How We Started, Why We Succeeded, Why We Folded, and Why We’re Relaunching Now
Hello, old friends and new! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sable Aradia, writer of A Lady’s Perspective, Once More with Feeling, and vlogger of Fast Review. Mostly I review cigars and related products, with an occasional dabble in pipes and pipe tobacco. I’m also our Editor-in-Chief’s wife, and as such, I’ve been privy to the goings-on behind the scenes. I offered to share some of that inside perspective with you to answer some burning questions I know many of you probably have. I wanted you to understand why we went away in the first place, and why we’re choosing to relaunch now with a different model that asks you to support the site with your Memberships, as opposed to our original model, which was 100% free.
How We Started
Erin got back into pipe smoking just after his car accident, the one that left him disabled. I was introduced to cigar smoking about the same time by a friend. Finding himself with a lot of extra time on his hands and limited mobility, he took to the hobby like a duck to water. He’d already casually enjoyed a pipe in his youth, which he was introduced to when he was in the Navy, but that was when Cherry Cavendish was his favourite over-the-counter variation (Borkum Riff, of course!) and long before he discovered the benefits of premium tobaccos, esoterica, and professional tobacconists. This time, he started doing a bit more research, and a whole world opened up to him.
I had been anti-smoking my whole life. But I was having a bit of a mid-life crisis, I guess, and trying out things I had never tried before. Cigar smoking is something I kind of stumbled into. I found that when I had decided to take the experience for what it was, and not immediately approach it negatively, I enjoyed the flavour of quality tobacco, and I enjoyed the pleasant feeling it gave me. I, too, began to do a bit more research, and learn about things like the difference between a Connecticut and a Maduro. None of this is important to the story other than to say that Erin and I now had an overlapping interest we shared with other friends, and because we were both interested, we encouraged each other.
Erin started the Okanagan Pipe and Cigar Club, in association with our mutual friend Tad Seymour, about the time he connected with Steven Umbrello through blogging on WordPress. They discovered each others’ blogs at about the same time, and shared each others’ posts. That led them to chatting on social media, and they found they had a lot in common. I think it was a conversation about The Art of War that brought them together, but since they both had an interest in pipe smoking, cigars, and philosophy (Steven was studying for his Bachelors’,) they began reblogging each other quite a bit.
I don’t know where Erin got the idea, but I remember he started chatting with our Pipe & Cigar Club about it; to bounce his thoughts off of, I guess. It seemed to him that all the magazines out there that were writing about tobacco or pipes were presenting themselves as an elite market, and the hobby as something that only the upper crust of our society did. Erin thought we needed a resource for the common person who had an interest in pipes and cigars. By this time he was on several pipe and cigar groups on Facebook, and he was aware that most of the folk who joined these groups were not bank managers, governors, or CEOs. They were working joes, or retirees, and a lot were current or ex-military. A crowd of young college-age men in their 20s and 30s were also gravitating to cigars and pipes as an expression of masculine culture; and there were a lot more women out there than anybody in the industry might have believed.
He started talking to Steven about it, and they agreed to partner in forming the Smoking Jacket Magazine. I think the name might even have been my suggestion as Erin discussed his idea with me and asked what I thought might make a good name.. He was so animated and excited for the first time since his accident, that I cheerfully encouraged him.
At the time I intended to be a silent, supportive partner. I was trying to get a writing career off the ground, and I was the owner of a retail store which was struggling. I didn’t have time to help.
Erin and Steven gathered a group of volunteers, most of whom were personal friends or acquaintances from their Clubs and tobacco groups, to start writing reviews. Demand quickly outstretched Erin and Steven’s ability to keep up with it. They encouraged more people they knew who were pipe and cigar smokers to get involved. Before long we had a team of about half a dozen, and I’d been swept up into it too. Of course I had! Erin was my husband, I wanted to support him, and I was a writer. “Just one review every couple of weeks,” he’d asked me. “That would help a lot. I think people want to hear a lady’s perspective.” And that’s how I became part of the Smoking Jacket team.
Why We Succeeded
Erin and Steven clearly loved their hobby, and their excitement bled through to everyone who came in contact with them. We, the writers, couldn’t help but catch some of that enthusiasm, and I think our readers saw it too. Between us, our team seemed to represent almost every demographic we were reaching out to, and I think that made a big difference.
As such, we became more than just a website: we became a community, a place to belong, and an experience that people wanted to be part of. We were chatting with dedicated followers who interacted with our posts daily and who wanted to talk about our shared love of our hobby and its role in our lives. We provided a place where the non-smokers weren’t going to start coughing dramatically and waving their hands in front of their noses, and where cigar snobs weren’t going to make working class novices feel like they didn’t belong. Our readers became more than just our readers; they became our friends.
Once we hit about a thousand followers, we started to snowball rapidly. I’m not sure why it happened so quickly! Part of it was that Steven and Erin both incorporated all of their social networks. But part of it was, I believe, that sense of community. We weren’t a bunch of obviously wealthy guys in expensive suits talking down to our audience; we were our audience. Like them, we were (and are) just folks. We’re disabled and working class and students; and maybe just as significantly, we weren’t a boys’ club. We were men and women. We also offered a variety of perspectives, from perfect newbies trying things out for the first time, to experienced hobbyists who knew all the lingo. Although we were amateurs, we knew what we were talking about, and we talked about it in language that spoke to many different experience levels and many different walks of life.
Erin is an incredible teambuilder. Many times in the course of our 26 years together, I’ve seen him develop a love for something, and you can’t help but be swept away by it when he does. His enthusiasm is infectious. You can’t help but feel as if you’re part of something that’s bigger and better than yourself; and he even makes it true.
But also many times, I’ve seen his dream dashed by the reality that other people just aren’t as devoted to it as he is, and Smoking Jacket Magazine was no exception.
Why We Folded
We became victims of our own success.
At one point, we had about 8000 followers from all over the world, with about 225 individual page views per day. Demand for new content was so high that we just couldn’t keep up with our little group of volunteers. Cigar manufacturers, tobacconists, and accessory manufacturers began to send us products for review, and the pressure to get those reviews out became extremely high. After all, when someone sends you something for free in exchange for an honest review, you really feel like you have to deliver, because that’s the deal you made.
But even with all that going on, we still did not have enough product available to us from those who sought our reviews to produce the daily content we aspired to, and felt we owed our audience. Purchasing products for review became prohibitively expensive. For a while, we were sustaining it through our Clubs; banding together as a group to purchase samplers and bulk packs, and then selecting to review our share of that. But membership in the Okanagan Pipe and Cigar Club died off and we could no longer afford to make the large group purchases we had been making.
Also, the problem with being working class people is that you have to work. Since all of our content was free, and all of us were doing this for fun, by necessity it had a lower priority than the parts of our lives that did pay the bills. Steven started working on his Masters’ degree, leaving Erin to run the Magazine more or less by himself. My store went under and, in addition to now having less money to buy review products, I had to get a job with a regular schedule; this while I was still trying to launch my writing career. Dominic and Tad moved, got busy with their lives. Tad started a new job on salary, and Dominic’s wife had a baby and he took custody of the kids he had with his ex-wife at the same time. And Jose and Kat were already busy people.
Erin, who was now the sole Executive Editor, did not feel he had the right to push people to get things done by a deadline, since they were volunteers who were doing things because they wanted to. But if things were late, our readers noticed. He posted a poll asking people if they thought it would be okay to go to a paid model. His idea was that if he paid his writers, he would have a right to push them to make deadline.
But the response was overwhelmingly to the negative – and why wouldn’t it be? I know I get angry when I’m used to getting something for free and then all of sudden I have to pay. He tried to sell a paid magazine in pdf through my Etsy store to supplement the magazine’s costs, which at that time were all coming out of pocket (and a business account with WordPress costs $300 U.S. per year, and remember, my store had folded.) But it didn’t sell, and he also had the same trouble meeting content demand as he was having with the rest of the magazine.
I think we made a big mistake with our approach, in retrospect. We didn’t talk about any of this on the website or in our forums. We weren’t transparent enough about the struggles we were having. By this time we had a lot of attention from industry pros, and we didn’t want to come across like a Mickey Mouse operation (which has the exact opposite meaning in Canada as it does for you Aussies.) Above all, we made the mistake of not trusting our community to support us if we asked them to. I’m sorry about that. I know better now.
In the end, between the lack of content from our now very busy writers, and the lack of funds to support it, it became too much. Erin made the reluctant decision to fold the magazine.
Why We’re Relaunching Now
It’s been a couple of years now, and things have changed.
For one thing, my writing career is now launched, and while I’m not making huge bank at it, I am sustaining things between that and my hubby’s disability income. I’ve learned a lot about publishing and website management since then, as well as social media marketing, because a lot of my work has been self-published and you need to know these things when you choose that path. I’ve also learned quite a lot about crowdfunding, and I’ve even realized that crowdpublishing is a unique publishing path that has the potential to become a new industry all of its own. I learned so much about it that I’ve felt confident enough to launch my own micropress. As Erin has watched me stumble through these things, figuring them all out, he realized that most of the problems that held Smoking Jacket Magazine back could be solved this way.
Just in the past few days, the last widely-available print pipe magazine, Pipes & Tobacco, closed it doors. And Erin, still involved in all his Facebook pipe groups for fun, heard the lament. He realized there was a need for a print magazine, and the market had just opened up and become an empty field, just waiting for someone to fill it.
He’d watched me finance and publish an anthology of weird western stories. He realized that publishing a magazine and website with multiple contributors couldn’t be that different.
He’d been trying to figure out a way to get the magazine going again. He decided to strike while the iron was hot.
Of course I enthusiastically encouraged this! I know how much joy Smoking Jacket Magazine gave to my husband, how much pride he took in his work. I couldn’t wait to see it open its doors once again. I volunteered much more assistance than I’d offered the last time. Frankly, he misses it. And I miss it too.
Where We’re Going
We intend to employ a regular team of paid writers. We’re also open to submissions from freelancers.
We’re still in the process of tracking down our original team and asking them to come back. I’m back, Erin’s back, and Jose and Kat, writers of The Piper and His Goodwife, are back too. Steven is now working on his doctorate and unfortunately, he will not be joining us, and we’re pretty sure Dominic, writer of Off the Meter, doesn’t have the time with his work schedule. Everything else is up in the air, which is why all their staff pages remain open on the site.
So, our intention is to offer three levels of Membership to our magazine and website in an effort to get things back up and running at a sustainable rate:
Followers are website members. Anyone can become a follower, and that’s absolutely free. We will continue to produce regular public content, selected by Erin our editor from our writers and freelancers, and all content that was previously public on the website shall remain available publicly as well.
We’re asking you to consider becoming a Member. Members get access to unique, Members-Only website content, which will be equal to or greater than the amount of publicly-available content. We’re asking for $1 U.S. a month.
Subscribers get access to all Members-Only content on the website, and they also receive a quarterly pdf magazine delivered to their email. The magazine will feature content from the site, both public and Members-Only, but it will also contain a handful of pieces and features that are only available in the magazine. That will run you $2.
Premium Subscribers get all of the above, except they’ll also receive a glossy print magazine delivered to their door or mailbox on a quarterly schedule. That will run you $5.
If you’re interested, you can sign up at our Patreon! Until this gets up and running, we’ll provide posts from our archives, as well as posts of new content, to our Patreon supporters, with occasional livestreams or video reviews that will only be available to Patrons.
We’re also running a GoFundMe to get things started. We’re asking for $5000 CAD; not a lot when it comes to a full-colour glossy print magazine! That money will be used to help print the initial magazine run, finance the website, buy some product for review; and above all, it will be used to pay writers, both regular contributors and freelancers, so that Erin can demand that content be submitted on a deadline. This will help us to keep up with the demands of our readership. If you want to invest, you can do so here. And thanks so much for your support!
Advertising, Sponsorships, and Trade-in-Kind
We also need to make sure we always have product to review. We’re reaching out to the community to ask you to send us your products, for which we will trade advertising at your wholesale value. We’re also offering on-site advertising and magazine advertising at affordable rates. For more information on any of this, check out our Advertising page.
This is a Hobby, Not a Business
Erin isn’t looking to make money at this. He’s looking to make it sustainable. The $5000 CAD in initial capital and the Memberships are intended to sustain the magazine only. I’ve convinced him to allow himself to make a small profit if things work out, but none of our initial budget leaves room for that; we just want to cover expenses. Maybe that’s something we can look at down the road, but only once our regular team is established and our writers paid.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into the Secret History of Smoking Jacket Magazine, and that it’s clear now why we’re asking for Membership support! As always, if you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to post them below.