An Interview with Kai Brach of Offscreen Magazine

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Print-only publications are a rarity nowadays. And one guy running it? Unheard of. Yet that’s the story of Kai Brach and his self-described “old-fashioned” magazine, Offscreen. Exploring a more human side of tech, Offscreen is a beautifully designed publication with quality only possible in print.

The next issue is due out at the start of next year. And with Kai’s Christmas Wishlist giveaway having just begun, it’s a good time to check Offscreen out.

We spoke with Kai about what it means to run a print publication today: the challenges, process, and vision Kai has for what makes Offscreen different.

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There are a lot of web and print publications covering technology today. What does Offscreen cover differently as opposed to other technology publications?

When we think of tech or web-related magazines, we usually think of cheap, throw-away publications stuffed with tutorials, out-of-date ‘gadget news’ and bad-looking, in-your-face ads. Offscreen has nothing to do with that.

The idea behind Offscreen is to show the human side of digital, how smart folks use the web and technology to build businesses and be creative. I’m trying to capture what’s happening behind the scenes of the websites and products that are shaping our digital lifestyle. Each issue is built around six lengthy interviews with creatives in the tech and web community. We talk about their private and professional lives, what inspires, motivates and drives them to make and innovate. I want to give interfaces a real face.

In that sense it’s probably even more of a lifestyle magazine. A lifestyle magazine full of geeks.

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Why print? Why not start a blog or website?

As the title suggests, Offscreen is about taking a break and slowing down. I want readers to put down their devices and spend a bit of disconnected quality time with a real, physical object.

I’m originally a web designer myself and after 10 years of client work I just felt really exhausted and empty by working in digital only. Don’t get me wrong, I love the web. It’s just that anything we produce as digital designers is so ephemeral. After a decade of producing websites, I had nothing to show for. It was all gone — disappeared into the ether that is the internet.

I think producing Offscreen as a real, printed magazine had a lot to do with scratching my own itch. I wanted to prove to myself that I can actually create something that exists beyond the one-dimensional, short-lived world that is the web. I was intrigued by the idea of putting my own magazine on the shelf or seeing it in shops around the world.

What’s so nice about print? It’s the multisensory experience. The smell of the ink, the feel of the paper — qualities we’re starting to sorely miss in the flat screen world. There are some really beautifully produced indie publications out there and people love buying them not despite being in print, but because of it.

I believe we’re currently going through a revival of (the appreciation of) print. More people than ever before are willing to spend a decent amount of money on a well-designed reading experience on paper. Its physicality is drawing people in and it creates a unique community around this experience.

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Considering that you’ve worked in tech before, how is your process in publishing a print magazine different?

Oh, *very* different. Last week my printer emailed me to tell me that the manufacturing plant that makes the paper for my magazine is on fire. Literally. I now have to find a different stock for the next issue because they can’t produce paper for the foreseeable future. This is surely a rare event, but it’s just one of many unexpected challenges with working in print.

As mentioned, I’m originally a web designer myself, so before publishing the first issue, I had to figure out how to put together a magazine, how to write and edit and design stuff in Indesign. The publishing industry is a totally different beast compared to the web community. On the web, the tools to create are usually free for everyone to use. They are just out there for everyone to play with. Even the biggest websites are running on open-source software, so there is a huge amount of sharing amongst people in that space. Problem solving is crucial and people are usually more than willing to help out.

Not so in publishing. It’s a dinosaur industry with few people openly talking about success and failure. There are also no ready-to-use, one-fit-all solutions. Publishing a magazine comes with so many loose ends that everyone tries to figure out the best way of doing things. To give you a few examples, my entire editorial process happens in Google Drive. I rely on 40-50 shared Google Docs per issue to gather content, collaborate with contributors and do all the editing and proofreading. No idea how others manage this part, but I’d love to find out. When it comes to selling the magazine, I’m really trying to make it as easy as possible for people to buy and subscribe to the magazine online. There was no e-commerce tool out there that accommodates the need for managing magazine subscriptions and streamlining the shipping process in the background, so I created my own order management system with the help of a developer friend.

When we’re talking about the actual publishing process and how digital is different from print there, I think the biggest difference is the pace and labour-intensity of producing and editing content. I’m sure you have some quality control mechanisms in place here at The Fox Is Black, but you can always go back into the article and fix things up if necessary. Not so in print. You really need to edit and proofread everything thoroughly to make sure it is correct and typo-free and fits into the limited space you reserved for it. You then tweak the heck out of your typography, your photos, etc to make it look good. Each article is individually designed. The publishing cycle is very slow, especially as a one-person-magazine. That, of course, has an effect on how you edit and curate topics.

I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant, but many times I wish the whole things was as simple as a blog and pressing the ‘publish now’ button.

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What’s the process for an issue of Offscreen, from closing the previous issue to shipping the new issue?

As mentioned, for the editing and content collection phase, I rely on a large number of Google documents that I share with my contributors and interviewees. Besides Gmail, this is where I spend most of my time. The core document is my Content Plan, a Google spreadsheet where I keep track of the status of each page of the document. It contains the names of the contributors, whether they’ve confirmed their contribution, their deadline, and whether they’ve supplied all the required materials. It provides a bird’s eye view of the entire issue. Only when all of the pages on this plan are marked as “complete”, I move on to the next phase.

When all the content is in, I merge the various pieces in one large, 40,000+ words Google Doc that I share with my proofreader. We then go through it all a few times and try to find all the typos, punctuation mistakes and discuss anything that’s unclear. Simultaneously, I get started with retouching the photos in Photoshop and Lightroom, adjusting colour profiles, resolutions, etc. When both written and graphical content is complete, I get to the more visually interesting part: laying out each page in Indesign.

Based on the files of a previous issue, I play around with possible layout options for any new features until I’m happy with how everything looks and flows. More photo retouching, type adjusting and content updates to make everything fit. Once the magazine is finalised in its digital form, I export all assets so that my printer can get a first digital proof done. I usually choose a few critical photos and pages of the magazine that I want to have hard-proofed (printed) to see how they’ll turn out on paper. If there are no major issues, I give everything one last check before uploading my files to the printer and the ink hits the paper.

It takes around 8-12 working days to get the magazine printed, embossed, bound and individually packaged before they are shipped to our fulfilment company on the other side of Berlin. (I’m based on the other side of the world, in Melbourne.)

In the meantime, I start working on the website: updating pages for the new issue, writing a launch-post for the blog, preparing the newsletter and making sure my shipper has all the necessary assets to send out the first big lot of new issues to our subscribers.

The launch day of the new issue has to be my most favourite part. The buzz that’s going through the interwebs keeps me excited and a bit nervous for at least 24-48h. What’s the initial reception of my selection of contributors and interviewees? How is the cover received? Do sales on the first day exceed those of the last issues? What are folks talking about on Twitter and Facebook?

Over the following week or so, I continue to keep an eye on orders coming in and coordinate shipments going out to our stockists. I answer support questions and Tweets and try to keep the buzz going. As feedback is starting to come in from the first readers that received their new issue, I begin writing down ideas and potential names of contributors for the next issue and the process starts again.

You’ve been very open about the behind-the-scenes on your blog. Why do you feel this is important?

When I started my research about how to create an independent magazine, I really struggled to find any honest, straightforward and up-to-date resources. There are books about editorial design and about publishing, but to my knowledge there is nothing out there at the moment that takes you through the steps necessary to get a new magazine off the ground.

As I was figuring these things out, I made an effort to capture my successes and failures, not just for a future audience, but mostly for myself. I slowly realised that I had a small, but growing readership on my blog that was really interested in the behind-the-scene story of Offscreen. And so I kept at it. Every time I made a new discovery or had to overcome challenges, I tried to write a blog post about it, like how I work with contributors, how finding good stock isn’t easy, the pros and cons of having distributors, or relying on sponsors instead of advertisers. I recently also opened my books and published all my numbers.

The result is that I now have an active group of followers that deeply appreciates my transparency. Judging by the comments and feedback I receive, everyone loves this kind of openness and transparency. And in return, they pay me back by becoming honest, loyal readers and fans of Offscreen.

It’s been an interesting experiment. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an experienced publisher and I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’m one of the few people in this industry that is 100% transparent and willing to voice some of the issues. I also think that as indie publishers with no corporate entity breathing down our necks we should all be a bit more open and start a discourse about the challenges of making magazines. We can all learn so much from each other in this ‘Golden Age of Print’.

Coming from the web industry where sharing and open-sourcing is the norm, the publishing industry is still way too protective and closed-up. I don’t know what other magazine makers are trying to hide, maybe they secretly found a magic formula for success. Patent pending.

We’re a design blog – so let’s talk design. What was your inspiration for Offscreen’s aesthetic? Anything from your UI design past? Other print publications?

It definitely was an interesting transition. Like so many in the web community, as a self-taught web designer I never really learned the basics of typography or even considered it an important element in design. Back then, when CSS began its triumph over table-based layouts, you had a handful of fonts to choose from. Putting too much time and thought into typographic details wasn’t something that seemed important on the web — or even technically possible.

Working with text in Indesign and diving into the specifics of the editorial creation process really opened my eyes to the depth of typography. It also showed me how limited we still are when it comes to working with type on the screen. Once you’ve spent hours getting rid of widows and orphans, you’ll never look at text on the web in the same way.

Vice versa, while I was enjoying the limitations of a fixed canvas size and limited whitespace in print, going back to working on the Offscreen website felt surprisingly agile. I realised how little I had appreciated the fact that on the web, nothing is set in stone, mistakes are (usually) not very costly to fix. You also never create just one experience, but different ones depending on the device that is used.

In terms of visual inspiration for the magazine, I had a whole stack of publications to learn from. The more obvious ones come to mind, like Monocle and The Inventory, and a whole range of lesser known indie titles, like Process Journal, Collect, Underscore, Travel Almanac, Brownbook and The Weekender. Being located in Australia, there is a surprisingly large amount of quality indie titles published here. Considering how tiny this country is in terms of its population we really punch well above our weight.

More recently I stumbled upon a mag called “B”, out of Seoul. It’s a visual and sensual feast! I find it amazing how you can spend so much time in book stores and design shops, thinking that you’ve seen all the ‘good ones’. But then you come across real jewels like “B” that just blow your mind and make you rethink everything. That’s one of the many things I like about printed magazines. The serendipity of discovering a magazine you never heard of before, and falling in love with ink on paper all over again.

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As Issue 7 approaches, how have things changed for the magazine since the start? What do you hope/plan to see from it in the future?

Looking back at previous issues of Offscreen, I can clearly see how my experience over the years has helped make it a better product with every new issue. It’s probably mostly invisible to my readers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate the improving quality. If you ask a publisher what their favourite issue is, they will almost always tell you, “the last one”. It’s the one in which you made the least amount of mistakes. ;)

With so many things to take care of, staying creatively satisfied is getting harder and harder. As a one-person mag it’s easy to get stuck in my ways. With constantly looming deadlines, and juggling selling and making the magazine, it’s difficult to actually explore new ideas and allow room for the product to evolve.

That’s why I took a bit more time in between the last issue and the next one, and decided to make a few editorial and visual changes.

On the surface, Offscreen could be seen as a very geeky magazine for web designers. I think it’s much more than that though. With issue No7 I’m trying to broaden my potential audience by not just covering web designers, developers and founders. I’m hoping to include more people that are generally using technology and the internet for creative ideas and interesting projects. For instance, in issue 7 there’ll be a small feature about a guy who travels around the US taking nature and wildlife photos with his iPhone — and making a living off it.

There will also be some visual changes, including the introduction of an additional font. Due to unforeseeable circumstances (see above), I’m also looking at changing the paper stock, giving the magazine a bit of a different feel.

Long term, I hope I can increase my readership from currently 4000 to around 6000 at which point I’d be able to hire someone that could help me find contributors, and curate and edit content, which still consumes the largest amount of time.

But who knows what’s next!? As a publisher, one of the things I’ve learned quite early is that *after* one issue is always *before* the next. You start to think in publishing cycles and whatever is beyond the next release date you really have no time to worry about.

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Offscreen Issue No7 is due to be released early January 2014. You can subscribe and buy back issues at offscreenmag.com, follow Kai’s behind-the-scene blog or keep up-to-date via his Twitter feed.

December 11, 2013 / By

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