As you know, we at The Holborn are print-devotees, and are quite good at keeping our ear to the ground about the news titles consistently emerging from an ever-expanding independent magazine sector. Well we started to hear murmurings and whispers about this new title, ‘Special Request‘. On the phone to an friend who is an editor of a great magazine himself, he drops into the conversation “Oh you must check out Special Request, it’s great”, before moving on to another more pressing topic without telling what the magazine was about. So we decided to do something about this and grabbed a copy and being rather impressed, we got hold of Paul Sethi (Founder & Creative Director) & Tom Viney (Co-Editor-in-Chief) to have a chat.
How did Special Request come about?
Paul Sethi – I had been toying around with the idea of starting my own magazine for a while. Observing people’s current obsessions with food that seemed to be forming around me – it seemed a naturally good idea to represent this from a nuanced perspective. Once I’d mocked up the concept and framework I presented it to Tom who I thought would be perfect to take on the editorial role. As luck would have it, he was. We shared the same ideas and were pretty much on the same page from the word go.
Tom Viney: I’d been blogging for years at The Essayist, but it was feeling tired. Just as the blog was getting some real attention – we were spotlit on tumblr, and got a load of press – I was finding it harder and harder to stay interested. I wanted to be commissioning features, not aggregating them. Then Paul called and said he had something to discuss. Special Request. I went round. We talked about it, and found that we shared a common vision of how this magazine might work. That was it. I was in. Good timing.
Quite simply how would you describe the magazine? What is Special Request and what makes it different?
PS – Content wise, we’re a difficult entity to describe. The first issue is about ‘Food’. But from a cultural standpoint, rather than how to boil the perfect egg. It features world-renowned writers and contemporary photographers, it’s almost a contradiction in terms of design and editorial. One that works. One that we’ve always aspired to. To create a publication with a fun and light hearted approach to intelligent, interesting, amusing subject matter that will inspire and remain iconically ingrained in people’s conscious for time to come.
TV- I agree. It’s a fun magazine, but we don’t think our readers are stupid. I think some media tend to syphon people off into these neat little categories and assume that their readership are ONLY interested in sober profiles of niche designers or whatever. But, you know, I think people are pretty well rounded. Certainly more complex than we’d care to think. Your average reader might enjoy a 10,000 word essay on the poetics of industrial machinery, then go and watch a dozen puppy videos on YouTube. There’s nothing to say the person who might watch a four hour documentary on Derrida isn’t also the same person who might super-size their pizza and do the whole Terminator trilogy in one go. Special Request seeks to cater to that plurality. And I think we do ok.
Tell us about the first issue. What are the highlights?
PS – To be honest, all of it. Seeing a creative project through from concept to completion fills you with a warm glow inside. If I was to be specific, I’m very pleased with the response to the ‘In Bread With’ feature. A simple and well-proportioned idea which has been picked up and syndicated worldwide.
TV -‘In Bread With’ was great. But it was the easiest thing for anyone to pick up on – a really smart idea, a revealing look at the private lives of celebrities, easy to cover; an obvious pick for the media – but you know, there was a lot of serious writing, a lot of serious art that ran alongside it. For me the highlight was securing a piece from Jonathan Meades. What a hero. There aren’t many people who can think so clearly, write so eloquently and retain such a strong voice. Swoon. The Sam Lipsyte story,’Snacks’, was great too. One of the top five authors writing at the moment. Maybe top three. So funny. I laughed out loud. I LOLed.
Why did you decide to concentrate on a different subject each issue?
PS- By the time we were nearing completion and our mag was in good shape it made more sense to us to apply our editorial stance and aesthetic values to a different subject rather than dwell on one – constantly having to come up with ideas on how to make ‘Food’ interesting, both for us and our readers.
TV – I think we were both dreading doing a second issue on food. There’s only so far you can go with food. It was a relief to say, “let’s not do this, let’s cover whatever we like.” Also, other people are doing food brilliantly. Who needs another food magazine? We’ve said what we wanted to on that subject, so it’s time to move on. Now we’re commissioning the second issue, which is all about TV, and we’re loving it.We immerse ourselves completely in a subject for six months or whatever, then scoot, it’s perfect. Never boring.
Why did you choose to go with a Print format rather than online?
PS – I love print. It offers values that simply cannot be afforded online. We hope the people we’re aiming to appeal to feel the same way. It also demands certain levels of commitment both financially and editorially – I’m still to this day unsure if this is a good thing or not.
TV- On the internet nobody can hear you scream… Seriously. It’s vast. Unless you’re a major player – established, with a loyal readership – it can be hard to cut through the noise. You need to be a big deal already to be a big deal online. Other people do it brilliantly – Nowness, Gawker etc – but I didn’t think it was right for Special Request. Also, print smells nice. It feels nice. We wanted to make a thing that people would keep for years.
Tell us about the new format and design. What does it bring to the table?
PS – Design wise, I wanted to balance a stripped back approach with bold, vibrant imagery. To look and feel contemporary, yet remain timeless and classically proportioned. An impossible task if you constantly refer to current design trends. When you’re dealing with content and imagery of a certain calibre I find that a simplistic approach to text layouts encourages the reader to read. As with imagery that demands space to breathe, with it, the reader is forced into taking time over every single image, enjoying each creation on its stand alone artistic merit. It was also paramount that the paper and finishes were of a high standard. I want people to feel good when they pick our magazine up, to appreciate the smell of paper and ink. Bringing to the table a high quality product that will last and people will want to keep forever.
TV- It’s a lot more pink than the other magazines out there. Also, it doesn’t reflect the prevailing design orthodoxy that everything must be extremely tasteful and restrained. It’s a beautiful magazine, but it’s not scared of being a bit gross. Andrew Tuck, the deputy editor of Monocle said it contained the “most disgusting picture of food that I have ever seen”, which made me very very happy.
Where do you and your team take your inspiration from? Do you have any office favourites amongst other titles?
PS – Everywhere possible, from Galleries to Warehouse Parties, from Literature to Comic Books. Online. Offline. Everywhere. Visually, my current favourite titles are: WET, Fantastic Man, The Plant Journal, Toilet paper, countless lesser known fanzines and of course the other ‘Food’ titles to make sure we’re not covering the same ground.
TV- Everywhere. If I had any advice to offer people starting their own magazine, it would be: “do everything”. Read as much as you can. Read all the books. Read every magazine you can. Read three newspapers a day. Read the Daily Mail. Read the Guardian. Read the NY Times. Read everything. Do everything. Never stop moving. Never stop being interested in the stuff that’s around you. And don’t be snobby.
How does the economics of a small title of yours work?
PS – I might have to get back to you on this one. Having invested all my own money I’ve yet to see how the economics ‘work’. Hopefully we will generate enough from a combination of sales, collaborations and a bit of advertising in order to produce the next and so on. So far, sales are going well and things are looking good. It was always our aim to produce something of high acclaim and that we’re all proud of rather than to try and make a ton of monies.
TV Yup. What he said.
How do you see the health of the independent print magazine industry?
PS – See above. I’ll get back to you after issue 4.
TV – Well, there are a lot of magazines out there. More than ever before. And they’re surviving. Looks pretty healthy to me. But yeah, let’s revisit that question in a year or two.
What can we look forward to from Special Request in the future?
PS – Our next issue is excitingly on the subject of ‘Television’. Content wise it’s already looking very strong indeed with some great writers and amazing photographers already on board. Now we have launched our first issue and have a physical product to show people, the commissioning process is somewhat easier. The ultimate goal is to keep raising our game issue by issue, learning from our mistakes each time. Good things are yet to come.
TV – Yup, TV. Pretty exciting. The next issue’s going to be twice the size. Twice as much fun. Twice as good. Brace yourself.