You can't beat a freebie, especially one that's been described as a "heartbreaking PDF of staggering internet genius". Published by the venerable Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, Five Dials is the three years old free PDF-only literary magazine, that pops in the in-box of more than 10,000 subscribers every quarter. To learn how it helps the HH brand, and its plans for the future, I sat down with editor Craig Taylor and HH publisher Simon Prosser to talk paradigm shifts, apps, "visual garbage" and inclusiveness.
“We launched Five Dials because we both love magazines,” Taylor says. “I believe there was a need for it at the time and there continues to be a need for such a magazine. There’s a gap out there. No literary magazine should be a chore to read. I always loved Dave Eggers’ idea of non-essential reading. Magazines aren’t like fire escape instructions. They should be fun. We’re trying to make Five Dials good non-essential reading.”
A growing number of readers have been attracted by the non-essential reading. When Five Dials was launched three years ago, it had 1,000 subscribers. Prosser and Taylor wanted it to be inclusive, and their ever-increasing readership is testament to this. As far as mission statements go, Taylor says: “Remember some people are interested in Sartre and NWA, as well as Ali Smith and Noam Chomsky. Work on new ways to pay writers as the paradigm shifts. Make jokes. Make the magazine you’d want to read.”
Five Dials relies on a 20th Century, email-a-PDF distribution model, which some might say is a little old-fashioned (they even encourage people to read it away from their computers).
“There’s no deliberate stand against online reading,” Taylor says. “We welcome new technology, but we welcome it cautiously, like an honest, hardworking prairie family might welcome a gunslinger into their house—they know he can be helpful in their struggle, but they want to see if they can trust him first. People can read Five Dials any number of ways. As we hurtle towards the exciting future of reading on screen, it’s important to remember the pleasures of reading on paper. Welcome the new, but always give people the option to print out the mag. They can fold it on buses, read it in the bath, rip out stories or nice illustrations, and just enjoy it in the many ways we’ve always enjoyed reading on paper.”
Will we ever see a Five Dials iPad app?
“We’re on it,” Taylor says. “Though we’re also interested in appealing to those who are reading Five Dials on their Androids or on whatever else is coming along the assembly line. Like I mentioned before, inclusiveness is the key. We’re excited about HTML5, which could be a solution to some of these issues.”
HTML5, of course, is the most recent iteration of the language used for presenting web content, with this new version adding syntactical features that include video and audio elements, allowing it to handle graphical content and multimedia without a lot of tedious mucking about with plug-ins like Flash. In fact, Apple is pushing hard for wider HTML5 adoption, as it doesn’t allow the CPU-intensive, battery-sucking, car-crash of Flash anywhere near its iOS devices.
Five Dials delivers content from some excellent writers and artists without charging for it. “Stuff is free these days,” Taylor says. “That’s the way it is. We are always looking for different ways of finding money for writers or finding alternative payment schemes. Every contributor is paid but often we have to consult with them and agree on exactly how they’ll be paid, whether it’s cash, free books, British chocolate, air miles—whatever works. Magazines are changing and we have to be flexible. There are some lessons to be learned from the music industry. Yes, perhaps the magazine is free but the live events and the limited edition silk screen posters don’t need to be.”
From a publisher's point of view, what benefit is there for Hamish Hamilton?
"We often receive manuscripts that we don't think quite work as books but we see parts that would be perfect for the magazine," says Prosser. "It allows us to keep in touch with a new author we like a lot but who is still working on a book (in which case we can encourage them by running a story or part of a work-in-progress). It's also a perfect forum to remind people about authors who are no longer with us but still well worth reading or rediscovering. We get to produce an interesting magazine and ask our favourite writers to take part. People read it and forward it on because it’s an actual magazine, not glorified advertorial. Sometimes an absence of marketing is pretty good marketing.”
For anyone who’s glanced at a copy, the design of the magazine is elegant, with a real attention to detail. Dean Allen, the designer, lives in France and loves typography. “That’s about all we know,” Taylor says. “He’s very mysterious. I asked him for something elegant and easy to read and he came up with the current design, which I love. I see his style as a reaction to the flickering, flashing, Google ad, Facebook ad, banner ad, endless stream of visual garbage we regularly have to peer through in the course of modern life. I download an issue of Five Dials and when it pops up on my screen, or gets spit out of a printer, I feel a little calmer. There is space to breathe. I can read a sentence without something flickering at the edge of my field of vision.”
The magazine is nothing if not eclectic. “We knew we wanted an eclectic mix from the first planning session,” Taylor says. “There’s a great archive of work to draw from at Hamish Hamilton and at Penguin. It’s a joy to commission.” How does it work? “The commissioning process is basically have an idea, quickly discuss that idea, and then call a writer.”
Five Dials Number 18, the current issue, is a special "bouquet" to Sybille Bedford. Issue 17 features pieces from Kamila Shamsie, Tishani Doshi, Henning Mankell, Patrick French and marriage tips from Mahatma Gandhi. The magazine can be downloaded here. For free, of course.
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