Bootstrapping shares a similar emotional rollercoaster to freelancing. On an up day, I might have a few dozen signups and, all-of-a-sudden, I feel unstoppable. I start thinking about hiring people and taking on less client work. I look months into the future and make projections on where Cushion will be based on that one good day.
Then, I won’t see a single new signup for an entire week and that impenetrable confidence begins to waver. I start doubting that I’ll ever be able to hire the help I so desperately need. I look to take on new clients because I’m now projecting the future based on this week alone, thinking I’ll be homeless in no time. I feel like no one cares anymore because nobody mentioned Cushion that week.
I can totally sympathise with him (as most entrepreneurs and sole business owners can). At Offscreen, there are days when I get ten orders for back issues and a couple of starter packs within hours, and then there are days when no one orders anything. It’s difficult to remind yourself that people still appreciate your product even when there is no chatter about it online or you make no sales.
In our issue 11 Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots UK, shares a beautiful nugget of wisdom that I’ve added to my list of things to do when the issue is finally done. She writes:
In the past I’ve been completely guilty of jumping from project to project without reflecting on the amazing things we’ve achieved. That’s when we started our Glory Wall (sorry for the name, it just stuck) where every month the team pins up something they’ve achieved on a wall in our office. It can be anything from a lovely message from a community member to a press clipping or a quote. It’s a wonderful, visual motivation tool and a daily reminder of how far we’ve come.
Go forth and build your own Glory Wall. I know I will.
Earlier today I tweeted “Officially reached the point where I cringe when I see the words passion and work in the same sentence.” Let me explain.
These days, where everyone has an opinion and way too many tools to express it, we love to focus on easily sharable quips of advice that seem to summarise the mood of the moment.
“Love what you do.” “Find your passion.”
I’ve made use of them myself for the little gimmicks I add to Offscreen, and in theory there is nothing wrong with a motivational poster on your wall. But there are particular messages I come across again and again, and each time they feel shallower and duller. The words ‘love’, ‘passion’, and ‘work’ (in any possible combination) follow me everywhere I go online.
Like Rachel Nabors explains in Offscreen issue No10 (also online here), these statements oversimplify the complexity of reality. We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, especially when we preach it to the young, the up-and-coming generation of creatives.
It suggests that you are no longer allowed to just have a job. You must show passion in everything you do. You must love your profession, otherwise it’s not worth pursuing. If you don’t feel it, you have failed.
Our chantable slogans also create an illusion that we will reach a particular point where happiness sets in and everything else magically falls into place.
In reality, even if you do finally get paid for making knitted tea cup sleeves, chances are that you’re not going to be passionately pursuing that career for the next 25 years. And then what? You are back to square one.
I enjoy making Offscreen. I really do. But let’s be honest, it’s a love affair that will eventually come to an end. What happens next, I do not know. I might have to do some hard yakka I don’t particular enjoy so I can afford my overpriced coffee and take care of the bills. Heck, maybe I even have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. In that situation I think the last thing I need is a reminder that I’m doing it all wrong, because I don’t lie awake at night thinking about my work.
In this post I want to give you guys a bit of insight into how I plan the content for each issue, and how my approach is somewhat different and simpler to that of other magazines. But let’s start with a few thoughts on creating an enjoyable reading experience.
One of the beautiful things about printed publications is what Craig Mod calls ‘the edges of print’. We all know how great it feels to open a new book — the excitement of a fresh start. But also to be able to finish it, to close it and to move on to the next one. What happens in between those events is quite a linear experience. While magazines are also great for 'quick dips’ and reading in small chunks, most of us start from the front cover and work our way through to the final page. Compare this to consuming content online: how often do we start reading an article only to find ourselves watching a farting cat video because we clicked on a link half-way down the page? There aren’t any edges in digital.
This is one of the reasons why printed publications are still such an attractive tool for storytelling. Because content consumption usually flows in a linear direction, editors can create a unique journey that has a clear start and a clear finish.
When I first thought about Offscreen and how I wanted to present the content inside, the idea of arranging stories in an engaging way was exciting, but also quite daunting. The first step towards clarity and action was to define some basic boundaries, like the page count and the dimensions of the publication. Once I had some physical limits, I experimented with typography and grids within Indesign, trying to come up with a versatile set of ‘templates’ and a consistent visual direction. I won’t go into detail about this phase here, but let’s just say I bought a lot of font licenses (which I didn’t end up using) and printed out a ton of sample pages in the process.
All of the above sets the constraints for how much content I could fit into one issue. The next step was to come up with a way to organise my ideas to see how they flow in the context of a magazine. This is where the content plan (or flatplan) comes in. The content plan gives you a bird’s eye view of an issue. It allows you to pace the reading experience by placing and moving around story ideas with the goal of creating an enjoyable and captivating content flow.
There are various degrees of detail when it comes to content plans. It often starts out with something like this:
Seeing all the spreads next to each other enables editors to identify critical areas where, for example, stories or visuals are colliding. These printouts also give creatives an idea of how the layout of a particular spread work in the context of the bordering pages.
Being a kid of the digital age, I don’t really have an office with a big wall or a lot of floor space. I move from place to place quite a lot and take my office with me when I do. So I decided to take a more digital approach to the content plan: a simple spreadsheet. Although I do print out the magazine in its entirety on my trusty ol’ laserjet, mainly for proofreading.
This document stays open as a pinned tab in my browser throughout the three or more months it takes me to create a new issue. It’s a constant work in progress. As contributors confirm (or drop out), I add/edit names and deadlines accordingly. During the 3-4 week period when the majority of content is due I run through this document from top to bottom at least 2-3 times per week to check on the status of each contributor. This is by far the most stressful period in the making of an issue as I have to replace the inevitable drop-outs last minute and remind already very busy people that they are running late. If a piece is complete (written and visual parts have been submitted in their final version) I colour the cells in the 'Deadline’ column green. I repeat this step until the last piece of content has been submitted and I can move on to the next stages (proofreading, final editing, and eventually laying out the issue in Indesign).
The content plan is one of the most important tools in the making of a magazine. There are many magazine titles out there that do an amazing job at creating a unique reading experience and taking the reader on an adventure with every new issue. I won’t lie, Offscreen is not one of them. The core structure has intentionally not changed much since the inaugural issue launched. My lengthy interviews set the pace and make up the bulk of each issue. Changing smaller features in between break up the reading experience into digestible chunks. It’s a fairly strict pattern that I’ve come to rely on, not least because I’m a one-man show which necessitates a fair amount of routine to be able to make three issues per year possible.
Update: There is now a handy little online tool called pageplanr for easier flatplanning. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks great.
You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen
Joseph Campbell on having a ‘bliss station’, in The Power of Myth (via Austin Kleon). I quite like the sound and the idea of this. Not sure how well the bliss station fits into our tiny inner-city apartment though.
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…