Steven Watson launched Stack in December 2008 as a subscription service that supplies its customers with an edition of one curated indie magazine a month. In the almost twelve years Stack has been operating, the indie mag scene has grown steadily. In addition, Stack produces a magazine competition for best cover, art direction, magazine, etc. I’ve been a judge for four years of covers and in 2019, with New York Times Magazine Creative Director Gail Bilchler, I helped to judge the best art direction. For 2020 Watson is soliciting nominations from the public for the Best Indie Magazine of The Decade. I recently, asked him about this landmark and the past, present and future of Stack.
What was your impetus? Were you a fan or a maker of magazines?
When I started Stack I was editing in-flight magazines and feeling a bit uninspired churning out print for corporate clients. I was also writing freelance for a handful of independent magazines and loved their freedom and ambition, so I’d say I was both a fan and a maker; Stack was basically a way for me to be able to work with all the great magazines I’d admired from afar.
I’m actually in awe of what you are able to do. The logistics must be very difficult. What is your system for determining and getting the magazines you showcase?
Thanks very much! Honestly the logistics are really simple – everyone gets the same magazine so we can work in bulk and just have a few thousand copies sent to the warehouse, where they’re packed up and sent out to our subscribers. Selecting the magazines is also pretty straight forward, but it just takes a really long time. I’m looking for new ideas – either a magazine that’s covering ideas I’ve never come across before, or talking about familiar stuff from a new and original perspective. We’ll typically watch a magazine develop over a couple of issues before we schedule it for Stack; we work about six months ahead of time and I look for variety so Stack never becomes predictable. For example last month we delivered a music magazine, so that means we won’t send out another music magazine for a while. But also it was a saddle stitched, glossy title from Berlin, so this month we’ve got an amazingly thick, bookish title from London – I’m always looking for something that’s different to the last delivery.
Each year you organize a review/competition. What is the process?
That’s right – we’ve been running the Stack Awards for five years. Most magazine awards are boring because they cater to the mainstream magazines, which can afford to pay hundreds of pounds or dollars to enter. But those awards do have a genuinely rigorous process, so my idea was to take that rigour and apply it to independent magazines, while making it as cheap as possible to enter so that virtually anyone can take part. Our awards cost £30 to enter and you have to send three copies of your magazine to us. We shortlist them in the Stack office and then the shortlists are sent out to our expert judges around the world. (The shortlists are limited to 15 titles, or 20 for the category of Cover of the Year, so they’re really quite long shortlists, but I want to put the power in the judges’ hands rather than us determining everything.) Every category has two expert judges plus me, and we come together either in person or online for a judging session to decide which should be the winners. I think it’s really important that the judges get to live with the magazines for a while – I’ve been involved in awards where I received the entry forms in advance but only saw the magazines for real when it came to the judging day, and I’d rather let the magazines speak for themselves. Then once all the winners are decided we have a big party and hand out our lovely timber trophies, and this year for the first time we were able to give cash prizes too, thanks to sponsors putting their names to the individual categories.
And have you noticed that this has a positive effect on the indie mag industry?
I’m not sure about that. At the last awards several of the winners spoke about the fact that the awards created a space for independents to come together and I really liked that. One of the best things about the awards is that nobody is paid to be there – independent magazine makers come together from all over the place for one night and they all pay their own travel, just because they want to be part of it. I think that’s really special but I’m not sure I could say we’ve had an overall effect on the independent magazine industry. There’s loads of interesting and exciting stuff going on all the time, and I think the awards is good at shining a light on it, rather than specifically developing it.
How many mags would you approximate are published? And what is the average life expectancy?
I have no idea. The kind of magazines I’m interested in are not part of industry bodies or other organisations. They’re generally not audited because they probably don’t make money from advertising, so it’s impossible to bring them all together in one place. It’s also really difficult to put a life expectancy on them – people talk about the third issue as being a threshold, and magazines having ‘made it’ if they get past that difficult third issue, but I don’t think you can put an average on such a disparate group of publications.
I hate to admit, that my magazine diet has decreased with the internet. In fact, my only nourishment is Stack. Do you see an upswing of a down turn in print these days?
Ha! I’m very pleased that we’re keeping you fed! I started my first job in 2001 so I don’t know what it was like to work before the internet, let alone run an independent magazine business. I can definitely believe that people are reading less in print now because of the internet, but on the other hand the massive diversity of titles we have now is a direct result of the internet, either because it has provided tools like Kickstarter and Creative Cloud, which have allowed people to make new magazines, or because it has helped weird little subcultures to come together and make things they care about.
You’re about to select the “best” indie of the decade. How do you want the public to judge — what is the measure of bestness?
This is all going to be very subjective – it’s a public vote so that means it’s the opposite of the Stack Awards, where we turn to experts and ask them to think long and hard about the relative merits of different magazines. The vote will take place on Twitter, so people will probably spend about three seconds thinking about it, and they will hopefully just be responding to the magazines they’ve loved most over the last 10 years. I personally think of that as being the magazine that has affected me most and defined the way I think about the world, but I’m very happy for other bestnesses to be different to that.