Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

The Retro Lovely Story

In 2009 I began to germinate an idea to start a magazine devoted to pin-up imagery; something high-quality to capture the best-of-the-best images I was seeing. I reached out to a number of photographers about pooling our resources to launch something we could all use as a rallying point that would collectively exceed what any of us could do individually.  I proposed a cooperative in which we would all contribute content, promotion, and money to get it off the ground. A lot of people were into it, except for the money part and, well, the promotion part. I still believed in it and spent the time and put up the money to get things started.  I got the first issue together just in time for Viva Las Vegas 2010 – whatever number VLV that was – and sent several hundred copy of the issues to Mitzi, of Mitzi and Co. With cover model Masuimi Max on hand, they sold just about every single copy. The feedback and groundswell afterwards was nothing short of astonishing. Over the following months I had well-known photographers contact me all but demanding to be featured on the next cover. As I worked on issue No.2, other photographers who had been in issue No.1, became pushy and petty over how much space they had in the second issue. They counted other’s pages and tried to fill my ear with gossip about why so-and-so was such an awful person. I became exhausted with people trying to become my new best friend for self-serving reasons. During those first months and years I was also inundated by models contacting me about photography. Again, and with few exceptions, their contact would typically shift into wanting me to look at work they already had and wanted me to publish. This recurring situation is what prompted me to begin using the alias Victor Devilbliss. I couldn’t take the cycle anymore. Photographers were put on notice that even hinting at asking for a cover feature would result in not being published any further. It was beyond taxing on my nerves; it made me sick.

What captured people’s attention with the publication? First, I insisted on high quality materials – heavier paper stock and high-end printing. In those early days there were only a handful of magazines being put out using MagCloud, a print-on-demand service. This type of printing means magazines who use this service invest NO MONEY into inventory. While they do invest their time doing layout, design and posting online they risk NO MONEY. Retro Lovely was printed by the thousands.  In fact, some of you reading this have seen the nearly 3 pallets full of cartons I have of various back issues. At cover price there is about $90,000 worth of magazines in my basement. Remember this.

Some other things set Retro Lovely apart. For instance, through Issue 9 or so, every model and photographer in an issue got a FREE COPY, postage PAID. They did not pay one red cent to get a copy of the magazine they were in. Remember this, too. By issue No.10, I did begin to ask for the shipping costs on promotional copies. Even then, there was opportunity to buy additional copies at wholesale which meant THEY could sell them to family, friends and fans and make money themselves. What kind of crazy talk is this. You could get copies of a magazine with a $20 cover price for $6.81? So if you sell 10 you would make $130??? From your modeling??? Ask yourself the last time a magazine you were in had ANY OPPORTUNITY for you to make money like this.

By Issue No.10 I did begin to ask for shipping costs to be covered on promo copies
(Caption: I found these graphics while looking through old magazine files. People could get 1, 2, 6, or 11 copies at various rates.)

No other magazine in the history of pin-up magazines has given the people on the pages as much money-making opportunity as had Retro Lovely. Cover models and photographers from each issue received a total average of 50 free copies. Anyone featured in an issue was also able to buy copies at wholesale; most times on consignment.  This means if a model or photographer was attending an event, perhaps a car show or tattoo convention at which they had a booth or tent, I would send them inventory with no money collected up front; not even the shipping cost. This was often a carton or more. I did this so they could sell and make money on their art and settle up with me afterward. In this way, I was able to send PLENTY of inventory, reducing the risk and worrying about money lost and sales missed from over- or underbuying. So here’s a figure that is 100% legit. Those featured in issue No. 1 received nearly 300 copies. The face value plus shipping costs totaled just around $5,000, not including the cost of my time. Can you imagine that now? For every issue released, the total value of promo copies and shipping exceeded $150,000.  How was that possible? By mass printing the issues at the per unit wholesale price, the cover price generated enough profit to do so. Retro Lovely No.1 sold 3,000 copies. With a $10 cover price, we broke even. I was able to pay for and make issue No.2 even bigger. Each subsequent issue’s sales kept it going and growing.

Each of these cartons weights 35 lbs. I’d carry 2 at a time. Retro Lovely was also like having a gym membership.
Issue No.3 exceeded 120 pages in size
As I personally shipped and touched 90% of the tens of thousands of copies of the magazine that made it out into the world, it’s quite possible my fingerprints can be found all over the planet.

All of these things are accomplished with a cheap labor force (me) and volume. This picture shows more than 50 cartons with about 40 copies of an issue in each. This is just one stack of many like it put together for any particular issue. Yes, I got to carry them up those stairs and then down a full flight into a basement. Mailing weeks meant I had no life beyond stuffing envelopes and cartons and shipping them to all corners of the globe. In time, I allocated $1 per envelope and $2 per carton to pay someone to do this. She made a few hundred dollars with each issue. I should have also paid myself as a cost of doing business. However, I never took a paycheck or benefited financially. I may also be the only photographer/publisher to never place his own work on the cover. There is no Retro Lovely with a Devilbliss cover. I felt that would be in poor taste and rude to all the artists who contributed their work without direct compensation. I also never leveraged the magazine to book photography sessions. Shooting with me did NOT GUARANTEE publication. Remember this, too. With the number of copies sold at a true wholesale (that being as low as half the cover price) the profit potential by artists leveraging this option was likely in excess of $250,000. RETRO LOVELY MADE MONEY FOR OTHER PEOPLE, NOT ME. What’s more is, the magazine was a huge contributing factor to the loss of my job with Homeland Security. You see, they really like you to not have a life outside work; especially anything that would put you in contact with any non-US citizen.  I actually had the honor of being interrogated by a federal agency asking why my magazine was looking for a translator to interview the German model Eden Berlin for the cover feature of Retro Lovely No.6. Interrogation seems like an exaggeration but it was close. The lights were in my eyes, video and audio were recording and my case officer, after a pause asked “What about Eden Berlin?”  It was very cold war-esque.  To be fair, I keep saying I never made money with Retro Lovely. That’s not true. I mean yes, I invested months of my life in labor to make it happen. That, I never benefited from. But what is also true is that for the last 2-3 issues, I actually invested my own personal money to try to keep it going; to weather the storm and stick it out. Between money I earned from my day job AND MONEY I TOOK OUT OF A 401K I have lost about $20,000 in all.

I also got to endure all the rumors and pettiness from people. Any time people want something you have and they don’t get it, many will search for – or fabricate – a reason. “It’s because they bribed him.” “Oh, she must have slept with someone.” “It’s a club or popularity contest.” “They only publish well-known models.” But with only so much space and business, there were only so many issues I could publish. I had to say NO to many submissions. With models submitting their own photos, I finally chose to accept submissions directly from photographers only. This helped, but it only made models mad and there was still plenty of cattiness.

So what happened ultimately?  Why did I stop publishing?  Sales. Sales began to tank. Why? Was it issues that were crappy and people stopped buying them? Nope. What happened between 2010 and 2013, is the trifecta that I hold responsible: the rise of capable smartphones, social media and print on demand publishing (MagCloud and the like).

Smartphones. Imagine the cell phone you had in 2010. Now imagine watching a YouTube video on that, or listening to music , or viewing websites. How impressive would that have  been?  I don’t know about you but I had a Blackberry when I began Retro Lovely. I used it mostly as a phone. Fast forward  a few years and smartphones turned into media playing powerhouses with screens that could delivery imagery at a quality higher than just about any other means available to each user.

Then there’s Social Media. The epitaph of print magazines might read:”Here lies print media, devoted informer and entertainer cut down in its prime by ‘the like.’” Before 2010, you had to scour the internet, buy a print magazine or book to see good, curated content. Enter Facebook which has subjugated legions of models and photographers to get their fix from “the like.” Much like the episode of Black Mirror in which the social popularity of the characters determines their quality of life, thousands of models and photographers seek validation by how many likes, shares, and fans they have. It’s the modern currency of worth. Get enough followers and you can become an “influencer” and make money off your YouTube videos, Patreon pages or even cash from companies who want to tap into your audience. There is a real scramble to find out how to reach target audiences. Social media and the internet have all but destroyed the previous marketing pillars of Television, Radio and Print. Just last week I read an article (online, no less) about how Shutterbug Magazine is ceasing print editions. I’m not sure if anyone reading this noticed, but even Inked Magazine stopped printing Inked Girls in quantity; you can go to MagCloud and find a handful of issues there. This means they didn’t print any to make available on newsstands. With so much amazing work available online for free, who needs to buy a magazine or book anymore? Free to the consumer of the art, I should say. Facebook and Google are earning BILLIONS from ad revenue, selling games and your private data.

Print On Demand. I once read something that said “The amazing thing about print on demand is that anyone can do it. The worst thing about Print On Demand is that anyone can do it…”  If you aren’t familiar with the term, here’s the Wikipedia page.  What does that mean in a nutshell?  It means a service has the file for a publication. When someone wants a copy, they buy it and the service prints and mails it to them. This is really awesome for those uses where you only need a few copies and not thousands. In the past, quality printing was only achievable by offset printing and at high-volume, low-cost by letterpress. While this can make the per copy cost as cheap as possible, it is really only the case for larger quantities, typically 1,000 or greater. This is because plates need to be made in order to make any copies at all, and they aren’t cheap. The presses that do this are HUGE and expensive and require master printers to run properly.  Since the advent of print on demand, I have said that if you are a model just completing your first ever photo shoot and you aren’t an internationally published model by the end of that same day, you aren’t trying at all. I use this analogy with friends from my past life in the music business; I was in it for over a decade. Let’s pretend it’s September 1984 and I say to you,  “one of my best friends just released a compact disc.” What that would mean is that I was best friends with Bruce Springsteen. This is because the first commercial CD pressed and released in the US was Born In The USA. It was a technology only available to big companies which would only invest in the best-of-the-best of their rosters on a new medium. Now, if we fast forward to September 2004 and I said, “one of my best friends just released a compact disc,” that could mean it was my neighbor, Eddie, who recorded himself coughing for 70 minutes and burned the disc on his home computer. The difference in the statement relevant to time drastically affects the weight of the achievement. The same is true for magazines. Being published in a magazine 15 years ago was, in fact, a pretty big deal. Right now, the definition of magazine has grown to encompass even online magazines; not solely print. This next stuff I am going to say is largely my opinion but also based on recurring observations and patterns I have seen. I believe many of you reading this will find yourself nodding your head in agreement. So what is the deal with all the currently operating magazines using print on demand publishing? Validation is a big one. It feels great to have photos liked and published. Who buys those magazines? Largely the people featured on the pages and some of their family and friends. By the math, none of those titles who use print on demand to print are selling more than one or two hundred copies. I wish MagCloud would list sales statistics next to titles. I think it might prove embarrassing. So the question to ask, is the goal exposure? If so images online on share sites get far more exposure than in a print magazine coming from a POD service. So why do people publish them? For some its spare income. It’s no secret, if you’ve ever been to the MagCloud website you will be bombarded with advertising to “start your own magazine.” With a few clicks you will see that the publication you were just looking at cost the publisher 20 cents per page to put together. I lie; it only cost them the time to put the PDF together to upload. That and dealing with submissions and paperwork. So for some it’s become spare income. If you put together a 48 page ‘zine and sold it for $15, you’d make about $5 per copy. Sell 40 copies, hey that’s $200! Woohoo you’re a publisher!  Then there are the other reasons. I’ll briefly explain some; they should make sense. I’ve seen magazines started by models who just weren’t getting published enough via other titles. I’ve seen them started by photographers (and I am betting some secretly) so they could get their work published more to aid them in booking more sessions. Then there’s the next step with that where they “guarantee” publication. Now, there are some magazines that screen photographers and select those from whom they will accept and publish submissions. Those publications invest no money in printing anything and very likely will move a unit to that model featured, so those publications cut way down on the time spent on submissions. Believe me when I tell you incoming submissions and the emails that are often tied to them take a tremendous amount of time. If you’re selling a few thousand copies of something, sure, you can justify it; maybe. But when you’re selling a few hundred, not so much. Then there’s the darker side of being a “publisher;” those people who do it to chat up women. I am sure many reading this will be familiar with the pattern of magazines. They launch. They will be the best thing since sliced bread; filling the gaps where others don’t do it right.  They put out a few issues then pretty much stall. They’re hard pressed to find a graphic artist to put together a magazine for $200. The novelty wears off and they soon realize it costs more time than the rewards received from it. Unless it’s a studio using it as a way to book more sessions.

So why are the print on demand publications popular with models? It’s that validation thing again. And you know, in fairness, I have to say this; it is cool when someone else says your work is good enough to include in a collection. You get to talk about your latest publication; how you are in another magazine. The other side of this is nobody asks what kind of magazine, how many do they print? Are they in stores? We remember what magazines were even though we don’t buy them any more. I’m generalizing. But I had a friend who worked for Hudson news, they were after me to distribute Retro Lovely all over the Mid-Atlantic. PA, NY, NJ, MD, DE. She told me year after year the magazine quantities they were distributing was shrinking by more than 10% annually.

Over the first few years of publishing I was approached by several distributors. Companies who wanted to put Retro Lovely on newsstands. Why didn’t I jump at that?  Because the business model for magazine sales has been this: A publisher starts a title with a topic of interest to people. They gather content they feel would interest those people. Then they attract businesses with goods or services to place ads. GENERALLY that ad revenue pays for everything. Covers the wages, the actually printing costs. By the time an issue is put together and ready to ship it is fully paid for and profit has been earned. The publisher then provides tens of, and hundreds of thousands of copies to distributors on consignment. The distributors do not buy and pay for the copies. They then place them on racks in places people normally find and buy magazines, those places do not buy and pay for the copies, in fact, in some instances those resellers may even charge the distributors a fee to rent the space on top of keeping the profit they make from the cover price, less the distributor wholesale. Why is it this way? Because the primary funding source of magazines has been advertising. Prior to the internet you had a handful of ways to reach people with advertising. Quite frankly before the internet and Facebook and Google were able to “target” a specialty audience, magazines where one of the most focused ways smaller industries could reach exactly the right people. Imagine a smallish cat collar company, placing an ad on TV during the Super Bowl is going to reach as many people who “hate cats” as who love them. But placing a full page ad in Cat Fancy Magazine (is that a real title?) and you bet your ad dollar you are reaching EXACTLY the right market for your product.

PINUP MAGAZINES HAVE NEVER HAD AD REVENUE TO USE THIS BUSINESS MODEL. Increasingly tractional magazines don’t either, it’s why they are folding their print operations. It’s why cover prices have skyrocketed as now sales on the racks are part of the survival strategy. But the trends don’t bode well:

The validation that being published brings also helps justify the pursuit of modeling and the associated costs.  Imagine someone’s mother and father discussing the money their daughter is spending on wardrobe and photo shoots. Perhaps they don’t place enough value on how that makes her feel and suggest it’s a waste of time and money. I imagine there have been plenty of instances where being “published” has been a way to deflect that scrutiny. It can become addictive as well.  I have from time to time noticed models who come on the scene. They get published and are so delighted with being featured. Then that high wears off. They’re only as good as their most recent publication, you see. The need to not be a one hit wonder is strong and they make efforts to get published again, and again. And heck if they got published at all they should be a cover model, too. That’s the next logical step, right?  I recall seeing these models starting out being happy with just being published and soon see them posting online about their “latest cover.”  I am not saying that isn’t fun. It is. But I am saying all this for perspective; for transparency.  This sort of modeling is not a potential career. I have always been very direct and up front about all of this with clients of mine. I have never actively put it out there for anyone to see.

Why post all this?  I am now at a crossroads. I have been approached about selling Retro Lovely. I am trying to determine a valuation. But wait, you said sales suck? Yes, still true.  However, as a brand name in pin-up, it is, amazingly, still very well-known and highly-regarded. The Facebook page has 2.1 million fans. That number and the average interactions are phenomenally more than anyone starting anything now can dream of achieving. So it’s determine valuation or consider a possible re-launch.

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