Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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Fear of criticism

I’m still not sure whether publishing these thoughts is actually a good idea, but articulating them in the form of a blog post has become strangely therapeutic for me and (sort of) makes up for the lack of colleagues who help carry the emotional burden of running a business.

The launch of issue 7 on Tuesday last week was followed by a bit of an emotional meltdown the next day when my own box of magazines finally arrived in Melbourne. I always open that box with a fair amount of apprehension, aware that I will probably find something that is not ‘right’, that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. Proofing print products is difficult, especially when done under time pressure and from half way around the world.

Within seconds of opening the box I spotted (to me) a very obvious problem with the cover that sent a shock wave through my body. I won’t tell you what it is – I want you to enjoy the magazine without any preconceived ideas. You can either see it or you will never notice (great!). So far none of you have voiced any complaints. I’m not sure whether that’s the case because you guys view the magazine with unbiased eyes or you’re simply too kind to let me know.

Unless you are in publishing or produce physical products, you’ll probably find it difficult to empathise with how I felt at that moment. After spending hundreds of hours working on something so personal and close to my heart, discovering a very blatant problem in the final product can instantly shatter your self-confidence.

I went through the whole spectrum of emotions: anger, despair, disappointment. I could have easily burnt the whole box of magazines right then and there without even opening a single copy. The biggest source of anxiety and distress came from a fear of disappointing you, my readers. I imagined being judged, being criticised for selling a second-rate product, for not living up to the high expectations of the eagle-eyed designers that make up most of my readership.

The day before I was on cloud nine. The launch went really well and I was feeling great about myself from getting so much recognition for months of hard work. And it all went to sh*t when I opened that box.

Worse even, any accomplishments I’ve had in the past no longer mattered. For the rest of that day, I felt like an impostor, a feeling that, ironically, Christopher Murphy describes so honestly and bravely in the very magazine that caused all this pain. By Wednesday evening I was actually contemplating about alternative career options. I really haven’t felt this down in a long time. And all this pain came from a simple cover!

In retrospect, the ‘faulty cover’ was probably just a trigger. Weeks of deadline anxiety and a lot of anticipation from everyone, including myself, built up to that single moment of receiving the actual magazine back from the printer.

It took me a couple of days to pick myself up again, largely thanks to my girlfriend’s incredible sensitivity and unshakable positivity. I’m personally still struggling to appreciate the magazine for all the things that I got right. All I see are the few mistakes I made.

There are a few lessons I learned:

  • I need to triple-check and proof critical sections even if it delays the release date.

  • As my girlfriend pointed out: “it always takes you a while to come around.” Like many other creative people, I go through phases of liking, then disliking, then despising, then eventually feeling OK about my work again. It’s a love-hate relationship that keeps me on my toes and, hopefully, helps me hone and sharpen my skills with everything I put out.

  • I’m very lucky to have such an incredibly positive and encouraging audience. As more people follow and listen in, anticipation and expectations increase accordingly, putting a lot of pressure on me to deliver a great product. I love the fact that a large part of my readers are some of the most creative folks I know, but designing for designers can also be enormously intimidating.

  • Had I received the wrong kind of feedback on that forsaken Wednesday, I think it would have taken me on a serious downward spiral. It reminded me to be mindful and empathetic when judging other people’s work. Mistakes happen to the best of us. Often the author/artist has already lost enough sleep over it, so be kind in the way you deliver your (honest) feedback.

  • You may easily dismiss this little story with a notion of ‘first world problems’. Of course, there are certainly more serious issues, even though it’s hard see that when you are down. It always helps to remind ourselves that it all won’t matter in a few years. As time passes, nobody will judge you for a faulty print, a misplaced pixel or a buggy script.

The most important take-away for me personally is the realisation that my work is too closely tied to my level of happiness – with myself and life in general. It’s the typical dilemma of business owners and entrepreneurs: you made this thing and at some point this thing makes you. It defines you. Self-respect and self-worth go up and down with it.

I don’t yet know how to break out of that cycle, but I’ll have to try harder in order to make it sustainable – not financially but emotionally.

Phew, that was deep. :)

Magazines, dead trees and sustainability

With the mill making the paper used in Offscreen on fire in November last year, I faced the difficult decision to change paper stock once again. In the weeks after the news that my previous stock type, a paper called EnviroTop, was no longer available, I was working closely with my printer to get my hands on various alternative paper samples. More than 12 different uncoated paper types were fedexed to me from Berlin and I spent hours, if not days, going over all the different options.

In particular, I had my eye on a range of Munken paper – a high-quality, ultra-smooth uncoated stock that is used by some of my favourite publications, like The Travel Almanac or Underscore. Munken Paper is a joy to touch and flick through, and it would give the entire publication a premium tactility. Although I was a bit worried about the low opacity of the paper, I was ready to spend a few thousand euros more for a superior experience. If just there hadn’t been the questions about sustainability...

The reason I chose EnviroTop in the first place was the fact that it was made from 100% recycled materials. Munken, however, was not. Though certified with various ‘green’ labels (the famous FSC sign is one of them), producing Munken means trees are still being chopped down and lots of energy and water goes into turning them into paper.

I remember listening to a podcast about how making recycled paper sometimes actually requires a larger carbon footprint than producing paper from new trees. So I went on a research mission to find out what my best option for Offscreen was. The results aren’t very clear. It seems to depend on how the recycled paper is manufactured.

While I was researching Offscreen’s environmental impact, I got word from the printer that the fire at the paper mill wasn’t as bad as initially expected and that EnviroTop could indeed be delivered with just a few weeks delay. I checked out the paper mill’s website and was positively surprised to find that the entire company is dedicated to a sustainable, low-impact paper production. Their production process is explained in detail on their site. For instance, the steam generated when boiling down recycled materials produces enough electricity to power the entire production process, making it self-sufficient. The Austria-based company has also won numerous awards for innovation and new ideas in regards to sustainable paper products.

With all this background information I feel a lot more confident in using EnviroTop. In fact, it made me appreciate the paper and its unique qualities even more. I’m still very much in love with Munken – it’s an amazing paper – but knowing that my choice of stock leads to one of the most low-impact print magazines out there gives me peace of mind.

As a sign of how much I care about sustainability, I’ve also decided to buy a quarter of an acre of threatened wilderness habitat through the World Land Trust (a reputable conservation organisation endorsed by Sir David Attenborough) with every issue of Offscreen Magazine.

I wish other magazines would also be more transparent about their stock choice. If you feel the same way, ask the publishers of your favourite magazines about the paper they’re using, and point them to this blog post.

Replacing ads with sponsorships

I love discussing common challenges of producing a magazine with other publishers. One topic that always comes up is advertising, or rather, the need for third parties to help fund the production of the magazine. For most small publishers dealing with advertisers is considered a necessary evil – a small sacrifice in editorial freedom to make the larger vision possible.

Unless you are an established newsstand magazine like Monocle, Frankie or Vogue getting high-profile companies to advertise in your publication is really hard. It’s much more likely that you end up working with smaller companies that on one hand are often much more accessible and passionate about your product, but on the other hand don’t have the creative manpower to come up with high-quality artwork for their ads. Editorial designers spend hundreds of hours creating a beautiful experience for their readers, so it really hurts when cheap ads disrupt that experience.

When I started Offscreen I was trying to come up with a system that is less intrusive. I replaced annoying quarter-, half- and full-page ad slots half-way through an editorial piece in the magazine with sponsor pages: eight companies present themselves in a very subtle, unobtrusive, unified way in the center of the magazine.

I don’t make a secret of relying on those companies. They help make Offscreen possible. In fact, they now cover pretty much all of the production cost of an issue.

This idea worked out surprisingly well for everyone involved. It really does create a win-win-win situation.

Reader

After the first issue went out and people started sending me feedback, I received lots of comments about how nicely designed and beautifully integrated the sponsor pages are. In fact, many readers told me that, for the first time ever, they read every single word of a magazine from cover to cover – including the ‘ads’. I get a sense that most readers don’t just not mind them, they actually find them valuable. If they haven’t heard of one of the sponsors before, they are very much inclined to check them out because they trust Offscreen and know that I won’t feature companies that provide no value. At best, my readers consider the sponsor pages a catalogue of suggestions. At worst, they flick through them acknowledging the fact that these companies made the magazine possible.

Sponsor

What more can you hope for as a sponsor than an audience that actually sees (and I mean 'look at and read through’) your promotion. Instead of being part of a desperate, in-your-face shouting contest, the tone of the ads is subtle and thoughtful – an approach that creative people clearly appreciate. It takes a certain type of company to ‘get’ that and I believe our readers give our sponsors a lot of credit for that alone.

Publisher

Besides the obvious financial support, having those sponsors in the magazine serves another purpose. I’m very much proud of the quality of companies that support Offscreen. These are products and services I recommend to my family, friends, and colleagues all the time and not just because they pay me. I made a conscious effort to create a brand that is associated with companies that people in our industry trust and have high regard for. It adds credibility.

One thing I learned and what I find quite fascinating is the realisation that you can make something less intrusive and more subtle, and people actually pay more attention because of it.

Talking dollars

I always appreciated people speaking unambiguously about their income, like Maciej Ceglowski who on stage at XOXO honestly and unapologetically told the audience that he made $181,000 last year. It’s out there and the taboo is gone. It must be freeing to him and to some extent I’m sure to the people around him too.

Talking about money is something individuals in our industry often awkwardly avoid. We all know there is a lot of it going around, but everyone’s just in it for the love of solving problems and making the world a better place, riiight?

I’ve been thinking of opening my books too, considering that I’ve been very transparent with everything else happening behind the scene. Having spoken to a lot of folks in the tech world, there is a bit of a misconception in that some people think Offscreen is very successful in dollar terms. Those who are vaguely familiar with how traditional publishing works understand though that ‘success’ in this field is closer to ‘making it sustainable’ than ‘getting rich’.

So, here it goes. Here’s how ‘successful’ Offscreen is in numbers. (Don’t forget to read my notes below.)

Income through magazine sales (online and retailers): $138,963.08
Income through sponsorships and other channels: $42,880.53
Total revenue (financial year 2012/2013): $181,843.61

Printing costs: $36,526.17
Shipping/packaging costs: $42,701.87
Other expenses: $37,774.34
Total expenses (financial year 2012/2013): $117,002.38

My profit/income for the last financial year was $64,841.24 before tax.

Some important notes to keep in mind:

  • The financial year in Australia runs from the 1st of July to the 30th of June the following year. All numbers in US dollars, converted from Australian dollars at the current rate of 1 AUD = 0.939 USD.

  • This may seem like a high salary in some places in the world, like Berlin where the cost of living is low. Offscreen is based in Melbourne, Australia, where the cost of living (in my opinion) is closer to that of New York City.

  • The financial year above covered the expenses and income of three issues of Offscreen.

  • Offscreen is my full time job. I currently don’t have other sources of income.

  • Offscreen does not employ any staff. I hire freelancers and contributors to help get an issue done. Their cost is reflected in the ‘other’ section of the expenses above.

Letter to the editor

Posted on Aug 25 2013 in Letters

Hi Kai,

Eight months back, last December, I got to know about your work and the publication of Offscreen. I am following the journey you have undertaken since and I admire the initiative of yours in bringing to life stories and experiences of individuals whose efforts otherwise remain hidden. I came to understand about the importance and emphasis placed on human interaction, collaboration and coordination in developing something worthwhile on web and beyond and its effects on many facets of life.

My life has also been enriched through an endeavour of mine since September, 2012 when I created Lucky Compiler. While chronicling the lives and creative processes of personalities from the world of art and photography I have seen how minute and often overlooked aspects defined them as a person and their careers professionally. This has also helped me in gaining deeper insights about life in general.

My satisfaction lies in creating something meaningful and I thank you for creating something as significant as your publication.

Warm Regards,
Dhruba

Made my weekend. Thanks Dhruba!

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