ET42- Launching Digital Magazines w/Margaret Brown

How to Find A Platform, Audience and More In The Digital Content World

plan writingAfter a long successful career in the print magazine publishing world Margaret Brown decided to go out on her own and the obvious way to do that was in the digital world.

It is almost impossible to start a new print magazine without huge funding and a long runway to wait for profits but in the digital world the opposite it true- you can launch cheaply and survive with a much smaller audience because of the vastly different economics. That doesn’t mean it’s easy though!

I had a great conversation about the challenges of finding a platform, a business model and keeping it all going through rapid growth and the addition of more and more editions.

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Twitter: @shelfmagazine


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Matt: Welcome to the Entrepreneur Talk Podcast. Today, I have the pleasure of talking with Margaret Brown. She is the owner, founder of Shelf Media Group that publishes 3 different digital magazines including Shelf Unbound, Middle Shelf and Podster. Thank you, Margaret, for taking the time to talk with me today. Why don’t we just kinda get started by giving me a little bit of the background, your history and how you got into being the owner of Shelf Media?

Margaret: Sure, Matt. Thanks for having me on the show. I had been a magazine editor for 25 years when digital, iPod, kinda really took off in 2010. I got really interested in the idea of digital magazines. I ended up deciding to launch my own and pull together some industry friends that I have known, worked with over the years. I had a personal interest in Indie Literature. We saw a little space there and we launched Shelf Unbound: Indie Book Review Magazine. The goal for the company was to launch a digital magazine. Get it up and running and profitable. Once we had that going, to launch other titles. So, we’re currently up to 3 titles. Initially, we were on a news stand that everybody was on initially. We were for sale. We had about a hundred subscribers and we couldn’t make it grow so we quickly decided to put it on a different news stand, make it available for free with the idea that we could get a huge potentially global audience. That’s what happened. Shelf Unbound is read in 75+ countries and we were profitable in our 2nd year. We sell advertising and primarily, the self-published authors. We deliver a huge global readership to our advertiser clients.

Matt: Okay. You kinda have the idea to get started. What were the steps from there? I know there’s some software and some systems that help you do digital magazine publishing. Did you kinda pick a platform and then go from there? What were your steps to get started?

Margaret: We’ve actually been on about – we produced the magazine in design and create it as a PDF and then, we upload it to their platform. Over the years, over the 5 years, I think we’ve been on 4 or 5 platforms. The most recent one we’ve been on for a while – its ISSUU Digital News Stand. We like ISSUE because it’s either free or you can get a very inexpensive premium account. Its very user friendly and the great thing for us is that it delivers a pretty big readership to us which our other digital news stand did not. So, ISSUU is great both as a publisher and it connects you with a lot of readers.

Matt: And how did you go about finding content for you issues? Was that one of the easier parts? I would imagine there’s a lot of indie authors that would love to be able to be part of it. Was that one of the more challenging parts in finding things that you actually felt were the key of getting in?

Margaret: Having been an editor for a national magazine for 25 years, the editorial part was a piece of cake for me. We have a very small staff and so, we try and operate very efficiently. The way that I put together Shelf Unbound, for example, is that myself and my team, we follow about a hundred small processes and kinda keep an eye on what they are doing and their new releases just by going through their sites and seeing what they’re doing. We’ve identified small processes that we know that everything that they put out is gonna be excellent and so that works as a really efficient filter for us. We also got, as you mentioned, self-published authors contacting us pretty frequently with that. We do take a look at every book that is sent to us electronically or physically. Annually, we have a writing competition for best self-published book. We feature the winner and the finalists and a hundred notable books entered in the competition in our December – January issue every year. We get about a thousand entries. We have a small entry free. So, that gives us an additional revenue stream. It’s a really exciting thing because we got all these books and the best of them are some of the best books out there, as good or better than anything you’ll find on the New York Times Bestseller List. It gives us an opportunity to discover some of the best indie authors and it gives us an opportunity to really support that community.

Matt: Well, that’s cool. If you have a category for best sleep aid, I could contribute my book on accounting. If you have a QuickBooks problem, it’s a good read. Other than that, it’s a fantastic sleep aid if you are having trouble sleeping.

Margaret: We get a lot of kinda how to and help books and a lot of them are really good. Some of those have been our some of our notable books. So, think about it.

Matt: Well, I appreciate that generous offer. You said you tried initially a subscription model and that didn’t go as well as you were hoping. I guess, why did you pick that first? Why did you decide afterwards to with advertising? It seems to me in advertising, you gotta have a high volume of readership in order to be able to charge enough for the ads to make that work.

Margaret: Right. That was our initial challenge. I think coming from print magazines and the subscription model for that that just was the first thing that occurred to me. but then after really being in the digital space for not all that long, I realize that there’s so much content out there and younger people are not accustomed to paying for content and don’t plan on doing that. It just made sense for us to kinda take that leap given that the paid subscription model wasn’t working for us. We got a really good response to our magazine. We have excellent content. We are known for the quality of our interviews and for the excellent designs of our magazines. So, we had a great product. We just needed to switch the model of how we are gonna get it out there. Once we switched, it took about a year to really get our circulation up but we did some advertising not to great effect, mainly, we’ve succeeded through word of mouth, social media and also our writing competition has gotten us some attention that has brought us some subscribers.

Matt: I would imagine just based on the kind of things that you are publishing. It’s not really the general audience. It’s probably a pretty specific audience. Have you figured out kind of the right demographics and where to find them?

Margaret: Yeah. It is a specific demographic. It tends to be people 35 to 65 men and women, college-educated, additional degrees, relatively high-end income. But the thing about digital magazines and that’s really great right now is that you can appeal to a niched audience. So, you’re delivering a pretty quality reader to your advertisers – somebody who’s really interested in what that advertiser is bringing to the plate. But because we’re digital and we’re free, we could go to a huge audience and like I said, a global audience. So, digital was pretty great for finding and satisfying your niche audience.

Matt: Yeah. It definitely has a lot of advantages. With that said, I don’t feel like I’m that old – I’m 42. But I still remember fondly sitting down with a paper, print magazines and flipping through and just enjoying that experience of getting them in the mail. It’s so cool and there are so many things to see and you couldn’t see it anywhere else. Do you think there’s any future for print? Or is there any print in your future? Is there any advantage to having something that is physical and you can still hold? Or is that really just I’m a dinosaur at 42?

Margaret: Not at all. I think if you look at like books, I love to read. Digitally, I read books on my phone, my tablet and I also like to read print books. I kinda like to mix it up. I do subscribe to a few magazines and I really love the print magazines particularly the ones in the coffee table style print magazines. I think those will be around for a while and maybe primarily. But, they are very expensive to produce. There’s a lot of ways. With magazines that don’t get purchased, they are thrown away. I think there’s a place for both. I don’t plan to go into print magazines because it’s very expensive. We’re doing fine with digital and that’s where we are gonna stay.

Matt: Well, it certainly make sense especially when you are smaller, the cost of producing an actual print magazine is gonna be just out of reach.

Margaret: Yeah. We would’ve failed. I mean, first of all, I wouldn’t have had the money to start it. But even if I had, it’s very expensive because you got paper, printing, postage and we had about a year runway to get ourselves up and running successfully. With the print magazine, we would have to be successful in about 3 months.

Matt: Right. Which is a very short runway to find your audience.

Margaret: Yeah. We wouldn’t make it.

Matt: So, in terms of that, you said you’ve tried some different marketing things that mostly haven’t panned out. but it seems to me, something like Facebook for example, you can very specifically target the exact demographics that you were looking for and you’ve laid out some pretty specific ones and presumably on Facebook, you can match your ad showing to those specific demographics but it sounds – I don’t know, maybe you haven’t tried that yet – but you said you did try some marketing and didn’t really pan out.

Margaret: Yeah. We tried some Facebook and some of that marketing and didn’t really pan out for us. However, in the last year and a half, we have hired a social media person that’s doing really smart things for us on Facebook. Our social media efforts are definitely succeeding since we’ve hired this really good person.

Matt: Yeah. I think it’s definitely not as simple as write a little ad copy and throw it out there. There’s a lot more to it.

Margaret: yeah. You need to have people that know what they’re doing. So, we finally have that component.

Matt: In terms of launching the business and getting it to where you at, did you have anybody that you leaned on for help – mentors, coaches, or do you have partners in it? What was the human capital side of

Margaret: Yeah. I have a business partner. The things that were most helpful in that regard because I think that one thing I didn’t realize – which I think every small business person eventually realizes or realizes pretty quickly – is that you have the idea and you have the belief in that idea. You have the passion and you have the knowledge to do that part of it. So, for me, that was creating magazines. What I wasn’t really prepared for initially was that you also have the whole job of creating the structure of your business and functioning as a business. So, I had a learning curve there. Fortunately, pretty early on, I was kind of struggling with my identity and my confidence because I’ve been employed by other people for my entire career and I’ve been successful. I always had my name on a magazine at Bern’s and Noble. Now, I go into Bern’s and Noble and my name is not on the magazine there even though it’s a digital magazine. So, I had a little bit of free fall in terms of figuring that out. So, I was connected with a person who I met with Weekly who was a very successful business person and she became my small business coach. I met with her once a week. She was very helpful in terms of “if you’re not making money, it’s a hobby.” I would come in and say “Oh my gosh! I got an interview with [inaudible 0:18:50.0].” and she would say, “Where’s the money?” It was hard initially because I wanted to be in my comfort zone which was the editorial side but what I really needed to be was on the sale side and the business development side. So, overtime I made that adjustment. Now, the bulk of my time is on ad sales and the business. The editorial part is – I’ve got to find tune machine to get that done. But, it’s not where I’m spending the bulk of my time. I also was fortunate that my partner at the time has an MBA and was very able to help me – and put in a lot of time – and to help kind of set up the business part and get our accounting, all that kind of set up. I’ve been really fortunate to have some help that I didn’t pay for. That was really instrumental in making us successful.

Matt: Yeah. The business of running a business is a whole separate set of skills that most people don’t have right out of the gate especially if you’ve been an employee. Most of that stuff was taken care off. There was an accounting department that took care of the accounting and even gives it too much thought. So, on your own, now, you’re everything. It also falls into “Well, I know how to do this so I’m just gonna do this. Focus on this and not worry about the other stuff right now.” But it hangs over your head.

Margaret: Yeah. You can see why so many small business has failed. There’s a lot to it. Like I said, I’ve been really fortunate to have some help and guidance that made all the difference.

Matt: Definitely. If that’s not your strong suit, then, its best to seek it out early and to get that, where do you go from here? What are your plans for growth? What are you doing next?

Margaret: We just launched Podster. We’re getting a good reception to that. It’s a magazine about podcasts and podcasting. We’re having a lot of fun with that. In terms of the company, Shelf Unbound and Middle Shelf are every other month. Podsters right now. But I think in 2017, we’ll probably take Podster monthly. As I mentioned earlier, were launching a small podcast network for Shelf Media that has one of them I interview authors. One of them is interviews with poets. The other is interviews with artists. We’re doing a small number of those are gonna be paid or sponsored podcasts. We’re making a little new revenue stream there. We have our Shelf Unbound Competition. We’ll repeat that this year. Either this year or next year, depending on kinda what we feel our bandwidth is in terms of man hours available, were gonna launch a competition for best undiscovered podcast. We’ll kinda follow the model of Shelf Unbound Competition. We’ll have additional revenue stream there and also it should be a ton of fun. For the next couple of years, I think that’s gonna keep us busy enough and eventually we’ll probably launch another magazine or two. Those are our plans for the near future.

Matt: Hmm. Interesting. That brings to mind a business that I worked with years ago that did something similar to your contest. They would do independent film contest. They made about half of their revenue from having the entry fees but the other half of their revenue, if you were a winner and they have a few different categories of winners, honorable mention all the way up to grand prize winner, but the catch was, they have these really amazing looking trophies. They sort of looked like Oscars. But, if you are a winner then you were eligible to buy a trophy. The trophies were $350 or something like that. The trophy cost about $60 each. So, lots of people, more than I would’ve guessed, opted to buy the trophy. Then, they would display it. It would be on their shelf or whatever, and it would say “Honorable Mention for this Independent Film.” It looked pretty impressive. [Inaudible 0:24:06.8]

Margaret: I think I’m gonna use that idea.

Matt: I definitely would. I mean, that’s why I’m sharing it with you because it would’ve never occurred to me but I think it was about 50% of their total revenue. The only revenue this company had was entry fees and trophy sales but it was a significantly profitable venture.

Margaret: Shelf Unbound won a Maggy Award for Best Digital Magazine this year. We got 1 trophy for free but then we spent some good coin on purchasing another couple for some of our staff members. So, I think that’s a great idea and I’m gonna seal it.

Matt: Good!

Margaret: I just want to throw in – I was just thinking about as we are talking, for every success that I’ve had and everything that’s worked, I probably had 50 things that didn’t work. I think that’s the thing we kinda talk about a lot – all the things that failed. I think that as a small business person, you have to get really comfortable with failure and recognize that that just your journey. We are successful and I’m really proud of what we’ve done with the company. But, it has been because of trying a lot of different things and then when finally finding something that works, doing more of that.

Matt: Well, I definitely agree. In casual conversation, I think most entrepreneurs only bring up their success. But in candid conversations, particularly with other entrepreneurs, I think we can all admit that we’ve tried many things and only a small portion of them actually worked. It sort of a disservice to the general community to think that “This guy decided to be an entrepreneur. Look at him now. He’s got this great business and he’s making all these money.” But, the reality is, that might have been try 17. The first 16 was first bombs. So, don’t go in thinking you’re gonna have a success right off the bath.

Margaret: Right. And it takes a lot of failure. I heard this thing on the radio couple of years ago where they said the tech company wants to fail faster. I really kinda took that to heart. I thought, “Yeah, I need to be failing faster. I need to be trying more things so that I have that 17th thing that I’ve done and that thing works.” I wish there was some other word for it than failure that described something that you’ve tried but didn’t worked. I guess failure is the word for it.

Matt: Failure sounds final and harsh. I think, I mean, “Yes, it didn’t work. But that’s not the end. That’s not the last thing you’ll try and that doesn’t mean you kinda pack up and go home.” It’s just another step.

Margaret: Maybe we should call it Course correction.

Matt: Right. Course correction sounds better. Some of those courses are dead-end and you have to back up and start over. But ultimately, that’s how you get to the destination with a lot of misturns and mistakes and start going back and all that kind of stuff is all part of the journey. So, I definitely appreciate your time in sharing your story with us. For people who are interested in finding out more, where should they go? Where they can find you?

Margaret: Yeah. Our website is You can sign up for free subscriptions to all three of our magazines there. I’m available at If anybody is interested in the digital magazine field, please contact me. I’m always available to share what I’ve learned in being in this space for 5 years. I love to be a mentor to anybody that that’s in the space.

Matt: Well, that’s a generous offer. I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who have ideas and just don’t know where to start. It’s such a wide open industry. There’s so many different avenues and so many different options. You mentioned you’ve been on 5 platforms in 5 years. Just that one piece is obviously not cut and dry.

Margaret: Well, we’ve been on the current one for the couple of years so I think we’ve got that piece of the puzzle solved.

Matt: Good. Well, but it took you a while to find it for sure. Right?

Margaret: Yup! It did.

Matt: Okay. Well, thanks again. I really appreciate your time and you taking the time out to share the story with us which is very cool to hear.

Margaret: Thanks, Matt. I love your idea. I’m gonna take it and I’ll let you know how that goes.

Matt: Good. That was this is all about – adding value all the way around.

Margaret: Nicely done!

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