Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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IndieCon Hamburg

Posted on Sep 02 2015 in Thoughts, News

In case you haven’t heard, IndieCon is a two-day conference happening in Hamburg, Germany where magazine makers (some international, but most from Germany) meet to discuss the challenges and opportunities around independent print publishing. It’s an event that targets industry ‘insiders’, with a mix of existing publishers (small and large), aspiring publishers and some general media folks. This year, the organisers added an additional third day and a public element to it: the Indie Mag Day – a flea-market-style trade zone for anyone to discover, buy, and swap magazines of all kinds.

IndieCon has only happened twice, but it’s quickly become one of my favourite events of the year. Malte, Urs, Arne and all the friendly volunteers behind it have created something very special. They realised that there is no existing platform for this new wave of indie magazine makers to connect. IndieCon provides this platform in a smart, unpretentious way, while cheekily telling the larger media world to take note. It manages to briefly put the spotlight on the hidden creativity that can be found in small publishing projects. Thank you for putting on a great event, guys!

For me, it was the added Indie Mag Day on Sunday that made the event extra special. Set in an old, run-down warehouse, publishers and stockists presented hundreds of magazines – from small local zines to larger international titles. And what would have been an amazing event for being able to meet likeminded publishers alone, the massive turnout of curious readers, buyers and collectors made it all the more successful for everyone involved. There was an extremely positive vibe in the air: finally, a place for magazine aficionados to geek out!

Just like last year, I had many wonderful conversations throughout the weekend. I met a lot of smart, creative people and learned a few things about magazine making along the way. There were two points of discussion that came up several times – on and off stage – that I want to briefly comment on here:

The first has to do with substance. Some people – mostly journalists and publishers working for the more established/traditional media outlets – are still lamenting over independent magazines having no substance. They call them ‘pretty objects’ with nothing to say. Designers shouldn’t be in charge of making a magazine, they say. It seems that in their eyes every publication has to invoke some deep and meaningful socio-critical debate. It’s this view that was the main message of last year’s keynote by Oliver Gehrs, too.

Ok, look. While I personally think some indie mags do in fact make that statement on society, most indie mags do not claim to be journalistic masterpieces, nor do they want to critically analyse [insert big issue of our time]. Many of us really just want to explore a topic we feel ‘passionate’ about. We hope to be able to gather enough people around us that feel the same way and then connect through shared interests. Some people do that through an online forum, a Snapchat channel or a conference – we do it through a magazine.

Why are so many journalists and other literary folk convinced that their medium of choice deserves ‘more substance’? Most of us seem to be OK with magazines on fishing, golf, boating or gadgets being sold on newsstands (with no apparent reason to exist other than to serve their specific interest group). Yet, as soon as a small team of designers or travellers or food enthusiasts experiment with the printed format as an outlet for their interests and ideas, some call it overdesigned fluff.

The print industry, especially the more commercial side of it, is in the midst of a massive upheaval. I can understand that it feels threatened by us. But if I was a professional journalist, I’d be much more worried about the digital world depreciating my job than a bunch of indie magazine makers. So, can we move on from this debate, please?

The second thing I heard people voice their concerns about is the idea of commercial success and how money inevitably impacts editorial decisions.

Yes, there is obviously a moral debate about where advertising can and can’t go. It’s a debate that’s been going on forever. However, too often I hear publishers say that they ‘hope to figure out’ the commercial side of it all later, after they produced a couple of issues. While I can understand the self-sacrificing enthusiasm of my publisher comrades (been there!), one of the many challenges of making a magazine is to make a business case for it. If you don’t plan on making it financially viable somehow, there is little reason for making a magazine in the first place.

That’s why I’m slightly critical towards using Kickstarter as a way to fund new magazines. Because more important than the initial funding is a business plan or a commercial strategy (whatever you want to call it) that outlines how the mag is going to survive long enough to build a loyal, ongoing readership.

Let’s not forget that magazines and print publishing in general have always had a commercial element. It’s one of the many loose ends we need to figure out in publishing. The great thing is that, as indies, we don’t need to adhere to traditional business models. We can experiment, try out new ideas and explore new opportunities in order to, yes, make money from all the hard work we put in. So, don’t be shy to ask for money. Stop feeling dirty when talking about money. And most of all, don’t put off thinking about money until it’s too late.

By the way, by no means do I claim to have figured it all out! Making Offscreen viable is still a challenge, but from issue No1 I had a clear idea, a goal, of how I wanted to finance the magazine with the result that my current sponsorship model and a fairly high cover price seem to work – work well enough to make more issues and not starve to death doing so.

Reading War and Peace on an iPhone

Posted on Jul 12 2015 in Snippets

I used to own first a Kindle, then an iPad Mini. I sold both devices several years ago because I simply didn’t use them enough. Nowadays, whenever I feel like reading some long-form stuff on the go, I do it on my iPhone 6. The experience is certainly incomparable to reading longer pieces in paper form. I really struggle to focus. I find my hands cramping up and my neck going stiff. I once tried reading a book on my iPhone (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, through the Kindle app) and I only got to around page 50 before abandoning the idea.

Clive Thompson must have seen it as a challenge. He committed to reading – purely on his mobile phone – one of the longest and hardest books out there: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which in its paperback form has no less than 1296 pages. He summarised his experience in this lengthy and insightful article that contains some really interesting observations around physical vs. digital books.

On distractions

I certainly wrestled with social distractions. Your phone is, as I’ve often joked, not really so much a “phone” as a “portal through which five or six gigantic multinational firms fight for your attention so they can sell you advertising.” For services like Facebook and Twitter, distraction is central to the business model.

To focus on Tolstoy, I had to be much more “mindful.” I had to start paying attention to my attention, to notice my own urges to peek at Twitter or email, so that I could decide to actively ignore them, instead of responding with a Pavolovian lunge for the app.

On the design/usability of real books

Bookmakers have spent hundreds of years patiently tweaking their design for maximum usability and loveliness. In the early years following the Gutenberg explosion, books were, by modern standards, surprisingly weird and unusable. They often had no paragraph breaks, no page numbers, no indexes — none of the features we typically use to navigate and orient ourselves in a book. It took a long time to arrive at their elegant modern design.(...)

Today’s digital books do not give you the nearly-sensual, visual sense of “where” something is in a book. We remember bits of a book not just by the words, but how they looked on the page — where they were located, how our hands lay next to them.

On the seriousness of real books

Some new research into the nature of reading suggests an intriguing reason we remember more from print books than digital ones: It’s because we expect print to be intellectually engaging. We approach it with an orientation that “this is serious business,” in a way that we don’t when we read on a screen.

To be fair, he’s also highlighting some interesting benefits of reading the book in digital, so his review is not just an anthem for the good old paper format. To find out what he prefers, you should read the article.

Drudging through The Swamp

Because our ideas tend to be conceptually challenging and often completely new to us, we spend a lot of time in that ‘middle part’ of development, which I like to call The Swamp. It’s when we’re trying out a lot of different ideas, with lots of temporary art and half-baked code and even halfer-baked design. And because of that, the game feels, looks, and plays like total garbage for probably the longest chunk of development. When we’re in The Swamp, visible progress slows down and it feels very much like you’re suddenly crawling through sludge, each step forward requiring great effort to dislodge from the dense goo of bugs, broken ideas, technical hurdles, and self-doubt.

We spend a lot of time in The Swamp, and I still haven’t discovered a way to circumvent it. During this part of the development process I usually feel awful and I doubt my work. Everything is a total, hideous mess and the end of the project is impossible to see. The only way to proceed is to just go to work every day and move the project forward bit by bit, until one day, you suddenly look back and realise that you left The Swamp behind you. After fixing a million little things, at one point you inevitably look at your work and it suddenly doesn’t make you cringe or have an anxiety attack. That’s usually when we start pushing towards the finish line.

This is an excerpt from my interview with Kris Piotrowski in issue 11. Kris runs an indie game studio, something I have a lot of admiration and respect for. And I also have a lot of empathy for being stuck in The Swamp.

In fact, I’m working on the content of the new issue and I feel like I’m neck-deep in The Swamp at the moment. I can’t seem to be moving forward, no matter how hard I’m trying. It’s really frustrating and just like Kris, it’s one of the few things I really hate about this job.

It’s been a tough week. Here’s to a better, less swampish one. Enjoy your weekend folks!

The bullshit filter of history

Posted on Jul 06 2015 in Snippets

When contemplating the future, we place far too much emphasis on flavour-of-the-month inventions and the latest killer apps, while underestimating the role of traditional technology. In the 1960s, space travel was all the rage, so we imagine ourselves on school trips to Mars. In the 1970s, plastic was in, so we mulled over how we would furnish our see-through houses. [The author] Nassim Taleb (…) coined a word for this: neomania, the mania for all things shiny and new.

In the past, I sympathised with a so-called ‘early adopters’, the breed of people who cannot survive without the latest iPhone. I thought they were ahead of their time. Now I regard them as irrational and suffering from a kind of sickness: neomania. To them, it is of minor importance if an invention provides tangible benefits; novelty matters more.

So, don’t go out on a limb when forecasting the future. Stanley Kubrick’s cult movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, illustrates why you shouldn’t. Made in 1968, the movie predicted that, at the turn of the millennium, the US would have 1000 strong colony on the moon and that PanAm would operate the commuter flights there and back. With this fanciful forecast in mind, I suggest this rule of thumb: whatever has survived for X years will last another X years. Taleb wagers that the 'bullshit filter of history’ will sort the gimmicks from the game changers. And that’s one bet I’m willing to back.

Lots to think about in this short excerpt from The Art of Thinking Clearly.

Meet our sub-editor and proofreader Kieran O‘Hare

Kieran O‘Hare my proofreader and sub-editor since issue No11 and has been hugely helpful in improving the overall quality of Offscreen’s writing. I asked him some questions about working on Offscreen and his many talents, one of which is publishing a magazine himself.

Kai: Who are you and what do you do when you’re not working on Offscreen?

Kieran: My name is Kieran O’Hare. I currently live in the northeastern U.S. in Portland, Maine. I have fallen (pleasantly!) into the role of copy-editor and sub-editor of Offscreen. When I’m not buried in an endless Google Doc with you, I lead a sort of double existence as a musician and an independent magazine publisher.

On the musical side, I work around the world in music performance, as well as musical design and artistic direction for the stage. I play Irish traditional music on an instrument called the uilleann pipes, which is the uniquely Irish form of bagpipes, and I serve on the Board of Directors of an organization in Dublin called Na Píobairí Uilleann, which works for the preservation and spread of the uilleann pipes. I’m typing this from an airport in Baltimore, as I’m making my way home from recording a second album in Chicago with my trio, Open the Door for Three.

While being a professional piper might be enough of a kamikaze mission in itself, I recently co-founded a brand new quarterly print magazine about Irish culture and people at home and around the world, called Éirways. I and my partner, designer Kevin O’Brien, just launched our first issue, and it’s going very well so far. It’s been an exciting and very fulfilling process. I’m already buried working on Issue #2, which we plan to launch around October 1.

What apps and tools could you not live without?

I’m fairly basic when it comes to technology, but I’ll try anything to see if it simplifies things for me. My basic arsenal on the road is my 11” MacBook Air, an iPad (with the White Noise app to make hotels bearable), and an iPhone. Pages, Skype, Facetime, and Gmail are constantly open and often in use. Squarespace – surprise, surprise – is the home for Éirways magazine. Thanks to you, Google Docs is always there too. Oh, and pens. I like pens. Lots of them. And paper: the good stuff.

Print is dead. Comment?

Print is alive, well, growing in new and surprising ways, and thriving. Print fills a void that the digital world can’t, and often, it can fill a void that the digital world causes.

I’ll excerpt my editor’s letter from Issue #1 of my magazine, Éirways:

Éirways is a print-only magazine about Ireland, its culture, and its people at home and around the world. As editor, my goal is to create a magazine that broadens perspectives about Ireland and forges new connections between those who live in Ireland, those who leave Ireland, and those who love Ireland.

We have chosen to do this through print, a medium which some have already declared to be moribund. But we have been inspired by a new wave of independent magazine publishers around the world who work hard to prove that the breath of print can do more than fog a mirror. Print can be the vehicle by which we retake for ourselves the quiet contemplation and pure enjoyment of learning about the world around us.

We are bombarded and overwhelmed with electronic ‘content’. It is fleeting, fast-moving, and ultimately transient. How calming and pleasant it is to handle a beautiful magazine: media that we choose to welcome into our lives. We can handle it, touch it, feel it, smell it. When the latest website has receded into the digital din, a magazine is always right there where you last put it down…”

What’s your favourite thing on the internet this week?

I honestly haven’t been that plugged in this week. I returned to the States from Dublin one week ago, was home for two days, went to Chicago, played a concert at The Art Institute of Chicago, hung out with my brother Sean and his wife, went into the studio and mixed an album for three days, and now I’m going home. I have a novel to read on the plane, and I have to say the relative lack of internet has been, dare I say, blissful?

If you could pick any person to have a long dinner conversation with, who would it be?

Any one of the amazing photographers, artists, writers, or profile subjects I’ve had the honour of working with for Éirways magazine. It’s been an absolute privilege to be able to forge new connections with people that I wouldn’t have met had it not been for my foray into the world of print magazine-making.

Please complete: Working with me is ___!?

Germanic. Hard. Easy. An honour: you are one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, and are truly an inspirational figure in the world of independent magazine publishing. I was a fan of Offscreen long before I made contact with you, and it’s an absolute pleasure to work with you now!

Well said. ;) Thanks Kieran! You’ve done a wonderful job with issue 11! Can’t wait to dive into the next bottomless Google Doc with you.

Photo by Earl Richardson

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