myself another thing that I could do that wasn’t just writing or editing. So, I thought ‘what am I going to do?’, and decided I needed to start a business.”

By this time, he had got to know the LWL team well, and, speaking to co-founder and publisher Danny Miller, learned that one of the main difficulties they had was the sale or return model, “because you just don’t know. It was a real problem.” So, in the “mode where you’re looking for opportunities,” he found himself “scribbling down ideas for businesses, and these conversations with Danny put me on to the idea that maybe there’s a little business in this, and so Stack was the first of the putative business plans that actually looked like it could turn into a thing.” Didn’t it seem risky to base a business on print at that time, I ask. “Nine/10 years ago, it did genuinely look like people might stop reading magazines in print. Did people say I was mad? Yeah! It was very much something I did because I found doing this thing gave me so much more time and patience in my ‘proper’ job, because it’s not all I’m doing in my life. I just wanted to make it happen. During that time, honestly, if there had been investors, or some imperative to make money, it would have stopped, because it was a hobby. It didn’t work like that.”

“A reason for starting the awards is that you can say: ‘this isn’t just me and my mad obsession’”

Flash forward from those tentative early days ran as a “hobby”, Stack now delivers “thousands of magazines every month to customers all around the world”. Throw in the Stack Awards, which Watson introduced in 2014, and it’s vindication for, not only Watson’s leap of faith, but the medium too. “You want to mark what’s been going on,” he says. “But what it means is that I just go to the pub with [magCulture’s] Jeremy Leslie, and we talk for a couple of hours about what we’d really like, and we publish blog posts! So, I just felt ‘there has to be a way’ – basically, if someone’s prepared to take away the money-making thing, run it at a loss – which we do – then there’d be an amazing opportunity to do a proper rigorous awards process, that is genuinely open to everybody. That was the impulse four years ago. I did it for the first time, it nearly killed me… But I’m not doing it all on my own now, and year on year it’s just been so satisfying to see this thing that began as a bit of an impulse turn into something that is real, and so, yeah.” Another reason for starting the awards, he points out, “is that you can say, ‘this isn’t just me and my mad obsession.’”

Making the awards happen, and overseeing the day-to-day business, I wonder is it still exciting to receive new publication submissions? He’s unequivocal in his answer. “Definitely. 100%. The thing that keeps me going is when you get something through, and you just see that spark on the page.” He points out that many of these magazines are a labour of love, rather than anything anyone makes any money of. “Don’t assume that if you make a really intelligent, beautiful amazing thing, it’s therefore gonna make money, because sadly that’s just not the case.” But, he says, by the same token, it’s this that produces the kind of “magazines that are full of things that people really, really care about, because if they didn’t care about it, they wouldn’t be doing it.”

“That means that our job becomes more important, because we can become the filter”

Of course, more isn’t always more. “It’s definitely the case that we’re seeing more magazines these days, and I think the law of averages says that if you get more of something, there’s more bad stuff; there’s more bad stuff than there is good stuff, all the time always in everything. So, y’know, I think that means that our job becomes more important, because we can become the filter for saying to people: ‘it is literally impossible to keep up with all this stuff, but if you just read one magazine this month, make it this one because we think it’s really fun, or important, or exciting’. I’m definitely excited by it!”

What about finding time to read for pleasure? “I’ve always got a mountain of magazines that I need to catch up with, and [take] any opportunity I can get – I love it if I go and meet a friend in a pub and they’re late, because I just get some quiet reading time of my own and that’s the best thing.” And what’s always on the list, what is it that still makes the cut? “I’ve just seen the new issue of Eye on Design is out, a mag that started last year – it’s just really exciting. It’s a design magazine that’s run by AIGA [the American Institute of Graphic Arts]; the specific point of it is reaching designers at the start of their career. They’re so playful, but actually they’re talking about serious subjects. The first issue was the Invisible issue; they used that to talk about the invisibility that comes with prejudice.”

The magazine, which won cover of the year at last year’s Stack Awards is, he thinks, staffed by “an all-woman team, but that’s never explicitly said anywhere. This isn’t a feminist design magazine; it’s just a design magazine that happens to be made by women. And you get loads of stories about interesting female perspective. The second issue is the Psych issue, and so for example, there’s a piece on overlooked women of ‘60s psychedelic art, and how all the big, famous names of that time are men, but when you look at it there were all these women also doing really amazing stuff, but because of the way things were they didn’t get the exposure that they deserved.” It’s just this kind of exposure that Stack is helping to provide for all kinds of magazines. Just over the last few months subscribers will have received Shelf Heroes, a beautiful zine dedicated to film, Above Sea Level, which strives to provide “a new perspective on wine” and Gym Class Magazine – fittingly, “a magazine about magazines”. In these times of a multiplicity of information, much of it digital, through Stack, Watson has reintroduced and fostered the unique anticipation that comes with a tangible magazine subscription. Here’s to that, and to the next decade.

Mike Pinnington

Reader offer: Subscribing to Stack?  Entering the discount code DOUBLENEG will give you 10% off.

More on Stack: Read Jacob Charles Wilson’s report from last year’s Stack Awards

Steven Watson image (crop), courtesy Anna Eckold

Posted on 01/02/2019 by thedoublenegative