Michael Brooke is something of a legend in the skateboarding world. As publisher of Concrete Wave Magazine, he describes himself as a "skater turned publisher," but as our interview reveals, he is as intently passionate about the written word as he is about skateboarding.
How long have you been publishing your magazine?
I started International Longboarder in 1999 - then I launched Concrete Wave in 2002. I merged International Longboarder with CW in 2003.
Tell us about your target market?
We deal with skateboarders...who skate a wide variety of skateboards... not just streetskaters. This is a group that has felt marginalized and they are not generally featured in the other skate mags. We cover Longboarders, speedboarders, freestylers, slalom skaters, pool and vert skaters...older skaters (25+) and women...who rarely get any coverage. We are read by skaters ages 6 to 66
Did you have an interest in this niche before you started publishing your magazine?
I have been skateboarding since 1975...I still skate heavily.
How long were you involved prior to starting your magazine?
My math skills are poor but it would seem to me that I have been skating for 34 years...yikes! This makes me a skategeezer!
Would you consider yourself an expert in your field?
I am skater who became a publisher...I have been doing this for 10 years and I am still standing. The more my ideas spread, the more successful I become...but I am no expert...more like someone who is constantly challenging the status quo.
Yes we do. We are offering a very targeted, highly motivated audience who spread the word on new products and fresh ideas. They are interested, deeply interested in the message that CW offers. We ONLY feature ads about skateboard products or services. We don't run ads on hair gels or music or soft drinks. Yes, I've turned away ads. Most folks think this is crazy. Not to me. We represent something pure and our tag line is 100% skateboarding...not 95% skateboarding 5% other.
It means that we can command quite a high cost per thousand. The way I look at it, I'd rather have 10,000 RABID fans than 100,000 folks who don't really care one way or another. Stoking the hell out of my readers every issue (and between issues via the web) is the only way advertisers will keep taking space.
Do you pursue advertising yourself, use a rep, or a marketplace like mediabids.com?
I do it myself. I have tried reps...it didn't really work out.
What is your circulation?
How often do you publish the magazine?
6 times per year
Are there any restrictions on where you deliver your magazine?
We would not put the mag somewhere like Zumiez or Pac Sun...we tend to stick to independent skate shops.
Is your magazine available on any newsstands?
Yes...we use Coast to Coast. They are excellent. Diane Temple is the person who handles my account and she is just terrific. Talk about on the ball! But the truth about newsstand is that I see it as a marketing expense, not a huge revenue generator. It gets me huge exposure and builds legitimacy into the product
How do you market your magazine?
I use the web...I took out a series of ads in Transworld skateboarding (really, I did). I use pay pal to get subscriptions, I make sure there are at least 70 to 80 mini-stories in the first 8 pages of the mag (our noteworthy section). I use the highest quality paper I can afford and have been perfect bound since vol 1 no 5. In short, I build as much of the marketing INTO Concrete Wave as I can. I have quite a strong word of mouth... people talk about CW a lot. But it's usually broken down into two camps - those who love it and those who hate it...that to me is what a good magazine should be...there is no room to be in the mushy middle...neither hated nor loved...just ignored. I liken CW to a ball bearing...small, leaving a deep impression and continually being polished.
Where do you find your writers and photographers?
They find me...we have more material than we know what to do with!
What's your editorial mission?
From my first editorial...back in June 2002...still on our website.
There are close to 20 skateboard magazines published worldwide. Concrete Wave aims to be completely different from every single one of them. Our philosophy is 100% skateboarding. This means showcasing ALL types of skateboarding. We are here to provide you with images and information that will challenge you and make you think. Concrete Wave magazine will take you back and move you forward.
Our goal is to publish a skate mag that is so good, you'll want to put it in your will.
How would you describe your magazine's editorial style?
The Atlantic, mixed with Rolling Stone, mushed with Surfers Journal and smothered with a fanzine...
Our focus is 100% skateboarding, so we know where we are going...
What are your biggest challenges when it comes to content?
Trying to outdo myself each issue. I am NEVER satisfied...continuous improvement. We are perhaps 50% of the way there...It will take another decade to get to 75%...
Do you have a website?
I have a few...the skategeezer homepage started in Spring 1995...one of the first skate sites out there.
I have my own site - concretewavemagazine.com but it's there just to get subscribers and to showcase a little bit of what we do. The bulk of my work is on the website silverfishlongboarding.com. I have a forum, back issues are available and folks can download the evolutions dvd (a yearly dvd we produce of skateboarding). People post skate related stories and ideas at my forum-it's very interactive. I also have a blog there too. I partnered with silverfish because they get 12 to 15,000 UNIQUE visitors a DAY!
Over 60 million pageviews a month. I could not compete with that. They handle the back end...and we give them a free ad in the mag...I think everyone wins...
Is the content of your magazine available on-line?
Yes...via silverfishlongboarding.com, turnit.ca and Calstreets.com. Cal streets site is cool because it is shown via html..no need to download a pdf...and better than doing the "virtual turning of the pages".
Has the Internet helped you with your subscription sales?
For sure! Spread your idea...give people a taste, get them stoked on what you're doing and before you know it, you have a movement and momentum. The web is a giant filtration device. You can use it to bring in folks, get them excited about what you are doing and start a relationship...that's how I have always worked it...and how I will continue to work it. Except it's not work for me...it's FUN! It's amazing to be able to have a direct connection with my readership. Most publishers wouldn't dream of handling their own subscriptions. I do. You call 866-678-WAVE and you get me. That stops people in their tracks. They are amazed.
With the internet being touted as a resource for information, how are you faring in terms of competition with the Internet and what challenges do you face?
I don't view my magazine as simply a resource for information. You want info? The web has plenty and it's mostly all free. What I am building is a true community...actually more like a cult, but that's another story. I am using my magazine to help change the face of skateboarding. I will continue to use the web to transmit my ideas - but first and foremost my magazine has its greatest impact as a printed piece. That's why we spend so much money on glossy paper. Also, I am one of perhaps 6 skate magazines in North America...and I am the ONLY one covering a variety of skateboarding. That makes me the needle in the haystack. Scarcity and being rare is always coveted. Last time I checked there were thousands of websites on skateboarding...it is still a BIG deal to get published in a magazine. Why do I know this? Because I am inundated with people BEGGING to be in the mag. Does anyone really worry about not getting a chance to be on a website? NO! because even if every website turns you down, you can still create your OWN site. There in lies the remarkable nature of the printed page...it's still got some clout...because it is so very expensive to create.
It's ironic that they call it surfing the web. The truth is that it's magazines and newspapers who really need to learn how to surf -not readers! They must learn how to surf the internet and catch waves of opportunity (financially speaking) ...not just lurk in the waters hoping and praying for a break. You won't get one by thinking you are in the information business. Information is free...and last time I checked, most people didn't want to pay a penny more for something they get for free. So what you need to do is cultivate and work with those people who ARE interested in what you do and have them be a part of what you do. It's a different publishing model...but it is my contention that you can run a successful print magazine with a small circulation and still keep advertisers happy. "Small is the new big" - Seth Godin.
How long did it take before your publication began to see a profit? If you're not yet seeing a profit, when do you predict you will?
International Longboarder was launched on $50. It was profitable from the first issue.
I spent $2500 to launch Concrete Wave. The second issue made a profit. It's funny, but I was an absolute failure as a Xerox salesperson, but I seem to be able to do this. Do what you love, give back and help your customers and the money will come...and the satisfaction you are leading a worthwhile life. Creating a magazine purely to make money will mostly likely result in frustration. Creating a magazine purely because you love the subject will also result in frustration. You need to create a balance.
Did you seek government subsidies when starting or after you began publication? Outside investment?
No. The last thing I need to see in The National Post is how the government of Canada is subsidizing a skateboard magazine. I have real issues with the way subsidies are handled in this country. Oddly enough, my magazine probably wouldn't even qualify. It's printed in Canada, run by a Canadian, designed by a Canadian and we do cover Canada, but the vast majority of the magazine is about what is happening GLOBALLY. Generally, the less Canadian content, the less chance you have for a subsidy. I see it differently. As long as you print in Canada and the owners are Canadian, then you should qualify. Let's put some funds aside for education and not just straight out cash subsidies.
But then again, if you are going to give money to magazines and book publishers...give it to the small guys. Those folks who are making over $2 to 3 million dollars a year or more don't need money...the small publishers do...$75 million given to 2000 publishers would mean $37,500 each. That would produce a huge affect...I don't see why Rogers needs a few million...they have revenues in the BILLIONS each year. We are happy to be small...so it's doubtful any big publisher would want to buy us (or part of us!). But then again, you never know. I liken my magazine to a small, local pizzeria. Producing a tasty, soulful, mouthwatering product that leaves you satisfied every time...a little bit more expensive than the chains...but well worth it!
What opportunities do you see for your magazine?
We're going to keep moving into new forms of media - handheld etc.
We are going to keep connecting skaters and building worldwide network.
And we are going to keep changing the face of skateboarding in every way we know how...
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the magazine industry over the next year?
Magazines, sadly haven't been very good at telling the story as to why they are a great media. We've all been seduced by the web (including myself). The fact is that niche mags are not the same as People magazine. It's about QUALITY of eyeballs, not just eyeballs. We need to celebrate the effectiveness of magazines and how when they are combined with other media, they pack a ONE - TWO PUNCH.
In your opinion, what sets apart successful independent magazines from those that are not successful?
They have a goal...and it's not just to make money. They advocate FIERCELY for their readers and they work tirelessly to make their advertisers more successful. This doesn't mean they whore their space out to get dollars. What it means is that they offer insights/advice and direction to help grow their business.
In general, what would your advice be to someone considering publication of their own magazine?
I took this from an interview I gave back in 2004. Nothing has changed - it's a riff on the hedgehog principal from Jim Collins in his Good to Great book and Seth Godin's Purple Cow book.
Let me blunt here: Magazines are a brutal business. 50% don't make it past the first year. Another whackload die in year three...and sadly, very few make it to 5 years. We are entering year 8. I feel very blessed...but as I say, 'paranoia is my business plan.' The reality is that I can't and don't take my eye off the ball (or in this case, wheel!). The mistakes you make in publishing can be deadly...I already learned that the hard way!
It's a very delicate balance. I see it clearly as a three-part equation. #1 you must have a valid economic engine to drive the business. Living within your means is crucial. This means you can't have a 10,000 square foot office and $90,000 car if you're not bringing in big $$$. A valid engine means you have to have enough of a potential market to work with. There is a limited market for slalom equipment, so a magazine that only covered slalom would be a risky venture...at least for now. I keep things VERY lean and mean. That's the only way to keep it moving forward. Although I am not an accountant, I am committed to ensuring that the magazine keeps afloat and the only way to do this is to never waiver from having a valid economic engine. Less is more...don't blow your brains out. Every dollar better count towards the goals of the magazine.
#2 You must have passion - I have a passion for skateboarding AND the power of the printed page. You can't buy passion. It comes from within. For me, passion is what gets you through the crap. It goes beyond this, however. You have to have a passion to build something remarkable - something in the magazine that is truly worth talking about. In the case of Concrete Wave, we build a lot of things into the magazine that make it worth talking about. Love it or hate it, it is not something that you can ignore. And this means everything from choice of paper stock to the type of binding to the fact that we don't accept shoe ads or ads from soft drink companies (unless they are advertising a skate event).
#3 The desire to create something you can be the best in the world at. In the case of CW, our desire is to create the greatest variety filled skate mag out there. Not the best skate mag...the best VARIETY filled skate mag. There is a big difference and we will continue to push things forward.
My day is spent balancing the dollars with my passion for skateboarding with the desire to create the very best variety filled skate magazine out there. It's both incredibly fulfilling and immensely stressful...but it's the equation that works for me. Can it work for other mags? Absolutely. Is it foolproof? No way....business is always risky. However, it's a great way to keep focus and avoid death and/or avoid working for someone else.