Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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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).

Letter to the editor

Posted on Dec 03 2014 in Letters

Dear Kai,

I just wanted to write you a brief note of appreciation. I am in the process of launching a magazine, and I wanted to let you know how much of an influence and an inspiration you have been.

I have never functioned heretofore within the world of web design or app development or anything even vaguely computer-related. Yet, I read every issue of Offscreen from cover to cover, with great relish and enjoyment. The publication itself is what I have come over the last few years to seek, to demand, from the printed word: that is, a tranquil and beautiful diversion from work, from hassle, from being online all the time. Offscreen gives me what I have always sought from books. An escape, a stimulation, a diversion: ideas in physical form. A beautiful one, in this case.

Moreover, I am staggered, and astounded, by the generosity you have shown in putting in the time to keep your blog going. You cannot imagine what an impetus and source of guidance your experiences, your honesty, and your transparency have been. I have read the whole thing, from your first post, and you have saved me huge amounts of time and hassle as you have kept me thinking of things that wouldn’t have occurred to me until it was too late!

I am delighted to hear of every success you enjoy, and I hope it may continue long into the future.

So, simply, thanks a million!

Best regards,

Whenever I’m having a hard time working on the next issue (which is often), I look through the Letters tag on my blog and read humbling emails such as this one to cheer me up. You guys are the best readership a magazine can wish for!

The realm of luxury

Posted on Nov 19 2014 in Snippets

In the same way that the automobile allowed the horse to become a creature of leisure rather than of labour, so too has digital publishing moved traditional publishing into the realm of luxury.

Love that analogy by Björn Rust. Part of the editor’s note in the lovely ScragEnd issue No1.