Sesi’s Editor-in-Chief, Andréa Butler, On Starting and Growing a Print Magazine in Today’s Digital World

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As a teenager, wordsmith Andréa Butler was (and still is) obsessed with magazines but never felt that any of them catered to the needs and interests of young Black girls such as herself. According to the former high school English teacher, Essence was “too old” and magazines, such as Seventeen and Teen Vogue lacked diversity. Tired of flipping through the pages of magazines she couldn’t relate to, Andréa decided to take matters into her own hands back in 2009 with the launch of Sesi Magazine.

Sesi, which means “sister” in the Sotho language of South Africa, is a quarterly print magazine dedicated to “today’s eclectic Black teenage girl.” It’s a place where Black girls can go to feel celebrated to the absolute fullest. Since its inception, many popular musicians and actors/actresses have graced the cover, including OMG Girlz, Mindless Behavior, Keke Palmer, and now Imani Hakim. Here, Andréa reveals how she was able to successfully launch a print magazine in a technology-driven world.

A Royal Point of View: We keep hearing that journalism is dead, especially print, so I’m curious to know what inspired you to launch your own publication in this day in age?

Andréa: I actually got the idea when I was 17 because I was obsessed with magazines, and I would always look through them and wonder, “Why isn’t there anyone who looks like me on the cover? And why don’t they address issues that I’m going through?” I thought, “Well, if nothing changes by the time I’m out of school, then I’ll start one,” but I kind of went around that and taught high school English for five years [after completing graduate school]. Then I decided I really wanted to do the magazine, so I initially launched it in 2009 while I was still teaching.  Then I got a new job as an editor at LivingSocial.com, so I put the magazine on the back-burner. But I kept getting called back to do the magazine and knew this is really what I wanted to do, so I relaunched it in December 2012 but was still working at LivingSocial.com full time. I didn’t start doing the magazine full time until January 2014.

I decided to do print because our audience is Black teen girls from ages 13-19, generally speaking. A lot of teen girls don’t have access to iPads on a regular basis. Also, magazines are such a different animal than newspapers. Still today, teenagers like to rip out the pages of their favorite ads or rip out a page of a cute guy to hang on their wall. They still do that. You can’t fold up an iPad and sneak it in your locker or stick it under a textbook, which I’m not advising people to do [laughs], but you can’t do that. It’s just a tactile experience that you have to have with a magazine. It’s so different from any other type of media.

KeKe Palmer on the cover of Sesi's spring 2010 issue.

A Royal Point of View: What were some of the steps you went through to ensure the success of Sesi?

Andréa: After college, I went to graduate school. In college, I studied English and in graduate school, I studied magazine journalism. That’s where I learned more about the business of magazines because all I knew was I liked to read them [laughs]. As my master’s project, instead of writing a thesis, I did a business plan for a new magazine and I did it for Sesi. And I did a prototype with it as well. When I started, I was using [a content publishing service] and I just did not like the paper that they use. It didn’t feel right. It felt more like a homemade project, so when I relaunched it, I met with a local printer. I knew it would be more expensive, but I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right!” So I met with the local printer, got to feel the paper and take a tour of the place. And it feels like a real magazine now.

What I did next with the relaunch anyway, was get one of my friends from high school do the layout. She actually got her degree in graphic design and she’s working on her master’s in magazine design. And she does it all on a volunteer basis since our budget is tight. Then I posted ads on ed2010.com and Twitter asking for freelancers. And when I left LivingSocial.com, I asked some of the freelancers if they wanted to come with me, so finding writers wasn’t difficult. As for the celebrities on the cover, I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just said, “You know what? I’m going to email the publicist. What do I have to lose?'” And so, they wrote me back and I was able to get KeKe Palmer on the second issue ever. You just have to take chances and do your research. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also really fun and a lot of trial and error.

A Royal Point of View: What was the biggest obstacle you faced along the way?

Andréa: I would say the biggest obstacle is selling ad space. It’s really difficult. In the beginning, I was trying to sell ads, but nothing was happening for a year and a half. Recently, I just sold two ads — well, technically, three because one is running in two issues, so it’s starting to happen. All the nos are starting to become,”Oh yes!” And I’m having more meetings with potential advertisers. It takes a lot of patience.

A Royal Point of View: Many publications these days come and go. What do you think has been the secret to sticking around for this long?

Andréa: I don’t know. I would say hard work and faith because there are times when I’m like, “I don’t even know how we’re keeping this going” because it’s very hard. There’s also been times when I call my friends and my mom and just cry. I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” But they’re so encouraging and they tell me, “Andréa, this is what you’re supposed to do.” I pray a lot as well.

A Royal Point of View: Talk to us about why it was so important for you to create a publication that represented and celebrated Black girls.

Andréa: Like I said, when I was younger, I was obsessed with magazines. I subscribed to Seventeen, YM, Teen Vogue and Teen People and it was just the same people on the cover all the time. It’s still like that today. All the teen magazines that are out today — the mainstream ones, their mission statement specifically claims that they’re for all girls, but when you look at the magazine, they are clearly for White girls. That’s who their audience is. I didn’t like that they claimed they’re all inconclusive, when they’re really not.

There’s also Essence for older, Black women and we have BET, TV One, Radio One and all that, but we need a magazine for Black girls as well because they need to see themselves on the cover. They need to see their beauty, hair, fashion sense, music and movies celebrated. We published an article about color complex in our fall issue last year and we also talked about racial profiling — you’re not going to see that in Seventeen. People equate mainstream with White and that’s why our slogan is, “We’re covering the Black girl’s mainstream.”

Mindless Behavior covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: As of now, Sesi is a print magazine, but it’s sold exclusively online. Do you think you’ll eventually sell it in stores?

Andréa: Even harder than getting ad space is getting into stores. You can’t just go to a store and say, “Hey, sell my magazine.” You have to go through distributors and the distributors have to think you’re worth it. They’re very subjective. I’ve reached out to many distributors and they’ve said to me, “Oh, we don’t think that you’re magazine can make us money right now.” Until I can get into stores, I’m focusing on selling it online. It’s just like any other magazine, where you can order it and have shipped directly to your home. I know its going to take a while, but we are looking into getting into some of the local stores and we’re actually in several school libraries and public libraries already.

A Royal Point of View: What entrepreneurial advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Andréa: Do your research — that’s very important. Study your competition, study your market and make sure there is a market out there that isn’t being covered. You want to find a niche because you’ll have so much competition already, so you really want to find something that you’re filling a void for. It’s a lot of trial and error, but definitely read books on starting your own magazine just to give you some type of structure. Build a team. If you can do it all, that’s great, but I’ve found that I’m not that great with the design aspect, so it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. And if you have money, that’s great, but if you don’t, you might want to keep your day job for a while.

A Royal Point of View: What tips and pointers would you give up-and-coming journalists who want to thrive in this competitive industry?

Andréa: The whole multimedia convergence thing is really huge now. I’d say learn not only how to write and edit but also how to do video, incorporate Google hangout interviews, learn about social media management and start a blog. Basically, learn about every aspect of your business that you can. And networking is everything. I’m really not the type of person who likes to go to mixers, where I don’t know anyone. That’s not really my thing, but if you go to conventions like the National Association of Black Journalists or the Society of Professional Journalists, you can talk to people in the different sessions and it’s not so forced. Also, network while you’re in college with your friends because they may go off and do the same type of thing you’re trying to do.

A Royal Point of View: For those of us who are interested in contributing to Sesi, what do you look for in a pitch? What excites you?

Andréa: I like pitches where the opening is really attention grabbing. I won’t finish reading something that’s like, “Dear Andréa, I would like to write about blah blah blah…” Just get to the point. Tell me the story that you want to write and really grab my attention. And then go into who would you interview for this story and what’s your angle. Be creative. I don’t like the standard, cover letter-looking pitches. Also, be sure that you’ve actually read an issue before you pitch me something because we get a lot of pitches that are just off-based.

On our website, we have a page that’s just for writer’s guidelines, so you want to make sure that you follow all the directions because if you don’t, I don’t even read it because I’m like, “You don’t even follow directions. How can you follow directions when you write an article?” Lastly, we like to get things at least three months in advance. Right now, we’re working on the back-to-school issue, so our deadline for pitches is June 30.

Drew Sidora covers Sesi

A Royal Point of View: What if the person pitching is just starting out and has little or no writing clips?

Andréa: If they don’t have a lot of writing clips, I understand that. We’ve all been there, but if the pitch is really strong and I talk to you and you seem to have your stuff together, I might ask for you to send a sample of something that you’ve written just to make sure you have our style down because that’s main thing. You’ve got to be able to speak in our voice. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to be able to write in the voice of the publication you’re writing for. You’ve got to be able to adapt. You should also be able to take constructive criticism.

A Royal Point of View: What are some pitching dos and don’ts?

Andréa: Do your research about the publication you’re pitching for. Make sure you know what kind of articles they’re looking for, what kind of departments they have in their magazine or what they cover on their blog. Do make sure that you follow the writer’s guidelines because they’re there for a reason. We took the time to write them out and tell you exactly what we’re looking for, so you don’t have to guess. Do be creative with your pitches, so that we actually feel compelled to read them. Don’t be rude — that’s big a thing. And don’t waste people’s time.

A Royal Point of View: Looking back, what’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith five years ago when you decided to launch Sesi?

Andréa: I said I was going to do this at this 17 years old. I remember that moment. I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom and I had all these magazines spread around me. And I was like, “Why doesn’t anybody look like me? Well, I should just start a magazine!” But I wasn’t actually serious at the time. Like I said, I did avoid it several times by teaching after graduate school for five years. I launched the magazine while I was teaching but put it on the back-burner and said, “Maybe I won’t do it.”

When I started working at LivingSocial.com, I kept feeling the urge to return to the magazine, so I relaunched it while I was still at LivingSocial.com, but I couldn’t dedicate myself to it 100 percent. It was difficult leaving my day job, but I believe it’s going to be worth it because it’s slow growing, but it’s growing and I think that’s the important part. I was not happy just going to work every day and coming home. All I did was get up, go to work, work all day, come home, watch TV, go to bed and do it again. And it wasn’t that exciting. If you’re going to do it, don’t think it’s easy. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone.

A Royal Point of View: Where do you see Sesi 10 years from now?

Andréa: Well, my hope is that Sesi takes off very soon so that in 10 years, we’ll be the largest magazine for Black teen girls around. By then, we would like to publish 10 times a year, have plenty of ads, be in stores and have a full staff writers and editors. We’ll always be in print, but we’ll probably also have a digital option. And we hope to keep inspiring Black girls everywhere and educate people who aren’t Black — they can read it as well and learn about their Black friends. Hopefully, it’ll be bigger and better than it is now and keep going forever. That’s the plan.

A Royal Point of View: Is there anything you wish you would’ve known back then that you know today, professionally speaking?

Andréa: I feel like I learned a lot in graduate school, but you don’t always know what you need to know until you get there. There’s nothing that I feel like was left out necessarily. I think you can only learn a finite amount of information when in you’re in school, which is important because you definitely need the foundation. However, you learn more when you actually get into it and realize all that it takes. And things are always changing. When I was in graduate school in 2003, there was no social media, so as things keep changing, you just have to adapt.

Be sure to follow Sesi Magazine on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. To subscribe, click here.

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