Amelia’s Magazine | STACK Magazine Subscription Service: an interview with founder Steve Watson

Stack Magazines by Jo Cheung
Stack Magazines by Jo Cheung

There is something about print magazines; the aroma of them, sometimes thick and woody, sometimes fresh and glossy. There is something undeniably comforting about holding a magazine in your hands, the texture: solid and reassuring beneath your fingers. A magazine is something real and tangible that your eyes and tips can really get to grips with. There’s no feeling in world like getting your mitts on a virgin mag, previously unopened, your eye-balls the first to drink in the words and pictures of that copy. Even the ink-dust that sticks to your fingers on some mags; that’s something that I love, to have words physically rub off on my fingers. What could be better than that?

Little White Lies

For all these reasons, subscribing to Stack, a magazine subscription service which sends out a different independent magazine to its customers each month, is one of my indulgences. Every 30 days or so, I get an envelope in the mail. I collect it from the welcome mat and I bring it upstairs to digest. I open it like a kid at Christmas, cheeks flushed with excitement. I love the smell of magazines in the morning.

Stack Magazines

In the last year they’ve sent out: Boat, a magazine which transports itself to a new city for each issue; The Ride Journal, a magazine which weaves together the anecdotes of cyclists the world over; your new friend Oh Comely, a mag that wants to keep your curiosity alive. Old favourites such as Anorak, the kid’s magazine with a difference, make an appearance too. These are the mags that cross the divide between zine and art and with cover prices as high as £10.50 you’re likely to get your money’s worth if you subscribe.

Stack Magazines

With June came sun, and also Port Magazine, food lover’s heaven. Stylish and chic, it has a hint of glossy men’s mag about it. Kicking off with an open letter to Old Fulton Fish Market and complete with a pinch of Nigella Lawson, this mag will whet your appetite for future issues.

The July delivery brought me the music edition of Wooden Toy Quarterly, which not only came inside album-like packaging but also had little sister typography mag Lyrics and Type tucked inside. Put together by Kaleidoscope Festival co-founder Timba Smits, WTQ is a visual delight.

WTQ Music Issue Cover

Wooden Toy Quarterly Music Issue

Lyrics and Type

September brought issue 4 of Juke. With some of the adverts made in collaboration between brand and mag, this music magazine (with a side of fashion) takes a walk on the wild side. The editorial informs me that “it’s time to get your weird on” and it’s hard not to follow Juke through to obscurity and beyond.

Stack Magazines by Karen Brotherton
Stack Magazines by Karen Brotherton

Very Nearly Almost, a Stack staple, came one chilly October. Issue 20 was so devoted to its main subject matter: graffiti, that I initially thought that the name of the mag was Retna, one of the graffiti artists it covered. This mag caught hold of my imagination, filled with street art, this is an urban art mag at its best and strong visuals made up a large bulk of this publication.


These are just a few of the mags that have been sent to me in the post since I subscribed. August presented an issue of Rouleur packed to the rafters with “the world’s finest cycle racing reportage”, and Delayed Gratification, “the slow journalism” magazine also made an appearance in my mailbox around Xmas.

Delayed Gratification

Stack really is revolutionary. Each magazine comes with a letter which explains why the mag was picked and what it has to offer. In one side of A4 it tells you a bit about the contents, whether it’s some info about the mag creators, or how Stack stumbled across the mag. This gives the service a personal element and really helps you connect with the issue in-hand as well as get to know the team over at Stack headquarters. Most letters also make you privy to the ‘message’ of the mag, meaning that you have a little insight before you crick its back.

The founder of Stack, Steven Watson is a guy with a real lust for magazines; “magazines are constellations of ideas,” he says. He had the brainwave to start Stack in September 2008; merging the t-shirt subscription model with a blog post he read about consuming different independent magazines as a way to stay interesting. Stack was launched pretty soon after and was up-and-running by December 2008.


Steve‘s love for mags stems from their ability to display the bigger picture, “with a print mag you can glance at a spread and focus in on a small detail. They’re read in a different way…they haven’t quite got this with iPad and tablet mags yet.” He’s a passionate printy himself “I love the fact some of these are mags being made by people not getting paid, sometimes not even breaking even; they are just hugely passionate about the subject matter.”

Stack Magazines

He identifies a Stack Magazine as, “a mag with something to say, with a distinctive point of view and a stylish way of saying it”. He goes on to elaborate further saying the mags they choose are “niche but welcoming”.

His passion for the print stuff started when he was off sick from school and his mum got him a copy of Smash Hits. During his teens this progressed to a love for FHM and Steve currently works for The Church of London, the Creative Agency which makes Little White Lies (which coincidentally began life in Amelia’s house when publisher Danny Miller lived there.)

He notes that over time a lot has changed and Stack now have around 1,200 subs and hope to break 2,000 by the end of 2013. He explains that they sometimes send out additional mags “but it mainly depends on the weight. When we started, we had 300 or so subscribers and it was ok, but now our circulation’s higher, it’s harder to convince mags to send us more than a thousand copies for free.”

These additional mags are varied and include DOGEAR, which is both a magazine and a bookmark, and boasts illustration, poetry and fiction in its miniature pages. Each instalment comes on a different shade of pastel coloured card and the pieces in this nifty little bookmark are often short and pithy and many even take advantage of the mag’s small stature with their layout.

Your Days Are Numbered

I’ve also received a visually striking issue of Your Days Are Numbered which featured an interview in French which I think (although my French is a little rusty) is with Bastien Vives. This little mag is a real gem with a comic book slant and one of the pages gets up-close and personal with a member of the Judge Dredd team.

Shellsuit Zombie

Issue 3 of Shellsuit Zombie opens with a Trainspotting-style speech, and does not shy away from a well-placed profanity or two. A healthy shot of illustration and a young creative vibe give this mag its edge, making me draw comparisons to The Skinny because of both its colour newspaper format and street-savvy tone. These are just some of the mags which have been included with the main mag gratuit.

It’s been around a year since I subscribed to Stack. It’s been an emotional journey for me, whether it’s pulling apart a magazine and using the sheets to wrap my Christmas presents, as with the November 2012 delivery, issue 6 of Wrap magazine, or ohhing and ahhing over the vinyl like cover of Wooden Toy Quarterly, subscribing to Stack has been one of my highlights of the last 12 months.


Each month with the service is a surprise and all you know before you get the tell-tale envelope in the post is that you’ll be getting one of the best independent English-language mags out there. I can’t recommend it enough, whether you’re a word lover, a design fanatic, an illustrator looking for inspiration, or you just want something interesting to get your teeth into each month; this is the best purchase I’ve made in years. If you want a fresh perspective or you just want to make sure that your coffee table is the most beautiful of them all, then Stack is for you. Sign up on their website here.

The Ride Journal

People have been throwing round the phase lately that ‘print is dead’. And while it might be declining, I like to think that it will rise up in pulp zombie form and take on digital in a fight to the death. Stack is part of the changing evolution of print distribution and evidence that the last rasping gasp the papers have been shouting about might in fact have just been a yawn, while it waited for something like Stack to come along and shake it up a little. (Amelia: If only STACK had existed before I decided to stop producing Amelia’s Magazine in print: distribution through the usual channels was an absolute nightmare and one of the reasons I decided to pull out of print back in 2008.)

Steven Watson by Rosemary Kirton
Steve Watson illustration by Rosemary Kirton

Categories ,Amelia’s Magazine, ,Church of London, ,circulation, ,Danny Miller, ,design, ,DOGEAR, ,illustration, ,Jessica Cook, ,Jo Cheung, ,journalism, ,Juke, ,Karen Brotherton, ,Little White Lies, ,Love Letter to Print Magazines, ,Magazines, ,Oh Comely, ,Port, ,print, ,Rosemary Kirton, ,Shellsuit Zombie, ,Stack Magazines, ,Steve Watson, ,Subscription, ,Very Nearly Almost, ,Wrap

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Amelia’s Magazine | Review: Tweet-a-Brief Exhibition at 71a Gallery and an Interview with Handsome Frank’s Jon Cockley

Handsome Frank Tweet a Brief

The Church of London Gallery 71a where Handsome Frank held their debut exhibition Tweet-a-Brief

If only all briefs could be confined to just 140 characters. Imagine that? The East London illustration agency, Handsome Frank, struck gold with their first exhibition and made this happen. How? Soon after seeking exhibition brief advice from their followers on Twitter, it was quickly realised, they’d found their answer. Handsome Frank watched as their Twitter account exploded with ideas, and Tweet-a-Brief was born. Plus, as a lucky follower to have had mine selected, I had to hear about the phenomenon that was #hftab from co-founder Jon.

Handsome Frank was co-founded by you and your cousin Tom, such a nice story that you named your company after your Grandfather. How long have you been up and running?
We set the company up in the summer of 2010 so we’re only two years old. A lot has happened in a short time!

What background have you and Tom come from?
I spent the last decade working in publishing for the design and advertising titles Creative Review and Design Week. Essentially it was media sales and I ended up as a Commercial Director at the company. So my experience has always been on the commercial side of things but within the creative industry.

The Handsome Frank logo as a neon light designed by Malika Favre for the brief All things bright and beautiful

The Handsome Frank logo as a neon light designed by Malik Favre for the brief All things bright and beautiful

Tom has a creative background working for advertising agencies such as Ogilvy, Chemistry and LBi as a digitial designer. When I had the idea to launch an illustration agency, I approached Tom to ask if he could build me a website on a small budget. The more we discussed the idea the more we realised it made sense to work together on it. Between us we had a good mix of skills with my business and publishing experience and Tom’s knowledge of the creative process and how agencies operate.

Sounds like an ideal creative pairing indeed. Can either of you draw?
I was the best drawer in my class at primary school but I don’t think that early potential really developed. Tom is definitely a better bet when selecting Pictionary teams.

Illustration by Stephen Cheetham in response to the brief 140 characters

Illustration by Stephen Cheetham in response to the brief 140 characters, very clever indeed

Who was the first illustrator on your books?
We decided we would launch the agency with ten illustrators and set about finding some talent. To our eternal gratitude we convinced the first ten people we approached to come on board and at that point we had little to show for ourselves apart from a lot of enthusiasm and ambition. Our first signing was Emma Kelly, who remains one of the most popular illustrators on our books.

How many do you represent right now, two years on?
We’re up to 26 illustrators in size and although we wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a couple more signings, we feel we’re operating at an optimum size now. We’re big enough to offer a great selection for commissioners, but small enough to have strong relationships with everyone on our books.

You work pretty closely with Paul Pensom of Creative Review and the guys at Church of London. You work together to put on various talks and use the new 71a Gallery in Shoreditch. How were these relationships founded? Are they like mentors to you?
Paul is someone that I know from my CR days and a very talented chap. We represent his agency StudioPensom, who specialise in magazine and editorial design. The Church of London were actually our first ever client. They commissioned Tony Easley to create a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat for HUCK magazine and that’s where it all started really. We kept in touch since then and when I saw their plans for developing the 71a gallery I was convinced it was the perfect venue for our first show. Rob Longworth and Paul Willoughby are a big inspiration and great guys to work with.

Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief exhibition 71a Gallery Private View

Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief exhibition 71a Gallery Private View

I have a Willoughby screen print I treasure very much. So #hftab, the Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief idea is genius. Was it one of those ‘on the back of a beer mat in a pub’ ideas or more a slow burner? I know you wanted to showcase the talent you had on your books, but how did you decide Twitter was right for this?
We’re big fans of Twitter. We’ve always had a strong following and we’ve always embraced it as a place to ask questions, seek advice and treat as a sounding board. We get a lot of musical recommendations from Twitter. When it came to doing a show, we bounced around a few themes but they were all a bit obvious… Olympics anyone?! One day I decided to ask Twitter and see if anyone had any bright ideas, so I tweeted “what should our exhibition be about?” Almost as soon as I pressed ‘send’, it dawned on me that that WAS the theme.

Did the name Tweet-a-Brief come easily? What others did you cast aside?
The credit for the name very much goes to Tom. My suggestion was probably something really snappy like ‘Send-us-an-idea-and-our-illustrators-will-draw-it’.

The legend that is Tim Burgess from the Charlatans submitted a brief. You must have been thrilled! Any other celebs as such? I hear you had over 200 briefs…
Yes, I’m a bit of an indie kid at heart, so I was chuffed when Tim got in touch. I knew he was really into Twitter so thought he was a good bet. A couple of other celebs were approached but to no avail. Shame on you Jonathan Ross!

Illustration by Emma Kelly for Tim Burgess of the Charlatans brief Blue Monday

Illustration by Emma Kelly for Tim Burgess of the Charlatans brief Blue Monday

Shame on Ross indeed. Heard that before. Was it more successful than you imagined? Handsome Frank #hftab was trending!
We trended? Wow, I didn’t know that. Chuffed.

Did you and Tom sit down and pick your favourites, or did you let your illustrators decide their own briefs?
There was a lot of debate as to the best and fairest way to distribute the briefs. In the end we decided to send a document containing all of the briefs to all of our illustrators and ask for their first, second and third choices. As it turned out there was not much overlap. Most of the guys had a very strong idea of what they want to do and thankfully most of them wanted different briefs.

Illustration by Alexandra Bruel of Kubricks brain

Artwork by Alexandra Bruel of Kubricks brain

Phew! I was so thrilled Helen Musselwhite picked my brief “a strong urge to see wallpaper coming to life in a doll’s house”. I was blown away when I saw it at the Private View. WOW. It was the star of the show for me.
I’m glad you liked what Helen did. It was a bit of a show stealer wasn’t it. Really lovely.

Artwork by Helen Musselwhite in response to my brief of wallpaper coming to life in a doll's house

Artwork by Helen Musselwhite in response to my brief of wallpaper coming to life in a doll’s house

Everyone obviously worked their socks off. Your collection of illustrators have done Handsome Frank proud. Are you already thinking up the next idea to get them all working together?
Funnily enough we had an idea on the day of the Tweet-a-Brief Private View. It won’t be until next summer though. We need to concentrate on some other projects first.

I’m sure Sunday will be a sad day when you have to take the exhibition down. Do you have to return the work back to the artists or will it stay up on the walls of Handsome Frank HQ?
The plan is to tour the exhibition around a little. We’ve had interest from a couple of agencies who would like to hang it on their walls. I’d also like it to move around the UK and possibly take it overseas.

The Tweet-a-Brief exhibition runs until this Sunday (22nd July) at 71a Gallery, Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.

Categories ,#hftab, ,26 illustrators, ,71a Gallery in Shoreditch, ,Advertising, ,Alexandra Bruel, ,Church of London, ,co-founders Jon and Tom, ,Creative Review, ,design, ,digital, ,East London, ,Emma Kelly, ,First exhibition, ,Handsome Frank, ,Helen Musselwhite, ,HUCK magazine, ,Illustration Agency, ,Jonathan Ross, ,Kubrick, ,Malika Favre, ,Paul Pensom, ,Paul Willoughby, ,publishing, ,Rob Longworth, ,Stephen Cheetham, ,StudioPensom, ,the Charlatans, ,Tim Burgess, ,Tony Easley, ,Tweet-a-Brief exhibition, ,twitter

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