The online journal to Offscreen Magazine — for all the things that don't fit into the magazine. We also regularly publish behind the scenes info about the making of Offscreen. Why not follow along and grab the RSS feed?
There are a lot of things that can go wrong in producing a print product. I’ve had my fair share of challenges. Today I can add another one to that list. My printer told me this morning that the paper manufacturer based in Austria had a massive fire on Tuesday and won’t take any new orders for at least 4 weeks.
I’m now back to the drawing board in terms of finding suitable stock. Real products are really hard, y’all!
Photo by salzi.at
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. Art directors spend hundreds of hours creating a beautiful experience for their readers, so it really hurts when cheap ads disrupt that experience by shouting about some product or service the reader ought to purchase.
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 by presenting eight companies (sponsors) in a very subtle, unobtrusive and 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.
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.
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.
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 give me moneys. 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 value to the magazine in non-financial terms that is difficult to measure, but is as (if not more) important than the pay check.
One thing I learned and what I find quite fascinating is the realisation that you can make something less intrusive and less ostentatious, and people actually pay more attention because of it.
So, do what you need to do to stay fresh. Don’t go through the routines and begin to resent this thing you’re doing. It [requires] a massive amount of focus, I realise, and YOU need to take care of you.
This is a short quote of a lengthy email I received in response to my post about potentially changing a few things about the magazine going forward. (It’s one of over 50 emails that hit my inbox in the last few days.)
The above made me realise more than any other email that the changes I’m thinking about are first and foremost about/for me. If I can’t get excited about a new issue, why continue doing it?
I still haven’t made up my mind about the scope of the changes, but after the positive, loyal response from all of you, I think if I do whatever keeps me excited, it’ll be the best for the product, and thus my readers. :) With heartfelt appreciation for your encouragement,
Offscreen has been an experiment for me from the beginning. For most of my readers the incremental changes aren’t very obvious but the mag has evolved quite a bit over the last six issues, visually and editorially. Although we’re only up to issue number six, this experiment has been occupying my mind for at least two years now. It’s the longest I’ve ever focussed on just one thing. If I learned one lesson, it’s that focus is hard, really hard.
The more I speak to my readers, and the more feedback and suggestions I receive, the more I try to imagine how the magazine should or could evolve in the future. Albeit the impact our work has across all aspects of modern life, comparatively, our industry is still quite a small, geeky bunch of tech people that — to be absolutely blunt — easily finds itself caught in an echo chamber of retweets and shared opinions. As a publisher I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to escape this circle and examine what we do from a different angle.
Attending XOXO was refreshingly different in that way. I think one of the reasons why people really enjoy XOXO is that it offers the right mix of people who create technology and those who use it in creative, unexpected ways. The former wants to build the fastest, most usable video platform possible, the latter utilises it in a uniquely creative way to realise his/her idea. I think as an industry, we can learn from both. We’re often too consumed by the technical aspects of our work. We pride ourselves in creating the most beautiful iPhone app, but rarely do we go beyond the creation process. Because we believe our work stops there.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about introducing some changes to Offscreen.
The current premise of the magazine is to show the human side of websites and apps, to explore the personal stories of the creators of digital products. My proposed change would open this up a bit to include not just their creators, but also those who use these products to do innovative, successful or simply fun things:
“Offscreen is a magazine about people who use the internet and technology to be creative and solve problems. It explores the human stories of our digital culture.”
This does not mean that I would stop interviewing/featuring designers, developers or founders. Rather, I would mix it up with people doing innovative work in other (digitally driven) areas such as gaming, online journalism, research, art, pop culture, etc. Simply put, I’d like to a) provide more food for thought and inspiration that exists outside of the developer/designer niche and b) make our geeky industry more accessible and approachable to a larger audience. More than once I’ve heard people describe Offscreen as a “mag for web designers”. To me (and to you, I hope) it’s much more than that, and I think expanding the magazine’s reach would help give it more substance.
As part of this change, the designer in me also wants to refresh the visuals of Offscreen (i.e. typography and layout). I know, I can totally understand that most of you dislike the idea of breaking the collection on your bookshelf once again. And this is definitely a decision I wouldn’t make lightly. Yet, we’re all preaching constant iteration and change as a positive thing, so why not do this with a magazine if I think I can make it better?
So, having said all of the above, this is very much just ‘thinking out loud’. I have procrastinated about making this thought process public, because (of course) the initial reaction to change is usually negative. Please, if you’ve read this far, take another two minutes and send me your feedback, concerns and ideas. You’re part of this thing as much as me and I welcome any thoughtful comments.
I guess what I’m trying to get at boils down to one simple question: do you trust me to make Offscreen different/better?
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 broken. 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, right? ;)
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|
|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:
Really happy to announce that I’ll be giving a talk about the making of Offscreen in New York on October 8th, kindly hosted by Harvest (literally, at there office in the Flatiron District in Manhattan). Seating is limited, so make sure you RSVP early. There’ll be some free beer and you can pick up a copy of the latest issue that night too! It lines up perfectly if you are in town for Brooklyn Beta that week, so come in a day earlier and say hi! RSVP here:
Photo by Ben Fredericson
Today, I’ve finally received a response regarding Magma bookstore from the shop’s owner/founder Marc Villa. (For the whole story, see my first and second post. In short: they owe me $1600+ from selling Offscreen.)
Redacted, see my update 2 below.
Here’s my response:
It’s refreshing to hear from you. It’s been a while considering I’ve been reaching out to you guys regarding my unpaid bills at least 10 times over just the last 3 months.
I’m sorry to hear that your business isn’t going so well. You tell me of pouring a lot of money, love and labour into this business to make it financially viable, and gosh, this sounds strangely familiar. Believe it or not, I do the same! I also sacrifice my personal economies to make my business work. I also wake up in the middle of the night, wondering whether it’s all worth it and whether sales are strong enough to get me to the next issue. Just like you, my work consumes me. Managing and publishing a magazine is a full-full-time job. In the few spare minutes I get, I’ve lately been busy chasing money.
What makes us different though is that I don’t pay my employees meagre salaries. In fact, I don’t have any staff. I realised that my business is not making enough money to employ other people and compensate them fairly for their efforts. I rather stay nimble and small than build an unsustainable business that earns me more enemies than dollars.
I’ve been thinking about your arguments for not paying me, but I just can’t see the connection between you not paying me the money you owe and the mayor of London, your landlord or big publishers.
Let me ask you, do you still pay for your Internet connection, your water supply, electricity? Or do you tell them to call the mayor of London instead? When you’re having your daily cup of coffee at the cafe nearby, do you refer them to your landlord for financial compensation? Do you purchase groceries by telling them about the latest increase in business tax rates and walk out without paying?
What makes our situation even more bizarre is that my product actually *helps* you pay your landlord and the mayor of London. It *helps* you run your business and pay your staff (maybe fairer?) salaries. My humble magazine generated at least ~$2000 in pure profit for your business. Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?
Having said all the above, nothing really surprised me about your email as much as the notion of Magma being some sort of knight in shining armour to the independent publishing industry. That borders on offensive. If you value independent publishing, follow rule number one in business: always pay your bills. Pay your bills, so that independent publishers can continue to make magazines. If you are punching above your weight, you might need to downsize or change your strategy, but don’t blame other people for the red on your balance sheet. What value do you provide to independent publishers if they send you their precious magazines (at their own expense) and then don’t see a dime in return, but instead more headaches and worries?
Trust me, I’d love to come into your shop in Clerkenwell and tell you all of this in your face (and that of your customers for that matter), but considering that I’d have to travel half-way around the world to do that and the chances of you covering my travel expenses are — let’s say — slim, I rather do this from here. It saves me money. Money that I need to run a sustainable business.
I have no bad feelings whatsoever in making this public, after reaching out so many times over more than 6 months. Reading this, I hope you take a step back and think about your response for a minute. There is no sign of apology, just accusations and shifting the blame, calling me an idiot. Let me remind you: *you* owe *me* money, mister.
Why would I want to speak to you on the phone? Obviously, you are beyond reason. I feel sorry for the people that have to work with you to make a living (or not) and it puts my problems into perspective. Marc, with all the stress and worries in running a business, at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is making friends, not enemies, along the way. Whether I’m hiding behind my tweets or not, one thing is certain though: issues like this don’t just disappear through ignoring and name-calling. Especially not if the person on the other end knows how to internet like a pro.
Just don’t shop there anymore.
UPDATE 1: Let me add that I have a great relationship with a lot of other stockists around the world. It’s certainly not an easy business to be in and I can completely understand that an occasional late payment is sometimes unavoidable. That’s when responsive communication and friendly language helps keep things under control. Based on the many emails I received, I’m not Magma’s only problem. As much as I applaud their good intentions to help indie publishers, somewhere over the last few years things have gone off track financially with the result that a lot of people are no longer getting paid. Ignoring red flags and spending other people’s money is foul play. I hope this issue leads to Magma restructuring, downsizing, moving or whatever is necessary in order to run a business that breeds healthy relationships.
UPDATE 2: After publishing this post, Marc contacted me again threatening me with legal action based on copyright laws claiming that the email (in which he called me an ‘ignorant idiot’ for sharing my grievances with Magma in public) was not meant to be published.
In further emails he called my conduct ‘unprofessional and unethical’ (I couldn’t help a slight chuckle there) and made it absolutely clear that he remains unapologetic, insisting that I’m the one to blame for this disaster as I had not put in enough effort to make this situation clear enough to him personally over the past six months.
I’m pretty speechless, to be honest. I have a mailbox full of unpaid or not-yet-paid suppliers contradicting every single statement Marc makes in his emails. Heck, I even know that I have the support of some of his staff.
But I’m also tired of wasting any more of my time and effort on dealing with Magma. Life is too short for letting self-righteous folks dictate your wellbeing. So I decided to take his offensive, shameful emails out of this post, not because I feel intimidated by his threats of legal action, but because I can go to bed tonight knowing that I’m the better person, knowing that I’m able to let go of my ego and don’t seek the fault for my failures in other people.
Marc, I’ve given you so many chances for an apology or even just a polite acknowledgement that you are in the wrong on this. I got blame, threats and accusations instead. What a shame for such a great little store and a brand that dates back 13 years. In closing, I hope you are aware that your massive ego caused much more damage than your unpaid bills.
PS: I take no pride in making such a depressing story public. I’ve never done this before and I consider it a last resort. Sadly, breaking the silence on this issue seemed overdue considering how many indie publishers are struggling due to unpaid stockist bills. :(
UPDATE 3: Magma just paid their bills (September 20th, 9 months and 2 weeks after the first invoice went out).
Last week on Wednesday I made the decision to go public with the fact the Magma is not paying their bills and still owes me more than $1600 in sold stock, plus late fees. My post was followed by many tweets and retweets to Magma’s Twitter account from you guys, asking them to pay up. I was moved by the amount of loyal support my post received and it’s important to mention that 99.9% of the messages to Magma were polite and good-spirited, just as I hoped they’d be.
Magma has still not responded so far. In fact, their Twitter account went completely silent from that day onwards. Either their social media person is on vacation or they truly buried their head in the sand hoping the issue disappears.
Besides the many replies from my readers, what struck me most was the approving messages I received from fellow publishers. Stockists not paying their bills on time or not at all seems like a systematic issue. Judging by the response my post received, few publishers seem to be in a position that allows them to voice their criticism publicly — I assume simply because most magazines depend on stockist sales to fund their publication.
Most of the messages I received from other publishers pretty much exactly echoed my post (note that they are not all related to just Magma):
I find it really shocking that so many shops don’t treat their suppliers in a fair and honest way. As if producing an indie magazine wasn’t hard enough, dealing with this sort of unethical conduct makes our jobs just that much harder.
This is not a witch hunt on Magma. They seem to be just one of many. In my case, Magma simply owes quite a substantial amount that I’m not willing to neglect.
If you’ve come across similar stories about a bookshop in your town, email or tweet them or leave a Facebook message or just tell them in person. Yes, supporting local businesses is important, but if you are aware of foul conduct and still want to receive new issues of your favourite magazine, you’re better off ordering your copy directly through the publisher’s website or a place like magpile. This way the publisher takes the largest cut and your money goes directly to funding future issues.
UPDATE: they responded.
Our official launch party of issue No6 here in Melbourne last Friday night was a success! Once again a big ‘thank you’ to all friends and Offscreen fans that turned up! And of course, huge props to our kind sponsor Envato for providing their beautiful cafeteria as a space for my talk. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
I’m really excited to head off to XOXO, San Francisco and Brooklyn Beta mid next week!
Photos by Tim Lucas
I’m a person that avoids confrontation. I simply don’t like the idea of having people against me. My young life has already taught me on several occasions that you always meet at least twice. In the same way, I aim to conduct myself professionally. After all, as a publisher I rely on a lot of kind people to make Offscreen happen.
I’m also someone that appreciates the feeling of wandering into a well-stocked, local bookshop. Finding international stockists for Offscreen is not just based on an effort to increase sales (the financial benefit isn’t all that great anyway), but also on supporting the independent bookseller. And so, publishers like myself send a chunk of their precious magazines to booksellers around the globe, defraying the high cost of shipping, trusting that they will be paid their fair share if their magazine sells well.
This was also the case with Magma Bookstore in London/Manchester. We agreed upon a price and a payment date, and as far as I know, Offscreen sold out. Today, after 6 months of friendly reminders and regular overdue notices, Magma has still not paid their $1600+ bill.
Not paying your suppliers — the very people that make your business possible — is totally not cool. Sure, you might be going through a rough patch, but you know, indie publishers aren’t exactly wallowing in affluence either.
I’m writing this unusually provocative post not to humiliate anyone. I just want to be treated fairly. I’m tired of chasing money from stockists. I have heard a lot of stories from other indie publishers that are owed money from stockists and they are desperately close to shutting up shop because of delayed payments.
If you think it’s unfair for folks like Magma to skip the bill, please spread the message, let them know (please be nice though!) and don’t buy from them until they pay up and value the relationships with their suppliers. I’ve made a conscious effort to find different/more stockists in London. Make sure you pay them a visit, they’d be delighted to get some business.
Read my follow up post here.