What do Publishers Actually Do, Anyway?

By Andrew Jackson, Executive Director, June 08 2011

Every magazine has a different management structure. There are publishers, editor/publishers, creative directors, directors of operations, management teams, VPs, and on and on.  But in every case there’s a function that needs to happen that usually falls to a “publisher” by whatever name.

Based on my background as a former regional magazine publisher and publishing consultant, here are a few thoughts from my perspective:

Every publication definitely needs publishing expertise in a leadership role. Magazines, even state-owned magazines are businesses, and magazine publishing is a specialized kind of business, quite different from most other businesses. These publishing skills are distinct from editorial expertise. One of my former employers chose to do away with any real publisher function and rely mainly on their very capable editor to run the business. Although the editorial product was excellent, the result was that both circulation and ad sales plunged.

Magazines as a business are like a three-legged stool.  One leg, the editorial product, is what attracts readers (circulation).  Leg number two, circulation, is what advertisers want, both in quantity and quality (involvement & loyalty, ensuring that their ads are seen and associated with the magazine’s quality).  The third leg is of course advertising which, aside from paying a lot of bills, should compliment and even support the editorial content.

These three legs are interdependent and need to be skillfully managed to keep them in balance and the enterprise financially viable. This is the responsibility of the publisher or publishing team.  He, she or they need to bring experience and knowledge in some depth of the full range of activities required to produce a successful magazine, including but not limited to

Of course there will be staff with specific expertise and responsibilities in individual areas, but the management needs to know enough about all areas to effectively lead and supervise or, in the case of smaller operations, manage some of them directly.

Regionals are a publishing niche.  Although they may share certain elements with other categories, they differ substantially from general interest, lifestyle, enthusiast, travel or hobby pubs.  A publisher of a regional magazine needs to have enough background in this niche to understand the unique characteristics of regional magazines generally and the audience for your region particularly.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he/she/they must provide leadership.  By this I do not mean command and control.  Publishing a magazine is essentially a creative process and if the many people involved, not only staff but freelancers, photographers, even outside contractors, don’t feel a sense of pride in and connectedness to an award-winning and successful magazine, much creative energy gets misdirected or lost.  It’s a cliché, but “teamwork” matters a lot.  This is where the publisher must provide a management style that is as inclusive and inspiring as possible.  I’ve worked under this kind of leader and under others who preferred to keep their cards close to their chest and simply told their staffs to “do what I say” and don’t question why or how this action fits into the bigger picture.  In my experience, that approach is divisive and destructive of creativity and the sense of a team working together to produce something excellent.  The better, inclusive leadership style can seem almost invisible, but it results in a far more harmonious and productive atmosphere.

So, whether you have a publisher, a creative team, an editor/publisher or whatever, he, she or they must bring to the table the expertise, skills and leadership to inspire an excellent product and keep it on a firm business footing.

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Well said Andy. I completely agree with the teamwork approach to magazine management. In fact, I’m embarking on a staff-wide information expansion program. Working within the state budget system can be so frustrating and complicated that in the past I had kept budget discussions to senior staff with the expectation that they would pass along necessary information to their staff. After hearing Jack Stack at the Missouri IRMA Conference, I realized that the tiered approach wasn’t productive. After our ad director left in December, I got a quick lesson on just how little the ad reps knew about the magazine buddget, and in fact, about the magazine as a whole. It’s been an interesting few months!

By Joan Henderson on Jun 16, 2011

You’re very wise, Andy. The second-to-last paragraph particularly struck me. My brother and I were on the phone last night talking about how we think there is a leadership crisis in business today, and that too few bosses understand what leadership REALLY is. (And he’s a mechanical engineer, not a publishing wonk, like me.) Once in a while, leadership is command and control, but most often it is inspiring and challenging your team to be their best—and giving them a sense of pride and accomplishment whenever you can. When I was at New Mexico Magazine, though I was an editor, not a publisher, I worked with life coach Carrie Ishee (on my own time and dime) to do just that. In the best of all possible worlds, I would have had the her work with the team as a whole, too as a work-sponsored team-building project, but we didn’t have funds for that. She could be a resource for any of you, or perhaps a potential IRMA speaker. Here’s her website: http://www.catalyticcc.com

By Tricia Ware on Jun 17, 2011

Indeed apt. Especially tough for a small magazine group to carve out time for everything that’s needed. But so essential.

By Danita Allen Wood on Jun 18, 2011

Thank you Andy!
I hope you will see it in the pages of albemarle as we try to navigate this economic climate.

By alison dickie on Jun 21, 2011

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