Indie Publishing
Field Notes

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Thoughts

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…

Selling sponsorships

Posted on Dec 03 2014 in Thoughts

Not a week goes by without me receiving an email about the way I present sponsors in the magazine. Everyone seems to appreciate their subtlety and how well they integrate into the reading experience. In fact, quite a few other magazines used Offscreen as a source of inspiration to follow a similar sponsorship model (Intern, Wolftree, Future Perfect, and Makeshift come to mind).

Of course, having sponsors is nothing unique. There are lots of other magazines that had sponsors before me and I certainly don’t claim to be the inventor here. However, it’s nice to see other titles following a similarly subtle approach and turning away from the standard (often intrusive) ad slots of traditional magazines because of Offscreen.

Many of the emails I receive ask me how I find my sponsors or how I convince them to participate in Offscreen. The truth is that they don’t really need much convincing. Finding sponsors has so far been fairly easy. (knocks on wood)

I believe the web community is quite unique in that way. Many web companies are used to the idea of sponsorships, because we have so many events that are funded through this support model. Also, frankly speaking, successfully operating web/tech companies usually have quite generous marketing budgets and don’t necessarily request traditional media data before they invest in a particular campaign (I think I’ve been asked for a advertising kit once, and couldn’t provide one). Also, it seems to me that companies in this industry are a lot more open to trying out new things and supporting the underdog where it fits.

No matter what your title is about, finding approachable companies that align with your own values is crucial. Don’t start with the Google of your industry. Start with a company you already have close contacts with, maybe even a local one. Set your initial fee very low. Sponsoring the first issue of Offscreen cost $400 and barely made a dent in the cost of everything, but it helped establish a relationship with those companies. I got a chance to prove that Offscreen is a product worth investing in, and as a result many of those companies are still sponsoring the magazine today!

Here’s an email that I recently sent out to a potential new sponsor showing how I see our sponsors and (hopefully) how they see themselves too. I suggest you don’t simply copy and paste this for your own project, but find your own voice for communicating your goals/values instead.

Let me give you some stats first: I currently print 4500 copies and they all sell out after a while — nothing is wasted. Our readers are some of the smartest and most influential creatives in the web/tech industry, from founders and CEOs to designers and developers running their own shop. Most readers are based in the US, UK and other English-speaking countries, followed by the rest of Europe. That’s all the marketing speak you get from me. ;)

As you may know, a sponsorship is not an ad. It can’t be tracked as such and shouldn’t be compared. With a sponsorship you make your brand part of what I’m doing with Offscreen. You directly link your company to my values and those of my readers.

The folks at Campaign Monitor, for instance, list Offscreen under their ‘giving back’ section. They see sponsorships as a way of making their company known for supporting unique projects that are part of our community.

You will definitely get more clicks by spending the same amount on Google or Facebook ads. Spending it on an Offscreen sponsorship will get you respect and recognition within our industry that is much more difficult to attain. Let’s face it, people like you and me that are part of the web industry hardly ever respond to ads. By supporting products core people in our industry love, your sponsorship tells them “We love it too, and are proud to be supporting it.”

To be honest, I’m not a good sales person, never have been. And as much as it looks like it, I’m not really trying to convince you of anything. In fact, I usually have a few people waiting to become sponsors, though I’m very picky. I personally would love to have ——— on board (maybe even long-term), because from what I hear, people trust and like your service for understanding how web-savvy people tick. That’s exactly what I hear from my readers about Offscreen too.

Finally, if you have a few minutes, Seth Godin sums it up nicely (as always).

Me vs. us

Posted on Oct 31 2014 in Thoughts

If you follow Offscreen’s behind-the-scenes stuff here on the blog you know that I’m big on making things personal. I don’t pretend to be bigger than I am — Offscreen is a one-man magazine.

However, one little issue I keep stumbling upon when communicating with my readers is the ‘me vs. us’ problem. In 9 out of 10 cases, writing copy from my own view works just fine, but there are occasions where it just sounds a little amateurish, in particular when talking about the magazine as a business and not just a ‘thing I do’.

For instance, on the Contact page, inviting readers and contributors (or even sponsors) to get in touch with me would make Offscreen sound like a little ‘zine’ I throw together during my lunch break. Telling my readers to contact us still appears more meaningful and simply more professional. And while I don’t usually care about standard business lingo, it does seem more mature in certain situations.

And sure, there are ways around using ‘me’ or ‘us’ altogether, but it often makes communication a lot less personal.

So I guess there are rare cases when writing about a one-person business from the perspective of a (fake) team makes sense, as much as I hate inconsistency. I’m sure I’m not the only one dealing with this little predicament. How do you handle this situation in your own one-person business? Any emails or tweets are welcome.

Something worth paying for

Posted on Sep 10 2014 in Thoughts

At the fantastic The Modern Magazine conference here in London yesterday, I had a brief conversation with another publisher whose magazine no longer exists. She said that when she announced the release of the final issue earlier this year, suddenly a lot of support in the form of emails and tweets came flooding in from readers she didn’t know she had — people expressing their disappointment and sadness that one of their favourite magazines was closing its doors.

What surprised her most was the fact that more people were actually reading the magazine than buying it (assumingly getting it handed down from friends or finding it in cafés and other places). Apparently, there was also a large group of supporters that bought the occassional issue and followed the project online, but never really committed to being a regular reader. And they, too, were sad seeing a project disappear that they appreciated, even if they just followed it from the sidelines most of the time.

The overwhelming response to her announcement of bringing the magazine to an end surely made the decision more difficult, but “nice words don’t really pay the bills”, she said frustrated. It reminded me of something Cameron Moll mentioned in his interview with Offscreen. He said: “There’s an opportunity for a Buy Bootstrap movement along the lines of Buy Local or Buy Organic.”

The ‘passive supporter problem’ (if it can/should be called that!?) is, of course, not only prevalent in the magazine scene, I think it can be applied to all ‘indie’ makers out there. I can easily think of a handful of app developers and bloggers with tons of supporters that really want to see the project grow and succeed, but that rarely take practical action (in most cases by signing up for a paid account, paying a small membership fee, etc.) to actively enable the creators to continue the work they appreciate.

Of course, there is a lot of great ‘indie’ stuff out there and you can’t throw your money at them all. So what to do?

In the last few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to find out more about my favourite products and services, by following them online, by signing up to their newsletter, and by meeting and talking to them in person when I get a chance. If I’m convinced that their values and efforts align with my own, I try to be an active supporter and pay my fair share. This doesn’t just apply to the digital world, of course, I try to apply the same principles to, say, charities or my local shops down the road.

I guess it all comes down to being an informed consumer. Take a moment and think about the tools, products, and services that really make a difference in your life, and then show them your appreciation through proactive support, which in most cases (but not always) means adding them to your list of things worth paying for.

Something worth paying for

At the fantastic The Modern Magazine conference here in London yesterday, I had a brief conversation with another publisher whose magazine no longer exists. She said that when she announced the release of the final issue earlier this year, suddenly a lot of support in the form of emails and tweets came flooding in from readers she didn’t know she had — people expressing their disappointment and sadness that one of their favourite magazines was closing its doors.

What surprised her most was the fact that more people were actually reading the magazine than buying it (assumingly getting it handed down from friends or finding it in cafés and other places). Apparently, there was also a large group of supporters that bought the occassional issue and followed the project online, but never really committed to being a regular reader. And they, too, were sad seeing a project disappear that they appreciated, even if they just followed it from the sidelines most of the time.

The overwhelming response to her announcement of bringing the magazine to an end surely made the decision more difficult, but “nice words don’t really pay the bills”, she said frustrated. It reminded me of something Cameron Moll mentioned in his interview with Offscreen. He said: “There’s an opportunity for a Buy Bootstrap movement along the lines of Buy Local or Buy Organic.”

The ‘passive supporter problem’ (if it can/should be called that!?) is, of course, not only prevalent in the magazine scene, I think it can be applied to all ‘indie’ makers out there. I can easily think of a handful of app developers and bloggers with tons of supporters that really want to see the project grow and succeed, but that rarely take practical action (in most cases by signing up for a paid account, paying a small membership fee, etc.) to actively enable the creators to continue the work they appreciate.

Of course, there is a lot of great ‘indie’ stuff out there and you can’t throw your money at them all. So what to do?

In the last few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to find out more about my favourite products and services, by following them online, by signing up to their newsletter, and by meeting and talking to them in person when I get a chance. If I’m convinced that their values and efforts align with my own, I try to be an active supporter and pay my fair share. This doesn’t just apply to the digital world, of course, I try to apply the same principles to, say, charities or my local shops down the road.

I guess it all comes down to being an informed consumer. Take a moment and think about the tools, products, and services that really make a difference in your life, and then show them your appreciation through proactive support, which in most cases (but not always) means adding them to your list of things worth paying for.

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