Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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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

Meet our editorial assistant Ivana McConnell

Meet Ivana McConnell, who’s written an essay for issue 10 and recently took on the role of editorial assistant for Offscreen (next to her main job) to help me with the upcoming issue.

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

Ivana: My name is Ivana McConnell and right now I’m based out of Vancouver, after stints in Toronto, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. I’m an apologetic Canadian with a weakness for typography, and as of lately I’m Offscreen Magazine’s editorial assistant.

My day job is that of interaction designer; when I’m not doing that or working on Offscreen, I’m probably either rock climbing or doing some sort of exercise. It helps me stay even-keeled, and listening to a podcast or some music while cycling helps me turn my brain off for a little while; something I find incredibly hard to do. I’m also trying to make time to learn how to draw letters, properly. It’s my ambition to one day design a typeface. Other than that, I’m usually enjoying a good conversation over a pint or a coffee (depending on the time of day) with my wife, or being dragged around the neighbourhood by our hyperactive jack russell terrier.

What apps and tools could you not live without?

Aside from the usual (Gmail, Skype, etc.), I’m not much of a tools person; I try a lot of them but nothing seems to stick. What does, I adore: Overcast for podcast discovery and listening, Clear and Captio to get tasks done, Byword to write, and the Longform app for great reads. Also, my wife and I recently had to spend six months apart due to work and a big move, and Evernote and Avocado turned out to be lifesavers.

Print is dead. Comment?

Lies. I think reports of the medium’s death are exaggerated and, in fact, it’s managed to reincarnate and reinvent itself into something that both complements and contrasts the digital, always-on world we live in. It can, like Offscreen, become an excuse to unplug from that digital world or, in some cases, allow us to connect to it in a different way. They encourage us to engage with the world a little bit differently; to create or read them is an act of commitment much different to reading or writing a blog post. There’s an honesty about it all — we know that a printed book or magazine isn’t collecting data on us while we’re reading it — and reading is a focused act that, in today’s world, requires just a little bit more devotion than it used to. We can’t share it with a click, we have to talk about it.

Technology changes but the printed word doesn’t; it’s a snapshot of time in a tangible, human way that web content can’t be. It’s permanent, and I think people are looking more and more for that humanity and that authenticity these days. So print isn’t dead, in my opinion, it’s alive and kicking our digital doors down.

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

This 38,000 word interactive article which aims to answer the lofty question, ‘What is code?’ Sit down with a coffee, an open mind, and get ready to take notes (and a few breaks). It’s a cracker.

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

I think my answer to this question would probably change every time you asked it, but today it would be Tommy Caldwell. I’ve been a rock climber for many years, and followed his Dawn Wall project since he first started checking it out and seeing if it was possible. He’s such a tenacious, humble human being with some epic stories to share, not to mention some invaluable climbing advice, which I could always use more of!

Please complete with honesty: Working with Kai is ___!?

Reassuring, but not in that cliche, ‘everything-is-going-to-be-all-right’ way, but reassuring in the way that only genuine honesty can be. I’m never in the dark about a suggestion I’ve made or an idea I’ve had, and that forthright clarity is so valuable to me. It’s also unfortunately fleeting sometimes, given the time difference of Vancouver-to-Melbourne, but it’s been brilliant!

On Growth

It was some time between issue No8 and No9 that I became a little more comfortable. I was preparing my quarterly business activity statement for my accountant, sitting at one of my regular cafés in Melbourne. Crunching numbers isn’t one of my strengths, but I don’t mind doing the necessary admin work. After all, as a sole trader I should keep an eye on how well (or badly) I’m doing, right? I realised then and there that I’m doing just fine. Not amazingly well, but not too badly either. I could order another coffee with confidence, for sure.

But having earned a little more money that quarter compared to the previous one was not what made me feel comfortable. It was the following thought process and the answer I arrived at.

For most entrepreneurs, the idea of having to do better this month than last is constantly on their mind. If you spend much of your working day online like I do, you’re frequently reminded of how much everyone focuses on getting bigger and more profitable. Growth hackers. Content marketing. IPOs. Everyone is chasing the hockey stick. And everyone is anxious about being left behind.

I get a lot of “How is the magazine going?”-type of questions when I meet readers in real life. I always wish I had some astounding numbers to report. How the magazine subscribers have quadrupled in the last quarter. How the new issue sold out over night. How I’m struggling to hire enough people in order to keep up with demand. It’s what we’ve come to expect from internet success stories. But that’s not the truth in Offscreen’s case.

The truth is that Offscreen has seen very slow growth. I started with 3000 copies and it took me 11 issues to justify a 5000 print-run. The truth is that some issues do better than others depending on a range of factors, none of which seem very predictable. The truth is that the magazine still doesn’t make enough money to hire more than a few temporary freelancers. (More on that in coming blog posts).

I love going back to an essay in issue No7 titled “Human Scale”, written by fellow Australian and Icelab co-founder Michael Honey. He writes:

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism levelled at many new ideas. (…) But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming 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.

And then there is this recent interview with Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk fame in which he talks about being proud of staying small:

We’re not growing a hockey-stick growth, but we’re growing enough. We’re building that fan base and are in it for the long haul, so I’m able to keep it really small and handle every part of the business or almost every part of the business, which does limit me on the creative side sometimes. I can’t release a hundred products every year. I can’t speak at dozens of conferences. I have to limit everything I do. (…) But I’m okay with all those things right now. I choose to keep it small, to keep it lean, to keep this business profitable where it is. (…) I’m much more focused on building that tribe of core followers that cares about what I do, than having ten thousand, one hundred thousand, or one million people that kind of like the cool shirt today, and then they totally forget about it tomorrow.

So here I am, working long days (and sometimes sleepless nights) to make a thing with a growth trajectory slightly more optimistic than the mom-and-pop shop down the road. And I’m finally ok with it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind growing, but I do mind growing for growth’s sake, which is what seems to happen a lot with tech companies these days.

There is a saying that you only need 1000 true fans to make a living from your work. Going through my reader database I can recognise almost all of my ‘true fans’ because we are in touch regularly via email, Twitter, Instagram or in real life when we finally meet at conferences. There is something quite beautiful in knowing your core readers personally and establishing an honest feedback loop that helps improve the magazine with every issue.

So the ‘answer’ I arrived at is the following question: as long as I can make a decent living, create work I’m (mostly) proud of, and get so much heartfelt feedback from people I respect, why add the pressures and headaches that come from chasing mainstream success?