If you're into digital, and like to switch off from time to time, Offscreen magazine is the perfect medium. I had a chat with Kai over the interwebs to explore the ins-and-outs of running a indie publication solo and the challanges that arise.
Do you think the fact the Magazine is printed in Germany gives the publication more of an "edge" than if it was locally produced?
I'd always prefer to use a local printer, not least because I could easily check in with every print run. However, using a local printer just make Offscreen not a viable business. Printing it in Berlin lowers the production cost a little bit, but the main reason for me doing it all from Berlin is that sending out the individual magazine is about 65% cheaper. Sending a single copy to a reader from anywhere in the world – from Berlin – costs around A$5 in postage. Doing it the other way around, using AusPost, would cost more than $15, which would increase the price of the magazine to a level where no one would buy it. So, yes I'm all for local, but as an international magazine it makes more sense, economically (but actually also environmentally) to produce in and ship from Germany because most of my readers are based in Europe and in the US.
How do you keep the business sustainable? Does it come down to be as efficient as possible by yourself?
I think it's a mix of working efficiently, building a community that understands where their money goes, but also having a clear business mindset about it all. Especially the latter is something a lot of indie publishers put off until it's too late. Since I started with my magazine I've come across so many publishers for whom money is an afterthought. They just want to make a magazine and figure out the money side later. If your publication is just a fun side project, then that approach is totally OK. But if you're trying to build a self-sustaining publication that pays contributors and yourself for their work, there should be some sort of business strategy (as evil as the word sounds) starting with your inaugural issue.
I've recently put some of these thoughts in a blog post in which I call upon publishers to be more serious about treating their publication as a business. Money (and its influence) is obviously a touchy subject with publishing content. But we need to fight against the notion of all content being free (a by-product of the internet). If we want to make magazines sustainable, we need to be clear to everyone involved how much it costs and what it takes to make more than just a one-off issue.
You work for yourself. For a magazine that has deadlines, how do you deal with the stress that is associated with it?
It's tough. I think if I had to name one thing I don't like about my job it'd be the deadline stress – and not having anyone to share the load when the shit hits the fan. Over the years I've come to accept that the weeks before the print deadline are emotionally and physically draining. I still haven't found a way around it.
I recently wrote a post about what it's like being in The Swamp – a place where you feel like you're not making any progress, everything you produce is (seemingly) crap and no matter how much you are trying, you can't seem to move forward. Being aware of it and knowing that most creatives go through this fairly regularly is the first step to acceptance. I think if I had someone else to share the workload and the mental pressure it'd be easier. Then again, if two people had to make a living off Offscreen, it'd more likely be a side project.
How do you prevent 'burn out'?
See above. At times it certainly feels like I'm getting close to it, but then it gets kinda balanced out with the feeling after a release of an issue. Hearing readers say so many kind things about what you worked so hard for makes more than up for the stressful periods and all the self-doubt.
But yeah, to be honest, I won't be able to sustain this for decades to come. I'm living a fairly commitment-free life at the moment, so I don't mind putting in the hours. Once there is family and other things that need prioritising, work will have to take a step back.
But I also strongly believe that anything 'great', requires you to put in the hours. The myth of overnight success is just that. Many people in our industry complain about 'burn out' and being stressed all the time. I don't mean to play down the seriousness of the mental health issues we see – many of us are over-stretched – but if I compare my work with what my parents and their parents had to do on a daily basis to feed their family, what we do is a walk in the park. Often it's not an issue of having too much to do, but wanting to do too much.
If you could add one feature to one program? What would it be?
Ha, good question! Is 'not crashing' a feature? I love my Adobe software, but I wish I didn't have to restart the thing about 20 times a day.
I've been enjoying posting stuff to Instagram lately. Being an avid Twitter user, I miss the ability to post links along with my shots. It's a small thing and I get a lot out of it for free, so I don't want to complain.
What's the biggest challenge with running a publication by yourself?
Running it by myself.
How do you keep on top of everything? You must have heaps of calendars, apps, spreadsheets to keep you on schedule?
Not really. I've never been a huge fan of to-do list apps, but I've started using Any Do more regularly lately and I quite like it. I manage Offscreen's orders through a custom order management system. About half of my day I spend in my inbox (unless I'm in the design or editing stage of an issue). So I do lots of emailing and I use a lot of Google documents (Drive) to work with my contributors. A while back I've published a list with all the apps I use.
A deadline got pushed forward... what is your 'must have' to get it done? Do you have a specific playlist you put on to smash out work faster?
Quite the opposite, sadly. Unless I'm in the early stages of the magazine where I'm just reaching out to people via email, most of my work involves reading and editing text – mostly in silence, because I find music too much of a distraction. I only get to listen to music when I do visual stuff, like working in Indesign or on the website.
So my 'must have' to get stuff done: a quiet room and no Twitters or Facetubes… This sounds really sad, doesn't it?!
Do you see the future of print being more one-man shows with a more niche market?
To quote my friends from ScragEnd Magazine: "In the same way that the automobile allowed the horse to become a creature of leisure rather than of labour, so too has digital publishing moved traditional publishing into the realm of luxury."
Whether that's a one-man show or not, these luxury items will come from people that are passionate about a specific topic or niche and make a magazine because they want it to exist in the world. Making such a business viable is still a challenge (as it's always been), but because indie titles are nimble and efficient, they can survive off smaller readership bases willing to spend more money per issue. So as the volume of magazines goes down, their cover prices will go up, and print will need to find readers who appreciate the physicality of it as a supplementary experience to their digital media diet.
You are very easily contactable, being a one-man show without many barriers, do you find this has helped with getting people involved in the magazine?
Definitely. I think many of my readers buy the magazine because they follow my story and want to support me directly. The authentic relationship that I have with my readers is crucial in sustaining the community that makes Offscreen a viable publication. I just talked in detail about this at HybridConf last week. The web empowers us to circumvent traditional gatekeepers and go straight to our customers/readers. If you combine that with a transparent, no-bullshit approach, I think the web allows us to create unique independent businesses with a sustainable business model. And that goes for all types of businesses, not just magazines. Another good example is Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk.
How is the Australian design community, compared to say Europe's?
To be honest, I never considered myself part of the 'design community'. I've always felt more part of the web community (which includes designers, front-end and back-end developers). That community is small, but well connected in Melbourne. And it's growing.
It would be nice to have more businesses and success stories like Campaign Monitor, RedBubble, Atlassian and envato coming out of Australia because those companies attract a huge amount of talent and press coverage, and that in turn helps create a more lively, healthy community with lots of events and support networks. But I'm feeling positive that Australia will pick up more momentum. If only the cost of living wasn't so high here. The cost of employing someone here gives Australia a disadvantage because producing a piece of software is X amount more expensive than doing it in, say, Berlin.
I love your side project, The Modern Desk, by the way – how did it get started, and how has it been received so far?
Thanks! To balance out the complex and lengthy process of creating a print product, having a mailing list and sending out a weekly newsletter gives me that feeling of having 'shipped' something every few days. That's kinda important to not get dispirited in between issues of Offscreen which take up to four months to ship. I feel like I'm still producing stuff, still connecting with people. And it's just nice to have an audience.
We're up to around 5800 subscriber, so not too bad. I'm hoping to break the 10,000 mark at the end of the year. Wanna help?