Indiecon conference review
“We must not leave the power to the graphic designers,” Oliver Gehrs, publisher of Dummy magazine (above), concluded his opening keynote. “With print magazines, relevance and depth are in good hands.”
Gehrs’ was a rant against what he sees as a trend towards the superficial in independent magazine publishing, and it’s as if the conference organisers – Malte Brenneisen and Urs Spindler, two recent journalism school graduates (above) – had pre-emptively taken his advice and applied it to the whole event. Leave it to journalists to focus on hard questions, and to Germans to let pragmatism reign free.
Indiecon was a rare animal among independent publishing conferences. There were few feel good talks, no gushing over typefaces or storytelling approaches, and covers were only discussed in the context of their newsstand feasibility. Everyone here knew that making a good magazine is the easy part. The workshops that made the rooms of the bourgeois Hamburg villa (above) owned by Hoffmann und Campe Corporate Publishers pop at their seams weren’t the ones on editorial concepts or DIY, but those dealing with finance, pricing and branding, distribution. Indiecon was a conference dedicated to finding solutions for the everyday problems of magazine publishing. And as such, it was extremely inspiring.
As much as I disagree with Gehrs’ condemnation of pretty, meek or even superficial magazines as irrelevant (because who is anyone to judge what should be relevant to others?), it set the tone for much of what was to come. His talk was followed by a panel of “independents” (above) that pitted two women who treat their publications as serious businesses – Gabriele Fischer, publisher and editor of business magazine brand eins, and Katarzyna Mol-Wolf, publisher of the magazines Emotion and Hohe Luft – against two men with more of a side-project mindset – Ale Dumbsky, publisher of the free newspaper Read, and Dirk Mönkemöller, founder of The Weekender. They didn’t agree on much, except that the term “indie” is meaningless in publishing. (To quote Dumbsky: “A baker with only one shop is also ‘indie’.”)
“The reason there are so many different magazines reflects the need of the creators, not of the market,” Fischer said, and explained her reasons for going it alone: “The large publishing companies have no stamina. If a magazine isn’t in the black after a few issues, they get nervous. But time is an important factor.” Seven to eight years – that’s how long it takes for a magazine to become a profitable business, she and Mol-Wolf agreed.
“I want my magazines to be bought and to pay my bills. I don’t want to do indie and die indie.”
The business side of publishing was a strong theme throughout the panel. “‘Indie’ is often used a way of saying that it’s not making any money,” Fischer said. “I’d love to have a lively indie scene with many good magazines that pay good fees. The big publishing companies treat their freelancers like shit. We don’t.” Dirk agreed that established media exploit people, but countered that The Weekender’s way of giving something back to its contributors is by allowing freedom. “I don’t want to be able to make a living from the magazine. I might have to do things that I don’t want to, and I’d fear for its soul.” Dumbsky, on the other hand, maintained he’d “love nothing more than to pay his contributors,” but that selling advertising was a shit job. And Mol-Wolf said: “I want my magazines to be bought and to pay my bills. I don’t want to do indie and die indie.”
Business was also a big topic on Saturday’s penultimate talk, the “cold start” panel consisting of Josephine Götz of Päng, the editor of social business magazine Enorm, Marc Winkelmann, and the editor and publisher of business magazine Impulse, Nikolaus Förster. “I don’t know any digital publications that make any money,” Förster said, adding that they finance a moderate digital presence through their print magazine. (The general rejection of digital publishing was another interesting – and quite archetypically German – thread running through the conference, with Fischer speaking of an “annoying online hype.”)
Götz explained their distribution system of “Päng Dealers”, shops that don’t usually sell magazines but that they approach because they fit the bill, and which buy copies off them instead of taking them in commission. In fact, distribution was one of the most-discussed subjects and the distributors present were in high demand. There are roughly 6,000 print magazines in Germany, Stephan Busse of the leading distribution company DPV said – a variety mainly due to Germany’s freedom-of-speech legislation, which means a newsstand cannot reject a title unless it hasn’t sold after three issues. His advice to the magazine makers present might have sounded too mainstream to some – align the title to the left, explain your magazine on the cover, follow the law, create demand, offer subscriptions. But he also said that large distributors can really enjoy working with small, independent titles. “First of all, we want to earn money, so we take everything. Secondly, indie publishers are really interesting personalities!”
My own workshop, on magazine financing, was well attended, too – even though I made it clear I wouldn’t have any answers. For those, we had to refer back to Gabriele Fischer, who had already explained brand eins’ approach – no discounts, no content cooperation, nothing – and added: “The economic side of it is madness.” Instead, we worked with an open floor and everyone threw in ideas, from how to keep costs low (flexible printing dates, black-and-white pages, republishing content that already exists elsewhere) to how to best sell ads (leverage your network, don’t lose hope), decide on the cover price (better high and already including shipping costs), run crowd-funding campaigns (connect with influencers, offer tangible rewards like “sponsoring one page”), or find foundations that might support the project.
‘I realised that to make a great magazine you don’t have to be great designer or great editor. I combined my mediocre skills to make well-rounded package.’
The nitty-gritty details of magazine publishing were also the core of Kai Brach’s presentation (above), who has made running a one-man publishing enterprise his full-time occupation without knowing anything about magazine publishing when he launched his magazine Offscreen two-and-a-half years ago. He freely shared his failures and successes, his little hacks and great ideas, and his key learnings: “I realised that to make a great magazine you don’t have to be great designer or great editor. I combined my mediocre skills to make well-rounded package. Making Offscreen isn’t glamorous – it’s about getting people to get stuff done.” But most importantly, he explained how he made headway: “I asked other publishers.”
Which is exactly what everyone at Indiecon did for two days, and what I hope will lead to greatly improved magazines in the near future, whether they’re superficial or aggressively opinionated. Because I, for one, have never felt more inspired to do better.
Kati Krause is a journalist and editor, and co-founder of A Mag for all Seasons
Kai from Offscreen is one of our speakers at The Modern Magazine 2014