An Interview With Bo Sacks: The Magazine Industry and the Future of Publishing

Bo Sacks

Note from Jane: I conducted this sit-down interview with magazine industry veteran Bo Sacks in spring 2014; it originally appeared in Scratch magazine. For those interested, I’ve started another publication for writers, The Hot Sheet.

When I started my first job in magazine publishing, in 2001, my boss gave me a set of instructions for my first day. One of the items was “Subscribe to the Bo Sacks e-newsletter.” I obeyed, and I started receiving three reads in my email inbox every weekday morning about news, trends, and upheaval in the publishing industry. Before long, I felt like an insider, and whenever I hired someone, I told her to subscribe too.

Bo Sacks has been working in the publishing industry since 1970, when he founded a weekly newspaper with a group of friends. He was also one of the founders of High Times magazine, a groundbreaking magazine about a law-breaking topic: marijuana. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Sacks led manufacturing and production at a wide range of magazines and publishers, including McCall’s, TIME, New York Times Magazine Group, and Ziff Davis. Today, he focuses on private consulting and his email newsletter, which reaches about 16,000 people.

Although the bulk of his career has focused on print manufacturing, anyone who reads or meets Bo Sacks quickly learns that he sees a publishing future filled with opportunity, not disaster. Still, he is not a Pollyanna. When Bo first met my partner, Mark, whose job for the last 15 years has been facilitating the production of print books, Bo asked him right away, “Do you expect to retire from that job?” Mark said no. To which Bo responded with another question: What was Mark doing to become employable in the future, when there’s no longer a market for his skill set? Mark didn’t have an answer. Bo said, “You need to subscribe to my newsletter.”

When I relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia, and discovered that I lived in the same town as Bo, I hoped to find a good excuse to email him and introduce myself. I eventually did while working on a freelance piece for Writer’s Digest. Bo immediately invited me out for coffee. A few months later, when I asked if he would sit down for this interview, he agreed and added that we should make an evening of it. So my partner and I had dinner with Bo and his wife, Carol, at their home. Carol also has a long career in magazine production, and Bo refers to her as his CFO. They have a room devoted to their wine collection, and walls covered with built-in bookshelves. After the dishes were cleared, Bo and I lingered at the dining room table (drinks still flowing) for our interview, while our partners ventured elsewhere to chat.

Jane Friedman: How did you end up starting a newspaper as your first job?

Bo Sacks: I was sitting in Syracuse, New York, with two journalism students—and this is immediately after the Kent students got shot. We were sitting around wondering what we should do, and much to my surprise, one of them said, “Let’s start a newspaper.”

How old were you?

Nineteen. None us knew anything. We started the Express, a 50,000-weekly-circulation tabloid that went to every college in Nassau and Suffolk counties. We learned as we went.

This is when I found out that there are alcoholics even in the business world. Our schedule was to distribute Thursdays, so we took our mechanical boards to the printer at 6:00 a.m. Thursday. I’m 19 years old, I’m sitting there with my printer, and he reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a bottle of Dewar’s and wax paper cups, and we start to drink. I didn’t know this is not how you do business—I had no idea. This tradition went on for a year and a half.

How did you get funding for the Express?

Self-funded, $500 each. $1,500 started the enterprise. We bartered for everything. Each partner made $25 per week. We had 50 members. It was an extraordinary, dedicated staff who worked for nothing, for the joy of being part of the publication—anti-war, pro-pot, very liberal. Very humorous.

I would hit ten bars a night to sell advertising. And bartenders aren’t stupid. They say, “Hmm, very interesting, come in the back room.” They’d pour me a drink, we’d negotiate a deal, and I’d go off to the next bar. That experience served me well when I got to big publishing in the late 1970s, early 80s. Your senior managers almost always got liquid lunches. And so when I got to McCall’s, I guess I was 27.

That’s young.

I was director of manufacturing years ahead of anybody in that job.

Was a woman able to play that game?

In the early days, women weren’t production managers, but at about that time, they started to make their way in. They were always paid less than men were paid.

My boss had a major impact—there was the Association of Publication Production Managers, and they had a golf outing every year where a girl jumped out of a big cake. My boss was the one who said no. And it changed everything. The old-timers were really put out and upset, but he was president of the organization at the time, and he made it stick. And they’ve never had a girl out of the cake since then.

But it was still a man’s world, and the women got angry and left the association and started their own—Women in Production, in New York City. [My wife] Carol was an early president of Women in Production. They grew to be a robust, excellent organization that included men. They held the best event of the year, the Luminaire Awards at the Waldorf Astoria. It was the most prestigious award for production professionals to get in New York City. Later on, Women in Production merged with the Association of Publication Production Managers, so everybody came back together.

What was your path to High Times?

After the Express folded, I went out to Tucson, AZ, to start another newspaper with a partner, the Arizona Mountain Newsreel, which lasted for about ten years, but it couldn’t support me and my partner. So I came back to New York City, and me and a few other fellows started High Times. It was such a controversial magazine that we had to start our own distribution network. Nobody would carry it back then.

How is it possible to do your own distribution?

We called it the Alternative Distribution Network, which was record stores, hairdressers, and odd retail outlets. We were doing massive volume. In all the time that I was there—I don’t know what their sales are now—I don’t think we sold any less than 80 percent of what we distributed to newsstands, which was a staggering accomplishment. [Newsstand sales today average about 20 to 30 percent of what’s distributed.]

Did you face any legal problems?

No. We believed every now and then there was an undercover cop in the mailroom, but at that time there were no more drugs in our office than at Chase Manhattan Bank. Everybody had his own little stash, but there was never any bulk in the office. All of the photographs—which were real—were photographed elsewhere. [The centerfold of High Times typically features a picture of cannabis.]

Bo Sacks with Cheech and Chong at the Friar's Club after shooting the <i>High Times</i> cover
Bo Sacks with Cheech and Chong at the Friar’s Club after shooting the High Times cover

You were there for quite a while, from 1974 to 1980.

Everything I know uses that experience as a foundation. It’s fascinating to me that when we started High Times, we used a linotype [hot lead] to set type. But we struggled with meeting schedules due to many things, including the nature of our product. So, as a production person responsible for meeting schedules, I had to come up with solutions. So I got a Compugraphic cold type machine. I was the first kid on my block to have one. By today’s standards it was primitive, but it was computerized typesetting nonetheless.

So High Times was technologically innovative?

Extremely, in every way, from distribution to manufacturing. We were also the first people I know to own a fax machine, although in those days it wasn’t called a fax machine, it was called a Qwip. You had to take a chemically treated piece of paper and wrap it around a drum to receive, and you had to call the person and say, “Okay, send now!” and you put your phone on the cradle and the thing would actually burn an image on the drum. To save time, we would Qwip our paginations over to QuadGraphics, the High Times printer then and now.

So your beginnings as a publishing futurist—someone who is thinking progressively about the industry and pointing out how it’s going to evolve—that might be said to have started at the High Times?

I have the natural personality to think ahead because I was a Star Trek fan, a science fiction fan. That leads you, by the very nature of those things, to be an alternative thinker. That clearly parlayed into manufacturing magazines. “This is how we do it, but why couldn’t we do it a different way?” In every way that I could streamline the process by using technology, I would. And that worked in every step of my career.

I know you have a really interesting story about starting your newsletter—how it started with AOL.

I was working for Ziff Davis, and they had me coordinate with AOL to insert diskettes into magazines; and not only on-sert [attaching to the outside of the magazine], but insert into bound magazines—extremely difficult since plastic diskettes break easily. After the success of the inserting and on-serting, AOL gave me an account. This was about 1988 or ’89, and I was chagrined, stunned, stupefied by sending words over the phone [via dial-up modem].

I’m a magazine guy. I know all about putting words on paper. But to send words through the phone seemed very near like magic. But I had this concept, this theory, that if I understood how to send words over the phone, I’d have an advantage over other production managers who didn’t know how to do that. So that is the only reason I started my newsletter.

There was no World Wide Web, but there were FTP sites like Gopher, and I would find white papers on manufacturing of magazines and forward them to my only other friend who had an email account at that time. He worked for Time Inc., and he had been my college roommate, and we would chat about it. So the newsletter was just me and my college roommate, and then another Time Inc. person, and then there were three, then four, and five. And it mushroomed.

Hardly anyone I know has the kind of focus and dedication it takes to do a newsletter for 20 years. Why have you kept up with it for so long?

I always felt the knowledge and the process [of doing the newsletter] would make me a valuable employee. In those days, I never for a second thought I would be self-employed.

And every night, as you know, the newsletter goes out like religion. There are only two times in the last 20 years it didn’t come out. Once, when we were vacationing in Australia, I used the AOL 800 number but couldn’t get a connection. The other time was on my honeymoon, and it just seemed prudent not to work on my honeymoon. I think that was a success.

Recently on Twitter, I saw a journalism student create a guest-speaker bingo card with phrases that come up a bit too frequently in journalism talks. One of the spaces was labeled with the quote “It’s an exciting time to be a journalist.” Do you think that’s an overused phrase?

Is it a catchphrase? Yes. Is it the truth? Absolutely. It is the most exciting time in publishing’s history. We’ve had a mundane experience up until 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, you did the exact same thing that your boss did. And your boss did the exact same thing that his boss did. There was very little change in our industry.

I like to say the same thing with a different phrase, equally ridiculous: “This is the next golden age of publishing.” I believe that to the fullest. More people read now than ever before. There are billions of people online reading now, and in the next five years, there’ll be billions more online and reading. If we’re all smart, that’s an opportunity of unprecedented order.

Now that everyone can communicate, they will communicate, so that creates a lot of competition, a lot of noise. Does that seem like the challenge?

Print used to be the least expensive, easiest way to reach a mass audience. It was easy to print, and many people did. And there was lots of junk printed.

Now everybody can be online, but at the end of the day, it’s only quality that will achieve a steady revenue stream. And that’s what seems to be happening right now. We’re not done, but quality writing is rising to the top.

Of course, that leaves out my waiter theory. I believe that the great writers are still waiting tables because they haven’t had the ability to be discovered. Just like the greatest actors are still waiting tables. They didn’t get that lucky break. But that has nothing to do with technology.

Discoverability is a buzzword right now in book publishing: How people discover things to read as bookstores close. Do you think that’s as big of an issue as it’s being made out to be?

It’s as big of an issue as it ever was. There have been many titles—and maybe great ones—that just sat on the shelf, and the right people didn’t get the opportunity to read them and promote them.

So you don’t think it’s a bigger problem now than it was before?

I think it’s an identical problem. The way you get discovered is by luck or fate or who you know, or by the dollar volume that you have, or all three. Or, something is so unique, it just goes viral.

If you walk into a bookshop with a hundred thousand titles, you have a discoverability problem. You can scan a shelf and clearly find one or two things you want, but in scanning that shelf, you missed the hundred other shelves. So now [with digital reading] we’re talking about that, but multiplied. It’s the same problem. Some will get found and cherished and passed on. And others won’t.

There’s all this conversation about print versus digital in publishing. How much is that a distraction?

It’s a terrible distraction. Everything is as it was; only the substrate has changed. And I believe the substrate is irrelevant to the message. We as publishers are agnostic or should be agnostic to the substrate. We just want to sell you good words. I’m indifferent to how you choose to read those words. And that’s what’s happening, despite our fears and worries. Reading is not going to go away. And we should be respectful of the individual’s right to read on whatever substrate she wants.

I’ve heard you say before that print is going to be more of a luxury.

It has to be, because it’s such an expensive process and increasingly will be so. It’ll be less expensive to ship digitally, but not because it’s free—it’s not free. There are servers, there are computers, there is all kinds of infrastructure—it’s a misnomer to think that digital is free. It’s not. But at the end of the day it’s less expensive than printing. And so in order to print you need to be willing to pay the price of printing, and that means that’s what’s left in print has to be considered a luxury item.

Here’s a question I hear a lot: What’s the future of literary magazines? Many are general interest, they can be hard to tell apart, they don’t necessarily have a strong brand. People might not be able to tell the Kenyon Review from the Ontario Review from the Paris Review from the Georgia Review

One of them that you just mentioned is famous. And the others less so.

Correct. The Paris Review.

And that’s a product of branding. So what can we learn from that lesson? That the way to succeed as a literary journal is to develop a recognizable brand, and that’s not different than any other form of publishing. The key to success is to develop a recognizable, trusted brand. If you can do that, that’s three-fourths of the battle.

This is difficult for the literary community. They’re, like, “Don’t say the word brand. This is art.”

They have a choice. They can be gifted into their existence by grants. Or they can make it in the hard, cruel commercial world of business. If you want to make it in the business world without relying on grant money, you have to run a brand. I think of it as a noble endeavor—saying, “my journal is great and worthy of success. And here’s why. Because it has X, Y, and Z. We deserve to succeed.”

What worries me is that, as someone who has religiously read the New Yorker since college (and I still do), I’m getting further and further behind, and I’ve dropped all my other subscriptions—Harper’s, Atlantic, New Republic, Entertainment Weekly, Wired—slowly, over the last decade. And I notice that my time is getting sucked up in a lot of other reading. It’s not necessarily that I’m  reading less, but that my choices are very different. I’m also consuming a lot of TV. You’ve probably seen the trend articles proclaiming “This is the Golden Age of TV.”

Did you see the David Carr article [about all of his TV watching]?


Wasn’t that amazing? His quote about magazines—I’m watching TV and all these magazines are stacking up and I don’t read them.

Yes, so this is my concern.

You said that you’re reading just as much, but you’re just not reading the things you used to read. So that doesn’t make your brain any smaller, and you’re not spending less time stimulating your mind.

I guess I’m concerned for those publications that need reader commitment to survive. I’m not committed to publications any more. I’m committed to this last one, but not to paying money to more than that one. I’ll read other magazines online if the content is free.

I would suggest that you will read anything that’s worthy of you reading it. You used to think the Atlantic was worthy of your money and reading, but you’re spending your time somewhere else because you’ve found worthy reading elsewhere.

If you do not have excellence, you will not survive in print. There’s plenty of indifferent writing on the web—it’s free entry, and it doesn’t matter. But quality will out there, too. Really well-written, well-thought-out editorial will be the revenue stream. You must have such worthiness that people give you money when they don’t have to, since they can get entertained elsewhere for free.

We haven’t touched on the role of advertising in all of this—the other major source of revenue aside from subscriptions. Magazine ad revenue is fading.

It’s not fading; it’s changing. It’s fading from the magazine universe, but marketing is bigger than it’s ever been. Those [ad] dollars that were spent in publications are not not being spent. They’re being used elsewhere. And delivering more of what advertisers have always wanted, which is a direct, one-to-one relationship with consumers.

What do you think about native advertising? [Native advertising is when a publication is paid by an advertiser to write and run a story that looks like editorial content. Sometimes it’s referred to as sponsored content.]

It’s increasingly successful. I find it a despicable practice. I think it’s a path to dupe the common reader. I really believe that, over a period of time, the public will wise up to what’s being done and there’ll be a backlash against those publications that do it, including the New York Times.

Do you find it more acceptable if it’s transparent and clearly marked?

I have nothing against something that says at the top, “This is an advertorial.” Native advertising is nothing more than an advertorial—we have now coined a more palatable phrase for an old practice. The bottom line is, publications are desperate for revenue, and desperate people do desperate things. This is a desperate move on the part of publishers to recapture the revenue that was once theirs. It’s not sustainable. And if it is sustainable, it’s a black mark on all publishers.

Of the magazines that are operating in print, digital, or both, are there a few you can mention that you think have a long life ahead of them?

August Home [publisher of special-interest magazines, such as Woodsmith and Cuisine at Home] is a great example of a broad view of publishing. Don Peschke [the publisher] repurposes his content with great vision. I’m impressed by Utne and Mother Earth News. Their particular niche is literate and concerned people—not a bad niche to attract. None of these guys is pretentious. They cultivate and take care of their readership. And they’ll survive. They respect their readers, and that may be what it comes down to—respecting your readers and the people who pay you.

Next step: Go subscribe to the Bo Sacks newsletter.

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