Transforming Your Magazine Into a Powerhouse Online Presence

Way back in November, I attended a conference in BC for magazine publishers. I attended for free as a student of Simon Fraser University, and went to get information for a magazine I volunteer with. I went to a few panels, took a lot of notes, and figured I’d share the tips from one of them here. Keep in mind that the notes that follow are for meant for magazine publishers, but can be repurposed for publishers and authors, as well. Scale the scope of this advice up or down appropriately. Also, keep in mind that I wrote these notes by hand, and I might not have caught everything the speaker explained. They’re also in a fairly casual format (I figured the post would get way too long if I took it out of bullet points!) If you’ve got questions, I’m sure I can elaborate on them in the comments.

Conference: MagsWest 2016

Panel: Transforming Your Magazine Into a Powerhouse Online Presence

Speaker: Hal Niezdviecki, Editor, Broken Pencil (

About Broken Pencil

“Broken Pencil is the entertaining, indispensable guide to zines.”
– the Toronto Star

About Broken Pencil: the magazine of zine culture and the independent arts

Welcome to Broken Pencil! Since 1995, we have been a mega-zine dedicated exclusively to exploring independent creative action. Published four times a year, each issue of Broken Pencil features reviews of hundreds of zines and small press books, plus comics, excerpts from the best of the underground press, interviews, original fiction and commentary on all aspects of the indie arts. From the hilarious to the perverse, Broken Pencil challenges conformity and demands attention.

Extending your brand to digital & mobile:

  • Online content > think tablets and smartphones
    • Is your website and social media mobile-friendly?
  • 90% of consumers prefer print over digital editions
    • 67% consider electronic edition a complement to the print version (of current subscribers, 75% feel that way)

What does this say? It says that the print version of a magazine is still the most important aspect of any publishing enterprise. Print editions mean more value (in the reader’s eye) and a physical product to sell (which will sell better than a digital-only magazine).

You are a BRAND whether you like it or not.

Your brand has many hubs. They may include:

  • a newsletter (monthly, bi-monthly, weekly)
  • social media (FB, Twitter, Instagram)
  • blog (stream of content) – weekly
  • digital edition of magazine
  • print magazine

Magazines should not think of themselves as a magazine. They should think of themselves  as a company that pushes out a certain type of content all branded in a particular way.

So, where are YOU publishing?

  • Facebook?
  • Twitter?
  • E-newsletter?
  • Blog?
  • Digital edition?

And WHY are you publishing there?

  • for fun?
  • for distribution?
  • for engagement?

No! For…. SALES! Duh. 😛

Sales, ultimately, are the real purpose for a magazine to expand beyond their print editions. Never lose sight of this.

Develop a cohesive strategy.

What’s the primary goal? If it’s to make money, then how do you do that?

  • subscription sales
  • single issue sales
  • advertising (online/print)
  • driving audience to events
  • receive/increase grants

You can’t do everything — prioritize!

Test things out. Create targeted newsletter lists to see what works and what doesn’t.

Make your workflow more efficient by not spending too much time on what doesn’t work for you.

Do tests in your newsletters: for example, does “Subscribe” or “Buy This Issue” work better? Do your readers like one article, three, or an entire issue’s worth of stuff to look at?

What’s the secondary goal of your magazine?

  • to ADVANCE the cause, or SPREAD the word:
    • get people out to an event
    • increase awareness of the cause
    • brand recognition
    • get people to take action to advance the cause
    • grow email lists
    • grow social network follows


Where is your data coming from, and how are you tracking it?

  • WEB
    • native
    • Google search
    • referral link
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Instagram

What are you actually achieving with all of this digital “nonsense?” Is it going somewhere, or nowhere? Use analytics to learn these things.

Keep your analytics simple.

Use a weekly chart (an Excel or Google Spreadsheet is just fine) that combines the most important metrics of Google Analytics and newsletter analytics available to you (keeping in mind your newsletter should be weekly or bi-weekly).

Social media is about building content for those platforms… you need to be collecting emails.

Track the following analytics for your website:

  • week # (or date range)
  • # of visitors
  • time spent on page
  • total page views
  • where visitors came from
  • the most clicked article (include % of list, and even 2nd most clicked article)
    • data cell should look like: /example.html #(clicks) #%(of visitors)

Tracking these things can help you see which social media feeds your site best, allowing you to prioritize the social networks that are actually giving you a return.

The most important thing is to track what is relevant to you, but keep it consistent, so you know where to put your energy.

Put as much as you can online, to keep Google Search and your readers happy. Don’t forget to optimize your images with Alt tags and descriptions, as well as titles, to give your site every chance at gaining native referrals via Google Search.

Newsletter Analytics to Track:

  • date sent
  • total sent
  • open rate
  • unsubs
  • total unique clicks
  • top clicks

Also, keep in mind that you can reuse archival content in your newsletter—just label the section something attractive, like “So-and-so’s Pick.”

Note: Don’t worry about your unsub rate! As long as your content is quality, that’s all that matters. Once a month is too little for a publication.

Build the Pyramid, Climb the Ladder: A Case Study in Increasing Subscriptions

This is your ladder:

  • Donate
    • Subscribe (or) Buy
      • Attend Events/Interact With Brand
        • Get E-newsletter
          • Read Website/Blog
            • Read Social Media

Your GOAL is to make the reader move up the rungs of the ladder; to get them OFF social media ASAP and ON your website. Getting emails is the priority. Give them “bait” to subscribe to your newsletter, slowly working toward the “Ask” (or the prompt to buy your book or a subscription to your magazine).

Your website’s goal should always be to sell more subscriptions. Even if you don’t have a print magazine to sell, you need to have something to sell!

Get More People TO the Ladder

  • Expand your pool of contacts: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; update your website constantly to increase native advertisement.
  • Push sign-ups for the e-newsletter on all platforms—there should be options to sign up for the newsletter no matter where they go.
  • Emphasize the sale of subscriptions/e-newsletter at all points of content/events rather than single issues/books.
  • Content is king/queen! Represent your product. Drive traffic to your website. Make them want more! The things you share on your social media can be “trash,” but once they are on your website, it needs to be gold.
  • On social media, share things from other people that can be even remotely connected to your brand.
  • On Twitter, use pictures and point to your community. Don’t look like you are wasting a bunch of time on there.

Your Website

The most important page on your website is your About page. Where are you? What are you about? What’s your history? Of all the pages on your website, this page is the one people will visit the most. WOW them! Think about adding your mandate, or a Q&A… and, predictably, give them a call-to-action—How can they get involved? (Subscriptions and newsletters!)

Also, make sure the most current, relevant stuff is at the top of the page. Say what you are doing now before saying what you might have used to do.

Your main page matters, too, obviously.

  •  Is there something there that people want to click?
  • Are your menus static and boring?
  • Is the content on your landing page exciting?

Make sure the content on your main page is good, relevant, and includes a call-to-action.

Convert Readers to Subscribers

Offer readers a special offer in the form of discounts, 24-hour sales, or a free issue.

When providing a free issue, there are a couple of ways to go about it:

  • Provide a free issue as they move up the ladder, but only after receiving their contact information via the e-newsletter
  • Provide a trial subscription, with no money upfront, but pay after the trial ends.

Make sure that you follow up with these new readers. Ask them how they liked the free issue. Ask for feedback and politely encourage them to subscribe before they forget. Treat this new account like a renewal. You can decide if you want to collect payment info ahead of time (like Amazon Prime) or prompt them to fill in payment info after. Whatever works for your brand.

The Leaky Paywall is Your Friend

Install a paywall that provides limited access to your website (The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, etc.)… however, as we all know, no one likes paywalls! So, what is the solution?


In the end, this is just a semantics issue, but one is much more pleasing than the other. Make your leaky paywall appropriate for your brand. If you post a lot of content (as you should be), limit free reads to five articles a month. A good example of a way to introduce a leaky paywall is through this WordPress plugin. It’s quite simple!

Final Thoughts

Another really good practice is to email or contact people in your social media personally from time to time. Don’t leave this to an automated service. Pick a good, doable number for your brand, and then stick with it. Reach out to people by tagging them on Twitter, or responding to their comments or posts on Facebook. Email people that subscribe to your list. Keeping it human will keep your readers loyal. Most of all, don’t sound like a salesman. In fact, don’t sell anything when doing this! Just check in and have a conversation.

Enchant – A Christmas Light Maze

With school out, I finally had some time to go out and enjoy this beautiful winter weather Vancouver has been having. British Columbia was hit by a “blizzard” that left several feet of the loveliest snow… and it’s hard to not want to go out and play in it! NJ and I decided to head out to Olympic Village in Vancouver to walk through Enchant, a Christmas Light Maze. It’s a really fun maze of lights and funhouse mirrors, with a hide-and-seek objective of finding all of Santa’s reindeer throughout the maze.

If you live in the Vancouver area, there’s still time to go see it (and it definitely won’t be as cold as it was for us!) Find more info here:

Masters in Publishing: Episode 5

Episode 5: December Wrap-up

With December came the last week of the semester, the crazy-fun culmination of everything we’d learned over the last few months. There was scrambling, and panic, and late night meetings and script rehearsals, as well as several trips to the printer to make sure our materials would print just right. For Margin Press, we had the added “joy” of trying to put a square logo on a round object. Keyan, one of my amazing teammates, solved the problem by etching the logo on a flexible eraser, though in my panic we tried ink as the stamping mechanism, rather than straight up acrylic paint. I didn’t realize how easy it could have been until the day of the presentation… but, live and learn! In the end, we’d done all we could, and I walked into the sales conference feeling pretty confident about what we’d accomplished. The books felt real. Our company felt real. All the marketing plans, P&Ls, and TI sheets felt real. All that was left was to convince the panel of that, too.

Margin Press Spread

The Sales Conference

December 2nd was the big day:  the last day of the semester, and the day of our 20-minute presentations. Margin Press was eager to really make an impact, so we decided to divide the presentation up dynamically, with each person talking about the elements of the books that would have been under our proposed job within the company. This ended up working out really well, since I introduced each title’s pitch and general information, then talked about the Blippar tech augmentations, before passing it off to the next person. This allowed us to review our note cards between titles, so there was less of a chance of getting stuck or freezing while the timer was running.

Each panelist received a print copy of our catalogue and tip sheets, which are photographed in the album below, and a goodie bag full of the stuff pictured above, as well as the juggling balls, which I’ve included in the gallery below. We even found bags that were the right aqua color for our company! It all looked really awesome, if I do say so myself. 😎

Our presentation went well. We had practiced it for a few hours the day before and before the conference, which allowed us to make adjustments so nothing overlapped too much. We didn’t want information repeated when we only had 20 minutes to get through introductions and four books. It also reduced the sheer amount of data we had to memorize. Because of all that prep, the presentation itself just flew by. I think we all sounded relaxed, even if we weren’t inside. Let me tell you—all those years teaching paid off! I didn’t get stage shy at all.

After the presentation, the three panelists were invited to make comments, ask questions, and critique everything. This was the part I was nervous about. We were the second group to present, and the first group were grilled for almost forty minutes. Forty!! But something miraculous happened….

They only had a few nitpicks!

In general, we got really glowing reviews, with my favorite being the panelist from Penguin Random House Canada telling us that our TIP sheets were the best-designed she’d ever seen. (I’m allowed to squee here, right?! I designed those!) Also, the panelists I had pegged as the one who would be the hardest to impress had very little to say, except that she wanted to publish all of our titles and wished they were real books. Later, several members of the faculty approached us to congratulate us again, and applaud the final presentation of the tech, which they had apparently still been the most worried about.

All in all, I’m still glowing from it, and it’s more than two weeks later.

….but apparently I’m going to be able to do this all over again, because next semester Magazine Project is basically the same deal. 😂 Here’s hoping everyone in the cohort is ready to dive into that kind of madness again when the time comes.

Winter Break

I don’t have school again until January 4th, but that doesn’t mean I’m free of MPUB. I need to update my resume and portfolio and look for places to intern at. Sadly, my first choice does not have any openings for this summer. Our design course also has two side projects that we’re all supposed to work on over the break, and in typical-me fashion, I’ve made the courses far more complicated than they need to be. One of the projects I’ve mentioned before: the book redesign project. I’ll be redesigning Nine Princes of Amber by Roger Zelazny. This involves a complete cover redesign and interior layout.

The other project is a Visual Identity Program, which is basically branding yourself or a company with fonts, colors, stationary, a website, etc. I’m kind of excited about this one, since I’ve been wanting to redesign Country Mouse Design for a couple of years now, and this is the perfect opportunity to do it, and get professional feedback while I’m at it. I’m even making a branding book that includes promotional item mockups, grid systems, and templates for my invoicing, estimates, and contracts. Pretty exciting stuff. It looks SO pretty, you guys… here’s a sneak peek:

Country Mouse Design Branding Book

Branding Book, Pages 10-11: Pink Mood Board

That concludes the first semester of MPUB! Woohoo!! Upcoming posts include a couple of Christmas holiday events I’ve attended around Vancouver, (hopefully!!) the last Archetypes post, and my notes from MagsWest. I hope you all are enjoying your holiday. 🙂

#MPUB Masters in Publishing Masters of Publishing: November Wrap-up

Episode 4: November Wrap-Up

November was wholly consumed by what is known as “Book Project,” a seven-week crash course in publishing covering everything from the concept pitch to sales. Students in the MPUB cohort are placed in three separate groups and are given a two-sentence missive on the direction their mock publishing house should take. Each part of the project was punctuated with consults from industry guests, who graciously confirmed or rejected the ideas we had about each of our proposed titles. Due to the intensity of the project, the rest of the courses sort of faded away, so I’ll mostly be talking about the work we did leading up to the mock sales conference we had on December 4th.

The Book Project

PUB 605 started with missives being drawn out of a hat. My group selected ECW Press, which is a quirky, ambitious publisher that prints basically everything plus wrestling. Apparently the original owner is just a huge fan of the WWE, so, yeah….

I was pretty happy with the pick, since ECW’s titles were not as restrictive as Greystone Books, for example, which basically only prints nonfiction. On the other hand, we were the only group given instruction to include technology in some meaningful way. That presented several challenges, since tech in publishing is often used in gimmicky ways, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs.

Week 1

The first week of the project was likely one of our hardest, simply for being thrown into it with basically just a syllabus as direction. One member of the team was out with the flu and another (an auditor) was unavailable. After being taught through all of September how important it is to take the time to refine your brand and company as carefully as possible, we were basically given two days to get that done. 😅 So, Week 1 was about finding our imprint’s name [Margin Press], starting the mission statement, pitching enough titles to make a solid list [starting with six and narrowing down to four over the course of the project], and beginning the sketch work for our logo. The logo development was probably the most exciting part of the week for me.

M Logo

My sketches. I ended up liking the simplistic { m } best.

In the end, we settled on a design created by my teammate Bec, who is a graphic artist at heart, and way better at these things!

Margin Press Logo

I love the bracket i’s! Those were Katelynn’s idea. She also rendered the whole thing.

Week 2

Week 2 was probably the hardest week of the entire program. There was so much due all at once, and working on books that haven’t technically been written, by authors we have never talked to (or made up entirely), was quite the challenge. Still, by the end of the week, we had draft Profit and Loss statements for all six of our titles, which we used to narrow down the list to the four most viable books. We had a really fun book we were all sad to see go, The Neopagan Next Door, a nonfiction on pagan practices in a contemporary society. In the end, though, we settled on these four (I’m including their final taglines, or elevator pitches):

  1. Urban Carnival: The Hidden Lives of Vancouver’s Street Performers (my pitch to the group!) – “Bagpipes, beatboxing, and didgeridoos: what’s left of the vaudeville carnival can be found on Vancouver streets—but there’s more to these acts than meets the eye.”
  2. My Chinatown: A Novel – “Lin has always felt torn between two cultures, but when a new development threatens Calgary’s Chinatown she must finally pick a side.”
  3. Douglas Cardinal: Indigenous Architect – “The story behind the stunning architecture that has helped revitalize Canadian Métis heritage for more than half a century.”
  4. Unsettled: Narratives of Syrian Refugees in Canada – “Six refugee families from Syria recount the struggles and triumphs of reconstructing their lives in Canada and rediscovering the meaning of home.”

With all of those books, we had one main goal in mind—we wanted to promote books from marginalized communities. So, while we were refining our list, we also refined our mission statement, which ended up becoming:

Margin Press publishes for readers who like to engage with literature through a kaleidoscope of multimedia. We publish voices from the margins and push the limits of content and form. Through a suite of creative and diverse media, our readers engage with stories from original voices typically underrepresented in society.

I can’t tell you how many HOURS we spent fine-tuning the words for those pitches and the mission statement. Probably too many…. but hey, in the name of a job well done. 😛

Finally, we started our Tip Sheet information, subsidiary rights research, and catalogue design. Oh, and marketing plans. Like I said…. it was a busy, busy week. Here’s what our board looked like:


Week 3

The third week of the project, things began to settle into a rhythm, and while we were still insanely busy, I personally started feeling like everything was doable. Part of the reason I could feel that way is that not many of our team worked outside of class, so we could pull long meetings during the week. That meant we could relax or catch up on other coursework over the weekends. For future cohorts, make time to be away from the project or you’ll go batty by the end!

Week Three was also a bit shorter than we might have liked because three of us were attending MagsWest, a local conference for magazines (I have notes, and those will make another post!) That ended up being okay, though, since the assignments were mainly revisions. We got print quotes back from Friesens (this was such a fun part of the project… talking with an actual distributor about paper stocks and trim sizes and purchase orders. I think we were the only group that dared to haggle with the rep, haha. He gave us a 10% discount on two books’ printing though, so I guess it paid off. 😉 )

Cover developments also started that week. I threw together a cover for Urban Carnival, which ended up being its final version as well (that was cool), and also made a bunch of mock-ups for My Chinatown, which were all rejected. 😜 Here are a couple (the red envelope ended up being adopted for promotional materials though!)

Finally, I had an impromptu meeting with a member of the faculty to explain my use of Blippar, which further cemented the idea that we needed to be careful about how we were going to use the media elements in the final products.

Week 4

By Week 4, all correspondence and assignments for the group were branded with our company logo, fonts, and color palette. This really started making us feel like a real company. Assignments started feeling more like deadlines that the company had to meet to be financially viable, and that made us more determined than ever to get things right. Because of that, the majority of the week was again spent refining our documents. We had to do a lot of finagling to get the P&Ls to 50%+ profit margins (which is the recommended number, btw, for any book after marketing and development costs…. a good way to see if you’re not losing a ton of money on your books over time) but we got them there!

And then it was all about the marketing plans. We actually started them from scratch again after feedback from a publicist, and got pretty creative with how and where we were going to distribute, as well as where we’d look for free publicity. I think the most interesting thing about the marketing plans is that, in the end, we didn’t put too much pressure on social media, and the publicist really encouraged that. Something for indie authors to think about, I guess… since we are encouraged to spend SO much time online, but it turns out sales are made in many different ways, and the more creative ones tend to have the most return on your efforts.

We also finalized the designs for our printed documents (the catalogue and tip sheets [I should really talk about tip sheets one day; they’re pretty interesting]). This was about the point that I was feeling the pinch. I asked for it, but my design work is under a microscope, so things like text being optically aligned instead of using the computer’s ruler, and solving rivers in the text were basically the bane of my existence, haha. But, I persevered!

Week 5

This was our “reprieve” week. We’d front-loaded so many of our assignments that we sort of had a lot of free time for Week Five, which was nice. We talked about how to create the promotional materials for our books, which would be given to the sales reps on December 4th, and then basically worked on cover designs and jacket copy. It was pretty interesting, because we had a really visceral reaction to our novel’s cover from one of the panelists, who literally held the cover away from his body and said “I HATE this cover!” It shook us a bit, but we polled the entire cohort and even some of the faculty, and realized one of the biggest points of Book Project: you don’t have to take every piece of advice to heart. We kept the cover design.

The adjustments, though. They became the single most annoying and incessant aspect of this course. Change a single word. Adjust the photo contrast. Try a new font. Swap out the blurbs. Increase the margins by .25″. Crop the image. We were working on the jacket copy until literally hours before the cover got sent to the printer, and then I still found things I would have changed later. Another important lesson of the Book Project: No book is ever done… it just meets its deadline.

The fun thing we did that week, because we just needed to get our heads away from book descriptions and covers, was decorate our office for Christmas. I even Photoshopped a company Christmas card, which we put outside our door.

Margin Press Christmas

We had a little too much fun cutting out snowflakes and making parody Christmas songs for publishing.

Week 6

Last week of the project, ahhhh!!! I thought it might be fun to, instead of summarize as above, share with you all a sample of one of the real reports we had to send to the faculty every week. This was my second one:

Margin Press Publisher of the Week Report: Week 6

Heading into Week 7…

I’m going to save the sales conference for another post! And when I post that, you’ll get to see our finalized covers and promotional items, catalogue and tip sheets as well! The good news is that we had ZERO problems with our print job…. shocker! 😛

Is there anything about the book process that you are particularly interested in? I have so many notes and my brain is just bursting with information now, and I’m trying to think about what would be post-worthy going forward.