Indie Publishing
Field Notes

We love sharing our process of making a print magazine and building a sustainable indie publishing brand. New here? Start with our list of popular posts.

How to plan a magazine (using a flatplan)

Posted on Mar 15 2015 in Production

In this post I want to give you guys a bit of insight into how I plan the content for each issue, and how my approach is somewhat different and simpler to that of other magazines. But let’s start with a few thoughts on creating an enjoyable reading experience.

One of the beautiful things about printed publications is what Craig Mod calls ‘the edges of print’. We all know how great it feels to open a new book — the excitement of a fresh start. But also to be able to finish it, to close it and to move on to the next one. What happens in between those events is quite a linear experience. While magazines are also great for 'quick dips’ and reading in small chunks, most of us start from the front cover and work our way through to the final page. Compare this to consuming content online: how often do we start reading an article only to find ourselves watching a farting cat video because we clicked on a link half-way down the page? There aren’t any edges in digital.

This is one of the reasons why printed publications are still such an attractive tool for storytelling. Because content consumption usually flows in a linear direction, editors can create a unique journey that has a clear start and a clear finish.

When I first thought about Offscreen and how I wanted to present the content inside, the idea of arranging stories in an engaging way was exciting, but also quite daunting. The first step towards clarity and action was to define some basic boundaries, like the page count and the dimensions of the publication. Once I had some physical limits, I experimented with typography and grids within Indesign, trying to come up with a versatile set of ‘templates’ and a consistent visual direction. I won’t go into detail about this phase here, but let’s just say I bought a lot of font licenses (which I didn’t end up using) and printed out a ton of sample pages in the process.

All of the above sets the constraints for how much content I could fit into one issue. The next step was to come up with a way to organise my ideas to see how they flow in the context of a magazine. This is where the content plan (or flatplan) comes in. The content plan gives you a bird’s eye view of an issue. It allows you to pace the reading experience by placing and moving around story ideas with the goal of creating an enjoyable and captivating content flow.

There are various degrees of detail when it comes to content plans. It often starts out with something like this:


…and then often turns into a more detailed version such as this:


At a later stage, once content is coming in and the editorial designer begins with her work, the content plan takes a more realistic shape as printouts stuck to the wall or laid out on the floor:


Seeing all the spreads next to each other enables editors to identify critical areas where, for example, stories or visuals are colliding. These printouts also give creatives an idea of how the layout of a particular spread work in the context of the bordering pages.

Being a kid of the digital age, I don’t really have an office with a big wall or a lot of floor space. I move from place to place quite a lot and take my office with me when I do. So I decided to take a more digital approach to the content plan: a simple spreadsheet. Although I do print out the magazine in its entirety on my trusty ol’ laserjet, mainly for proofreading.

This document stays open as a pinned tab in my browser throughout the three or more months it takes me to create a new issue. It’s a constant work in progress. As contributors confirm (or drop out), I add/edit names and deadlines accordingly. During the 3-4 week period when the majority of content is due I run through this document from top to bottom at least 2-3 times per week to check on the status of each contributor. This is by far the most stressful period in the making of an issue as I have to replace the inevitable drop-outs last minute and remind already very busy people that they are running late. If a piece is complete (written and visual parts have been submitted in their final version) I colour the cells in the 'Deadline’ column green. I repeat this step until the last piece of content has been submitted and I can move on to the next stages (proofreading, final editing, and eventually laying out the issue in Indesign).

The content plan is one of the most important tools in the making of a magazine. There are many magazine titles out there that do an amazing job at creating a unique reading experience and taking the reader on an adventure with every new issue. I won’t lie, Offscreen is not one of them. The core structure has intentionally not changed much since the inaugural issue launched. My lengthy interviews set the pace and make up the bulk of each issue. Changing smaller features in between break up the reading experience into digestible chunks. It’s a fairly strict pattern that I’ve come to rely on, not least because I’m a one-man show which necessitates a fair amount of routine to be able to make three issues per year possible.

Update: There is now a handy little online tool called pageplanr for easier flatplanning. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks great.

Find yourself a bliss station

Posted on Mar 14 2015 in Snippets

You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen

Joseph Campbell on having a ‘bliss station’, in The Power of Myth (via Austin Kleon). I quite like the sound and the idea of this. Not sure how well the bliss station fits into our tiny inner-city apartment though.

Making magazine publishing sustainable

Posted on Feb 18 2015 in Thoughts

I’m sure it applies to most fields, but in publishing especially you find yourself talking a lot about sustainability. It’s a topic that comes up frequently when I speak to other magazine makers. It’s no secret that generating money from publishing — whether it’s in digital or in print — becomes increasingly challenging in an environment where everyone expects the default price tag to be ‘free’.

There is, however, another type of sustainability that doesn’t get much attention: the emotional sustainability of what we do. In a conversation about the long-term future of indie magazines with Steve from Stack, he said that the closure of indie magazine titles is rarely due to the readers losing interest; it’s the makers becoming exhausted.

With so many new magazine titles appearing on newsstands noawadays, it’s only natural that some won’t grow beyond issue two or three. While many publications emerge out of ‘passion projects’, after a while the economic realities catch up with the publishers. I have yet to meet a publisher that managed to generate a healthy profit from the first issue onwards. But even if the magazine sells well and eventually becomes economically sustainable, the financial rewards are often anything but generous. On top of that, we publishers tend to always want to improve upon the latest issue, so many of us decide to re-invest our money to make the best possible product with the next issue.

This inevitably leads to a point where you question the effort-reward ratio. You can be passionate about your work for a long time, but eventually you need to be able to measure your efforts in more than just Tweets and Likes. Making a magazine (like any other great product) is a demanding undertaking that doesn’t really get that much easier over time. The result is that magazines disappear, and publishers move on to more financially rewarding work with a lower stress factor. (Hello client services!)

I’m throwing these thoughts out there because I know a lot of us are in a similar situation. I’ve spoken to a lot of publishers lately — those starting out with huge enthusiasm, and those tired and exhausted who work on their final issue. I won’t lie, I’m continuously struggling to find an emotionally sustainable level too. One of the problems I’m facing is that I have to spread myself very thinly as a one-man operation. I’m still trying to find a workable solution for this. (Don’t worry, I currently have no plans to discontinue Offscreen.)

If you asked me today what I’d do differently when setting up a magazine, I’d say that I would think more critically about the effort-reward ratio from very early on. The initial excitement about launching a magazine (or any product for that matter) blinds us to accept unsustainable work practices. More important than keeping our readers/customers happy, is to keep ourselves happy. The former isn’t possible without the latter, at least in the long term.

Now let me go find a way to practice what I preach…

Letter to the editor

Posted on Feb 15 2015 in Letters

I hope you’re doing well! I just wanted to send you a picture of me reading my Offscreen issue 10 with my four-month old, who happens to sort of be named after you. My wife and I were trying to think of names one day and an issue of Offscreen was on the coffee table and I remembered meeting you at XOXO. I asked her what she thinks of “Kai”. We were trying to find a name that works easily in English, Chinese and Japanese and it fit the bill. The name made the short list, then the list and in October of last year little Kai was born :-)

I just thought I’d let you know. Thanks again for all of the hard work you do with Offscreen. It’s by far my favorite magazine to get in the mail :-)

I’ve said it before and I say it again: I have the bestest readership a publisher could wish for. Thank you, Brian!

Selling sponsorships

Posted on Dec 03 2014 in Thoughts

Not a week goes by without me receiving an email about the way I present sponsors in the magazine. Everyone seems to appreciate their subtlety and how well they integrate into the reading experience. In fact, quite a few other magazines used Offscreen as a source of inspiration to follow a similar sponsorship model (Intern, Wolftree, Future Perfect, and Makeshift come to mind).

Of course, having sponsors is nothing unique. There are lots of other magazines that had sponsors before me and I certainly don’t claim to be the inventor here. However, it’s nice to see other titles following a similarly subtle approach and turning away from the standard (often intrusive) ad slots of traditional magazines because of Offscreen.

Many of the emails I receive ask me how I find my sponsors or how I convince them to participate in Offscreen. The truth is that they don’t really need much convincing. Finding sponsors has so far been fairly easy. (knocks on wood)

I believe the web community is quite unique in that way. Many web companies are used to the idea of sponsorships, because we have so many events that are funded through this support model. Also, frankly speaking, successfully operating web/tech companies usually have quite generous marketing budgets and don’t necessarily request traditional media data before they invest in a particular campaign (I think I’ve been asked for a advertising kit once, and couldn’t provide one). Also, it seems to me that companies in this industry are a lot more open to trying out new things and supporting the underdog where it fits.

No matter what your title is about, finding approachable companies that align with your own values is crucial. Don’t start with the Google of your industry. Start with a company you already have close contacts with, maybe even a local one. Set your initial fee very low. Sponsoring the first issue of Offscreen cost $400 and barely made a dent in the cost of everything, but it helped establish a relationship with those companies. I got a chance to prove that Offscreen is a product worth investing in, and as a result many of those companies are still sponsoring the magazine today!

Here’s an email that I recently sent out to a potential new sponsor showing how I see our sponsors and (hopefully) how they see themselves too. I suggest you don’t simply copy and paste this for your own project, but find your own voice for communicating your goals/values instead.

Let me give you some stats first: I currently print 4500 copies and they all sell out after a while — nothing is wasted. Our readers are some of the smartest and most influential creatives in the web/tech industry, from founders and CEOs to designers and developers running their own shop. Most readers are based in the US, UK and other English-speaking countries, followed by the rest of Europe. That’s all the marketing speak you get from me. ;)

As you may know, a sponsorship is not an ad. It can’t be tracked as such and shouldn’t be compared. With a sponsorship you make your brand part of what I’m doing with Offscreen. You directly link your company to my values and those of my readers.

The folks at Campaign Monitor, for instance, list Offscreen under their ‘giving back’ section. They see sponsorships as a way of making their company known for supporting unique projects that are part of our community.

You will definitely get more clicks by spending the same amount on Google or Facebook ads. Spending it on an Offscreen sponsorship will get you respect and recognition within our industry that is much more difficult to attain. Let’s face it, people like you and me that are part of the web industry hardly ever respond to ads. By supporting products core people in our industry love, your sponsorship tells them “We love it too, and are proud to be supporting it.”

To be honest, I’m not a good sales person, never have been. And as much as it looks like it, I’m not really trying to convince you of anything. In fact, I usually have a few people waiting to become sponsors, though I’m very picky. I personally would love to have ——— on board (maybe even long-term), because from what I hear, people trust and like your service for understanding how web-savvy people tick. That’s exactly what I hear from my readers about Offscreen too.

Finally, if you have a few minutes, Seth Godin sums it up nicely (as always).

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