Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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Production

Magazines, dead trees and sustainability

With the mill making the paper used in Offscreen on fire in November last year, I faced the difficult decision to change paper stock once again. In the weeks after the news that my previous stock type, a paper called EnviroTop, was no longer available, I was working closely with my printer to get my hands on various alternative paper samples. More than 12 different uncoated paper types were fedexed to me from Berlin and I spent hours, if not days, going over all the different options.

In particular, I had my eye on a range of Munken paper – a high-quality, ultra-smooth uncoated stock that is used by some of my favourite publications, like The Travel Almanac or Underscore. Munken Paper is a joy to touch and flick through, and it would give the entire publication a premium tactility. Although I was a bit worried about the low opacity of the paper, I was ready to spend a few thousand euros more for a superior experience. If just there hadn’t been the questions about sustainability...

The reason I chose EnviroTop in the first place was the fact that it was made from 100% recycled materials. Munken, however, was not. Though certified with various ‘green’ labels (the famous FSC sign is one of them), producing Munken means trees are still being chopped down and lots of energy and water goes into turning them into paper.

I remember listening to a podcast about how making recycled paper sometimes actually requires a larger carbon footprint than producing paper from new trees. So I went on a research mission to find out what my best option for Offscreen was. The results aren’t very clear. It seems to depend on how the recycled paper is manufactured.

While I was researching Offscreen’s environmental impact, I got word from the printer that the fire at the paper mill wasn’t as bad as initially expected and that EnviroTop could indeed be delivered with just a few weeks delay. I checked out the paper mill’s website and was positively surprised to find that the entire company is dedicated to a sustainable, low-impact paper production. Their production process is explained in detail on their site. For instance, the steam generated when boiling down recycled materials produces enough electricity to power the entire production process, making it self-sufficient. The Austria-based company has also won numerous awards for innovation and new ideas in regards to sustainable paper products.

With all this background information I feel a lot more confident in using EnviroTop. In fact, it made me appreciate the paper and its unique qualities even more. I’m still very much in love with Munken – it’s an amazing paper – but knowing that my choice of stock leads to one of the most low-impact print magazines out there gives me peace of mind.

As a sign of how much I care about sustainability, I’ve also decided to buy a quarter of an acre of threatened wilderness habitat through the World Land Trust (a reputable conservation organisation endorsed by Sir David Attenborough) with every issue of Offscreen Magazine.

I wish other magazines would also be more transparent about their stock choice. If you feel the same way, ask the publishers of your favourite magazines about the paper they’re using, and point them to this blog post.

Replacing ads with sponsorships

I love discussing common challenges of producing a magazine with other publishers. One topic that always comes up is advertising, or rather, the need for third parties to help fund the production of the magazine. For most small publishers dealing with advertisers is considered a necessary evil – a small sacrifice in editorial freedom to make the larger vision possible.

Unless you are an established newsstand magazine like Monocle, Frankie or Vogue getting high-profile companies to advertise in your publication is really hard. It’s much more likely that you end up working with smaller companies that on one hand are often much more accessible and passionate about your product, but on the other hand don’t have the creative manpower to come up with high-quality artwork for their ads. Editorial designers spend hundreds of hours creating a beautiful experience for their readers, so it really hurts when cheap ads disrupt that experience.

When I started Offscreen I was trying to come up with a system that is less intrusive. I replaced annoying quarter-, half- and full-page ad slots half-way through an editorial piece in the magazine with sponsor pages: eight companies present themselves in a very subtle, unobtrusive, unified way in the center of the magazine.

I don’t make a secret of relying on those companies. They help make Offscreen possible. In fact, they now cover pretty much all of the production cost of an issue.

This idea worked out surprisingly well for everyone involved. It really does create a win-win-win situation.

Reader

After the first issue went out and people started sending me feedback, I received lots of comments about how nicely designed and beautifully integrated the sponsor pages are. In fact, many readers told me that, for the first time ever, they read every single word of a magazine from cover to cover – including the ‘ads’. I get a sense that most readers don’t just not mind them, they actually find them valuable. If they haven’t heard of one of the sponsors before, they are very much inclined to check them out because they trust Offscreen and know that I won’t feature companies that provide no value. At best, my readers consider the sponsor pages a catalogue of suggestions. At worst, they flick through them acknowledging the fact that these companies made the magazine possible.

Sponsor

What more can you hope for as a sponsor than an audience that actually sees (and I mean 'look at and read through’) your promotion. Instead of being part of a desperate, in-your-face shouting contest, the tone of the ads is subtle and thoughtful – an approach that creative people clearly appreciate. It takes a certain type of company to ‘get’ that and I believe our readers give our sponsors a lot of credit for that alone.

Publisher

Besides the obvious financial support, having those sponsors in the magazine serves another purpose. I’m very much proud of the quality of companies that support Offscreen. These are products and services I recommend to my family, friends, and colleagues all the time and not just because they pay me. I made a conscious effort to create a brand that is associated with companies that people in our industry trust and have high regard for. It adds credibility.

One thing I learned and what I find quite fascinating is the realisation that you can make something less intrusive and more subtle, and people actually pay more attention because of it.

Talking dollars

I always appreciated people speaking unambiguously about their income, like Maciej Ceglowski who on stage at XOXO honestly and unapologetically told the audience that he made $181,000 last year. It’s out there and the taboo is gone. It must be freeing to him and to some extent I’m sure to the people around him too.

Talking about money is something individuals in our industry often awkwardly avoid. We all know there is a lot of it going around, but everyone’s just in it for the love of solving problems and making the world a better place, riiight?

I’ve been thinking of opening my books too, considering that I’ve been very transparent with everything else happening behind the scene. Having spoken to a lot of folks in the tech world, there is a bit of a misconception in that some people think Offscreen is very successful in dollar terms. Those who are vaguely familiar with how traditional publishing works understand though that ‘success’ in this field is closer to ‘making it sustainable’ than ‘getting rich’.

So, here it goes. Here’s how ‘successful’ Offscreen is in numbers. (Don’t forget to read my notes below.)

Income through magazine sales (online and retailers): $138,963.08
Income through sponsorships and other channels: $42,880.53
Total revenue (financial year 2012/2013): $181,843.61

Printing costs: $36,526.17
Shipping/packaging costs: $42,701.87
Other expenses: $37,774.34
Total expenses (financial year 2012/2013): $117,002.38

My profit/income for the last financial year was $64,841.24 before tax.

Some important notes to keep in mind:

  • The financial year in Australia runs from the 1st of July to the 30th of June the following year. All numbers in US dollars, converted from Australian dollars at the current rate of 1 AUD = 0.939 USD.

  • This may seem like a high salary in some places in the world, like Berlin where the cost of living is low. Offscreen is based in Melbourne, Australia, where the cost of living (in my opinion) is closer to that of New York City.

  • The financial year above covered the expenses and income of three issues of Offscreen.

  • Offscreen is my full time job. I currently don’t have other sources of income.

  • Offscreen does not employ any staff. I hire freelancers and contributors to help get an issue done. Their cost is reflected in the ‘other’ section of the expenses above.

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