Not content to tread the traditional corporate path, and disenchanted with the glossies on offer, New Zealand native Kate Bezar launched Dumbo feather...pass it on in 2004. Five years later, she's just overseen the publication of the 20th issue, proving that niche titles, with a worthy purpose and strong reader and advertiser supporter base, are sustainable.
Each issue, Dumbo feather presents its loyal readership with the stories of five "remarkable individuals" living their lives with passion and purpose. If she weren't editing the magazine, Bezar could certainly be one of its inspiring subjects. Herewith her story thus far and thoughts on the business of gloss...
What is the Kate Bezar story? I grew up in New Zealand, a very 'good' girl. I always studied, got good marks and did more than was expected of me. My highest marks in my final year were in Painting and English, but I went on to study Chemistry at uni. In my final year, I was offered the choice of a career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (on a path to becoming an ambassador) or a management consultant for a U.S. company based in Australia. I chose the latter. For four years the projects I worked on improved the bottom lines of companies that already had extraordinarily healthy bottom lines, but the bottom line for me was that it didn't mean anything... to me, anyway.
It took me a while to extricate myself from the fantastic salary, extensive travel, the supposed 'dream job' and the incomprehension of friends and family. But I burnt my suits and heels and took off traveling. I did short courses in architecture, curating and even thought I might become a yacht-designer for a while, but nothing sang true for me.
Nothing made me so excited I couldn't sleep at night, nothing felt like the most natural thing in the world for me to be doing, until I walked into a newsagent one night wanting to buy a magazine and walked out empty-handed. I may have been empty-handed but I was full of excitement because I finally knew what I was going to do… I was going to create a magazine for people like me. Dumbo feather is the result.
Who or what impacted you most in your formative years? Books mostly: Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransom, Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree and the 'Famous Five' series; then later the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I'm extraordinarily independent and a total romantic at heart. I think a lot of that can be put down these books and their gutsy female characters with a strong sense of right and wrong.
At school I was blessed to have a wonderful art teacher for my final couple of years. She taught me to trust my own aesthetic, the art of criticising one's own work (and that of others) and opened up my world to the great artists of the last 500 years; from Piero della Francesca to Rauschenberg.
Which glossies did you read growing up? Dolly was about the only one around. I remember reading it and sending away for the free tampon samples, but I don't remember ever buying it myself.
Who or what inspires you most? Ordinary people doing their own thing, against the odds, making a positive impact, taking a stand, taking risks...
Who would you most like to meet or interview? I'd love to interview (and meet) Dave Eggers – he's not only a fantastic writer but has also done an extraordinary thing with 826 Valencia. It's a network of reading centres across the U.S. for disadvantaged kids. One of them is 'disguised' as a pirate supply store, so as well as learning to read and write, kids can pick up a new peg leg, or a new Jolly Roger flag or a bottle of 'Scurvy be Gone'. It's genius.
What did launching the magazine involve? Not enough, probably. I did throw a lovely party, but it wasn't about getting other media there to take photos, it was about thanking all the many gorgeous people who'd helped get me and Dumbo feather to that point. My friends, family, design team, advertisers, those first five interviewees and many others. Other than that, my distributor took thousands of copies to newsagents, many of which never even put it on shelves, but enough did that it was found by kindred folk. Within days I started receiving emails from people all over the country thanking me for making something so special and encouraging me to keep going. One guy threatened to kill my pot plants if I ever stopped - for the sake of my petunias I haven't dared.
What got you through to print? Eventually, in order to sell advertising, I had to tell advertisers when they could expect to see their ad in print and that forced me to set a deadline and get there ... If that hadn't been the case it could have dragged on for a VERY long time. I am notoriously bad without a deadline.
Were retailers and advertisers receptive to the concept? Some retailers, like Ariel Books, were fantastic; their point of difference is having niche titles and the newest thing. Others, mainstream newsagents particularly, were (and still are to a certain extent) a tougher nut to crack. They're interested purely in what moves fastest off the shelves the most.
How did you go about pitching the mag? I created a mock-up of it. It was a full-sized dummy and the cover and first 15 pages or so were real. That really helped because what I was talking about creating really was quite different to anything else out there. It's hard for people to imagine something that doesn't exist and nor has anything like it before.
What do you hope to achieve with each issue of Dumbo feather? I hope that there's something there for everyone, something that will resonate and inspire everyone. It's really important to get the blend of people profiled in each edition right; a mix of men and women, different ages, different paths/stories, different interests. I love that someone might pick up a copy because we've profiled a musician and then also read about a baker and find something to inspire them in that.
You've noted your school motto - 'By love serve' - in a previous interview. Is this the vision/mission for Dumbo feather? Dumbo feather's mission or vision is to foster a community of courageous, creative individuals living their potential with integrity. Love plays a large part in that because it's only when you really love yourself that you'll be true to yourself, and it's only when you love others that you will be prepared to give back to the world, your community and your environment.
Why the 'mook' format? I wanted Dumbo feather to be treasured, to be valued, to sit forever in a bookshelf not put out with the recycling (let alone the rubbish!). So that's why it's printed on such beautiful paper, is bound properly and is the size it is. In terms of the content, the depth of the interviews also means that it's quite a read, more like a book than a mag.
Your most memorable issue and/or interview... Just the other day I interviewed this fascinating guy in Paris. He's American but has lived there for 40 years and every Sunday for 33 of those years he's hosted a dinner party for 60-150 complete strangers: you just have to call or email beforehand to let him know you're coming. Imagine the people he's met! Before Paris he lived in London in the swinging 60s, started a mag Germaine Greer was editing for, and, before that in Edinburgh, he opened the first ever paperback bookshop in the UK, and a theatre, and knew amazing writers like Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs .. He's just had such a FULL life. And it's essentially because he's a 'yes man' – he hates saying no to anything. I love that. I wish I was more like that.
How big is your team? The core team is tiny! Jim Parry is Df's art director - he's a freelance graphic designer and works on each issue for only two weeks. Barbara is the 'Chief of Flock' and she handles all reader/subscriber enquiries and new subscriptions, orders, etc. Anthea looks after The Nest, is a champ proof-reader and has been volunteering at Df for years now, and Suzanne is our pro proof-reader. Then I have a huge network of writers and photographers I draw on to flesh out each issue – they're awesome.
How long does each issue take to compile, design and send through to print? It's probably about six weeks – the rest of the time I'm doing marketing, distribution, sales and other stuff to keep the wheels turning.
Who is the magazine read by? You, me and everyone we know. Have a look at the kind of people in The Nest and you'll get a feel for it. Anyone who loves reading other people's (real) stories told in their own words, who needs inspiration to pursue their dreams, who loves beautiful photography and great typography... anyone, really.
How do you find your interview subjects? All over the place. More and more are being recommended by readers. Because I'm not interested in interviewing famous people, at that next layer there's a breadth and depth of fabulous people just going about their own thing in a great way that's never-ending. You can imagine, though, at a dinner party when I'm introduced to someone new and they ask me what I do, almost invariably, the next thing I hear is "I totally know someone you should interview."
What are some of the challenges you face as an independent publisher? The biggest one is scale. If you're a large publishing house with a number of titles then you can spread resources across them; like you could have a team of ad sales staff selling the advertising in six different mags at once. They also have a lot more clout with distributors and newsagents so that they get the best positions in stores rather than being stuffed down the back in the maternity section!
What are your primary revenue streams? Subscription sales mostly – 40% of all copies we print go straight to subscribers; that's a really high percentage. Generally in the Australian market it's under 10%. We also sell a lot of back issues because the content doesn't date. We find that someone will discover the current issue and then go online and buy the set of back issues and subscribe; it's great. And then newsagent sales and advertising make up the rest of our revenue.
Which kind of advertisers do you take on board? The kind who have something truly great/lovely/powerful/exciting to offer to readers; travel companies, design companies, eco-companies ...
What kind of opportunities have come about for you by way of publishing the magazine? I have had the best five years of my life since starting Dumbo feather. I've met the most fantastic people, some of whom have gone on to become dear friends. I've been behind the scenes, I've been in front of the scenes speaking to audiences of 3,500 people, I've shed tears in front of 3,500 people, I've travelled, I've travelled so far out of my comfort zone I haven't known the way back!
Tell us about some of your innovations, particularly your new online community, The Nest, and iPhone functions. The Nest is something I've wanted to create for a long time. I've long known that Dumbo feather's community of readers are extraordinary individuals, many of whom are doing great stuff and who would love to know more about each other. A true community communicates, so The Nest is a place on our website where individuals can let the world, or at least the Dumbo feather world, know about their skills, etsy shop, blog, website, business... whatever. Check it out, it's really fantastic.
And the iPhone app is great, it means that people can now read all the back issues of Dumbo feather and the current one anywhere they like on their iPhones or iPod touches. A lot of readers of the print version are subscribing to the digital one too so that they've got access to it anytime and can click on all the websites etc mentioned in its pages.
Do you think we are starting to see the demise of more mainstream titles? Not quite, but magazines that exist purely to make profits are struggling at the moment (and will continue to) as the amount of money advertisers are spending on print media keeps declining... this is the bucket that most 'mainstream' titles fall into, almost by definition.
Do you think readers are craving more authenticity? Definitely. The spate of mags using and even showcasing models without makeup or retouching (shock horror!), the relative success of new titles like Apartamento – "an everyday life interiors magazine" – and the popularity of bloggers like The Satorialist, who photographs ordinary people's style on the streets, are proof that people are just as, if not more, interested in 'real' people and how they live. People are savvy enough to know when they're being fed the PR version of a story and when they're not seeing the truth... and they're sick of it. In the '90s that was all we saw and we're over it.
Is there room in the market for more titles or have we reached saturation point? There's always room for something new, something different, something gutsy and creative. Bring it on! But, for heaven's sake, there's no room for another Who Weekly or glossy fashion mag...
Your take on online media: is it the future for publishing, or will readers always crave a tactile experience? The potential for media online is hugely exciting – the possibilities are mind-boggling – but I don't think it'll ever completely replace the experience of print, not if what's being printed is beautifully put together with timeless content and is a really good read!
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