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In the spirit of ‘giving back’ I’d like to share some of the process and a few things I’ve learned from producing the first issue of Offscreen.
When I set out to become a publisher around 6 months ago, I basically knew nothing about the indie publishing industry, let alone how to design anything in Indesign, but a basic business card or flyer for my web design clients. In retrospect, I think this naïvety was rather beneficial, because at no point did I know what massive task would be waiting for me around the corner.
If you are thinking about publishing your own magazine, you should already have a nice collection of indie magazines at home. There is no better source of inspiration and encouragement than experiencing other magazines and digging deeper into the stories of their makers. I’ve also stepped outside of the web design and development community and started following blogs and tweets from/about indie magazine publishers (e.g. magculture, magspreads, spd.org to name a few). Michael Bojkowski’s reading list videos, in which he introduces various magazines from around the world, are also highly recommended.
Through my research I fairly quickly knew what format (both, in terms of design and content) I wanted from my own magazine. The type of stock is essential to me, as it defines much of the physical experience of magazines. One of the things I’ve always been concerned about when it comes to print is the heavy environmental impact. So, being at least partially made from recycled materials was a main criteria when selecting stock. After picking up a copy of The Weekender in Berlin I knew I had found what I was looking for: the stock is made from 100% recycled paper and has a lovely natural texture to it.
Next, I searched the web for reliable printers in Germany and contacted many of the magazines I’ve collected over the years to ask for printer recommendations. Even though I live in Australia now (having moved here about 10 years ago from Germany) prices in this country are extremely high, especially shipping globally would have been completely uneconomical as the postage almost exceeds the cover price.
It’s important to get a broad selection of printing quotes. Prices ranged from EUR 2 to EUR 6 per copy. When selecting a final printer, I mainly considered these criteria (in no particular order):
Choosing a great printer pays off many times over. Being confident that your printer’s pre-press team will spot problems in your files early and won’t get annoyed by asking them a million questions is vital and will give you a piece of mind.
To figure out what I needed to charge my readers I had to get quotes for shipping too. Sending all orders out myself would have been my preferred option, especially for this very first issue. But since I’m based in Australia, I decided to hire a fulfilment company in Germany. As with selecting the printer, it pays off to shop around and make personal contact with the people that will handle your precious baby. The entire packaging and shipping process can get quite complicated, not to mention mangling the data into a format the shipping company can run through their own system.
From the get-go it was clear that I needed some form of advertising to support production costs, but all of my favourite magazines didn’t have invasive, cheaply produced, full-page ads sprinkled around their content. So the idea of sponsorships seemed to be a better option. I compiled a list with preferred sponsors that I’d liked to have as launch partners and started contacting them. To my surprise it was easier than expected to convince those companies to participate—not least because the sponsorship fee for this inaugural issue was pretty low. I’m forever thankful that they agreed to put their money on a horse that wasn’t even born yet.
Once the rather boring number crunching part was done (leave a reasonable buffer in your budget for unforeseeable expenses) I started with organising all the content: setting guidelines for contributors and photographers, contacting all contributors and confirming dates and required materials, creating a detailed content plan and to-do-list and eventually conducting the interviews via email, Skype and various shared online documents. The biggest challenges here are managing the communication with 30+ contributors and getting them to get you what you need. Since there was literally no budget to send photographers to all of our interviewees, they themselves had to get active and ask friends or colleagues to take photos. To minimise the chances of wasting anyone’s time, I tried to provide easy to understand and detailed instructions of what’s needed. Deadlines are crucial and I realised it’s important to state them clearly and often.
Once the majority of content was in, I pre-edited and proof-read everything, arranged bits and pieces according to my content plan and tried to iron out most of the major issues, before granting my sub-editor and then proof-reader access to the final content.
Concurrently to all of the above, I was spending many hours in the classroom—the virtual classroom that is lynda.com. Their in-depth Indesign, typography and pre-press classes helped me spruce up my print design skills. Besides being inspired and learning from existing magazines I had collected over the years, these online classes helped me understand the principal concepts of editorial design, typesetting, colour management and the entire print production process. I stopped counting the number of Indesign documents I created, played with and then discarded over the last few months, but it must be close to a hundred.
Hunting for the perfect set of font-families was a lot of fun, but quickly turned into an obsession (hello choice paradox) that, for a long time, left me unable to make an executive decision. In the end I went with a mix of a classic display font by Hoefler & Frere-Jones and the playful but still mature looking Calluna by exljbris.
When the content reached a final version and I was happy with the layout templates for the magazine, I ported everything into Indesign. Once you have set yourself clear editorial design guidelines and post-edited all of the image material, getting the final document ready for proofing is surprisingly easy. After solving some minor issues with the pre-press department, the machines were rolling and there was no way back.
As the ink hit the paper, the design and development of the website posed their own set of challenges. After days of researching and trialling pretty much all of the main e-commerce platforms out there (yes, including the obvious, such as shopify and big cartel), I came to the conclusion that selling a periodical to potentially a few thousand people around the world required a highly customised order management system. Even though there is just one single item on sale right now, I already take orders for issue #2, #3 and #4. How do you process an existing order again every time a new issue is released? How do you export those orders in the exact format required by your drop-shipper and with various rules in place to minimise shipping costs? There is nothing out there that accommodates these challenges, so I’m working on a rather complex order management system with my friend Simon now, which will hopefully be operational for issue #2. And of course, then there is the issue of solely relying on PayPal. Enough said.
For the launch of the website, I hired a social media expert and viral advertising agency… wait a minute, actually all I did was tweet about it and you lovely folks did the rest to spread the word. The response has been nothing short of mind-boggling. The feedback coming in through tweets and blogs is exactly what keeps me going (and sane), so please keep them coming! At this point, again, a thousand thanks from the bottom of my heart to all of you who have ordered, provided feedback and helped spread the word.
I know there are a lot of blog posts out there, usually by entrepreneurs, talking about “taking risks” and “letting the naysayers be naysayers”, telling us how everyone keeps saying “it won’t work”. I never really knew what they were talking about, because (let’s be honest) apart from a few haters our community is the most supportive one I can think of.
Producing Offscreen was no different. Every time I told somebody about my idea I got supportive nods with the occasional doubtful look that said “in print, really?”. The biggest challenge of this endeavour was not fighting off other people’s snarky remarks, but to keep convincing myself that I truly believed in it. Nobody doubted this project more than myself. I stopped taking client work and my monthly income went from “no complaints” to “no have”. Then the printer sends over the bill and your drop-shipper asks for a down-payment and that’s when you understand what they meant with taking risks.
But it all makes sense again when you receive that long-awaited shipment with the first ever copy of your own magazine. The smell, the feeling of the stock, the look of each of those photos you spent hours editing—you can’t help but think that you made the right choice, no matter how much money you’ll lose or make from this. It’s done! I can put it on my shelf and tell myself “Hell yeah! Thousands of people around the globe will have this experience, because I made it.” There is no price tag on that.
Yet, there is also a different feeling that comes with being a publisher. Carolyn Wood, editor of The Manual, told me once that you’ll never look at your own publication the same way as others do. You see it as an enormous list of decisions. And she was right. I also spot all the minor mistakes: where there is a comma missing or an image cut off. I see it my way.
So, what’s next?
As this post goes live, I’m almost done with confirming contributors for issue #2 and interviews will hopefully commence next week. We are looking at a late May release date; fingers crossed! There are several minor mistakes and problems with the first issue I want to improve upon in future issues. The features and overall layout won’t change much, but there is one new section in the second issue I’m very excited about…
At the same time, I’m trying to get Offscreen into more selected book shops around the globe. Financially, these deals are hardly worth it, as retailers usually expect a margin of 40-60% of the cover price, but I love the idea of having at least one local “representative” in each country across Europe, North America and Australia/NZ. I’ve already struck deals with several new stockists and will announce them as the magazines hit their shelves.
All in all I must admit it’s a pretty massive undertaking. The hours I spent actively working on screen to get the product out the door pale in comparison with the amount of time I thought and re-thought each feature, interview, article and photo in my mind, wondering whether it’s any good and whether it will live up to my readers’s and my own— even higher—expectations.
Offscreen is still far off from being—at least financially—my one and only full time job. Sales have been reasonably good, but whether it’s sustainable long-term, I will only find out over the next 2-3 issues. What’s certain though is that there is still a huge interest in high-quality print products. Their unique multi-sensory experience can not be replaced by any digital format.
If you like to support Offscreen on an ongoing basis, (obviously) please subscribe, keep the buzz alive by telling your colleagues and friends about it, and send me any feedback you have. I hope you continue to follow my journey throughout future issues and enjoy what comes out at the end. Thanks again!