Chris English is the founder of Tablazines and the publisher of Hoodgrown magazine, the first iPad hip hop magazine. He’s also one of the first indie publishers to make it onto the iPad. A serial entrepreneur, with years of experience in digital music media, Chris talked to Digital Magazine Publishing about what inspired him to create an tablet-only magazine and his experience with breaking new ground on a shoe-string budget.
DMP: Hi Chris. Why don’t we start with you telling me a little about your background?
CE: Well I’ve always been into technology. I wrote my first shareware video games for the Tandy Color Computer 3 back in high school. And I’ve always been into music too. In 1995, I created a hip hop store that sole indie CDs, cassettes and vinyl called HipHopNow. In 2000, I went to work for a dot com –Breakaway Music—who was launching a series of genre based sites. I was hired to work on the hip hop one and seeing my name in Billboard was a huge thrill.
That company crashed and burned along with the .com bubble so I started doing the website for Rap Sheet, which was a popular hip hop magazine out of California. The publisher of that magazine, Darryl James, really inspired me because he basically ran the whole publication himself. I learned the ins and outs of publishing and made connections with record labels & writers.
Based on that experience I started my own thing in 2004 and launched the print version of Hoodgrown along with a website. Our second issue featured the rapper, the Game on the cover and from there I connected with his publicist Shemia Miller. She was so impressed with the magazine that she represented the magazine for nothing and landed us deals with Tower, Trans Media and Foot Locker. The problem was that I was printing 5000 copies per issue from my paycheck and received an initial order of about 50,000. Not having the best of credit (there’s a lesson there) I wasn’t able to raise the money to fulfill the order and just got disenchanted and ceased publication of the print magazine.
Later, I noticed the dual growth of both the Hispanic market and digital music. So I decided to launch a Latin-only music service called Musica360. We got press in MacWorld, Latin Beat, Low Rider, and the New York Post. We had some acquisition talks with the publishers of Latina Magazine, but it didn’t work out. And again, I was faced with covering the costs of hosting for all the music and video files, so I shut it down.
DMP: So you latest venture is Tablazines. Is this a full-time job for you or are you growing it as a sideline?
CE: I work during the day as a web/graphic designer. Tablazines is something that I do on the side that I would love to see mature into a full time gig.
DMP: In the letter from the editor in the first iPad edition of Hoodgrown you talk about how when you saw the iPad you knew it was the right platform to bring the magazine back. As a publisher and a creative, what intrigues you about tablets?
CE: First, it allowed me to re-release my magazine, which originally died because the costs of printing/paper and mailing are so high. Second, because it’s new! Since I’m a little guy with practically no funding I try to be a first mover whenever possible to gain press. When iTunes albums had just appeared, I purchased one MP3 (Jay Z’s Blueprint 3), took it home, dissected the code and then created one for my album and released it from my website billing it as “The first indie hip hop iTunes LP”. Being able to say that I’ve produced the first indie iPad magazine goes a long way into helping me get the press that I need.
DMP: So you’re sitting there with an iPad in one hand and a bunch of ideas for a digital magazine in the other. How did you go about planning your first issue? For example, did you mock it up in InDesign with notes to yourself about which parts would be interactive? Did you sketch it out on paper? Did you get a group of people in a room and brainstorm?
CE: I’m a pretty impulsive guy. I just jump at things which is probably not always a good thing lol. When I first read about the iPad version of Wired, I knew that I was going to resurrect my publication. I didn’t know how… but I knew it was going to happen. Once I landed my technology partner, I just did the whole thing using HTML5. I didn’t sketch anything out, ask anyone’s advice… nothing. Once I found my tech partner, Alligator Digital Magazines, I went from conception to actual product in 2-3 weeks. My partners weren’t even prepared for how fast I completed this thing.
DMP: What were the biggest hurdles that you faced?
CE: The biggest issue was the price to get it done. I had contacted WoodWing asking how much they’re software was and they told me $15K? Really? I ask if they had something available for the small publisher and they told me that WAS the discounted price. Other vendors quote $500 app creation fees and $1200 a month per magazine which while not quite as expensive as WoodWing was still too much for someone basically funding their magazine with their crappy paycheck.
DMP: How did you find Alligator and how did you decide they were the right tools?
CE: I read a lot. I read every blog and magazine related to tech and I actually found Alligator Magazines’ press releases and demo video on the TalkingNewMedia.com website. I contacted them the minute I saw the video and explained my situation. I’m a designer… I’m broke… but I’ll bust my butt to get exposure for the magazine and in return your company. They agreed to work with me and now it’s time for me to live up to my part of the bargain.
DMP: Are there things you wanted to do with the magazine that just aren’t technically feasible at this time?
CE: I wouldn’t really say there was anything that wasn’t technically feasible but after seeing Branson’s Project, I was blown away by the presentation and gained more than a few ideas on how to improve my own publication. Of course Branson’s mag is a demonstration what can be done when you throw a ton of money at it but I’m already finding ways to recreate a lot of the same effects for nothing.
DMP: How many people are involved with Hoodgrown on the production side – you, designers, photographers, writers, etc?
CE: Understand that I’ve been running Hoodgrown as website since 2004 so I have writers that I’ve been dealing with forever and companies that I’ve been dealing with forever. Some of the articles in the first issue were taken directly from the website and given new life. As the project began to take shape, my team started to grow. Now I have 10 writers, 2 photographers and some marketing and advertising reps as well as a famous rapper. On the design side it’s just me and that’s the way it will stay for the foreseeable future.
DMP: I notice that you’re giving away the app and magazine for free. Will that change in the future? What is your revenue model?
CE: The whole Hoodgrown thing was started out of my frustration trying to get the artists on my indie label seen and heard. No one want to give us any reviews or write-ups. It cost about what I make in a year to advertise in genre specific magazines such as the Source, XXL or Vibe. It was then that I decided that the only way to be seen was to control my own destiny…to create my own publication and get it popular enough so that I could showcase my own artists as well as others. So the Hoodgrown print magazine and website were born out of that need.
I knew there were other small labels that would like to advertise but just couldn’t afford it so I figured if I lowered the price of the advertisements, I could offer the magazine for free and gain that ever important readership circulation – much like The Village Voice and other free newspapers. The only thing is I noticed, is that when a magazine is totally free, the vendors don’t really care how it’s displayed and it tends to get thrown all over the place. Hence I added a 50¢ price tag to the magazine and allowed the vendors to keep the cash. I never had to worry about returns.
Seven years later, I’m taking the same approach with the iPad app. It’s free because I don’t want there to be a barrier to my audience picking it up. If you’re browsing the iTunes store and you come across my app and figure “Hey, this might be cool”.. you can download it without having to worry about if you have enough money to get it. Once I get my downloads going… I can charge more for the advertisements.
As a smaller publisher, it doesn’t take that many ads for me to turn a profit since I’m not paying rent and utilities for huge building on 5th Ave. See even though these magazines like Wired have moved to the iPad they’re still doing things the same way that they been doing them in print so they’re not really realizing any savings. We’re totally the opposite. We’re a small, new media company that operates as a new media company. Imagine that? I just want to be able to pay my people a fair wage and live comfortably doing just our publications.
Understand that this model will not apply to all of our publications. With our next magazine, Band Of The White Rose, only the first issue will be free… all subsequent issues will be $1.99. I’m really excited about this magazine as the content is incredible and more of a “mass market’ publication as opposed to Hoodgrown.
DMP: Do you have plans to port your magazine over to the Android tabs that are coming out or will you stick with iPad?
CE: Oh yes. We’re making plans with our technology partners for Android ports now. The Motorola XOOM has me excited and I hope that it becomes the premier Android tablet. I’m not a fan of 7″ Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy. The screen size is just too small to creating anything but a “replica” edition without some real compromises. I’m not the only publisher that feels that way. Compare the Android version of Popular Science with the iPad one and tell me which is better?
DMP: What did you do right with the first issue? What will you change going forward?
CE: The only thing I did right with the first issue was getting it out there. Lol. I know I’m my own worst critic but I absolutely hate the first issue because I see where I could have done much better. The second issue due out in the next week or so is so much better. Going forward I’ll be introducing motion covers and just more interactivity.
DMP: Now that you’ve got the first issue under your belt, do you feel like you’ve got a good handle on the production process? Can you share some of your best practices with other wanna-be tablet publishers?
CE:I’ve got a good handle on the production process for Hoodgrown, which is basically an HTML5 website wrapped in a Objective C app. That’s how I’m most comfortable working. Kathy, who is designing BWR Band Of the White Rose is a print designer using Quark to design her magazine (Someone at Quark… talk to us… lol) so the process is different.
DMP: What advice would you give people who want to start a tablet magazine?
CE: Be like Nike, “Just do it”. The larger corporations are still producing digital magazines in the same way that they do print. The real revolution comes as the indie publishers come aboard and show the Goliaths a thing or two.
DMP: Thanks Chris. I really think you are an inspiration to other small publishers who would like to be on the iPad. Thanks for agreeing to share you expertise.
reprinted from DigitalPublishing101.com