Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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IndieCon Hamburg

Posted on Sep 02 2015 in Thoughts, News

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.

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!

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?

Love it or leave it.

Posted on Apr 16 2015 in Thoughts

Earlier today I tweeted “Officially reached the point where I cringe when I see the words passion and work in the same sentence.” Let me explain.

These days, where everyone has an opinion and way too many tools to express it, we love to focus on easily sharable quips of advice that seem to summarise the mood of the moment.

“Love what you do.” “Find your passion.”

I’ve made use of them myself for the little gimmicks I add to Offscreen, and in theory there is nothing wrong with a motivational poster on your wall. But there are particular messages I come across again and again, and each time they feel shallower and duller. The words ‘love’, ‘passion’, and ‘work’ (in any possible combination) follow me everywhere I go online.

Like Rachel Nabors explains in Offscreen issue No10 (also online here), these statements oversimplify the complexity of reality. We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, especially when we preach it to the young, the up-and-coming generation of creatives.

It suggests that you are no longer allowed to just have a job. You must show passion in everything you do. You must love your profession, otherwise it’s not worth pursuing. If you don’t feel it, you have failed.

Our chantable slogans also create an illusion that we will reach a particular point where happiness sets in and everything else magically falls into place.

In reality, even if you do finally get paid for making knitted tea cup sleeves, chances are that you’re not going to be passionately pursuing that career for the next 25 years. And then what? You are back to square one.

I enjoy making Offscreen. I really do. But let’s be honest, it’s a love affair that will eventually come to an end. What happens next, I do not know. I might have to do some hard yakka I don’t particular enjoy so I can afford my overpriced coffee and take care of the bills. Heck, maybe I even have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. In that situation I think the last thing I need is a reminder that I’m doing it all wrong, because I don’t lie awake at night thinking about my work.

Making magazine publishing sustainable

Posted on Feb 18 2015 in Thoughts

I’m sure it applies to most fields, but in publishing especially you find yourself talking a lot about sustainability. It’s a topic that comes up frequently when I speak to other magazine makers. It’s no secret that generating money from publishing — whether it’s in digital or in print — becomes increasingly challenging in an environment where everyone expects the default price tag to be ‘free’.

There is, however, another type of sustainability that doesn’t get much attention: the emotional sustainability of what we do. In a conversation about the long-term future of indie magazines with Steve from Stack, he said that the closure of indie magazine titles is rarely due to the readers losing interest; it’s the makers becoming exhausted.

With so many new magazine titles appearing on newsstands noawadays, it’s only natural that some won’t grow beyond issue two or three. While many publications emerge out of ‘passion projects’, after a while the economic realities catch up with the publishers. I have yet to meet a publisher that managed to generate a healthy profit from the first issue onwards. But even if the magazine sells well and eventually becomes economically sustainable, the financial rewards are often anything but generous. On top of that, we publishers tend to always want to improve upon the latest issue, so many of us decide to re-invest our money to make the best possible product with the next issue.

This inevitably leads to a point where you question the effort-reward ratio. You can be passionate about your work for a long time, but eventually you need to be able to measure your efforts in more than just Tweets and Likes. Making a magazine (like any other great product) is a demanding undertaking that doesn’t really get that much easier over time. The result is that magazines disappear, and publishers move on to more financially rewarding work with a lower stress factor. (Hello client services!)

I’m throwing these thoughts out there because I know a lot of us are in a similar situation. I’ve spoken to a lot of publishers lately — those starting out with huge enthusiasm, and those tired and exhausted who work on their final issue. I won’t lie, I’m continuously struggling to find an emotionally sustainable level too. One of the problems I’m facing is that I have to spread myself very thinly as a one-man operation. I’m still trying to find a workable solution for this. (Don’t worry, I currently have no plans to discontinue Offscreen.)

If you asked me today what I’d do differently when setting up a magazine, I’d say that I would think more critically about the effort-reward ratio from very early on. The initial excitement about launching a magazine (or any product for that matter) blinds us to accept unsustainable work practices. More important than keeping our readers/customers happy, is to keep ourselves happy. The former isn’t possible without the latter, at least in the long term.

Now let me go find a way to practice what I preach…

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