The Power of One in Self-Publishing

And now, a special guest post from Elana Schlenker of Gratuitous Type.

In early June, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Blurb’s Dan Milnor to discuss my experiences as a practicing graphic designer and part-time publisher. Our conversation spanned many topics, but what we returned to again and again throughout the evening was my pursuit of passion projects: In addition to running my own design studio, I’ve been occasionally publishing Gratuitous Type magazine since 2010.

What began as a desire simply to fulfill my own creative needs has become one of the most influential projects I’ve undertaken to date—leading to unlikely and exciting creative opportunities, like teaming up with Blurb to share my work at San Francisco Design Week! Gratuitous Type has been so rewarding, that I’ve become a real evangelist for personal work—I love pursuing self-initiated projects and I love supporting others who are trying to do the same. To (I hope!) get you excited about making stuff, here are a few observations about self-publishing that we covered at the event:

It’s worth it.

 If you aren’t getting hired to make the work you want to make, hire yourself! Pursuing what you’re passionate about is a worthwhile investment in you. Yes, it requires time and money to get your project out into the world, but the investment will bring you creative fulfillment, new skills, and confidence in yourself and your ability to get shit done. You’ll also be amazed to see that it will lead to more of the same—and having seen what you’re capable of, someone else might hire you next time. If you make it, they will come.

My all-time favorite insight on this subject comes from the Dutch studio Raw Color, who I interviewed for Issue 4 of Gratuitous Type. On the cost of self-initiated projects they said, “Self-initiated work always costs a lot of money, but somehow it gets paid back…We throw our money out the window, but it comes back through the door.” I think that’s a beautiful way to think about the process and benefits of this kind of endeavor. Publishing your work can be a real leap of faith (it’s scary!), but when you finally have the courage to toss it out the window it comes back to you transformed in ways you couldn’t have imagined. That’s been my experience publishing Gratuitous Type.

self-published magazine Gratuitous Type

Oh, what a time to be self-publishing.

Today, there are a world of resources online to get you started, more and more crowdfunding opportunities, an array of affordable printing options (like Blurb!), simple ways to sell your work online, and all kinds of blogs and social media outlets to help you spread the word. It’s also easier than ever to connect with distributors, shops, galleries, and other organizations all over the place that may be interested in selling or sharing what you’ve created. So making what you want to make is so so (so!) doable now—you just have to put in the time to make it happen.

…no matter how much the people in your life support you and want you to succeed, you’re the one with the vision and you have to believe in that…

People are nice and want to help you.

I’ve asked strangers for a lot of things—interviews, advice, production help, an introduction, a coffee date, you name it—and the surprising thing is that most people say yes. If you need something, ask for it. In my experience, people want to help, and many probably remember a time when someone helped them and want to pay that kindness forward—I know that’s how I feel. It’s amazing to me that so many great creatives agreed to be interviewed in the first issue of Gratuitous Type, back when it was nothing more than an idea, but they did! And they will probably say yes to you, too! Just be clear about what you need, be respectful of their time, and of course, be nice!

Take your time.

I publish Gratuitous Type because it’s fun and creatively fulfilling. Rushing myself is neither of those things. I think it’s more important to be patient, test things, make it as good as you possibly can than to publish just for the sake of it. There are already so many amazing things in the world; I want to add better things, not just more things.

self-published magazine Gratuitous Type

You know best.

Before Gratuitous Type, I published another small culture magazine in college. I learned a lot getting that publication off the ground, but the thing that sticks with me more than anything is an experience I had when the magazine was complete. I gave a copy to one of my professors—one of the project’s biggest supporters—and as she turned the issue over in her hands she said something to the effect of, “Wow, it looks like a real magazine! I didn’t think it would look so professional.” She was paying me a compliment, and I thanked her, but inside I was bewildered: Of course it’s a magazine, I’ve been telling you all along that that’s what I was going to do! It dawned on me then that no matter how much the people in your life support you and want you to succeed, you’re the one with the vision and you have to believe in that. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for help or feedback (you should!), but ultimately this is your work and you know best what you’re capable of. Trust yourself!

P.S. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of self-publishing check out Offscreen magazine, published by Kai Brach. Kai blogs regularly about his process here. If you really want to get down and dirty in the details, have a look at Human After All’s Publishing Playbook, an open source guide to magazine making from the creators of Little White Lies and Weapons of Reason. I also like Stack and MagCulture, both great starting points publishing news, interviews, and other resources.

Have any magazine tips or self-publishing stories? Share those in the comments below!


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