Whatever production values you aspire to, self-publishing is more accessible than ever. Julia Sagar considers the print and digital options available.
In today's world of digital publishing anyone can put out their own magazine. Even Twitter's in on it, with apps such as Teehan+Lax's Tweet Mag promising to turn your usernames, lists and tags into "beautifully simple mags".
However, digital hasn't won yet, and despite repeated claims that print is dead there remains demand for something real and tangible, crafted with care. But which option is best, what are the costs involved, and is it really worth investing in print when digital is so much easier?
A quick glance through the hundreds of independent titles on sale at UK-based magazine outlet Magma would indicate so. Designer, illustrator, speaker and first-time publisher Elliot Jay Stocks agrees: "We - the design community and general public - underestimate the demand that's still out there for print," he says. "Not flimsy, throwaway magazines, but publications with substance and high production values, produced by people who really care about the subject. People still want those kind of products."
Stocks is right, if the first issue of his biannual print magazine for typography devotees, 8 Faces, is anything to go by: he sold out of all physical copies in under two hours. "I underestimated the demand," he laughs. "I limited the run to 1,000 editions because I had no idea that we'd sell more than that."
With a cover price of £8 plus shipping costs, 8 Faces has a lower price tag than some other, rival design books on the subject. The intention, says Stocks, was to bring type to the masses: "8 Faces is for people who love type, but you don't have to be a real type nerd to enjoy it; our goal is to encourage learning and passion for typography at all levels," he explains.
Like many first-time self-publishers, Stocks started 8 Faces as a side project, printing two issues a year to "keep things manageable". Balancing paid work with a magazine can often require something of a juggling act, as co-founders of free urban lifestyle title Bitchslap, Nick Bridge and Danny Santaana, both attest: "Bitchslap is biannual at the moment simply due to day jobs - we both do a bunch of different stuff and don't print more often because we don't have time."
The pair started out in a Copenhagen caf seven years ago with a box of paper, some ink refill cartridges, a borrowed printer, scapel and an old stapler. "We were bored senseless and really sick of looking at the crappy lifestyle magazines in Copenhagen," recalls Bridge.
Issue one comprised 300 handmade copies, with "24 pages of abusive content". Fast-forward to 2010 and the 96-page mishmash of urban culture, visual arts, boardsports, music and fashion has "evolved like a mutant reptile" to encompass a print-run of 10,000 and is sold in selected shops across Europe. "These days our inbox is full of PR spam, we've interviewed some of our all-time heroes, helped expose some new talent, and are dealing with high-profile international brands."
So how do you get your magazine from concept stage to printed publication - and what are the different options? Self-employed illustrator Dustin Hostetler started small. His art title Faesthetic began life as a photocopied zine back in 2001, created in response to the PDF zines circulating at the time.
"I printed the first issue on a Xerox machine at the design studio I was working for during the weekends when no one was around. I'd bring in my own paper and take advantage of the office supplies," he recounts. "I loved the idea of using the internet to get work out there, but the concept of PDFs being so easily deleted didn't appeal to my archival nature. I wanted an art zine I could show my grandchildren, not something that's reliant on operating systems and internet connections."
Originally reproduced in black and white, Faesthetic later evolved to two-colour, and for its 10th anniversary this year Hostetler will make the jump to full colour. Now a 128-page arts title with a broad international readership, Faesthetic has boasted metallic and varnish treatments on the cover, as well as neon ink inside.
For Stocks, it was important to inject high production values into 8 Faces from the outset so that readers would recognise it as something special. He opted for a 300gsm uncoated paper stock for the cover of issue one, and 140gsm for the interior. The logo is foil-blocked, and the production values carry through to the packaging, with each copy arriving in a custom-sized protective cardboard casing.
"If you're going to craft an experience, that can't end with the mag - it has to continue into the packaging and also your customer service," he advises. "I wanted to make something people would want to keep forever on their bookshelves, not in their magazine racks."
Alvaro Fierro, founder of Chilean contemporary art title JOIA, reinforces this sentiment: "We always wanted to make a high-end magazine," he says. "There was a gap in the Chilean editorial market in 2007, which we felt the need to fill."
More book than magazine, the 104-page "art gallery" is printed on good quality opaque couche paper and is 100 per cent offset printed. The team aren't afraid to experiment with new print treatments, either - in 2008, all covers exhibited a fluoro ink; while 2009's bore different coloured foils. "It's been a wise move: beyond the contents, the magazine stands out for its print quality. JOIA's gone from strength to strength," says Fierro.
Of course, all this costs money, and one of the biggest initial obstacles for would-be self-publishers is how to finance the project. In the early days of Faesthetic, Hostetler would put the printing costs on his credit card, paying them off when the sales came in. Now he uses the earnings from previous issues to fund the next one. "Beyond the small amount of sponsors I tap into each issue, I'm the sole investor. I'd prefer to lose money, than compromise the quality of the publication," he explains.
For free magazine Bitchslap, income comes solely from advertising sales: "The hardest part is convincing advertisers that it's a valuable platform to reach their market," admits Bridge. "But there's been no outside investment besides the time I borrowed a few thousand from my wife to pay the print bill," he grins. Production eats the majority of earnings, he says, with flights, time and distribution taxing the rest. To keep costs down, the team still do a large part of the distribution themselves, by hand. "Any leftovers go on hardware or cocktails for the contributors."
Another option is sponsorship, a tack that Stocks took for 8 Faces. As he reasons, if you're going to spend several months of your life creating something - and take time off your client work to do so - it might as well be the best you can do.
Stocks turned to web-hosting company Media Temple, with whom he already had a working relationship, for support. The company donated generously towards the printing costs for issue one, with ads from several font foundries contributing towards the rest. "I still had to invest about £1,500 of my own money," he admits, "but it was worth it - especially as the demand for more means that 8 Faces has turned from a side project into a very major part of my professional output."
Financing 8 Faces is an ongoing challenge, however, and for issue two Stocks is taking on 'partners' at various different levels. "It's basically all done on an issue-by-issue basis. As successful as the magazine has been, there's no way it can continue without serious financial support from companies such as these."
There is a fourth option worth considering if you're not confident about financing a new magazine, as taken by Argentina's Bestial Design Studio. Published once every two months, Carne magazine is all about giving the reader a different ride: "They download the magazine, turn on the music and can flip through the pages at their leisure," says co-founder and art director Carlo Michelangelo Luetto. "It does have a production cost, but there are no print investments so we can manage it with our other studio work."
For Stocks, the most important thing he's learned during the process of bringing a magazine from idea to sale, is that editorial and design are just parts of a much larger picture. "You'll need to be prepared to wear many hats," he warns. "The thing that I really underestimated with 8 Faces was the time it'd take to do all the 'unseen' stuff - things like trying to get funding, chasing invoices, liaising with the printers, cutting down the copy, and so on and so forth," he says.
"The first issue took a long time to produce, but that was because I was finding my feet and seeing what works. Things like designing the basic template of the magazine - that took ages, but will massively speed things up in future."
It's all about finding a process that works - something that JOIA's Fierro has nailed. This year, production was upped from every three months to every two. With 14 issues behind them, the team - which has grown to encompass three journalists and a text editor - have developed a clear working system. Fierro spends much of the year researching new artists to showcase: a list of 10 are picked and interviewed for each issue, and the magazine is then designed to a simple grid.
Distribution is another key consideration for any self-publisher: how and where do you make your magazine available? Having a website is key. JOIA is currently sold in Chile with some outlets in Argentina: "But you can buy it through our site from all over the world," explains Fierro.
Stocks agrees that an online presence is beneficial. He'd negotiated deals with various shops prior to 8 Faces' release, but thanks to the unexpected sell-out of issue one, now has very little incentive to sell the magazine anywhere other than online. "I'd gathered quite a few email addresses from people who were interested, just by talking about it on Twitter and my blog, but I hadn't taken into account the thousands of people who were following its creation, even though they hadn't signed up to the mailing list," says Stocks. "It's a testament to the power of promoting your product using social media," he adds.
8 Faces ships worldwide, so it's available in any country that has a postal service. And when all physical copies are sold out, PDF versions are available for £3.
For free titles such as Bitchslap, increased exposure is key to expansion - so all current and back issues are available for free online, with a printed counterpart of the latest issue found in selected shops across Europe. Converted and hosted by a service called Pagegangster, the whole digitising process takes less than 20 minutes. "There's oodles of free content available online from paid media already, so it feels essential in order to compete," Bridge explains. "We don't want to restrict our readership to just the people in a few cities in Europe, when a lot of the content is universally relevant."
Bridge puts the success of Bitchslap down to its original content. "Readers can see that we're just a couple of guys writing about things we like, without a hidden agenda," he reflects. "It's opened channels to collaborations and additional projects that wouldn't have been possible otherwise."
New doors have opened for Hostetler, too. He's working on additional projects to sell alongside Faesthetic. "If all goes well, I'll be able to carry on doing this for another 10 years," he says.
"There's still demand for 'real' things that you can hold in your hands; that are so special that you want to keep them forever," concludes Stocks. "People love 8 Faces, and there's been so much excitement around the entire project. It feels like my goal's been achieved."