Royal Flush Shuffles the Business Models: Low Cost – Targeted Distribution

By Steve Smith

How do you make money on an independent magazine these days? Well, you start by keeping your content expenditures as low as possible. Take, for example, Josh Bernstein, editor and publisher of the music, comics and culture magazine Royal Flush, which launched its 112-page sixth book yesterday with a cover story interview with Hugh Hefner and contributions from comics legend Harvey Pekar, rocker Joan Jett and others. “It costs not one penny to make,” says Bernstein. Well, at least the content doesn’t cost much to make. Since it began as a photo-copied zine in the late 90s, Royal Flush has grown to become a beautiful work of hand-drawn art, with high production values and a following that has grown to 40,000.

“The business model is don’t hire insider staff,” says Bernstein, who considers his bedroom the home office. Much of the content, mostly hand-drawn, is developed by Bernstein and a crew of freelancers who have day jobs at other magazines. For the last decade Royal Flush has been a labor of love. Now, Bernstein believes the project is about to hit break-even as it leverages the brand and the audience outside of print and finds new methods of distribution. The recently completed Royal Flush Festival was a five-day event in New York that included independent film screenings, music fests and art gallery showings, all synched with the magazine’s indie tastes. “No magazine will survive being just a magazine,” he says. “You have to do the 360 thing – be active on the Web, in TV, on social networks.”

“The breakthrough for us was sponsoring band tours,” says Bernstein. Royal Flush recently sponsored a national tour along with apparel store chain Hot Topic. The band appeared on the back of the magazines, and Hot Topic carried the issues in-store. But the band tour itself became a distribution platform, since Royal Flush would be sold at concerts alongside all of the other pricey merchandise that make touring lucrative for musicians. “A $10 magazine is cheaper than a $40 T-shirt,” says Bernstein. And a highly targeted distribution network is more effective than mass market any day. “We made more money this way than selling magazines at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon,” he says. “In the magazine world there are too many middlemen taking too many cuts of the money.”

Royal Flush is still distributed at major chains, but its release schedule is, well, occasional. Book Six is the one and only issue of the year. He has 15 pages of ads in the new issue and wants more, but Bernstein doesn’t think counting ad pages is where magazines need to head. The events and marketing opportunities outside of the book’s pages are where the real money will be, he expects.

“The goal is to do this quarterly, because then it will activate international distribution,” Bernstein says. He knows there is interest worldwide if he can find a way to get more copies overseas other than the Web site orders. “One day last week I got orders in one day from seven different countries,” he says. “For a kid in his bedroom this is pretty amazing."