Champion of Magazines: An Interview with Andrew Losowsky

There's something indescribably wonderful about a smart, beautifully designed printed publication that has something to say and says it well. No matter how exciting the iPad's potential for storytelling might be, there is still value in the bound experience of magazines when assembled by thoughtful editors and talented designers. For them magazines are a labor of love, and for their readers a pleasure to behold. Here to champion those efforts is Andrew Losowsky, an editor and journalist whose passion for publications can be summed up by the titles of his books We Love Magazines (2007) and We Make Magazines (2009). With Stack America—a subscription-based service that delivers a care package of creative, independent magazines and related ephemera six times a year—Losowsky is using an old-fashioned model in a novel way to bring unique print experiences to audiences. The former editorial director of Le Cool, in-the-know guides to cultural events in European cities; the co-curator of Colophon, the independent magazine biennale; and the author of the blog Magtastic Blogsplosion, Losowsky is uniquely qualified for the job. He recently answered some questions about what makes for a meaningful magazine experience, whether magazines can be sustainable and how the internet is good for print.

Spread from d[x]i, a culture and design magazine from Spain.

Spread from d[x]i, a culture and design magazine from Spain included in a Stack America delivery.

How did the idea for Stack America come about? 

Losowsky: Stack began in London in December 2008, as a way to introduce independent magazines to new audiences. [Founder] Steven Watson was originally inspired to start Stack by a T-shirt subscription service run by momimomi. I got to know Steven at the Colophon Biennale in 2009. We stayed in touch, and he mentioned that he had come across many interesting American publications that he couldn't feature, because the shipping costs were just too high—also, the cost of sending Stack to American subscribers was expensive. So we started to talk about setting up an American edition. Stack America launched in December 2009, and so far we've sent out eight different magazines in four bimonthly mailings.

And all those different magazines… do readers know what they're going to receive or is it always a surprise? 

Losowsky: Think of it like a curated magazine club: in each mailing Stack America sends out at least one piece of remarkable, independent publishing, along with other unusual magazine-related ephemera. The hope is that, if you love one of the magazines, you'll subscribe, spread the word and help keep great independent magazines alive. Each envelope is a surprise, containing fresh perspectives and new ways of storytelling.

We also include in each mailing an exclusive print from our Designers Series. Prominent magazine designers, editors, typographers and illustrators create an image available only for our subscribers, reflecting on the medium of magazines. Participants so far include Robert Newman (Fortune, Real Simple, New York), Jeremy Leslie (Time Out, John Brown Media, and Cyrus Highsmith (typographer for Martha Stewart Living, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal).

What are some of the magazines you carry and what makes them Stack-worthy? 

Losowsky: We look for magazines that are at least as good as, if not better than, the mainstream in their design and journalism. These are the bleeding edge of publishing, created by passionate people who aren't afraid to experiment, to push the boundaries of what's possible in print. The slogan for Stack is “Magazines that matter”—and for anyone in the creative industries, that's exactly what they are. No magazine pays to be sent out as part of Stack—in fact, we pay for every copy, direct from the publisher. Our reputation has been built upon our independence and the quality of our selection.

Already sent out have been Pin-Up (“architectural entertainment”), Meatpaper (“documenting the fleischgeist”), Megawords (“a non-commercial record of place and human experience”), d[x]i from Spain (“culture and post-design”), a mini magazine from Little White Lies in the U.K. (“getting under the skin of cinema”), an infographic sheet from GOOD magazine, and, in our latest mailing, Embrocation (“the essence of cycling”) and Put A Egg On It (“tasty zine”).

We also guarantee not to repeat a title for at least a year. There are thousands of unusual magazines out there, and we're dedicated to rooting out the best and sharing them with an audience hungry for fresh inspiration.

Covers of Little White Lies, Pin-Up and Meatpaper magazines.

(From left) Covers of Little White Lies, Pin-Up and Meatpaper magazines, selected by Stack America.

How do you deal with unpredictable publication schedules and the growing death rate of magazines today? 

Losowsky: We're only sending out a single issue of a magazine each time, so it hasn't been a problem. So far, all the publications Stack America has sent out are still in business—perhaps we're a good-luck charm!

Are there any differences you've noticed in European subscribers versus American ones? 

Losowsky: One difference is the distances involved. In much of Europe, the majority of people live within reach of a major cosmopolitan city, whereas population centers in the United States and Canada are far more spread out. However, there's definitely a similar hunger for creativity and inspiration in print on both sides of the Atlantic—which is why, coupled with the magic and mystery of a curated service, our subscribers eagerly await every mailing.

Waiting is such a foreign concept today. Why should people still be interested in magazines when we can get an almost-constant stream of information and visual stimulation online? 

Losowsky: Today we all consume a mix of media, both digital and physical, and I don't see that changing, at least for a while. The best magazines that choose to stay in print are those that do so for a reason—to have a physical presence in our lives, to make the most of being a curated object, to make something that readers will keep and return to, to create something that will sit boldly on the coffee table.

Digital magazines can add audio, animation and video, however they lose in other areas: touch, smell, weight are all sensations that digital magazines don't have control of. In the very best magazines, these are carefully curated as part of the story.

Stack envelopes ready to be mailed (left) and a recent issue of Megawords magazine.

(From left) Stack envelopes ready to be mailed; a recent issue of Megawords magazine.

Do you have any theories on the iPad, whether it's a good or bad thing for the creators and consumers of magazines? 

Losowsky: We're still in the very early stages of understanding what a magazine can and can't do on tablet computers. It's only a good thing for readers—new media, new possibilities, and available anywhere with an internet connection, rather than having to rely on whatever the local newsstand has in stock.

Publishers, however, are having to rethink how they make money, how digital fits into their workflow, and how to commission pieces with two concurrent media in mind.

New technology isn't ever inherently bad or good—it's always about how an affected industry reacts to it. At first, the web was seen as a bad thing, until publishers realized that it was probably the best subscription tool ever invented.

As for tablets, right now it's too early to say for sure what the impact on conventional publishing will be. Interesting times, though.

What about from a sustainability perspective? There are costs (environmental, financial) associated with printing and shipping, and often there's a lot of waste in magazine production. Is sustainability something you consider in both your business model and in your choice of magazines (for instance, are you looking at publishers using soy-based inks, recycled paper, etc.)? 

Losowsky: There are indeed environmental and fiscal costs associated with any product, including digital, where the environmental costs associated with the generation of electricity to power server hosting and the recharging of electric devices, as well as biodegradability of computer parts, should also be taken into account.

We firmly believe in alternative, less impactful materials including soy-based inks and recycled paper; we used part-recycled, sustainably sourced paper for all our materials. However, we haven't as yet refused a publisher because of the materials it uses.

Environmental impact in every aspect of our lives should always be minimized. Ultimately, however, society in its current form is predicated on making and selling things. Our belief is that, if something is going to be made and sold, there is always an environmental cost—and so, in order to be worth that cost, every product should aim to be something different, something original, with the potential to change the viewer's perspective, even to improve their life in some way. That's what we look for in our magazines, and that's the philosophy we try to project in what we send out.

There is nothing more offensively wasteful, in a planet of limited resources, than insipid, thoughtless, copycat creation.

To learn more, visit the Stack America website.