Hi, I’m Leo Johnson. Those of you who’ve been reading GS for a while might remember my time reviewing and interviewing here. You probably also remember the GS digital mag that ran for a couple years, and was easily some of the best experiences I’ve had at GS. It was a great way for passionate geeks to talk about their interests, be it comics, books, movies, TV, cosplay, or any number of other things.
A few months ago I had the idea to recapture some of the passion and make a digital magazine on my own, but in a bit of a different way. While I love seeing everyone geek out on their own passions, there were already digital magazines covering the wide range of geekdom much better than I could. However I didn’t see any that were really focused solely on comics. Then I figured why stop at just making a digital magazine of people writing about comics? Why not include actual comic shorts in there as well? Thus the idea for Stuck in the Gutters was born.
While having this great idea for a magazine was all well and good, how was I supposed to actually make the thing? I didn’t know Publisher or InDesign, I couldn’t draw, and I can’t just write a whole magazine’s worth of content myself. There wasn’t exactly a WikiHow for getting people to contribute to this new idea you just had and then showing you how to make it all work as a functioning PDF that you can then distribute online somewhere. It was going to take time to learn all this and I didn’t have a whole lot of basis in any of it.
Even though I still have a lot to learn and there’s plenty to tweak with the magazine going forward, there are still a few things that I feel like I can impart to anyone who fancies doing something like this on their own. While these three tips are nowhere near exhaustive or likely even that helpful, these still might make your life a little easier if you decide to make your own digital magazine. Let’s get started.
So, you’ve got your idea, but how are you gonna make the thing? – This was my first roadblock. I had an idea that I really liked, but wasn’t technically proficient enough to immediately execute it. The first step is figuring out which program you want to use. If you’re already familiar with Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign or something similar, then you’ve basically already conquered this step.
I’d never used either, so I was definitely going to have to learn some tricks. After digging around online for a bit, I came to the conclusion that InDesign might be the best option for me. I’d used Photoshop a decent amount years ago so I figured it would be halfway intuitive, right? (Wrong). InDesign may not be the way to go for everyone, though. Publisher represents a good alternative if you have that, or the Open Office equivalent. It was even suggested by someone to look into using Powerpoint as the slides would better mimic a tablet screen, but I never tried it.
Once you have your program of choice, if you don’t know how to use it, you better learn how to. I’d never used InDesign so I set aside a month to learn. Now, none of what I need to do was anything fancy, mostly just basic text generation and image editing, but I still wanted to make sure I knew how to do it well. Since I wanted to launch submissions during June, I spent multiple nights each week during the month of May slowly familiarizing myself with everything by making mock articles and comic shorts. I would use reviews I’d written or comic shorts I found online and put them together as a somewhat cohesive whole, figuring out how I wanted to lay everything out in the magazine. At first it was rough, but eventually things clicked and I felt comfortable enough to attempt it for real. All along the way, I was getting feedback from friends, fixing problems and tweaking the looks of it all.
Well, you know how to make a magazine, but who’s going to contribute? – This was both the most nerve wracking and the most surprising step of the whole process. Getting people to contribute to something new can be very intimidating, but it has to be done. I took a bit of a mixed approach to this step, making personal inquiries to those I knew well and also putting more general posts on social media.
However, the first thing was making a site. It only made sense to me to have a site where I could regularly post updates about the digital mag and say things that wouldn’t fit in the 140 character limit of Twitter. I think everyone has a site now and there are multiple free options that we’re all pretty familiar with. I went with WordPress simply because I’m most familiar with it, but Tumblr or something else would function just as well. So I made a short post outlining who I was, my idea, how I planned to do it, and then telling people to get in touch if they were interested.
For the broad approach, I immediately took to Twitter, linking back to the post and briefly summing up what I was doing. The initial tweet did pretty well for someone like myself, who is well short of a social media superstar. By putting it out there to the masses of the internet, it got retweeted 32 times, getting almost 5000 impressions, much more than the ~550 followers I had at the time. This was just the first tweet, and at 9am, but I think there were at least two submissions that was a direct result of that tweet. I would continue to tweet about the magazine, linking back to that same post, for the rest of the month, varying days and times so as to attempt to catch as many people as possible.
For the more personal approach, there were certain people that I’d already talked to about the digital magazine a bit and personally asked them if they’d like to contribute. These are people who I’d known online or in person for a while, several years in some cases. I already knew they did good work and wanted to see more of it. Some I’d written with at other sites and some I was just a fan of their works previously. One example is Josh Flynn, someone who I’d worked with at another site previously and have become friends with from that. After talking with Josh about the magazine, he contributed an essay titled, “Superheroes” about the power of hope that superheroes and comics can bring. It was one of my favorite things in the magazine and only possible because of that personal relationship. That personal touch made it easier to get them on board and I like to think it made the project just that much better.
And besides these two methods, I experienced some surprises in people who I never imagined would contribute but jumped at the chance. One such person was Ryan K Lindsay, a comic writer who’s worked with Dark Horse, IDW, Vertigo, and Action Lab. While I’m sure he had better things to do, he loved the idea enough to ask me if he could contribute a great piece discussing Fury MAX with fellow comic writer Dan Hill. That was as result of a relationship going back a couple years where I’ve interviewed Ryan a few times for his various books and we’ve chatted with each other more and more because of it. Though unintended, that resulted in him contributing to the magazine, helping to make the whole issue better.
Use the relationships you have already, while still trying to get new people involved. Through a mix of these, you’re sure to get a great group of contributors.
Now you’ve got your contributors, how are you going to sell it? – This was something I considered long and hard when I came up with the idea for this digital magazine. Since I knew that I was unknown and many of the contributors would possibly be too, I knew I couldn’t insist that people be charged for the magazine. No one would read it if I did. Still, I wanted a way to make a little bit of money to give back to the contributors. I came up with two options, both of which allowed flexibility: Patreon and Gumroad.
Patreon, for those not familiar with it, is a crowdfunding platform that essentially acts as a tip jar. You set up your profile with the project you want to make. You create reward levels at different dollar amounts that have varying perks: digital goods, physical goods, special livestreams, whatever. Patreon works best for projects that are recurring at regular intervals, like a webcomic or something like this digital magazine. I figured I could give people a chance to put a little support behind the magazine in exchange for previews of content and an early copy of each issue. Trying to keep things simple, I only have one reward level right now, at $1. While many give the $1, several gave beyond that, even up to $5. It’s all just what the individual feels comfortable with. It’s that flexibility I wanted.
For those that don’t want to deal with Patreon and becoming a recurring supporter, I decided to distribute the magazine as a Pay What You Want download through Gumroad. While it’s, for all intents and purposes, free, people are free to pay whatever they feel is fair for the magazine. I don’t feel like I’m established enough to charge a standard fee, so I let the customer decide. While many people have downloaded the issue for free so far, there have been nearly as many who have paid for it, with some even going as high as $10. At the moment, it’s working out to about $1.50 per download on average, thanks to the generosity of those who decided to pay.
While Gumroad and Patreon aren’t exactly going to make everyone rich from this issue of the magazine, it helps to provide just a little way for me to make sure that contributors get paid. They each provide flexibility for the level of commitment someone is willing to give the project. There, are of course, fees associated with each service, so it’s ultimately up to you with what you do and don’t want to deal with.
Though Patreon and Gumroad are both geared toward giving readers an option to pay, there are plenty of ways to distribute the magazine completely for free. Services like Issuu and Joomag allow you to distribute a digital magazine for free. Getting even simpler is just providing a download link for the PDF file. Both may be options that I explore in the future as a way to further spread the word about Stuck in the Gutters. In the end, it’s all about flexibility, as the easier it is for me to get someone to read Stuck in the Gutters, the better.
In conclusion – With the right prep, working with the right people, and trying to make things flexible, I was able to put together something I’m incredibly proud of and work with people located all across the globe on a project that initially began as nothing more than idea on Twitter. In the end, it resulted in over 50 pages of content, comics in a variety of styles, and essays on numerous subjects and has been read by people in at least half a dozen countries. It wasn’t easy, and it still needs work, but it’s something pretty great.