After some delay I’m beyond excited to finally present the new Offscreen. Some of you have received a glimpse of the revamp through my weekly rebranding updates, but for most of you this is the big reveal. I hope that in the coming weeks I’ll find time to write about some of the many changes. As with any launch, there are still lots of bugs to fix and loose ends to tie up. So for now, let me briefly list some of the many new things we’re launching today:
Both the website and the magazine have undergone a complete visual overhaul. The new design comes with a lighter footprint, thanks to simplified typography (just one type family), more white space, a brighter colour scheme, and quirky, hand-drawn illustrations by Agnes Lee that add a personal touch.
New magazine specs
We made the new issue a little smaller so it feels even more like a book. Instead of the standard Perfect Binding that makes the magazine hard to keep open, Offscreen now has an open, lay-flat stitch binding that offers an improved reading experience. We’ve also broken an (unwritten) rule of indie magazine publishing and moved to a matte-coated but still 100% recycled paper for a sharper print result.
New subscription model
The biggest and most complex update is our new subscription model. Subscribing to Offscreen now means you pay for the next issue upfront and for every following issue we’ll simply charge your credit card a few weeks prior to release. It's a set and forget system. You can choose between several tiers depending on the level of support you feel comfortable with. Of course you can cancel your subscription any time through your new Offscreen account (see below). Creating the platform that powers recurring, irregular, multi-tier subscriptions was a bigger challenge than I thought and I will definitely do a more in-depth write-up here in the future. (Thanks to Dan for providing the developer chops to make this happen!)
New Offscreen accounts
To make managing your orders and your subscriptions as easy as possible we built a password-free account interface. After placing an order you’ll receive a link via email that gives you instant access to manage everything Offscreen related: view the status of all existing orders, print invoices, change shipping/billing addresses, cancel or change your subscription, etc.
New weekly newsletter
For more than two years I’ve been publishing a weekly newsletter called The Modern Desk. As part of this rebrand I’ve decided to merge the newsletter with Offscreen. The Offscreen Dispatch is the more frequent, digital counterpart to Offscreen Magazine. For a brief weekly digest of interesting apps, accessories, and articles sign up here.
New website backend
While the old website was mostly a bunch of static PHP files, the new site is powered by Kirby which has been a delight to set up and use. Shout-out to Kirby maker Bastian Allgeier who’s helped with implementing the site with our backend.
There are many other important updates that aren’t directly visible from the outside. And there are some that haven’t yet made it into this first version of the new Offscreen (such as educational discounts). As mentioned above, I’ll try to write up more detailed posts about some of these changes once things have settled down a bit.
With all these changes to the website, don't forget to check out (and order) the new issue! We have a fantastic mix of interviewees in this issue discussing a wide range of topics – from inspiring kids with a new generation of DIY tech toys to how we can prepare for a future marked by exponential change.
This revamp (of website and magazine) has been a huge undertaking. I have to admit that there were numerous moments when I contemplated not seeing it through to the end. Finally revealing everything to the public comes with a big sense of relief but also some trepidation as to whether this big investment of time and money will pay off.
Please enjoy having a look around. If you find bugs we missed (which I'm sure some of you will), please don’t hesitate to let us know so we can continue to improve Offscreen’s online experience.
I’m eager to see what you all think of the new issue and the refreshed format. As always, any supportive tweets, blog posts, Instagrams or real-life word-of-mouth is hugely appreciated! If you have any questions, please email away. It may take me a few days to reply, though. Enjoy!
A big thank you to the following people who helped make this issue and the new website happen: all contributors, sponsors and patrons of issue 16, Dan Rowden, Bastian Allgeier, Agnes Lee, Ivana McConnell, Kieran O’Hare, Michelle F., all beta testers, all backers of my fundraiser, my printer and shipper, and everyone else who supported me in spirit and by sending positive vibes via email, tweet, or postcard.
Indie Magonomics – making a sustainable indie print magazine
I’ve come to the publishing world by way of digital/web design. Until launching the inaugural issue of Offscreen I had no prior experience in designing or publishing printed media. Even after producing fifteen issues of Offscreen, I still consider myself a noob in this field – there is still so much to learn! This post is a collection of lessons I’ve learned about the business side of making Offscreen.
Before you dive into this very long post, it’s worth noting that Offscreen is largely a one-man show. Therefore, my process probably looks different to that of most of my publishing colleagues. I’m sure people with a long career in traditional print publishing that are part of a bigger team have a very different approach.
Every publication is unique. I believe Offscreen is in the very special position of being a print publication for digital folks. While many magazines rely on traditional distribution channels (i.e. retail) for most of their sales, I can directly approach my readers and sell a magazine to them where they already are: online. In addition, Offscreen is a magazine that consists largely of first-person stories, opinion pieces, and interviews that I collect by collaborating with my contributors directly online. As such, I rarely commission writers or journalists. These are all factors that impact the bottom line – how I make money, where I spend it.
All this is to say that what works for me, might not work for you. Obviously, there is no golden bullet when it comes to creating a sustainable print publication. Everyone has their own approach. This is mine.
Just like on the web, content is king. You don’t have a magazine if you have nothing to say. Leaving the definition of content aside, the food for thought served to your readers is what defines your magazine. Not the paper, not the typeface, not the cover.
Good content, be it written, photographic or illustrated, obviously comes at a price. If you publish an outdoor adventure magazine, you might spend a lot on photo licenses. If your mag is a collection of short stories, you might be paying a lot of different writers for their contributions. Whatever it is, you will have to decide early on how much content goes into each issue and how much money you’re able to spend on that content, not just for the first issue, but on a regular basis.
A lot of new publishers make the mistake of trying to fit too much content into their inaugural issue. Keep in mind that you will have to find similar amounts of content for each consecutive issue. Is it realistic to generate the same amount of content within each publishing cycle?
Think about how you locate your contributors/your content. There is nothing wrong with re-publishing existing content, if you can get permission and think that it is still fresh content for your specific audience. Republishing content can be a great, affordable way to resurface quality material and introduce it to another medium and audience (think online/offline). You can also add value by, for instance, commissioning a set of new illustrations for an existing story.
Deciding whether your issues are topical (meaning that each issue focuses on a particular theme) and determining whether your content is timeless or time-sensitive are factors that will make finding contributors more or less complicated in the long term.
The question of how much to pay contributors for their work depends on your individual circumstances. If you’re not making any profit with your magazine (the so-called ‘passion project’) it might be easier to convince contributors to help out for free. If you recycle content or don’t ask for exclusive usage-rights, the fee might be a lot lower or non-existent. Some writers, photographers or illustrators might be happy to start with a very low fee that increases as your publication gains popularity and a wider audience.
As for Offscreen, I generally don’t pay someone for letting me interview them. A lot of entrepreneurs and creative types talk about their own companies, projects, and opinions in Offscreen, and I usually don’t pay for those stories (and I’ve never been asked for a payment). I usually offer to pay a small fee for new material, be it longer essays, photos or illustrations, but, to be honest, my budget is always very modest.
The hard truth is that most indie publications rely on a lot of favours by a lot of generous people. Virtually every publisher I talk to tells me that they wish they were in a position that allows them to pay everyone fully and fairly. The reality is that — bar a few exceptions — small-scale indie publishing does not make a lot of money, and that is reflected in the fees paid to everyone involved in the making of an issue. While most of us try to offer something, it hardly ever is the full rate that contributors would charge larger clients. Due to the abundance of content online, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing one’s work in print, and this up-valuing of the medium makes some contributors look past the financial return and work with the meagre budgets of the indie publishing world. If you’re uncomfortable with asking people for favours, indie print publishing is probably not your cup of tea.
There are so many stressors in making magazines the last thing you want is to lose sleep over the production once the files are out of your hand. That’s why finding a reliable, trustworthy printer is crucial. Having said that, no production will ever go 100% perfect. There are always minor issues and delays, at least that’s been my experience so far. More on picking a printer below, but let’s first look at the different elements of a quote and how they impact the cost of printing.
Type of printing
If you print anything less than, say, 500 copies, offset printing might be too expensive for you (or printers simply won’t be interested). In that case you may want to look at digital/on-demand printing. Digital printing is an entirely different beast which I’m not very familiar with.
Amount of colours
In most cases an offset print job is using four colours (CMYK), sometimes five and very rarely six (so-called spot colours). Obviously, the more colours the more expensive, although there generally aren’t any big cost savings in printing with fewer than four colours, unless of course it’s just black.
Amount of copies
The higher the print run the lower the per-item cost. A lot of indies start with 1000–2000 copies. I started with 3000 for my first issue, but it did take me more than a year to sell them all. If your magazine is fairly timeless, having a large back issue catalogue is a great way to increase your cash flow further down the line. Almost every second order I get includes back issues, so you definitely don’t want to sell out within the first week. Only after having produced a few issues will you have enough sales data to figure out what number is about right (and hopefully it’s increasing too). But even then, some issues will always sell better than others.
There are no rules as to what shape or format your magazine should have. Your publication can be as small as a postcard or as large as a newspaper. There are some important considerations when choosing the ideal size. First and foremost, you should go with what you personally like and what you think your readers will appreciate. Publishing a travel journal that people read on the road in a newspaper-sized format might not be the best idea, but then again, maybe it is!?
When discussing the paper stock with your printer (see below), they’ll be able to tell you what sheet sizes are available for the stock you’re interested in. Some paper types only come in ‘standard’ sizes, some can be ordered in irregular sizes. Up to issue 15, Offscreen used a custom sheet size, which meant that my printer had to order it in four to six weeks in advance and purchase a bulk amount, enough for at least two issues. The sheet size is important because it will determine how many pages/spreads of your magazine the printer can fit on one sheet. There is always a chance that changing your format by a few millimetres means more pages can be printed on one sheet, reducing the amount of paper necessary and thereby reducing the total cost.
The final size and weight of the finished magazine can have a huge impact on shipping costs. This is important to keep in mind and is often overlooked at this stage. More on that further below.
Closely related to the format/size of the magazine, you’ll have to determine how many pages you need to present your content. As a general rule – depending on the binding/cutting method used – it’s most economical and practical to calculate in eight- or sixteen-page steps. Therefore, producing a magazine with 96 (6 x 16) pages is more economical than producing one with 92 or 100 pages.
Most of today’s magazines use a glue-based binding technique called ‘perfect binding’. In terms of cost it sits somewhere in the middle between staple binding at the lower end and stitch binding on the higher one. Your printer can offer different options, but the default will most likely be ‘perfect bound’.
I love exploring paper types. It’s a huge topic to cover in its own right and I’ve had my fair share of good and bad experiences with the paper choices I’ve made in the past. Your printer will have access to many different stock types, ranging from cheap, standard xerox quality to really fine, luxuriously tactile paper. You’ll be surprised how many different types there are.
It’s helpful to just browse through some of your favourite magazines and pay attention to the paper they use. If the colophon doesn’t make a note of it, email the publisher and ask if they can share the name of the paper stock and its manufacturer. Note that the availability of certain types of paper is limited depending on your location. It’s also quite common that the names of a specific paper changes if you request it through a different wholesaler. Your printer can help. Don’t be shy to ask for samples.
Personally, as someone who is always concerned about the environmental impact of printed media, I spent a few days researching the benefits of using 100% recycled paper. There are pros and cons, but I eventually found a manufacturer who has a really unique and transparent approach to their recycling methods that makes me feel good about buying their products. I’ve been using their paper (called Envirotop in Germany) for eight issues and only changed to another great recycled paper with the release of issue 16.
Special finishes/add ons
You can go crazy with special finishes like embossing, varnishes or die cutting, or adding things like a dust jacket to the magazine. Easiest to ask your printer for what options are available. It’s tempting to go overboard with special finishes (if you can afford them). I personally always preferred a rather conservative application of them because they can quickly turn your magazine into a novelty item.
Location of your printer
In today’s interconnected world we don’t have to print where we design the magazine. In fact, I edit and design the magazine in Melbourne, Australia, and print it half way around the world in Berlin, Germany. There are several reasons for this: cost, quality, logistics.
Australia is a very expensive country. As much as I like to support local businesses, it’s just not feasible to print Offscreen here. Based on a few quotes I received from Aussie printers, the final cost was between 15–50% more expensive than their German counterparts. Also, Germany has a long history of printing and making printers. They are known for being very reliable. The competition is high, so the quality is good and the prices are decent. Added benefit: I speak German.
However, the most important reason for choosing Berlin as my place of production was a logistical one. I knew that most of my copies would be sent straight to readers around the world. That meant that I had to find a place that offers affordable international shipping. Australia is not one of those places. More about that further below.
One other aspect to keep in mind if you print outside of your country: currency fluctuations. If you pay your printer in a different currency than your own, the production cost will be going up and down over time. This can work for and against you, obviously.
When it comes to getting your magazine to your readers, there are mainly two ways of doing that: you self-distribute your magazine, meaning you do all the shipping, or you use a distribution company that gets your magazine stocked in retail outlets. Most indies use a mix of both methods.
Self-Distribution basically means that you are responsible for getting the magazine to your readers. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to convert your bedroom to a warehouse, although that is often the inevitable side effect. Since I print Offscreen in Germany (and live in Australia) my stock is managed by a third-party fulfilment company based in Berlin. They warehouse my entire back catalogue and send out orders once a week. More on that below.
Before we talk about logistics, the bigger question here is: how do you reach your customers? How do you get them to buy your magazine? If not through retail outlets, then online is your best option. The great thing about selling directly to your reader is that you can keep close to 100% of the profit.
When it comes to taking and managing online orders, there are lots of options. You can go with a standard website package, like Squarespace, Shopify, Big Cartel, Wordpress and the likes. All of them offer fairly affordable and straightforward shopping cart solutions. While selling single magazines can be easily done through these apps, when it comes to magazine subscriptions it gets a bit trickier. Most indies still rely on a spreadsheet to keep track of who ordered what and when. There are some available tools that could help you with subscription management, but I haven’t tried them.
For Offscreen, I created a custom order management system that runs in the background of my website. It allows me to easily manage all orders, including subscriptions and pre-orders, and it gives me a simple interface to export weekly orders ready to be processed by my shipper in Berlin. Developing that system with the help of a developer wasn’t easy nor cheap, but it makes my life so much easier now, it’s worth considering the investment in a custom solution that fits your requirements.
Shipping copies to readers
Ask anyone who sells physical products and they will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is getting the product from A to B. Shipping is hard.
When it comes to shipping, there are two main things to consider: postage and packaging.
Postage depends on the size and the weight (and the speed of shipment, but let’s assume we’re going with the default). Unless your magazine is a hefty 2.5kg monster, it will most likely still be categorised as a ‘letter’ by your postal service. It’s super important to know the pricing tiers of your local postal service. In Germany, the upper tiers for letters are: up to 250g, 500g, 1kg, 1.5kg, 2kg. This means you can send a magazine of up to 2kg and it’s still technically considered a letter! Why is that important? Because sending a letter is much cheaper than sending a parcel. It’s also crucially important to keep these postage tiers in mind when determining your magazine’s format.
If your product ends up weighing 510g you will have to pay the 1Kg postage tier. That means shipping will be twice as much compared to a magazine that is perhaps 1cm smaller in size and only ways 480g. Don’t forget to add the weight of the packaging though! If your $10 magazine costs $15 in shipping to get it to your readers’ doorstep, people will think twice about ordering it online. As you can see, the dimensions and the page count of your magazine can make or break the entire project.
Obviously the type of packaging you choose matters too. The goal is to find an affordable packaging solution that is light in weight, offers good protection, and ideally doesn’t cost the earth either. Shipping envelopes are often sold in bulk quantities and you’ll find that buying them in packs of 100 or more provides steep discounts! If you go with a fulfilment company, like I do, they will usually provide your ideal packaging solution.
Besides the cost of printing, shipping will be your biggest expense. So it’s important to think carefully about where you produce and ship your magazine from. Being based in Berlin makes Offscreen a viable business, because printing and shipping costs are relatively low. I couldn’t do it from Australia. To show you what I mean: sending one copy of Offscreen from Melbourne to Berlin using the Australian postal service would cost around US$13.00. Going the same distance, but the other way around using German Post costs US$4.20 (both amounts are pure postage costs). I have no bloody idea how this discrepancy can be, but that’s the sad reality of global logistics.
Supplying stock to shops
Besides sending individual copies to your readers, you can also approach specific shops that you think should stock your magazine. Many of them won’t reply, some of them will require you to use a distributor (see below), but some will be happy to take you on on a trial basis and deal with you directly.
The usual deal is a 60/40 cut (you keep 60% of the cover price, they keep 40%). You are usually expected to cover shipping costs. This means you will be sending boxes of your magazine around the country/world and you’ll quickly realise how expensive that is!
After some shipments that went missing or were badly damaged using standard postal services, I now send all of my boxes with FedEx. This is more expensive, but it comes with good tracking and they usually arrive safely after just a few days. Courier services like UPS, FedEx, DHL and the likes offer steep volume discounts that you won’t have access to if you only send the occasional parcel. It’s worth considering using a fulfilment company to get access to their discounted rates if you ship a lot of boxes.
Bigger publishers usually work with middlemen (called distributors) to get their magazines in as many retail outlets as possible. Publishers enter into a contractual agreement with the distributor that define the terms of that relationship. A standard agreement often includes a 40/40/20 cut of the price of the magazine, meaning of every copy sold the publisher and retailer keeps 40% (each) and the distributor takes a 20% cut. These contracts are often exclusive, meaning that you can’t use another distributor in that same region. Once the publisher hands over the copies to the distributor, the distributor does the rest: distribution to his network of shops, invoicing the retailers, promoting the magazine, taking back unsold returns, etc. It’s not unusual to work with several distributors to cover different regions in the world. I have a distributor for the UK and a different one for the US, for instance.
In theory, distributors are great. They work on a commission basis, so you don’t have any upfront costs (there are exceptions). They can get your magazine into a lot of shops that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. However, you don’t need to be a genius at maths to realise that you are also ‘missing’ out on up to 60% of the price you charge for your magazine. Depending on your business model that might work just fine. However, most indie titles rely on the (fairly high) cover price to be sustainable, and so working with distributors might not always be your best option – unless, of course, the distributor can really drive up sales significantly.
Based on my own experience, most distributors that I worked with are struggling to understand the dynamics of indie publishing. And I don’t really blame them! Their business model is based on a much larger volume of high-frequency mainstream titles, most of which are slowly disappearing. In an industry where margins are very low (and getting smaller) you can’t really expect great customer service. As an indie publisher with a print-run of just a few thousand copies, you’re not generating enough revenue to be all that important to distributors. The result is that you’re often dealing with long, overly complicated contracts, outdated reporting methods, slow communication, and delayed pay-outs. Since distributors always want to push sales (good!) they’re usually quite generous with the amount of copies they order from publishers. With a sell-through rate (actual amount of copies sold in the shops) that is often in the 50% region, you can expect to see half of the copies you send to distributors being destroyed as unsold. If you’re only printing 3000 copies, that’s a lot of your babies being pulped.
As an indie publisher it’s easy to be frustrated with the current state of magazine distribution. We’re too small to be able to make demands and too important to them to simply ignore us. I empathise with the difficult position they are in, though. It’s a volatile market with tiny margins. No doubt, shipping so many different items around the world is no easy job either. The reality is that sales through my own website generate a lot more revenue than what comes in through my distributors. Having said that, it’s difficult to know how many people first discover Offscreen through their local shops. Besides, it’s just lovely to see people in various corners of the world stumbling across my magazine in shops I haven’t even heard of. And that’s one of the main reasons for me to continue to work with distributors. The web remains my best sales tool, but that feeling of walking into a shop and discovering and falling in love with a beautiful magazine that speaks directly to you is part of what makes tangible products so great.
How to find new customers the biggest challenge of every business. I won’t go into traditional marketing techniques here, mostly because I’m not familiar with them and also because there are literally thousands of books, websites, podcasts, etc. that cover this topic extensively. I do want to make a few points though:
Indie publications have always been respectable authorities in their niche. The clearer you define your audience and your niche, the easier it will be to stand out from the crowd and find a supportive, loyal community that is looking for a voice. By establishing who your reader is (and is not), you can tailor your voice/language accordingly.
Another exercise you should do before spending any money on promoting your magazine is to make a list of what you want your brand to stand for. Create purpose page that you can refer to for all big decision. All of your sales efforts (from design to marketing copy) should be in line with those values.
Coming from the web design world, I strongly believe that print and digital can not just co-exist, but help each other thrive. In order to get there, we need to be mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of each medium.
The goal of any brand is to reach as many of their customers directly, without any middlemen or gatekeepers. That’s why the web is the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal. A well-designed, responsive, user-friendly website is therefore imperative. If you don’t feel confident in your abilities to design or create a decent online experience, invest in getting help – not just in building a site, but in how to create and nurture an online community.
I mentioned several website builder tools in the section above. They offer simple ways of creating a website and selling a product. Once your site is up and operational, your main focus will be to get the attention of the people in your niche, and you can achieve that through various techniques…
Online Content/Content Marketing
Regularly creating fresh content for your website will attract new visitors, some of which you can hopefully convert to paying readers of your magazine. Many magazines choose to digitally (pre/re)release some of the content published in the magazine. Others create exclusive online content and sometimes refer/cross-promote to their magazine for extended coverage of the story.
I’ve chosen not to publish additional content digitally, and instead created this blog that has become a sort of personal diary of my life as an indie publisher. I publish insights, experiences, and thought pieces on making a small indie magazine. I also publish a weekly newsletter that helps me stay in touch with readers in between issues.
All of the above (and indeed this very post) are different types of content marketing that can generate traffic and hopefully translate into magazine sales down the line. But beyond that, again, it’s a great way to establish yourself/your brand as an authority in a certain field. Frequent blogging, being open about what’s happening behind the scenes, and actively seeking a dialogue with your readers online helps to stay in touch with them in between issues.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with social media. Much has been said about its effectiveness (or lack thereof). Here are my two cents:
While it’s worth being on all the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram being the main three in Western countries), I think it’s important to focus on one or two that you think will work best for your audience. In Offscreen’s case that’s Twitter. I also enjoy Instagram a lot, but it’s difficult to promote external content and elicit action on the behalf of your followers. Personally, I’ve lost all faith in Facebook as a tool for brands. It has no meaningful impact unless you pay to get in front of your followers, which, in my opinion, destroys the idea of creating a genuine dialogue with your fans.
I follow many brands online myself, but unless I have the feeling that there is a well-meaning human being on the other end, I instantly unfollow them. The last thing I need is more thoughtless, corporate marketing messages raining down on me. With that in mind I communicate with my own customers accordingly: respecting their time/attention goes a long way. You therefore won’t find me rehashing the same queued-up marketing message several times.
While social media can have a huge impact on your sales with close to no costs involved, I think we overrate the significance of large follower/like numbers. I’d take 1000 loyal fans over 100,000 unenthusiastic followers any day.
Surprisingly, a much older medium than social media is a lot more effective at generating sales for me…
With social media stealing the spotlight, email has gotten a bit of a bad rap in the last few years. But no matter how boring or old-fashioned it seems, email is still the most powerful marketing tool for most online businesses. Engagement rates are usually much higher. And receiving a personalised email just feels a lot more intimate than skimming through a never-ending stream of social media soundbites.
Collecting your customers’ email addresses should therefore be on top of your list. Sign up for a tool like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor and start gathering your customers’ details even before your full website is up.
When it comes to sending out newsletters, similar rules to the use of social media apply: respect the time of your customers. Don’t feel pressured to send out emails on a regular basis. Only send out an update when you actually have something to say.
I usually send out an email between two issues to update my readers on what I’ve been up to, and then another one when the newest issue has been released. I use MailChimp’s API to link my customer records to my subscriber list. This way I can customise my emails and show each customer whether they are currently still subscribed. I also include a link to their order history page, where they can update their shipping address if they have moved in between issues.
In my own experience, email trumps any other form of marketing. I send out a newsletter to my readers and within minutes orders are flying in. It’s worth investing time and money in building a reliable email template that looks good (on all devices!) and converts well.
Sending out review copies
Initially I was very hesitant to send out free copies for review purposes, but as my back issue catalogue was increasing it felt less ‘painful’ to part with unpaid copies. I still don’t make enough efforts to approach blogs, magazines, and media companies to review Offscreen, but when they request a copy these days I happily comply. Any sort of media coverage is usually welcome (and it’s always been positive so far).
I also offer small amounts of free copies to organisers of web/tech/design conferences, usually 15–30 copies (some of them chip in with shipping costs) that they can use any way they like — as part of a give-away during ticket sales or as prizes during the event. This is a simple and cost-effective way to get the word out and surprise a few event-goers with a nice gift to take home.
My home office in Melbourne.
Pricing any product is tricky. There are lots of resources online that discuss various pricing strategies. It’s worth doing a bit of research, but in the end, your cover price needs to make what you do sustainable while not shutting out your core readers. Most indie titles are priced somewhere between $10 and $30, and I think most magazine aficionados are willing to spend around that much for a product they appreciate.
The perception of quality and ‘bang for bucks’ obviously plays into readers’ willingness to open their wallets. Offscreen is a small-format magazine and so spending $20 on Offscreen seems expensive compared to larger format titles with a heavier stock. Of course, the size doesn’t say anything about the quality of the content, but it’s worth considering how the perception of quality impacts the price people are willing to pay.
When selling your magazine on your own website, it’s pretty common to add shipping costs at the end of the checkout process. Keep in mind that this will deter some people from buying the magazine directly from you. It still fascinates me to what length some people are willing to go in order to avoid $5 in shipping charges. If your shipping cost structure is relatively flat, you might want to consider incorporating the shipping costs into the RRP (Recommended Retail Price), which is what I have done with Offscreen. Rather than offering a RRP of $18 and adding $5 in shipping cost on my own website, I priced Offscreen at $20 across the board and included shipping to anywhere in the world into the RRP. This way the magazine costs (technically) the same anywhere in the world, whether you buy it from me or from the shop around the corner.
Pricing subscriptions is another challenge. Especially in the US, magazine readers are used to ridiculously steep discounts for subscribing to a magazine (“Get a free lawn mower with your Times subscription!”). Obviously that’s not feasible for indie mags. Since issue 16 I introduced a new subscription model that automatically charges subscribers per released issue, rather than asking for a big lump sum upfront, which is still the standard method.
Open any magazine found on a typical newsstand and you’re likely having to flick through 20 pages of advertising before the ‘real content’ begins. For readers, the ad pages are usually considered a necessary evil. For publishers, however, those are the pages that make or break their entire business.
A classic magazine offers a range of different ad formats, placements and sizes that determine the price for the advertiser. Those prices are usually hidden away in some ambiguous media kit with bloated circulation numbers and made-up market research figures. Just like in the digital advertising space, large companies employ ad agencies to manage their ‘media buying’ (that word!). Those ad agencies negotiate the actual rates with the publisher because everyone knows that the rates advertised in media kits are inflated and unrealistic.
That’s my own perception of the state of advertising in printed media. As you can tell, I’m not a fan.
Indie publishers tend to have strong ideals which don’t always mix with advertising dollars. That’s the general assumption. However, I’m not categorically against advertising. I believe readers generally don’t mind advertising if it doesn’t devalue the reading experience. And I believe that not all advertising has to be evil. It’s a matter of picking advertisers that largely align with your own values.
The challenge is to find a way to bring your advertisers’ message across in a subtle, yet effective way while respecting the time and attention of your readers. Offscreen is trying to solve this by replacing ads with sponsors. The goal is to find organisations that understand the value of community building and that allow the freedom to weigh in on the artwork and messaging that goes into the ad pages.
When I tried to find sponsors for issue one I reached out to companies that, above all else, I personally liked and respected and thought were accessible (and small) enough to reply to my emails. Having nothing to show for, I explained my ambitious plan for a new magazine and asked for a very low ‘trial’ sponsorship fee (I believe it was $400). That fee obviously grew with every issue as the magazine became more popular and the circulation number increased.
When I now approach companies (and all of them are non-traditional, digital product companies) about sponsoring an issue I’m upfront about the fact that advertising in print works very differently to advertising in digital. Sponsoring an issue of Offscreen gives companies a chance to capture the attention of a very thoughtful, creative group of web workers through a medium that’s removed from the fast-paced, low-attention-span screen environment. Because of this, over the last 14 issues, Offscreen has become a trusted brand in its own right, and my sponsors are paying to be associated with that brand and what it stands for (see ‘values’ above).
There are pros and cons to the sponsorship model. I understand that this approach doesn’t work in all industries and with all advertisers. Fashion publishing, for instance, runs on wildly different rules and, weirdly, many people buy fashion magazines because and not despite of the ads. Unless you have good connections, I think in most industries only ad agencies will give you access to certain larger, more affluent advertisers.
Decide early on how crucial the money that’s coming in through advertising is to your overall business strategy. If your goal is to sell the magazine cheaply (or even give it out for free), obviously a lot more time and effort would then go into finding valuable advertising partners. If your strategy is to only pay for the printing costs through a couple of ads in the magazine, this should give you more time to focus on other efforts to make a profit. If you go ad-free, you’ll rely entirely on the cover price and related efforts (see below) to make it all sustainable.
My own strategy has been (and still is) to cover not just the printing but the entire production of the magazine through my sponsors. This includes fees for writers, photographers, and illustrators, the cost of proofreading and editing, the software I use, and everything else that goes into the making of one issue. This way, when the printer delivers the magazine, it’s completely paid for and I know that with every issue I sell I make a profit, and for every issue I give out for free I won’t lose money. It’s a very simple approach that has worked well for me this far. As you can tell, it’s important to figure out the true cost of each issue when establishing your sponsorship/ad fees.
Other income sources
At a recent conference I attended it was said that indie publishers shouldn’t consider themselves as just makers of a magazine. They should consider themselves media companies, meaning that sustainability can be found in a ‘multi media’ approach where one channel supports the other and vice versa.
Many publishers generate money through an agency business (creative client services) and use some of the profits to build and grow the magazine they make on the side. Or, a magazine could hold regular events that could entice advertisers to spend more money on an advertising partnership. We see a lot of magazines extend their product range, like Kinfolk going into clothing or Cereal offering travel guides and other items. If you manage to build a lively online community, there might be ways to monetise your digital audience too.
Many of us get excited about the prospect of producing our own magazine. We immediately jump at the challenge from a creative perspective and often worry about the monetary side of things later. I hope this post helps you in understanding all the different aspects that go into creating a sustainable magazine that survives beyond issue 1 or 2.
For more info on how to get started with magazine publishing, please check out to this blog post which covers the most important resources for magazine newbies. Feel free to send in feedback, corrections and additions if you have any.
I also recommend you check out Heftwerk, a Berlin-based network of services that aims to make indie print publishing a lot easier (I’m co-founder).
Lastly, I’d be a horrible salesman if I didn’t mention that you can show your appreciation for the many hours of work that went into writing this article by buying a copy of Offscreen and sharing this link.
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. ;-)