As it is Offscreen’s tradition with every issue published, I’ve just made another small donation to the Australian Conservation Foundation, one of Australia’s most important organisations for environmental protection work. I'll continue to support their work through regular contributions and my yearly membership fee.
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.
After reading Robin Sloan’s fantastic piece about rethinking the idea of the static price tag, I came back from my holidays dying to experiment with flexible pricing myself.
From reading about other experiments I knew that giving people the choice to pay (next to) nothing usually attracts a lot of opportunists that care more about scoring a bargain than paying for something they really appreciate. So I was expecting the average price paid to be well below the standard price for a copy. And so, in order to decrease my chances of losing a lot of money in this exercise, I decided to set a few limits. Here is what the experiment looked like:
I designed a simple page with a three-step checkout process:
In the first step, visitors could pick one of the available back issues. I intentionally didn’t make future issues available for pre-sale because, well, selling things I haven’t even produced yet for potentially less than cost price is a pretty dumb thing to do.
The second step offered a slider to define your own price — from $5 at the minimum to $38 at the max. With $5 as a minimum I could at least minimise the impact of a worst case scenario and have some of my shipping cost covered. I chose $38 as a maximum amount simply because it would put the handle of the slider right in the center at $22 (the regular price), which was also the default setting when opening the page.
Just below the slider I offered a bit of insight into how the chosen price affects Offscreen as a business. Here are the tiers and their message:
$5 – $7: Significant Loss
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate a significant loss, killing the magazine instantly.
$8 – $10: Small Loss
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate enough money to cover shipping, but would still struggle to pay for other expenses.
$11 – $13: Break-Even Point
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate enough money to break even on expenses, but the publisher would essentially work for free full-time.
$14 – $20: Small Profit
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate a small profit, enough to operate as a side project producing 1-2 issues per year.
$21 – $23: Sustainable Profit
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate a sustainable profit, allowing the publisher to create at least 3 issues per year full-time.
$24 – $30: Profit for Growth
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate enough profit to hire a part-time editor to increase quality and content for at least 4 issues per year.
$31 – $37: Profit for Expansion
If all copies sold at this price, Offscreen would generate a enough profit to hire 1-2 people full-time to increase quality and frequency, and the brand could expand to events and other projects.
$38: Offscreen Venture Capital Inc acquires News Corp for immediate sunset.
Step three had a simple PAY NOW button with this message next to it: “To make this experiment fair and available to as many people as possible, we kindly ask you to order one issue at your custom price only.”
I also decided to limit the availability of this offer to 18 hours (with a countdown displayed on the page), largely for two reasons: once again to limit my chances of losing a lot of money, but also to create a sense of urgency and scarcity, one of the oldest tricks in the marketeer’s book.
I launched the experiment on a Wednesday night at midnight local time (Melbourne, Australia) when most people in Europe and America are awake or waking up soon. After a fairly restless night worrying that the experiment would somehow take off on social media and I’d become a victim of my own success, the counter stopped at a total of 71 sales the next day.
Here are the sales according to price paid:
First off all, my assumptions about people taking the opportunity to grab a bargain were validated. 21 people paid the minimum price ($5), compared to just one person sliding it all the way up to $38. (If you are reading this: you are awesome!)
Several people either disregarded or didn’t see my request to order one issue only. 6 customers went through the process several times and ordered all available issues at the lowest price (only shown as one order in the graph). I followed up with them and informed them that I had to cancel all but one of their orders and to my surprise their response was polite and apologetic, and a few of them even asked me to cancel these orders, but keep the money as a donation.
Several people that ordered their copy at the minimum price emailed me to tell me that they would love to give more, but can’t for personal/economic reasons. They explained that this was a unique chance for them to ‘test’ Offscreen. Unsurprisingly, many of these orders came from countries where the economy is not doing so well (e.g. Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Ukraine, Italy). And there was the occasional student in that group too.
The average price paid ends up being $12.40, which is just above my break-even point as stated below the slider. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Most sales congregated around the ‘break-even tier’ and I like to believe that knowing where it ‘doesn’t hurt me’ influenced customers’ decision. Though paying the ‘break-even’ price doesn’t make Offscreen sustainable, for the customer it’s a seemingly fair balance between scoring a bargain and not leaving the maker out of pocket.
Other than that, I don’t think there is much else to take away from this experiment. Considering that I offered back issues only, my existing and most loyal readership didn’t participate and hence didn’t get a chance to express how much they value Offscreen. I’m not sure exactly how many of these orders come from new vs. returning readers, but a few random checks showed that many of the customers in the lower pricing tiers are buying Offscreen for the first time (which is great).
Is such an experiment worth the effort? I believe so. There are a lot of variables that could be changed to see how it affects people’s decision to pay a higher or lower price. How did my messages/tiers influence their decision? Should I have made a future issue available for purchase and thereby encourage existing readers to have a say? Should I have run it for longer than 18 hours in order to have a bigger sampling group? How could I change the UI/UX to encourage a higher price?
Rather than making decisions about ‘the ideal price point’ based on one such experiment, I think you’d have to run several campaigns like this for it to be a reliable and realistic source for your pricing strategy. And of course, there will always be opportunists and poor students. ;-)
Almost every day I receive emails that usually end with “If I can ever help in any way, let me know.” Due to the amount of emails, it’s difficult to take you up on your offers, which is unfortunate because I can really use all the help I can get – in particular with the promotional side of things. So here are 10 simple ways you can support Offscreen:
Buy all the issues
It’s as easy as that. Every sold copy counts and helps make the magazine a viable business and full-time job for me.
Share it with friends and colleagues
Tell your social media friends about Offscreen and be prepared for the default question: “Print-only, really?” Once you receive your copy, show or lend it to a friend or colleague.
Make your boss get an office subscription
It’s the perfect magazine for the office: put it in your cafeteria or in the reception area where clients are waiting. It’s also a great gift or additional perk for new employees.
Write a review
If you have a blog, consider writing a short review with a few photos about your experience with Offscreen.
Suggest it to your favourite companies/blogs
This could potentially have a huge impact: if you have a direct contact at a popular blog, publication, magazine or other media outlet, get in touch with them to tell them how much you like Offscreen and why it should get more exposure.
Suggest it to your favourite local book/design shop
If you frequent a well-stocked book or design shop in your city, take your copy with you and show it to them. I’m always interested in extending my stockist list.
Take it to local events
Events are great for meeting like-minded folks. You’ll be loved even more for introducing them to a beautiful magazine they have never heard of. ;) If you are organising an event, email me to get some free give-away copies.
If you are in a unique position to promote the magazine (at a conference, during a business trip, a meeting with the editor of the New York Times, etc.) Please get in touch to request a few promotional copies.
Introduce the magazine to potential interviewees
Although the list of potential contributors is constantly growing, I’m still interested in finding inspiring candidates for our interviews (especially of underrepresented groups). If you are in contact with such a person, please introduce them to the magazine first and see whether they’d be interested in being published.