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Debbee and Steve Pezman came up with a radical idea in surf magazine publishing 20 years ago when they left Surfer Magazine and started The Surfer’s Journal.
They created a publication for surfers that was more literary journal than magazine. That targeted an older, more sophisticated surfer who had a deep, personal passion for the sport rather than chasing teenagers and young men. That was not filled with advertising and the commerce of surfing, but instead used its pages to expansively explore the history, art and the culture of surfing. That charged an unheard cover price of $12.95 and relied on readers to become the main revenue source rather than advertisers.
At the time, the industry was in its first slump and advertising budgets were being cut. But Steve and Debbee knew there was one constant that did not ebb and flow: “The stoke and commitment of a hardcore surfer to his passion for surfing,” Steve said.
The very different idea of creating a magazine that relied more heavily on readers than advertisers grew out of Steve and Debbee’s years of experience in surf publishing. Steve was the long-time publisher at Surfer and Debbee the ad director.
When they decided to strike out on their own, they made a list of everything they loved about publishing and all the things they didn’t. And from that, they created their business model.
They left behind advertising sales, subscriber collections, shop collections – “basically anything that had to do with collecting money,” Debbee said. If you wanted the magazine, you needed to pay for it up front. Likewise, if shops wanted to sell it, they had to pay the wholesale price, and if the magazines didn’t sell, Surfer’s Journal did not take the extras back and give a refund like other magazine companies.
Instead of having dozens and dozens and dozens of advertisers, Debbee and Steve offered six advertising spots, but called advertisers sponsors and treated them as such. And sponsors committed to a year at a time, eliminating the need to hire a sales person.
They arrived at the then cover price of $12.95 not by using focus groups and industry norms, but by creating the quality of publication they wanted, then determining how much it would need to cost.
The used all their savings - $250,000 – and borrowed from Steve’s father to launch. Steve said they knew in their bones that it would work, that there was an important niche of surfers that was not being served.
“We never looked back,” Steve said. “There was never a nervous moment.”
They created a mini magazine and presented it as if it was already a living, breathing publication rather than a startup, and mailed it to a list of about 40,000.
After the mailing, they went to the post office everyday, to see if anyone had subscribed. For days, there was nothing. Then one day, they received many, many envelopes – too many to fit in the post office box and Debbee had to go to the front counter to pick up the big container.
A recent edition of The Surfer's Journal featured a 12-page story on artist and surfer Julian Schnabel, pictured with Herbie Fletcher.
“Bingo!” she said, knowing that each envelope contained a year subscription payment.
That first mailing garnered an 8% cash response, which Debbee said was “incredible” in magazine publishing.
Lo and behold we were right,” Steve said. “There was a portion of the market that would pay that much. They were flattered that someone thought enough of them to cater to their level of intelligence and sophistication.
“People would tell us that if they ever needed to explain to someone why they were so dedicated to surfing, they would just give them a copy of The Surfer’s Journal to help them understand. It gives me chills to think about.”
The Surfer’s Journal grew by about 1,500 subscribers a year by word of mouth, and the cash from subscribers helped them grow the business and pay bills.
“Our subscribers ended up being our major investors,” Steve said. “And we loved the purity of it and taking the high road after all those years schlepping in the trenches.”
Readers responded to their expansive stories about surfing art, culture, history, adventure and travel and abundant photographs, stories and photo essays that were not broken up by loads of ads.
“We had a 100-page well in every issue so we could dally,” Steve said. “We could take an idea and inflate it instead of contracting it which was the usual magazine process.
“We were probably too generous with some ideas. I ran a 50,000-word article on Nat Young once. It was like a book! Took a week to read the damn thing,” Steve said.
See Page 2 for some challenges with the model, the future