Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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Free copies for students and tech newbies

Posted on Oct 12 2017 in News

The problem with most indie magazines is that their price is often prohibitive to students and people trying to get a foot in the door. I'd love to see more copies of Offscreen in the hands of STEM and design students or participants of the many coding classes out there. I believe Offscreen can offer them an alternative perspective on the tech industry and emphasise the importance of humility and empathy in their future contributions to our community.

With every issue I set aside a certain amount of 'free copies' to give away for such causes but sending them around the world is expensive. On average it costs me around $6.50 per copy to cover postage, fulfillment, and packaging.

To reach more folks who can't afford Offscreen I'd like to run a little experiment: Companies can sponsor free copies for $5 a piece. All sponsors will be published (and linked to) on this blog, receive a social media shoutout, and get a mention in a future issue of the Dispatch.

Before I reach out to sponsors though, I want to call on educational providers to put their hand up. If you work at a school, college, library or if you run tech classes for underprivileged people, I want to send you a bunch of free copies!

You are eligible if you..

  • are an educational provider (academic or community-driven)
  • have a website (to verify you're legit)
  • have an official shipping address (I can't send copies to your home)

→ If that's you, apply here. (Form is now closed)

In this first step I'm only collecting addresses of education providers. In the next step (if there is enough demand) I'll be calling on sponsors to chip in with getting those copies delivered. I'm hoping to give out up to 500 free copies in total.

If you like this idea, please help spread the word and share it with friends who teach or run classes. Thanks!

Back to work

Posted on Sep 26 2017 in News

After a busy and intense seven months I was finally able to launch the newly designed website and issue 16 in March this year. But there was little time to celebrate. In publishing, after one issue is always before the next. A couple of weeks after the big reveal, I began planning the content for issue 17. When that issue launched in July I was definitely ready for a break.

And so in August my partner and I got on a plane to Europe. We caught up with family and friends in Germany, hiked through the South Tyrol region in Italy, swam in crystal clear lakes in France, and of course indulged in the region's abundant fresh food. (I occasionally posted photos on Offscreen's Instagram account.)

Before taking off, I scheduled several issues of my weekly newsletter (although the Dispatch did take a two-week break in the middle of our holiday too). I tried to stay offline for much of the holidays, but couldn't avoid checking my emails every now and then and making sure Offscreen orders were being fulfilled as usual.

I'm back in Melbourne now and excited to get started with issue 18. In fact, I've already confirmed three out of four interviewees. It's going to be a cracker of an issue! (Make sure you're subscribed.)

Before I left I told some of you to get in touch again when I'm back from my holidays because I didn't have time to respond properly at the time. If that's you, please follow up on your email. My inbox is depressingly empty.

Yeah, not really. 😉

Human Scale

Posted on Aug 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Michael Honey first appeared in Offscreen Issue 7 (now sold out).

“Is there anything you like to ask us?” A typical question you hear at the end of most job interviews.

“I am a bit worried,” I said, “about the whole idea of relentlessly driving down supplier costs just so that people on the internet can buy marginally cheaper consumer goods.”


I’d like to think that my question rocked him to his core, made him reconsider his life up to this point, caused him to abandon principles he never knew he held. In reality, he was probably making a this-guy-is-an-idiot face to his coworkers on the other end of the line.

“Well, if you feel that way, our organisation might not be a good fit for you.” He hung up and it was over.

I don’t know what I was thinking. If I felt that way, why did I talk to them in the first place? Because it’s always worth talking. Because they were interested. Because it’s nice to feel wanted.

As an independent web guy I often wondered what it would be like to be hired by a giant corporation. I would enjoy the security that comes with money and a big company job. I know from experience that years of worrying about being able to pay the bills take their toll. But I would also be wondering what I could have built instead, had I gone my own way.

If I took that role I’d disappear for a year or two, and out the other end would come a better login screen, a cleaner list view, an improved signup form – and a big paycheck. Those are nice to have but at what cost? The usual pitch that a big company makes is that they have the resources for profound impact on a large scale. Often though, that impact is spread out over millions of users, and it’s in the service of giving corporate investors better capital returns.

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism leveled at many new ideas. It’s true, some things don’t scale to millions of users. No venture capitalist throws their money at an idea that makes just a decent living for a small team. You need explosive growth to reach a worldwide market. But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming bigger? That local restaurant you love can’t scale to millions of users. Do you really want your favourite indie band to aspire to stadium-level fame? People get cheaper books, and an independent bookseller closes its doors to make way for a giant warehouse full of underpaid people working ten-hour shifts. You order your groceries online, but you’ll never bump into your neighbours at the local shop. Is this progress?

I’m aware of the disconnect between decrying large enterprise and, say, owning an iPhone. Some things, good things, are unbuildable without a critical mass – thousands of builders and millions of users. Acknowledging that, though, isn’t it also true that most things get worse as they get bigger? Humans are good at family, middling at community, dysfunctional as nations, and self-destructive as a planet. What doesn’t scale is our ability to relate to each other as human beings instead of target markets, as eyeballs to monetise.

I love technology and the internet and the wonders that it brings. I, too, build it for a living. But I don’t need another social network or more ways to share photos or further technological assistance for catching up with friends. What if we stopped building new things for a while, and tried to make what we have better?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go huge, to build something for millions, to double in size every few months, to scramble for market share – and then to try and find a way to pay for it all by putting ads on it. Maybe some day it’ll happen.

If I’m honest with myself, I probably would have taken that job had they offered it to me. I would have spent a couple of years generating shareholder value. I would have gained some management experience, a familiarity with Powerpoint, and some inexpensive consumer goods. But instead, I’m now working with a small team of people on human-scale projects for clients I respect.

I’m glad I asked that question.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Erased Experts

Posted on Jul 26 2017 in Essays

This essay by Sabrina Majeed first appeared in Offscreen Issue 11 (now sold out).

We have always been here.

Lurking in the shadows of your forums, passing silent judgment on your conversations, even joining in if we felt compelled to do so. You didn’t even realise it was us you were talking to, us you were so embroiled in heated debate with. We became good at disguising ourselves, donning ambiguous avatars and cryptic display names, basking in the freedom offered by anonymity. We congregated as our true selves in corners of the internet that you didn’t even know existed. Long before Pinterest and Tumblr became the designated spaces that you – you, with your anxious need to categorise and contain — would relegate us to. We were there.

You didn’t really think you were the only ones who could spend hours in the solace of a dark room, illuminated only by the comforting glow of a screen, did you? Softly clacking away at a keyboard, leery of waking up a family who just couldn’t comprehend why you needed to be online at four in the morning.

For a young girl growing up online, the internet was a source of sexual awakening. There was the early solicitation for age, sex, and location, and the late-night instant messaging marathons with internet boyfriends. Whether I was perusing the female-dominated, libertine world of fan fiction, or curiously poking my head into a more visceral, male-oriented landscape, I always kept my pointer carefully positioned over an exonerating browser tab, ready to pull the trigger if I heard footsteps approaching my room.

The web does not discriminate in its seduction. Its siren call is a whisper of white noise with the resounding wail of a dial tone. It echoed in my ears when I was at school, at the mall, with friends, always beckoning, and insatiable in its demands for my time and attention.

Yes, we were there too! Furiously scrolling and clicking in an attempt to escape the banalities of adolescent life. But few noticed. We were erased. Just as we were erased from the pages of history, like our contributions to society and our participation in the wars that toppled dynasties and drew new lines in the sand.

Now you purport to ‘make room’ for us on an internet you’ve claimed as your territory, as if it hasn’t been just as much ours all along. The rise of social media holds us accountable to our true identities, and anonymity is no longer a guarantee. The threat of exploitation is all too common, and voicing one’s opinion in a public sphere always bears a certain amount of risk. We now have to fight to feel welcome in the very spaces we’ve always occupied. It’s retrograde.

Even those few sites where femininity is allowed to visibly flourish, the spaces that dare to cater to women’s interests are dismissed as frivolous and unsubstantial. Should those strongholds fall to their founders’ desperate need for male validation, then perhaps we will become digital nomads once more. In the past our attention was fleeting and we were loath to tie ourselves down, to nest. New plat- forms popped up like frontiers itching to be explored, and we happily planted our flag.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that Bill Gates had access to the early computers during his childhood and college years. Gladwell looks back on those early interactions with technology as foreshadowing for Gates’ later success. Twelve-year-old Mark Zuckerberg had ZuckNet, a messaging program built with Atari BASIC. It was arcade games for Elon Musk.

Where do I hear about the woman who found her calling after building custom Livejournal layouts, who learned HTML so she could spruce up her Neopets shop? Or about the designer who can trace her success back to posting desktop wallpaper art on DeviantArt and GaiaOnline?

We need to start talking about them. We need to understand and celebrate the origin stories of women in technology just as much as those of men, and make those stories part of our industry’s cultural lore. Not only for the sake of looking forward and inspiring the next generation of creators, but to be able to look back and be reminded that this is our domain too. We are experts, CEOs, and role models. You can’t make room for us, because we’ve always been here.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

How I personalise Offscreen’s launch newsletter

Posted on Jul 19 2017 in Production

Email is a medium most of us had written off when social media came around. Yet, as a small business owner there is not a more powerful marketing tool than a well-maintained newsletter list. I'm an avid Twitter user too and I do get a lot of referrals from re/tweets, but it pales in comparison to the visits, sales, and replies I get from email campaigns. (By the way, Facebook as a promotional tool is completely useless unless you are willing to turn your messages into paid ads which, in my opinion, always feels a bit disingenuous.)

For the launch of issue 17 I sent out an email to the ~10,500 people on my 'Offscreen Updates' list. This list is separate from my weekly Dispatch list and I usually only email subscribers of that list once or twice in between issues to inform them about the status of the next issue. If you have ordered anything from the Offscreen website in the past, you've been added to that list automatically. As such, this list consists of current and past customers – some are just following along passively, some buy issues occasionally, some are active subscribers of the magazine.

Four months in between issues is a long time to remember what you last ordered, so I use my launch newsletter to inform everyone about their individual order or subscription status. Here's how I make that email as relevant and clear as possible...

Disclosure: I'm using MailChimp, a current Offscreen sponsor, for my newsletters. It's possible to achieve similar outcomes with all major email marketing providers. This post was not commissioned or paid for by MailChimp.

Adding merge tags to the subscriber list

My custom order management system is connected to MailChimp via their API. This allows me to sync the following data about each customer to my MailChimp list:

Besides the obvious ones, like email and name, I also sync the number of the issues they bought (ISSUES), the type of subscription they have (SUB) and an authorisation code (AUTH). The auth-code is a string of numbers and letters unique to each customer. I use this auth-code to enable existing customers to log into their Offscreen account, but I can also use this code to send them to the Offscreen checkout page with their shipping details pre-filled.

List segmentation

I use MailChimp's list segmentation feature in conjunction with merge tags to split the list on two major groups:

Group A: those who have already ordered issue 17.
Group B: those who have not (yet) ordered issue 17.

I then create two slightly different email campaigns for each group.

Existing customers and active subscribers to the magazine (Group A)

All customers who have already ordered and paid for issue 17 (e.g. active subscribers) receive an email that shows the following note:

Here's where the auth-code comes in handy because I can include a link to the customer's account – no login required.

Live preview of this email

Past customers and passive newsletter subscribers (Group B)

For those who have not (yet) bought the latest issue, I display a call to action to purchase the issue and/or subscribe. I split this group into two more sub-groups: 1) those who have previously ordered something on Offscreen and have an existing auth-code, and 2) those who haven't bought anything before and are just following Offscreen as a newsletter subscriber.

All customers since our relaunch have an existing account (auth-code) and so I can add their auth-code to the checkout URL which pre-populates the order form with all their shipping details. This speeds up the checkout process – they just have to add their credit card or PayPal account credentials.

Those newsletter subscribers who haven't bought anything recently get a standard set of links without any pre-filling magic.

Live preview of this email

And that's pretty much all. I think getting a clear status update about your previous order/subscription goes a long way in regards to a great customer experience. If you know a little bit about email marketing and merge tags then the above won't seem overly fancy to you. It just requires an email list that is in sync with your customer database. If you never heard of merge tags before, here's a quick intro by MailChimp. I can highly recommend using them to make your newsletters more relevant and useful to your subscribers. Happy emailing!

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