No words can express the total admiration I have for those brave souls who decide to publish their own niche magazine titles. After all, that’s how The Spit Press began!
For the first printed issue of The Spit Press, back in 2010, I spoke with Kate Bezar–the founder and then editor and publisher of the now very different dumbo feather, pass it on. Her magazine, printed in Australia on 115gsm recycled stock with soy based inks (and a 300gsm uncoated recycled stock cover to boot), was the epitome of beauty in my young eyes. But as it went the title came under new ownership in 2011 and lost, for me at least, all of its charm. I felt short changed and didn’t think I’d ever find something so special again.
But at last, for me and for all the true magazine nerds out there (and I mean those people whose eyes will roll back into their heads and mouths fall ever so slightly ajar at the very scent or imagining of the aforementioned paper stock), the wait is over.
The Man? Kai Brach–a web designer by trade who splits his time between the cultural hubs of Melbourne and Berlin. The Title? Offscreen–a beautifully bound, perfectly printed publication, as lush to hold as it is invigorating to read. Described as a magazine about ‘the people behind bits and pixels’, each issue investigates the world of six fascinating individuals–think people who design icons, app creators, entrepreneurs and such. Despite being about life online, Offscreen provides a needed break from the daily digital in favour of a slower, more authentic approach to life.
After picking up my first copy from Mag Nation in Newtown I immediately wrote to Kai. You can pick up your copy of Offscreen here. But first…
You are originally a web designer by trade. Tell me about your career over the past decade.
After finishing high school in the Southwest of Germany, I started working as a design intern at a local web agency. I experienced some of the troublesome dot-com bubble years and shortly after decided that I needed to see more of the world before deciding what to do with myself.
So I started travelling to Asia and Australia, where I spent a year backpacking around doing all kinds of jobs including working as a kitchen hand, a cleaner and a tomato picker! It was a pretty carefree time that involved living in a dilapidated van for a few months, sharing a house with 7 other guys that worked with me at a local nightclub and a lot of taking-life-as-it-comes sorta attitude.
I’d been freelancing as a digital designer here and there ever since I left Germany. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Though, only in the last 6 or so years I’ve taken web and UI design serious enough to be confident about putting it on some form of business card. By 2007, after several longer breaks back in Germany and a bit more travelling in between I (sort of) settled for Melbourne as my new home. There, I was freelancing for clients based in Germany, the US and Australia, enjoying the freedom and flexibility that comes with running your own business.
It’s built up over some time, but mid last year I felt a pretty strong disconnect between my work and myself, so I went on an around-the-world hiatus to decide what to do next. And that’s when I began to think about making a magazine. It was a mix of trying to escape the digital world for a while and also producing something I could put on my shelf and say “I made this and no update or new release is going to change it.”
Being a publisher, editor and art-director seems like a very heavy load for one person. How does being a one-man show impact the final proof?
It’s funny, because I get a lot of emails addressed to “The Offscreen Team”. But yeah, totally agree. Running Offscreen by myself is tough at times and there are always situations when I’m close to giving it all up and starting a new career as a tradie. Those situations usually involve contributors that decide to drop out the day before the final submission deadline.
As much as I enjoy being in control of everything (hello OCD!), being able to split tasks and discuss decisions within a team is something I miss at times. I’ve long accepted that I’m a bit of a loner (in a good way) when it comes to working, but I also understand that a great team can not only be helpful in getting things done, it’s also a massive source of inspiration.
If there was a whole team working on Offscreen, deadlines would be a lot less scary and things would get done more efficiently, for sure. The quality would improve too, as there are always things that my proof-reader or I overlook in the process. Most of all, though, I think it would be great to have creative folks to explore new topics and features for upcoming issues.
On the plus side, many readers are aware that Offscreen is a one-man show and support the magazine not inspite of, but because of it. Having said that, as the readership continues to grow (hopefully) my budget for paid contributors is growing also, which should enable me to involve more awesome folks to do interviews, research features and organise content.
Despite being based out of Melbourne the magazine is printed in Berlin. What is your relationship with each city and how did this split come about?
Working in the web industry and being a freelancer has many advantages. One of the biggest benefits is the fact that I’m (almost) completely location independent. All I need for work is my Macbook Pro, an Internet connection and good coffee. Since my family and many of my friends are back in Germany, I try to fly over regularly and keep things interesting. I tend to get tired of working from the same location for too long.
Even though I didn’t grow up in Berlin, I’ve always felt a certain gravity towards the city. Young arty types from all over the world that can’t afford European cities like Paris or London flock to this place and produce a unique creative scene. Plus, it’s become sort of like the Silicon Valley of Europe — riddled with tech and web startups. In many ways it’s similar to Melbourne. Actually, it’s a bit more like Fitzroy and Collingwood: creative, hip and a bit grungy. Oh, and half as expensive, so you actually meet a lot of “unemployed artists” that just take life as it comes and do some pretty crazy creative stuff without too much commercial pressure.
Before I produced the first issue of Offscreen, I was crunching some numbers and it quickly became obvious that producing and shipping the magazine from Australia is economically impossible. Just compare the shipping cost: sending a single copy from Berlin to Melbourne costs around A$ 4.20. Doing it the other way around using AusPost currently comes in at A$ 14.10. That’s almost as much as the price of the magazine itself.
Since I’m a native German-speaker, having the magazine printed in Berlin seemed like a logical alternative. Of course, the distance often makes proofing and communication a little more difficult, but once you’ve established a good relationship with your printer and they know exactly what you are after, the process becomes smoother with every issue.
I imagine in creating a mag about life online that it was quite integral for you to craft something of tangible quality that would be a physical contrast to the screen. Tell me about finding the right printer and deciding on the perfect paper stock.
From the beginning I knew that if I ever wanted to create a sustainable print magazine it had to be something people buy because they appreciate the content as much as the experience of the format it comes in — the smell of the ink and the feel of the paper.
Finding and choosing the stock was probably less experimental and exciting than you think. During my last trip to Berlin, I came across a German magazine called The Weekender. The paper they were using instantly impressed me, even though it wasn’t anything fancy. It is a very basic uncoated paper, but its grainy texture with tiny remnants of wood and recycled paper gives it a very warm and natural look and feel — fitting for a magazine that is all about getting away from high-tech and complex things. So I emailed the maker and he was nice enough to give me the specs. It’s made from 100% recycled paper, which was great because the environmental impact of magazines has always been a concern of mine.
At that time I’d shortlisted two printers from Berlin too and they reassured me that their machines will deliver a similar quality on my choice of stock — and they did. Traditionally, Germany knows a thing or two about printing and so far I’ve been really happy with the result.
Are there any magazines on your regular reading list that have influenced the look and feel of Offscreen?
Currently I don’t buy magazines regularly because I’m in Europe for a few months and prefer to travel lightly, but I still spend a lot of time in magazine stores. Just like with any creative work there are many influencers along the way that shape the final product. Amongst them are The Weekender (from Cologne), Monocle (from the UK), the Brownbook (from the United Arab Emirates), Collect (from Adelaide), Process Journal (from Melbourne) and a few other more or less well known titles.
I think what they all have in common is that although they all are innovative in their own ways, the typography and photography in those publications don’t go overboard. Their formats aren’t radically artsy compared to some of the other fashion and design titles out there. The reading experience is a quiet and subtle one, and that’s where I wanted to go with Offscreen, too. The digital world provides distractions enough, so for me a print mag needs to calm down and offer familiarity, a back-to-the-roots sort of experience with an emphasis on typography in a way that we can’t (yet) get online.
Each issue focuses on six accomplished individuals in your industry from app developers to designers, coders to thinkers and many others. How do you select your subjects and then approach them?
I’m quite active on Twitter and Facebook, and read a bunch of the more or less important blogs. You quickly get a rough idea of who’s doing what sort of work and whether they are approachable or not. I then just email them. Luckily, in our industry everyone has some sort of online presence.
Making an initial selection is usually easier than actually getting hold of the folks I want to interview. My aim is to have a good mix of people with various backgrounds (founder, designer, developer) working either for themselves or for a company.
In 1 out of 3 cases I hear back from them too late or not at all. If I do get a response, it’s usually extremely positive (“I’d love to be in your magazine!”), but it often turns out that my time frame collides with their more important deadlines. That’s understandable, the interviews are quite involved and require a lot of time and effort from both sides.
As a publisher and editor, I believe I should aim for a balance between those folks who we already know have interesting careers and those doing amazing things away from the spotlight. That’s why I try really hard not to let Offscreen become a fanzine full of people that have been interviewed many times before — the so called “web celebrities”.
A lot of niche magazines, especially ones that don’t carry a lot of advertising space, can find it hard to stay in print. Are you relying mainly on people’s support through purchasing?
Definitely. The cover price is where I make a living. It’s why I encourage people to buy the mag directly through our website. That’s where the bulk of the money stays with me (after shipping, handling, Paypal fees, taxes etc.) and goes towards making more issues.
One thing that puts me off in many magazines are the ads. Not only are they disruptive, but often they’re just plain ugly. At the same time, I know how important they are in making a magazine financially viable.
So, I decided to involve eight sponsors per issue, to help cover the production cost. By presenting the sponsors in the center of the magazine as an elegant showcase, the reading experience feels less interrupted, and the sponsors still get the attention they deserve. The magazine doesn’t shy away from telling readers the obvious: we depend on these companies.
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant at first, but can now say with confidence that this approach works really well for all involved: multiple people mentioned that, for the first time, they read every single word in a magazine — including in the “ads”. At the least, people notice the different approach which makes them more effective than typical ads.
It’s early days for Offscreen and it’s clear that you’re determined to stay exclusively in print, but do you have an ultimate vision or direction for the mag? What’s ahead?
True, I rather stop making the mag than turning it into a digital publication. Nothing against ebooks or digital in general (I read a lot of digital stuff everyday) but a magazine called Offscreen that goes on-screen? Maybe not.
To be honest, there is no clear vision for the mag that goes beyond the next one or two issues. For the moment, I’m happy with the feedback I’m getting and I’m not too eager to change the format or even the layout too much. As I said before, I’d like to provide a familiar, calm reading experience and so I’m rather conservative when it comes to changes. It’s going to evolve naturally as I build up my own experience as a publisher/editor and as the readership and contributor numbers (hopefully) grow.