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Behind the scenes at Offscreen

Posted by Steve Watson on Friday, December 13 2013

Kai Brach, founder of Offscreen, on his Christmas Wishlist, opening his accounts and making changes in 2014

At the end of November Kai Brach, the man behind Offscreen, contacted me to ask whether I wanted Stack to be included in his brilliant Christmas Wishlist. It’s a great idea, bringing together great quality brands and giving stuff away every day (if you haven’t already entered the draw you really should) so of course I said yes.

That set me to wondering why exactly Kai organises the gift guide – does it drive subscriptions, or is it a piece of pure webby altruism? After all, this is a man who recently published his accounts for the world to see, demonstrating in one fell swoop that he’s running a sustainable business, but not playing by the same rules as everyone else.

I dropped him a line to find out more, and of course his answers didn’t disappoint.

Offscreen

Thanks very much for including Stack in your Christmas gift guide. How’s it going so far?
Thank you for being part of it. It’s been great so far! We’ve already had around 1,000 tweets about it and some of the participating companies have told me that they are actually getting some decent traffic and a few sales. Win, win!

Do you do it for general awareness or is the sole aim to sell Christmas subscriptions?
I think overall it’s just nice exposure for everyone involved. There are some really fine brands on that list that many people in the web/creative industry already trust, and that hopefully has a knock-on effect to all other items on the list. It also goes well with the theme of the magazine — having a great product and a nice experience away from the screen. I started the wishlist idea last year because I was in between issues and had nothing to show for the pre-Christmas period.

The direct impact on my sales is minimal to be honest. I probably sold 20 more copies because of it, but that’s not all that important. Most tweets I get are something like “The brilliant Offscreen Mag has an equally brilliant give-away…”. It’s just nice to organise something for your readers/followers and get some recognition for it. But sure, the buzz it generates certainly has a marketing-y effect, no question about it.

Christmas is massively important for Stack – is the same true for Offscreen? Or are your earnings fairly steady through the year?
If I ever managed to release a new issue just in time for Christmas, I’m sure I’d see a substantial difference. But since the new issue isn’t out until mid-January, I don’t see a significant spike in sales.

A few times now I tried to come up with a good system to sell gift vouchers especially for Christmas shoppers, but the technical side of it — if you want to do it properly — is surprisingly difficult. There is a customised order management system in place in the background of the website that keeps track of orders, subscriptions, shipping status, etc. Being able to buy and redeem gift vouchers means I’d have to link such a feature deep into the order/shipping system. Way more complicated than it seems at first.

Without having exact numbers to refer to, I’d say I make about 65% of my earnings in the two weeks following a new release. That’s when most readers either buy their single issue or (re)subscribe. It’s also when I promote the website/magazine most heavily on Twitter, Facebook and, very important, through the newsletter — all of that generates a bit of buzz around the web.

Offscreen

You recently published your Offscreen accounts – what made you want to do that?
As I said in that post, I just appreciate it when people talk openly about their income. It’s something a lot of us still feel quite uncomfortable about. Especially in the web industry where there is A LOT of money going around. I believe it’s a bit contradictory to preach about more openness and transparency on the web and then get awkwardly quiet when people start talking about the financial side of it all.

You’ll also find that if someone does open their books a lot of people find it immensely interesting, because it gives them a reference point or something to aspire to (well, if the numbers are actually impressive). It either confirms or destroys myths about (financial) success, as is true in my case. I think it’s safe to say that Offscreen has been very successful in terms of reach and how the publication and brand has established itself in our community. However, what I realised when talking to readers and fans of the magazine is that they think Offscreen as a business has been a huge success too, which isn’t the case.

What most people don’t understand, especially coming from an industry that is known for million or billion dollar acquisitions, is that ‘success’ in the indie publishing industry often means ‘making it sustainable’. In that sense, I guess, Offscreen is successful. As long as I can remain small and nimble and don’t have to pay a team, I can make a sufficient living off it. Would I earn more money and work fewer hours if I went back to designing websites? Hells yeah!

That sort of transparency feels very webby – how have people responded?
Haha, webby? You mean non-bullshitty? 😉

It’s been fantastic. I received a ton of praise for being 100% transparent and I think as a result, a lot of folks feel even more confident in spending those $22 to grab a copy of the magazine. They see where the money goes and know that it’s supporting a sustainable, (very) small, humble business.

One thing I was a little concerned about is that people wouldn’t take the time to read my entire post (including footnotes). Looking at bare numbers doesn’t really give you the whole picture. Making $65,000 per year is quite a lot of money for a person living in, say,  Berlin. But not so much for someone living in New York, London or, like me, in Melbourne, one of the most expensive places to live right now. It’s a very average metropolitan income here.

I should mention that, as much as I encourage transparency and openness, I understand that it’s not always as easy to open your books if there are a lot of stakeholders involved. Even though I strongly believe the publishing industry could do with a lot more transparency, getting larger publications to openly talk about money is sheer impossible. One of the reasons is the secretive relationship between publishers and advertisers. Being a one-man magazine with nobody breathing down my neck there really isn’t much at risk for me, so I went ahead with it.

By the way, I’m proud to say that people in the web industry are some of the most open-minded folks out there. What you call ‘webby’ actually goes a lot deeper, especially if you are part of the community that builds the web. It really shakes up established industries and routine thinking (what some call ‘disruption’). The idea of sharing knowledge, ‘giving back’ and recognising the potential of doing things differently is very much second nature. That new approach to doing things — being open to change — is not just what I’m trying to capture with Offscreen, it’s how I want to run the mag itself too.

Offscreen

Speaking of transparency, you’ve mentioned that there are some changes in store for Offscreen next year. What can you say about that?
After two years and six issues I felt like I was getting stuck in my ways, so I decided to introduce some changes with this next issue (due in January 2014). Those are partially visual changes, but also a slight shift in the editorial department.

When I launched issue No1, I was a web designer trying my hand at print. It was very much a magazine that I wanted to read myself. Since then I think Offscreen has become more than just a publication for the designy web geek. Offscreen explores and documents the innovation and creativity of the people that make our digital lifestyle possible.

Starting with issue No7 I’ll be including not only people who build the web, but also those who use it in new, innovative and creative ways. To give you an example, there will be a small feature about a guy travelling around US national parks taking photos with just his iPhone — and he makes a decent living doing so.

It’s been a crazy busy three months. Even though the changes aren’t drastic, I still had to start a brand new layout from scratch, collect all the content and get everything edited and designed before the end of the year. I’m now just putting the finishing touches on the Indesign files before sending them off to the printer this coming week. I’ll be redesigning the website over Christmas and New Years to be able to launch early January. Very exhausted, but I can’t wait for launch day — the best part of a publisher’s life. 🙂

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