Ride Fast: Turn Left!
There’s a saying ‘The best way to make a small fortune in magazine publishing is to start with a large one.’ But that’s not entirely true. It depends on your targets and motivations. I’m a self-taught journalist. I left school at 16, completed an engineering apprenticeship, then was too dumb to realise I knew nothing before I started applying for jobs on motorcycle magazines. They must’ve been run by dumbos too, because they gave me a job. Fifteen years later, I still specialise in writing about motorcycles, because I’m obsessed with them, but I write about other stuff too. However, this job of mine is a curse. I love writing. I love reading. I love motorcycles. That’s why I’m typing this at 23:04 on a Sunday night instead of doing something else. I can’t switch off.
Which is also how it transpired that I now spend more time than is healthy producing a high-quality, low volume motorcycle magazine called Sideburn in and among earning a living as a freelance writer.
Four years ago I was going to publish a book of a friend’s writing, but he got Shanghaied by a multi-national player and offered a sum he’d have been an idiot to turn down. By the time this transpired I was all fired up to make something of my own, where I could call the shots, so I decided to make a magazine. And I decided to make it mainly about the sport of dirt track racing and the road bikes the sport has inspired. Dirt track is the American sport of racing very fast, very simple motorcycles, with no front brake, around large dirt ovals on road-tread tyres. It’s as cock-eyed as it is enthralling and quite rightly bills itself as the original extreme sport.
I don’t make the magazine alone. Sideburn is designed by Ben Part, a photographer who had never designed anything more complicated than a postcard before he started on issue 1. At the time we made the first one, Ben was living in Amsterdam. We met once during the making of that issue. But his commitment mirrors mine and his style is incomparable.
Ben shot a great deal of Sideburn 1 and the rest of the magazine is illustrated with great photos we could get for free. We even landed an exclusive interview with the then MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden (about his early dirt track days). It took over six months to finish the magazine, because we both have young families and very urgent needs to make a living. If someone was paying us a wage to do it, the pair of us could make it in a month.
We threw in a dash of speedway, more than a splash of style, invested in the best paper, found a great printer and published 2000 copies to sell mail order and through a few hip outlets around the world. And, a while later, it sold out.
This isn’t niche publishing. It’s crevice, no, fissure publishing. No one’s getting rich. No one’s even getting paid, except the printers, but with the support of a few friends who were willing to advertise their kind-of-related products in the magazine I clawed back most of the money I put up to pay for the print. We’ll never get back the hundreds of unpaid hours. But the feedback was incredible. People from all over the globe sent money for a copy of the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest go fast, turn left magazine’. It gave us the confidence to make another issue and we found more people willing to donate words and photos. Even moto-journo royalty like Mat Oxley. He was followed by Dan Walsh, Mick Phillips and Rupert Paul – some of the world’s favourite English language motorcycle journalists. We even published an article by Valentino Rossi.
Now issue 5 is about to be delivered and we have enough great stories to fill the next three issues without really trying.
We’ve relaxed the door policy a little. We still pack in a lot of dirt track, but we’re not militant. A smattering of vintage MX creeps, so does speedway and road trips have been a part of the Sideburn too. We’re definitely not a normal bike magazine, though.
While filling the magazine isn’t the struggle we envisaged, the process of making it is not getting any easier. Long nights, tetchy emails and the constant feeling of having bitten off more than I can chew, but when we get that glossy little 100-page bundle of joy back from the printers it’s all forgotten. We don’t kowtow to anyone, instead making the magazine we want to, breaking most of the rules bike mags follow.
Unfortunately, as soon as the magazine lands I have to start writing addresses on jiffybags (it’s too special for a common-or-garden envelopes) and my wife seems to spend half her life in the post office sending the issues out. Then there’s ones the world’s postal services lose… Still, doing it this way means my huge personal fortune remains intact.
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