Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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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.


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.


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.


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,

Made my weekend. Thanks Dhruba!

Letter to the editor

Posted on May 27 2013 in Letters

Hello Kai,

Hope you are all doing very well.

Last year I got a surprise of my life, Offscreen Magazine. I found the first issue in an art and design book shop in Clerkenwell, London. At that moment paying £8 for the mag was not easy while this tiny amount of money once fed me for nearly a week. So actually I didn’t buy it at first.

However the elegantly taken cover photograph called me in my dreams continually even I had no idea what it was about. I knew I needed to buy it asap. I went back to the book shop a couple of days after and found it at corner of the bookshelf. I fell in love with it immediately. It was not only because of the beautiful look, but also the people and their stories reminded me something I used to do/have. (Now I am more than happy that I made a correct decision especially when many people moan that they missed the first issue.)

More than 10 years ago, an era when there were tables with backgrounds, Java Applet water reflections were everywhere, CSS was only for decorating text and hyperlinks, Macromedia ruled the animation world with Flash and Blackberry was only known as a fruit. I graduated from uni with a degree of digital design. I learnt how to construct a website day and night. When I was in high school, I built several websites for my own interest. I used to love web design so much! However I was disappointed with the reality in this field — no fixed deadlines like print media, people didn’t respect it enough. So I dropped out and became an editorial designer since I always collected beautiful and informative magazines. I do a very good job at balancing text and pictures together nicely. But when I have been getting better and better at InDesign and the user-interface of Dreamweaver seemed to be more and more unfamiliar, I thought I would be labeled as an editorial designer for my whole life and would never have any chance to code again.

Interestingly the web design field has moved in a different direction in the last few years: more intelligent, more creative and more fun. It makes me want to do some web design work. I was very lucky that I got the opportunity to have some web design training courses and do some web design work recently. It allows me to understand the stories in your magazine a bit more. But they always inspire and encourage me to practise more. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this magazine! As an editorial designer I can tell your efforts of managing nearly everything of this magazine yourself is uncountable; as a still-learning-very-junior-level web person I feel this magazine links this community in a brighter and stronger way and makes me feel I am not alone at doing this. Now I started to develop a better relationship with web design and hope I won’t give up on it again.

In a few words, thanks for bringing us such a great publication! Look forward to seeing more content either online or in print.

I wish you all the best,

Ting-Kai C.

Could not have a better start to the week. Thank you so much, Ting-Kai!

The nerve-racking choice of paper

Posted on Mar 20 2013 in Letters

As someone who frets big decisions, being in the publishing business can be a real pain sometimes. I was reminded of that in the last few days as I needed to make a final call on ordering several tons of paper for the next three issues.

After running into a few minor consistency and quality problems with the last issue, I felt a bit let down by our paper supplier. IGEPA’s Circle offset, the stock we had used up to that point, was my all-time favourite choice of paper. Using 100% recycling material, it boasted a superior quality with an unusually smooth finish. Unfortunately, it lost that superior quality when the manufacturer recently changed paper mills.

Since launching issue No4 I’ve been discussing alternatives with our printer. Again, the environmental impact was my main filter. I only considered 100% recycling papers with no whitening bleach used. After a few test prints on two different stock options, I decided to go with EnviroTop.

The next step turned out to be more nerve-racking. When selecting a stock type, its grammage will determine how heavy your magazine turns out to be – and in turn, how much you’ll end up spending on shipping. This is measured in grams per square meter (gsm). A standard office paper usually has somewhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.

The weight itself however doesn’t determine its perceived thickness. That’s where the paper volume comes in. A paper with a volume of 1.3 contains 30% more air and is therefore less compressed. Higher volume means thicker but not necessarily heavier paper.

Both variables define how thick and heavy a paper feels. The challenge is to find the best fit for your specific publication. Thicker, high-volume papers often convey quality, but depending on the format and binding technique, more solid papers make it difficult to keep the magazine open (my German printer calls this Klammerwirkung, the ‘peg effect’).

It eventually came down to making a decision between EnviroTop 100gsm and the next heavier option, 120gsm – both with a volume of 1.3. In the end I opted for the heavier version which will make Offscreen about 2.5mm thicker and around 50gm heavier. I’m aware that it will add to the Klammerwirkung, something I’m a little concerned about but the 100gsm version just didn’t have the same superior feel to it.

And that is what’s so nerve-racking about choosing good stock. There are many variables that need consideration. Due to our small magazine format, we print on larger sheets to be most efficient. These larger sheets are custom-cut by the paper mill and therefore need to be ordered several weeks in advance, and in large quantities.

In moments like this I really miss the transient nature of making things for web.

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