Posted on 28 July 2010
Since launching 8 Faces a couple of weeks ago (pre-orders opened on the 16th and we’ll start shipping next Wednesday), I’ve been wanting to write a post about the whole process; not from a technical point of view, but more from the view of someone who has suddenly found themselves to be a publisher. I say ‘found’ because for me the entire process of creating the magazine — from initial idea through to finished product — has been one of discovery, surprise, and delight. If I’m being completely honest, I was pretty naïve when I started the project, but if anything that naïvety is probably the one thing that made it happen: if you don’t foresee all of the challenges, you’re not worried about them. Blissful ignorance, as they say.
So here follows an essay, of sorts, about publishing in print and the importance of the web in that process. Obviously this is based entirely on my own experience of publishing 8 Faces but this is also directly related to the thoughts discussed in Craig Mod’s excellent ‘ Kickstartup’ essay, which was published yesterday.
The myth of printing
Printing a magazine these days instantly leads many people to assume that it’s achieved using a print-on-demand service like Magcloud or Lulu. After all, print-on-demand is all the rage, isn’t it? But the reason people jump to this conclusion is because there’s a general misconception about printing: namely, that it’s somehow extremely hard to do. Well, here’s a line I hope will be read by many other would-be publishers thinking of making the leap: it’s not.
Although there are several subtle differences between printing-on-demand and printing in the traditional manner (i.e: printing in one large quantity in the hopes that it’ll sell), it boils down to these main two:
- Printing-on-demand means there are no initial set-up costs (read: financial risks), but the price-per-unit is higher. Also, the only printing method available is digital.
- Printing traditionally involves an initial financial outlay (cynics will call this a ‘gamble’, but as digital printing allows for very low numbers, there’s basically only as much risk as printing-on-demand), but the price-per-unit is lower, and continues to drop as more are produced. Also, both digital and lithographic printing methods are available.
I’ll deal with the difference between printing digitally or lithographically in a minute. For now, let me continue to dispel the myth.
If you’re confident that there’s enough demand for your printed product, have faith and opt for a traditional print run. I don’t mean to denounce print-on-demand services at all, because they’re great (especially Magcloud, whose ‘Chief of Awesome’ is the always-inspiring Derek Powazek), but their main benefit is in reducing risk to you as the publisher. However, if you’re confident you’ll sell your publication, then there is no risk. Well, of course there’s always an element of risk, but marketing your product effecively, getting a feel for the buzz it’s generating online, and building a large mailing list of potential customers should give you a relatively good idea of the demand. Ironically, with 8 Faces, the demand was actually much greater than I’d thought, hence the 1000 copies not being nearly enough.
The myth of financial risk
Let’s assume you have something you want to publish and you’re confident that enough people will buy it for you to invest in a relatively large print run. There’s still one obstacle in your way: how to raise the cash.
With 8 Faces, I did that in two ways: firstly, I asked (mt) Media Temple — a well-respected company with whom I already had a relationship, and who have a history of supporting and associating themselves with design projects — if they would like to contribute significantly to the printing costs. Their generous support paid for approximately half of the printing quote I had been given in the early stages of the magazine’s production (thanks again, guys!). To raise the other half, I contacted some foundries and asked them if they’d like to take out a quarter-page ad. Together, they effectively paid for the other half of the printing (based on the initial quote).
Then something big happened. As all of the content and design started to come together, I realised the magazine was going to be bigger. A lot bigger. In fact, the page count almost doubled from the original spec. Around about the same time I’d also decided to up the production value somewhat and add foil blocking to the cover and heavier paper stock throughout. I wanted to make something really special — a true collector’s item — but the trouble was that I now had a magazine that was going to cost significantly more to produce.
However, the higher page count actually offered a unique opportunity: with pages needing to be in multiples of 12, it made no difference in price if the magazine was 74 or 76 pages long. That meant an extra two pages were available for some additional advertising, so I then contacted several more foundries and managed to secure another eight ads. Those extra eight meant a significant boost to the printing fund, and much less reason to fret about the overall cost.
In the end, I put in around £1.5k of my own money towards the final printing bill. Although that was more than I’d initially budgeted for, it was worth it for the higher quality of the end product.
I should conclude this section on money by adding that printing isn’t actually that expensive. It’s just another myth that has come about because large print runs seem to sit on some terrifyingly tall pedestal that most of us are afraid to even contemplate. But seriously: printing doesn’t cost as much as you’d think. Russell Davies delivered the same message at last year’s dConstruct and I think the thought must’ve stayed with me since then.
Digital vs. litho
The debut issue of 8 Faces was printed digitally. #2 onwards will be printed lithographically. Let me explain why.
From the very beginning, I had my heart set on a litho print. The general opinion is that litho still has an edge over digital in terms of quality, but once I saw the proofs, which were of course printed digitally, I was blown away by the results. And after we’d gone through several proofs, I started to become a little nervous about how the colours might differ on the final thing if it was a litho print. The printers — the excellent Prime Group, who I highly recommend — were keen to use the magazine as a demonstration of just how good their digital printing is, so — even though the digital production costs for 1000 copies were higher than litho — they kindly matched the price. Printing digitally also enabled us to dynamically number each copy.
However, digital is best suited to small runs and is not really cost effective when printing in very large numbers, so from #2 onwards, when we’ll be pressing 2000 or maybe 3000 copies, 8 Faces will be a lithographic print. That does throw a little uncertainty into the mix about the colour difference between the digital proofs and the final thing, but it just means I’ll need to get a ‘wet’ litho proof done before giving it the go-ahead. Plus, although future editions will still be ‘limited’ runs, we won’t be using numbering from now on.
For anyone who’s considering publishing and has decided not to use a print-on-demand service, deciding whether to go digital or litho is an important decision. Digital offers several nice advantages, like being able to dynamically alter what’s actually printed (you could personalise each copy much more than just changing a number) and revise mistakes before printing the entire run; in that sense it’s still good for avoiding risks. Plus, it works out great for small quantities, because there are no set-up costs. Lithographic printing is obviously more or a ‘risk’ but means a much lower cost per unit if you’re printing in large quantities, and that cost continues to drop as you increase the numbers. Plus the purists will still insist that litho still has a slight edge in terms print quality.
The vital importance of the web
Although #1 was printed digitally and utilised some of the benefits of the method, it was still in essence a ‘traditional’ print run. But the magazine’s marketing, purchasing, and even success all happened online.
The only actual ‘marketing’ I did for the magazine was via a few tweets on Twitter (where @ replies are a great indication of the kind of buzz being built up) and a few blog posts on this very site. It probably helped that initial tweets and posts were relatively mysterious in their nature and things were given away slowly over time, but essentially there wasn’t really that much actual marketing activity; it was more about getting people interested in the idea and getting them talking about it as well. Mind you, that makes it sound cold and calculated, and that wasn’t the case at all. I just talked about the project the way I’d talk about anything. None of those tweets or blog posts were designed to invoke sales at a later date, but that’s what they ended up doing, such is the power of social media.
Of course, the people who follow me on Twitter or read this blog are, like me, primarily web designers. The irony of such a (seemingly) non-webby magazine being sought after by web types is not lost on me! But it also helped inform the content: not only do several of the interviews steer into the topical subject of web fonts, but I intentionally picked designers that would appeal to us web types, rather than sticking only to type designers, or only to traditional print designers. 8 Faces is actually, in many ways, a very web-designer-friendly magazine.
The other important part of the web’s involvement sounds almost too obvious to state, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s only available to buy online. That’s the way a lot of modern products are sold, but like most magazines, I’d originally intended to give stock to a few select design stores in the UK. I never imagined that the stock would go so quickly that there would be none to send them! But really, there’s actually very little incentive to sell small-run magazines in actual stores. Most take something like a 45% cut and operate a sale-or-return policy, meaning that if you make a sale, you get very little out of it, and if you don’t make a sale, you end up with a returned pile of creased, thumbed-through magazines. When there are people clamouring to buy a copy online, there’s essentially no viable reason to sell it in physical shops. Plus, I’d much rather see the magazine go to someone who is passionate about getting hold of a copy and has been tracking its creative process over several months than someone who just stumbles upon it in a shop with only a passing interest in the subject.
That said, a very large part of what I wanted to do with 8 Faces was about getting non-type fans excited about the subject, which is why I intentionally avoided the highbrow stance (and price tag!) of most high-end / type-focused magazines. I want it to be accessible to all, and from what feedback I’ve heard so far, this seems to have worked.
Many, many hats
You may have noticed that I’ve been talking about the logistics of fundraising, printing, and marketing, and not a bit about the real soul of the magazine itself: the editorial and design. And that embodies the most important thing I’ve learned during the process of bringing a magazine from idea to sale: that editorial and design are just parts of a much larger picture.
I had a helping hand from some great people while putting the magazine together (see the ‘Team’ section on the website) but by and large I found myself wearing several different hats. Way more than I ever anticipated, and way more than I ever have with any previous project. By and large, most of these roles were completely new to me and I had to make it up as I went along. Hopefully that doesn’t show too much!
Here’s a quick break-down of the roles, and hopefully this offers a glimpse into what it entails to bring a new publication to print:
- Editor (planning and editing all content)
- Interviewer (physically conducting the interviews, either in person or via Skype)
- Writer (writing new content and editing the interview transcripts)
- Designer (designing the magazine (a massive job!) and co-designing the website with Kyle)
- Ad Sales Manager (researching potential advertisers, contacting them, chasing them up, providing the successful ones with information, giving feedback on the ads, invoicing the advertisers, chasing those invoices up)
- Fulfilment Planner (planning the shipping packaging, arranging the distribution, guiding Kyle and Decode.UK on how this should all tie in with the website)
- Press Officer (dealing with press requests and trying to promote the magazine)
- Project Manager (commissioning work and chasing those involved, applying for funding, liasing with printers, generally making sure all of the above came together)
- Customer Support Contact (answering hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails)
In short, I learned one important lesson: this is why magazines are made by companies, not individuals! But that makes it sound negative, and that’s not the case. I loved the process and I’m happy to do it all over again with the next issue. But if you’re considering this yourself, bear in mind that it is an undertaking.
If I have one regret, it’s that I underestimated how long all of this would take and never really made time for the magazine until right at the end. For the most part, it was done in my spare time and free hours here and there… which is why it took months for the first issue to arrive.
Right now, in an age of print-on-demand for real-world publication and iPads / iPhones / Kindles for virtual publication, it would — on the face of it — seem unwise to launch a magazine like 8 Faces, especially as it’s targeted at such a niche audience. As I said in the introduction of the magazine, “everything about this project shouldn’t work.” But it has, and it’s done so in a bigger way than I ever would’ve imagined. I was confident that there was going to be a demand for the first issue, but I had no idea that it’d sell out in under two hours. I had no idea that I’d be receiving hundreds and hundreds of emails and tweets, begging me to reprint more. And I certainly had no idea that this little pet project of mine would make me rethink the way I work, which is exactly what it’s done:
In the last two weeks, I’ve realised that there is a demand for something real, tangible, and crafted with care. There’s also so much enjoyment from creating such a thing that I’ve decided to dedicate a large portion of my year to it. As of now, around 25% of my professional work will be dedicated to 8 Faces. I hope that my own experiences — and those of other designers-turned-makers-and-publishers like Mark, or Jeffrey, Jason, and Mandy, or of course Craig (all of whom are inifinitely more experienced than me) — inspire more would-be publishers to make the leap.
Because, honestly, the leap is not as big as you think.
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]