In magazine publishing, a start-up title that survives more than a few years is a rarity, especially in these changing times when printed magazines are being threatened on all sides by digital media platforms. Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve done. For, 20 years ago this month a few boxes of photocopy paper clattered through an ancient single-colour duplicator in our garage, and were then collated by a team of ladies around the dining room table, before being counted out into piles and carted off to various hardware stores, feed and tack shops in the greater Benoni area.
And thus was the Gauteng Smallholder born.
And so we progressed. A few thousand copies a month became a few thousand more as we spread our distribution to a wider area. First Midrand, then Delmas, Eloff and Sundra, then Cullinan and the Moloto road. Then we went south to Walkerville, and west to Honeydew and Muldersdrift.
For seven noisy, smelly (printer’s solvents are strong-smelling and corrosive) years our house was filled for at least 14 hours a day, for three weeks of the month, with the sound of ever-more sophisticated (but no less ancient) presses clattering away, and the happy chattering of the collating team as they shuffled around the dining room table (occasionally dipping into the booze cupboard in the sideboard for some “refreshment”.) In this month’s Back Page column you can read about the effect that having this “fourth sibling” in her life affected my then young daughter ~ now, happily the next generation of the family to be involved, as Production Editor, hopefully to take over the running of the business in due course.
But by the time we’d increased to 12 500 copies (a simple total, really ~ it’s five boxes of photocopy paper per sheet) with no let-up in demand from readers and distributors we realised that printing a 48-page magazine on single colour duplicators was not the long-term solution and so the decision to change to commercial printing, on fast, web-offset presses, wasn’t really difficult to make. (Particularly with the threat of a divorce looming over my head).
And so we really started to fly. Apart from the speed with which a large web-offset press gobbles paper (it takes three days, not three weeks, to print the magazine)12 500 copies a month became 14 000, then 15 000, then 16 000 and finally now up to 19 000 copies, and enabled us to add distribution points in the furthest corners of Gauteng, and on to Northwest ~ a total of 360 in all.
The Smallholder was never supposed to be like it is. When I conceived it I planned a publication of nothing but advertising, bookended by an Editor’s Comment at the front and a lighthearted column at the back. However, advertising support for the first few editions was so paltry that we had to pad out the ads with editorial items, which readers seemed to like, and thus have we remained ever since.
And, to be honest, the nature of the magazine has changed fundamentally in every respect. When we started there was little or no competition from on-line advertising platforms such as Gumtree and OLX, and as a consequence the magazine (after an albeit rocky start) grew a healthy few pages of classified advertising. That, now, has greatly diminished (although advertisers still report good sales from the magazine).
When we started, too, there was a much clearer distinction between traditional (white) smallholders and emerging farmers or subsistence smallholders (and not a few publications aimed exclusively at this market folded because while they were able to attract readers, they failed to attract advertisers). That, too, has changed, with a thriving new black smallholder farmer class developing, largely but not exclusively on the back of government support, and opening up an exciting new market for our advertisers.
For a market, which is made up of readers, and advertisers, is the key to any successful publication: “There may be a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?” is the probing question every aspirant publisher should ask before putting pen to paper.
And that’s what makes publishing the most exciting industry to be involved in. For unlike bankers or insurance people, who spend their days filling in predesigned forms with information, we start with a pile of blank paper, filling it with a combination of pictures, stories and advertisements that we hope will appeal to our readers, thereby putting in front of their eyes sales messages from our advertisers which will, hopefully, induce the readers to buy the advertised products. And no two sales messages are the same, no two editions are the same, and no two months are the same.
Which makes publishing a magazine that serves its readers well a fun and exciting way to earn one’s living ~ even after 20 years.