Behind the scenes: The Carton magazine

by Steve Watson in December 2014
Food & drink

A magazine about food culture and the Middle East, The Carton has been published out of Beirut since 2012. But this issue it redesigned and relaunched, switching from a quarterly to a biannual publishing schedule and beefing up with more content and a lovely thick hardback cover.

I caught up with editor, art director and co-founder Jade George to find out what’s behind the changes, and how they fit into Beirut’s independent publishing scene.

The Carton magazine

You’ve gone hardback this issue – what was the thinking behind that?
We’ve released 10 quarterly editions since 2012, and honestly, meeting deadlines and getting a decent product out was a struggle. We’ve been working hard to build a brand that carries its own weight, and I think we’ve achieved that now so we wanted to diversify and start looking at other opportunities, like retail, events and other things connected to food culture in the Middle East.

At the same time we’ve also had a lot of people coming to us to do things for them, so we wanted to move to biannual for resource purposes – to make sure we can maintain quality rather than just throwing it together. And we took this opportunity to sell it at a higher price. I still think it’s priced very well, and the sales in the last few weeks show that we didn’t shock anyone with the increase.

So sales are up even though it’s become a more expensive product?
Exactly. We’ve added more content, so I think people see they’re getting more than before, and as part of that we also decided to go hard cover.

Carton-sea

Does the move to hardback also reflect the sort of brands you want to be working with? You’ve got a DPS ad for Mercedes in the front of the new issue – is this positioning you as a company that works with these bigger luxury brands?
That wasn’t a strategic marketing move. When we launched The Carton we just felt this product had to be out there – we’d worked in food and publishing for years, and we couldn’t believe there was nobody doing a periodical about food culture in the Middle East. Food is a huge soft power for the whole region.

Back then we really weren’t asking ourselves who we were going to target, but as we’ve gone on we’ve become more clear about who’s reading The Carton. As you’d expect we’re read by lots of people in the region, but we have a very big following abroad – in fact most of our sales are outside the Middle East and North Africa. So brands started to come to us because they’d realised the readership we have and the brand values we represent, and obviously that sparks different collaborations with different brands.

Carton-Berlin

Tell me a bit about what’s happening in Beirut at the moment. From a distance sitting here in London it looks like there’s a scene starting to form. Do you and Ibrahim from The Outpost go and have coffee?
We’re very tight actually – we’re good friends. When we started working on The Carton in 2011 there was literally nothing going on in terms of that kind of publishing in the region. There was Bidoun, which was mainly out of New York, and Brownbook had started but they were taking a completely different approach.

Me and Ibrahim would get together and basically bitch about the situation and how difficult it is to run a print magazine, and that has turned into us starting a collective called Love Print. It’s us and The Outpost, plus The State (a literary publication from the UAE) and Watad (a design and architecture magazine, also from UAE). So we kind of joined forces and we’re planning a small print fest to happen in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and we’re going to participate in Art Dubai together this year rather than individually.

Carton-bike

That’s fantastic. I’m always amazed that The Outpost manages to publish what it does. Do you have a problem with censorship?
We get away with a lot! We do talk about socio-politics, but the censors see food on the cover and they think, “Meh, what are these guys going to do?”

And as you say, food is regarded as one of the great soft powers of the region.
Exactly. And we try not to be so negative about things, because at the end of the day the region doesn’t need more negativity. But at the same time we won’t embellish things beyond what anyone who’s local will condone – we don’t want people picking it up and saying, “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re talking about salad and things are really hitting the fan over here!”

We try to be realistic and capture the heart of what’s going on, and show what we in the Middle East have to offer – the good and the bad.

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