In 1976, at the age of 29, Rolf Priesnitz founded
The Alternate Press, now the book publishing division of Life Media.
A plumber and steamfitter who also taught apprentices, he soon found
himself publishing Natural Life magazine. For the next three
decades, his career as a plumber, steamfitter, and plumbing and
trades professor developed in tandem with the publishing business,
which he shared with his wife Wendy. He and Wendy have two grown
daughters. This interview was conducted in 2006.
NL: Why did you start
What did you see as its purpose or mission?
Rolf: I wasn't aware of any magazine in
Canada that covered the issues in which I was interested, in a way
that was useful for people in northern climates. And don't forget,
this was before the easy availability of information over the
Internet. I had set up a business distributing other magazines, all
American, like Mother Earth News, East-West Journal, the
Rodale publications Prevention and
Organic Gardening &
Farming. There was some neat stuff coming out of the U.S., but
little for northern climates in the way of gardening, housing,
I was very aware of environmental issues even then.
I remember working at a job building an oil refinery and one of the
operators dumped some concoction down a drain, saying, "There are no
environmentalists here to worry about it!" I told him, "You never
know - stop doing it." I wasn't interested in having a successful
publishing company; I wanted to change the world, one person at a
time. It's like Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group
of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it
is the only thing that ever has." I wanted to engage people who
could share their experiences, transferring information from the
older generation to the younger one - traditional things that were
being neglected and that I thought could make a positive change.
I didn't see
Natural Life as a
back-to-the-land magazine exactly. I didn't think it was necessary
to be self-sufficient physically, but that one needed to think
self-sufficiently, to be self-reliant. I've always seen it as a
lifestyle magazine. But I remember going to the library and
researching the term lifestyle and finding out that it wasn't in
vogue in the mid-70s; it was actually a bit kinky! So we didn't use
it to market the magazine. This was a time when the Cold War was on,
when we still perceived the Soviet Union as a threat. I'd grown up
with frequent air raid drills, being told in school in case of a
nuclear attack to stick my head between my legs under my desk - and
not feeling that was a sufficient response. I felt that people could
change their behavior if they had the right information, rather than
just reacting. It was very clear to me that everything all the
topics we covered in Natural Life
tied together and that by trying to unite all those forces, there'd
be a better chance of succeeding to change things.
NL: Why did you feel you could be a magazine
publisher with no training or experience in the field?
Rolf: I had successfully taken over my dad's
hot water heating and plumbing business at age 17, after he became
ill. And I had successfully become a licensed pilot at age 17. So I
didn't doubt my ability, even though I failed high school English!
That was mainly because of the literature component, which I didn't
think was relevant to my life; I wanted more practical things.
I wouldn't have gotten into publishing if I hadn't
met Wendy with her literary skills. In fact, my first publishing
venture preceded Natural Life magazine. I had set up The Alternate
Press to publish a book of Wendy's poems called
Winter Fires. I didn't think it would be difficult to publish a
magazine because I wasn't setting anyone up as an expert, especially
not myself. I was seeking knowledge rather than imparting it. I felt
that publishing 50,000 copies of that first issue would get the ball
rolling regarding the exchange of information. And it did.
The technical aspects of publishing were pretty
crude in those days, and easy to understand, like how the
typesetting was done line by line and then pasted up on a board. And
I knew enough about data collection. It was a time when a lot of
change was happening - a blossoming of alternatives, of small
presses. There were lots of things in favor of starting such a
NL: Once you decided to launch
Life, what happened next?
Rolf: I quit my high-paying job as a
steamfitting foreman, by which I was supporting a wife and two kids.
Heidi was four and Melanie was three at the time. However, I didn't
really feel that was a risk, because I knew I could always go back
to construction if I needed to.
Then I rented the Canadian subscriber lists from
Organic Gardening & Farming and
magazines and a list of all the general practitioner doctors in
Canada. That was a strange mix, I guess, but it worked - some had
ideas, others had money!
I commissioned a company called Rural Graphics to
design a logo and the covers for the first issue. There were two
images: an old fashioned log cabin and farm windmill on some acreage
for the front cover, and the same location but with a futuristic
geodesic dome and wind turbine for the back. We had the covers
silk-screened as posters, ordered a bunch of books on the topics we
were going to cover in the magazine, and rented a booth at the Down
to Earth Festival in Aberfoyle, just outside Guelph, Ontario. That
event was a good springboard for the magazine. It was a gathering of
like-minded people interested in wellness, renewable energy and so
on. We sold many books and made many connections, relationships that
would last for decades in some cases, people who became friends,
like David and Susan Estabrooks who owned Mandala Books and later
took over our mail order book business.
I financed the first issue – the list rental and
postage for mailing out 50,000 magazines, not the printing, which we
were billed for later – by a $5,000 advance on my VISA card.
Subscriptions and book orders financed the rest. Book orders
out-numbered subscriptions at first, because in our inexperience we
didn't make it very easy for people to subscribe or even to find the
subscription information! We ran it as a home-based business, which
meant we didn't have to make an investment in office space or a
long-term lease. It literally took over our townhouse in Jarvis,
I tend to do things by doing them rather than
having the financing and other things in place. I just bulled my way
through. But there was lots of support from acquaintances and
friends. I remember four-year-old Heidi helping sort magazines that
were stacked in the bathtub. After all, 50,000 magazines are a lot
for one small townhouse without a garage! And there were some great
publishing industry people helping along the way too, like
circulation software expert Rolf Brauch and what is now Magazines
Canada but was then known as the Canadian Periodical Publishers
Association (CPPA), which started up around the same time.
NL: What was your expectation for the
magazine in terms of scope, longevity, etc.?
Well, I wanted it to be national or
nature, rather than local. But I hadn't thought in terms of
longevity. If I'd thought that way, I might not have started it!
There was some desire not to rely on construction work, and a desire
to be with our home-educated daughters more. So I wanted to make a
living at it, but not just by the magazine. I always had the
expectation that part of the revenue would come from ancillary
products that went along with the lifestyle. So the first issue had
Natural Life Books and we sold the posters as well as t-shirts some
with the Natural Life logo, some with solar, wind and wood
energy designs. There were Natural Sprout t-shirts for children.
Did the experience turn out the way you expected?
Rolf: I found it surprisingly easy to get
the magazine on the newsstands and into Publishers Clearinghouse
mailings. But it was difficult to keep up a monthly publishing
schedule. The cash flow was just not there quickly enough so we
switched the schedule to bimonthly.
Do you think the magazine has made the
difference you were looking for?
Rolf: Yes, far exceeding my expectations. It has affected tens
of thousands of people's lives over the 30 years in small ways. We
have also received hundreds of instances of feedback that it's made
big changes in people's lives. We've heard from people who have
started clinics, health food stores and other businesses because
they were encouraged by the community that was present and obvious
in the magazine, giving them enough confidence that there was a
large enough community to support their efforts. But it was the
small changes that people can make in their everyday lives that I
was looking for. So the big changes are always quite a surprise.
Natural Life has been on the ground floor of a number of
movements and helped get them moving more quickly by bringing
like-minded people together through the pages of the magazine. For
instance, we most certainly gave the Canadian Organic Growers (COG)
organization a start-up boost through an interview with the founder
Peter McQueen, along with contact information (which has become one
of our signature features), in the first issue, which, of course,
was mailed to 40,000 or so Canadian organic growers. We also helped
kick-start the homeschooling movement through the pages of
Natural Life, again by connecting people with each other.
We started publishing at a time when people were
moving out of the 1960's protest mode and starting to do something in
the 70s, starting to work toward change. And they needed a way to
connect up with each other. Natural Life provided that.
What has been your biggest reward from
publishing Natural Life?
Rolf: I wasn't looking for rewards. I
thought somebody had to do it and I could. So I did. I do find
satisfaction in helping people, in being part of something that
helps create change.
NL: What has been the biggest challenge?
The financial aspect is always the hardest. The huge early
acceptance of the magazine, with tens of thousands of subscribers
and good newsstand sales in both Canada and the U.S. within the
first two years, was a surprise. The speed of growth was so
phenomenal that I didn't have the model to understand what was going
to happen, with how to deal with that many subscribers. We quickly
went from Cheshire cards to nine-track tape on a big IBM computer
just to keep track of people. Starting the magazine was actually
quite easy; sustaining it was what turned out to be more difficult.
NL: Is there anything you would have done
differently, perhaps with hindsight?
Rolf: I wouldn't have let it grow to 96
pages in the first couple of years. That was a mistake. We should
have published more often instead, but there was so much need and so
much material to cover in so many areas. We also undervalued the
cover price at $1 and didn't really look for advertising. I wanted
to address the needs of the readers; servicing them was more
important and we did that partly by offering products from books to
juice strainers and hand plows directly through the Natural Life
General Store. It also would have been better if I'd worked for
another magazine publishing company for six months before starting
Natural Life, just to understand how the industry works.
However, I probably wouldn't have started the magazine if I had!
NL: Is the Internet making print publishing obsolete?
Rolf: No. But it has changed the character
of it. Books and magazines have to be of higher quality now to
compete with the information exchange on the net. It's the best place
for people to deal directly with each other, but the intelligence of
the discussion boards and lists varies with the participants.
The Internet has also created a shift in how we do
things. In the early days of Natural Life, the letters
section where people exchanged information about sustainable living
- we called it Natural Lifeline - took up easily a third of the
magazine. Now, that exchange is better done online so we are
presenting a different kind of information. We were actually on the
Internet before the World Wide Web part of it began. Our content was
picked up electronically by libraries around the world through data
Will Natural Life still be needed in
Rolf: Yes, there will always be a need for
change agents. I don't think that concept is well recognized by
people. People who've made large changes haven't done it to
highlight themselves; they've done it because they saw the need. As
more people see the need for change, there will be more change
agents. So not only do I see a need for thoughtful, in-depth, dark
green publications like Natural Life, I hope they start up
in places all around the world. I wouldn't mind helping every town
in the world start a magazine like Natural Life, either in print or
electronically. My intention would not be to have them all called
Natural Life, but to create a similar exchange of information at the
local level. My method is to model the way, rather than to expound
on the virtues of my way; people may find other ways. But I see that
the need is there.
I actually assumed that we'd put ourselves out of
business in 25 years; that hasn't happened, but the business model
has changed. Now there are hundreds of magazines, as well as radio,
television, newspapers and websites covering many of the same topics. There
has been a real shift, a sea change, in fact toward sustainable
living and health awareness and, consequently, much more information
is available than there was 30 years ago.
NL: What is your favorite reading material?
Rolf: I'm not a big reader at all. In fact,
if I didn't proofread Natural Life, I probably wouldn't read
it! English is not my first language and I still have trouble with
number and letter sequences. In German, number words are spoken in a
different order – for instance, you'd say nine and 50, instead of 59.
So as anyone who's got me on the phone to take their credit card
number for a subscription will know, I often mix things up.
I do like to read about what makes people tick - how
they think, what they did and why. That is, I think, best
accomplished through the interview format. So I hope that this will
be the first of an ongoing series of interviews in
interviews that bring out the personality of ordinary people doing
ordinary things, showing the way to the future. I want to continue
to reinforce the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are
making the changes we see around us. I like knowing there are people
out there who think critically. Only a small percentage of people
do, but those are the people who make a difference. I'm interested
in reading and thinking about concepts, not whether Pluto is
classified today as a planet.
NL: Are there other publishing or related
projects in your future?
Probably. We've already published a number of other magazines over
the years: the Home Business Advocate, Green Business, Natural
Foods in Canada, Childs Play, and
Life Learning, which
was launched in 2002. I wouldn't mind doing one on apprenticeship
after I retire from my job as the Director of Apprenticeship at the
NL: What will retirement look like for you?
Rolf: Retirement would mean dabbling in all
sorts of things, just like I do now. Maybe it would mean changing
the emphasis, the amount of time I spend on the various things I
like to be involved in. I don't see myself just sitting around
reading books and magazines. That would be awful!