Swimming Against the Tide - an Interview with Ali Fraser, Editor of Stew Magazine

As part of Words & Pictures' Everything Indie month, Nick Cross chats with Ali Fraser, the editor of Stew Magazine - a new bimonthly independent publication for children aged 8-12.

In an in-depth interview, they discuss the creative and commercial challenges of launching a print magazine without the support of a corporate publishing team or a fat marketing budget.

Nick Cross
This month sees the publication of issue 3 of Stew Magazine, and I should probably declare my bias upfront, as Stew has been farsighted/crazy enough to publish my children’s short stories in every issue to date. But it also features art and writing by other SCBWI members including Lisa Mann and Yoko Tanaka, and is handsomely produced, with a professional design that belies its indie origins.

I’m very pleased to be joined today by editor Ali Fraser, to find out all about Stew's recipe for success.

Hi Ali, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Words & Pictures. Could you talk a little bit about your background as a journalist, and how that led you to the idea of starting a magazine?

Ali Fraser
As a boy, I dreamt of becoming a prize-winning foreign correspondent, but at some point in my career - probably at about the time I joined Woman's Own - I knew it wouldn't happen and that I'd found my level as a desk editor. Since then, on various magazines and papers, I've gained some practical knowledge about producing publications, and, during this time, have also written quite regularly, so I've been able to combine that experience in launching Stew.

But my background as a journalist merely gave me the tools; the idea of starting a magazine actually came about when my daughter, then aged 8, was given a subscription to a publication that her grandmother thought was worthy but which Ellie found dull. The product might have been wrong, but I thought the concept was great: Ellie was thrilled to get her own magazine through the post, and, like most children, she loves stories and laps up information. So perhaps a different kind of magazine would work. Instead of being didactic and like an encyclopaedia, it should tell knowledge-based features as if they were stories, full of anecdotes and human interest.

How long did it take between you having the idea for Stew, and sending out the first issue?

About 18 months, though there were long gaps during that time when I did nothing. I wasn't sure I could do it alone and didn't know anyone who wanted to get involved, so I'd leave it for a while.

But Ellie's curiosity kept bringing me back to the idea. I'd tell her some historical story or show her an item in the newspaper and her eyes would be like saucers. She's not unusual or precocious and is no different from other children her age, which made me think that if she was interested in these yarns, others would be too.

In the current publishing climate, launching a print-only magazine seems to be swimming against the tide. What makes you think that Stew can succeed?

I expect there's an ancient Chinese proverb that could express it more pithily, but maybe swimming against the tide is the way to succeed. I'm not against digital magazines - I've even started a couple - but a printed publication offers children a different aesthetic and intellectual experience to what they get online. Yes, it means more work, and the costs are higher, yet in spite of that, and for lots of reasons, it feels absolutely the right choice.

Besides, no one really knows where publishing is going. Right now, as you say, practically everyone is swimming like mad towards that end of the pool without having much idea why or whether they'll stay afloat. As with vinyl records, I think people have a soft spot for magazines.

You’ve opted for a primarily subscription-based sales model, similar to that used by other indie kids' publications like The Phoenix. Have you found it hard to persuade people to sign up?

Among the seven million questions you have to ask yourself when launching a magazine are the obvious ones such as how often you will publish, how much you'll charge and how you'll sell it. I can't really picture Stew in WH Smith's, for instance, and I've no idea if retailers would even want it, so a subscription model seemed the natural choice.

I felt that six issues a year was the right number (and probably all I could physically manage) and that £20 for an annual subscription was a good price - neither off-puttingly expensive nor tackily cheap. For the price of a hardback and less than a family ticket to the cinema, a child could have a good-quality magazine for a whole year. I think that's an attractive proposition and am confident that the number of subscriptions will increase as more people get to know about Stew.

So, yes, the challenge is to raise Stew's profile. Without an advertising budget, I'm relying on social media and word of mouth. Inevitably that's a slow burn. But the numbers are going up with each issue.

Are there any physical shops where Stew is on sale?

Yes, it's in a few, including Foyles bookshop and Tate Modern. Contacting other, similar outlets is on my lengthy to-do list.

You’re editing, publishing and promoting Stew at the same time as doing your day job – how do you cope?

I guess that anyone who launches a business has to expect to burn the candle at both ends. I do find it frustrating, though, that lack of time means nothing is done particularly well and some things don't get done at all (see the answer above). More worryingly, I think I might be drooling in my sleep on the train to work.

Have you been pleased with the magazine’s reception so far?

The magazine has had lots of really lovely comments and those, frankly, are the things that keep you going when you're sitting at your desk at 3am wondering if it's all worth the slog.

There was some controversy a couple of months back, when you were challenged over your policy of not paying contributors to the magazine. Do you think that criticism was justified?

I wouldn't call it a policy. That makes it sound as if I could pay but have chosen instead to keep any money the magazine makes and build myself a swimming pool.

The fact is, Stew was launched on a shoestring; I don't have any backers or savings sloshing around, and rather than borrow and be in debt, I try to keep costs as low as possible. I always explain to potential contributors that there is no editorial budget - yet - so they can choose to walk away.

I would pay fees right now if I could, because the contributors' work is fantastic, and I'm very grateful to all those who support the magazine and show their commitment to it in these early days. When sales increase and Stew is making money, they will be properly rewarded.

Do you have a long-term vision for how Stew will evolve?

No, I have a short-term vision, which is to get the next issue out.

Are there any areas of writing or illustrating the magazine that you feel SCBWI members can contribute to? How can they contact you, if so?

Illustrators should look at the sample issue (embedded below) to get an idea of the kind of style that works in the magazine. And I'm always interested to hear from anyone who wants to write short stories or non-fiction educational features. People can contact me at editorial@stewmagazine.co.uk.

Finally, if this has whetted our readers’ appetite for a tasty Stew, where can they get more information about the magazine?

The Stew website has lots of background information about the concept behind the magazine. I'd love to hear from anyone who just wants to chat about it, or would like to contribute or even get involved in the business side.

Thank you, Ali, for being so candid and for creating such a great magazine - it's clearly a labour of love, and that comes through on every page.

Thanks very much for giving me the opportunity to tell you a bit about Stew. Now please excuse me while I go and put on my Speedos.

According to his official website, Nick Cross is a "children's writer, ex-zombie and part-time superhero."

Only one of these statements is true.


  1. Stew is a great idea and Ali is a brave and enterprising editor, well done on the interview Nic. As you know I've some serious doubts with the 'no contributor pay' bit, especially in regards illustration use. As long as it applies only to freely submitted, rather than editorially commissioned work then it makes sense, but I'd like Nic to clarify this.

  2. ... sorry I mean I'd like Ali to clarify it, not Nic! :)

  3. At our crit group I admired the beautiful cover for Stew done by SCBWI member Yoko Tanaka - such quality art. It is so good to see such a beautifully produced magazine in the UK - I hope it expands and pays its way for everyone. The income from a wealth of French and a few US childrens magazines keeps me going between books. One French publisher's scheme struck me as being a good business idea - near the start of each school year they send out a free sample to class teachers at targeted schools, with an attractive info packed brochure- order form to distribute to each child's parent. Kids love the look and the few games etc in in the brochure - order form and many parents will commit to a year's subscription when it comes with teacher's approval. What stands out with their publications, like Stew- is that it doesnt look anything like the usual 'educational' fare that comes in school bags!

    1. That's an intriguing idea Bridget, it's all about driving word of mouth, isn't it. And I agree that kids have an uncanny ability to sniff out "educational" publications that pretend they are going to be "fun"


  4. This is brilliant, Nick a great interview!
    And thank you Ali for letting Nick interview you - Stew is a classy publication.
    Completely agree that fact or fiction, both should have story - which is interesting and challenging - how to make factual content as engaging as a well written piece of fiction without resorting to making it up.
    Ali - Hope the swimming pool build is going well.


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