Behind The Scenes: What It Takes To Publish A Smashing Article

About The Author

Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. When he is not writing, he’s most probably running front-end & UX … More about Vitaly ↬

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We publish articles because we love sharing what we learn and what others learn, too; we love discovering unique points of view and surprising design strategies, as well as just understanding how our colleagues out there solve difficult UX and front-end problems. Every single Smashing article goes through a thorough editorial review, including multiple passes for editing and refinement, before being published. In this series dedicated to our upcoming 10th anniversary we will explain our workflow and introduce the people behind the scenes!

In this series of articles dedicated to our upcoming 10th anniversary (mid-September 2016), we’d love to shed some light on our editorial process, explain our workflow and introduce the people behind the scenes, as well as address how our little company is earning money to keep the website alive and running.

It’s been quite a journey for this very sentence to wind up on this little website. Not many people know it, but every single Smashing article goes through a thorough editorial review, including multiple passes for editing and refinement, before being published.

Community Is The Center Of Everything

How do you build a community that trusts you and supports you over the years? That’s not usually an easy question, but in our case, the answer isn’t particularly difficult: It is by being humane and obsessed with quality. We have never had a grand master plan or a hidden agenda. Instead, it was important for us to be authentic and honest, and to stay true to the strict principles that were defining our work. Looking back at the last 10 years, I can’t stop thinking that these principles, along with the appreciation of our craft and boundless respect for our audience, are the reason why we’ve ended up here today. Those aren’t the only reasons though.

You see, Smashing Magazine has never been an ambitious financial enterprise with an extraordinary business plan. Doing what I love most while remaining independent has always been much more important to me than cashing out with a fancy exit strategy, which is probably why Smashing Magazine hasn’t become a money-making machine over the years.

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Nothing can beat an empowering feeling you get once you meet readers in person, at a SmashingConf. (Images: (Mr. Marc Thiele and Anki Delfmann)

We publish articles because we love sharing what we learn and what others learn, too; we love discovering unique points of view and surprising design strategies, as well as just understanding how our colleagues out there solve difficult UX and front-end problems. We’re curious, and we love to surface those delightful niceties and clever techniques, and to ignite the entire community with the kind of passion and practical tips that everybody would benefit from. It’s not a particularly exciting proposition, but that’s the honest reason why we still exist today.

However, without reach, publishing isn’t particularly exciting or rewarding. Initially, we had no community around us, so we decided to do what seemed to be the right thing back then: to provide immense value through effort, to under-promise and over-deliver, to exceed expectations and never to compromise. We committed to publishing entirely, well, smashing articles three times a week, for at least six months. No excuses, no exceptions: just writing and publishing, day after day after day.

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The beginnings are always hard. Motivation and passion fueled us throughout our journey. Large view.

Yes, we’ve striven to deliver the highest value through our effort, but that doesn’t mean we ever aimed for perfection. In fact, sometimes I actively encourage authors and editors to make mistakes, to add custom changes when they feel right, and never to delete tweets that contain grammatical errors

Some articles do have grammatical mistakes and can sound ridiculously German (oh yes, we are based in Germany, by the way); our tweets surely aren’t examples of eloquent English vocabulary; and commas, full stops and semicolons do find their way into odd places in our articles. But that’s perfectly fine, because we learned to let go of perfectionism early on. We’ve learned that being approachable and human is way better than appearing bulletproof and mechanical.

Instead, we chose to reveal our personalities and just be the way we are outside of the Smashing universe: a little quirky and informal at times, a bit playful and unpredictable at other times, and sometimes a little risky and unrealistic. In doing so, we’ve remained authentic and shown our personalities, our true motives and the values that have informed our work. Of course, we’ve changed over the years, too, and our editorial direction, among other things, has shifted, but our values and principles remain unchanged.

We think you noticed. That commitment to quality on our side has prompted respect on your side, and, as a result, our quirky little brand has gained remarkable trust, respect and loyalty. Maybe it’s what kept us from becoming generic and has gained us a stronger standing in the industry.

That brings us to this point today. You are reading this very article because you are a part of this community that has emerged over the last 10 years — this strong, intelligent and remarkably kind community, willing to share and learn and get better at whatever it is we are all trying to figure out in this complex industry. To build a community, one needs to provide something. In our case, it was the value we provided in our articles or, more specifically, the focus we put on high-quality content very early on.

High-Quality Content Is Expensive

We’ve been focusing on publishing high-quality content from the day one. That’s why we established our sacred editorial publishing guidelines back in 2007 — principles that remain the bedrock of our work. With them in mind, we have never compromised or crossed the line: advertising and sponsorship are always labeled as such; our advertisers have zero say about the editorial content on the site; and no articles are allowed to have a hidden agenda or to skew facts in any way.

No hidden advertisements
We don’t accept any hidden ads on Smashing Magazine — a compromise is out of question. And our publishing guidelines state it clearly.

As you can imagine, following these principles can be quite impractical and expensive. And we have had to say “no” to many things over the years — from lucrative offers to use our mailing list for third-party promotions (totally unacceptable to us) to perfectly polished and insightful but extremely biased articles (snuck through to our editors by seemingly independent freelancers). Saying “no” more often than “yes” has been critically important. It’s not a bit different today.

The (Obnoxious) Smashing Editorial Review Process

Establishing a rigorous review process, one that ensures that only high-quality articles get published on the website, also proved to be important. Our editorial team cannot possibly know everything about everything, yet that’s not an excuse for publishing mediocre articles. That’s why we devised a comprehensive lifecycle for every article — which, admittedly, most authors don’t like at all, and some find quite outrageous.

The Smashing experts panel, introduced about six years ago, plays a crucial role in this process. It’s an editorial board with over 90 invited experts on topics ranging from accessibility to performance to JavaScript architecture to user experience design. These well-respected members of the community regularly provide technical review of articles, along with feedback and ratings, to ensure the high quality of published articles. We should note that feedback is usually shared anonymously, so that no bias is involved when giving feedback — very much like how it’s done with academic papers.

Here’s the hard part. In order for an article to get published, the editorial board has to approve it with flying colors: The article has to get an average rating of at least 3.5 out of 5 stars, including the editorial review (often done by yours truly). Otherwise, the article is rejected. Full stop. That’s why many authors feel quite disappointed and sometimes even tormented — given the months and months of work and effort they’ve put into the article (work that is, of course, compensated).

(That’s perfectly fine, though. Being editor in chief, my job is not to be liked by our authors, but to deliver high-quality content, which we’ve been doing tirelessly for the last 10 years.)

Editorial Workflow: From Start To Finish

In a nutshell, here’s what all of our poor authors have to suffer:

  1. We invite everybody to write an article but we never accept the so-called “guest authors”, who tend to earn money with writing. Every week we actively search for active designers and developers who published an article or contributed to an open source project, and invite them to contribute to Smashing Magazine.
  2. We never assign topics to authors. Instead, we’ll ask the author to write about the topic that they’re most excited and knowledgeable about, and they’ll start working on an outline.
  3. When the author has an outline, it’s shared with the editorial team for discussion and refinement. It sounds harmless, but it isn’t. We do our best to push the author out of the comfort zone to the very edge, to challenge and confront their point of view, even if we share the same view as well. We pay a lot of attention to the very first draft, spending hours reading and commenting on it, because, in our experience, a (really) good first draft prevents problems and confusion down the road.
  4. Eventually, the author writes the article and shares their draft with the editorial team for revisions and comments.
  5. At some point, the final draft is (hopefully) ready for a final review. That’s when the experts panel comes in. The article is sent to at least two independent reviewers, anonymously. Within a few days, we receive feedback, which we review, weigh against editorial concerns, adjust and summarize, and then forward to the author for them to make further adjustments to the article.
  6. At this point, there is potentially a lot of back and forth between editors, authors and experts until the article gets a high enough score to be published.
  7. If the score is too low, the article is rejected. Otherwise, the article is sent to an editor for final changes and then to a proofreader, who makes sure that it doesn’t contain any grammatical or spelling errors. At the same time, we collect high-resolution images and prepare the markup for responsive images.
  8. We might work with an illustrator to come up with custom illustrations for the article. And sometimes an article requires fancy technical integration and front-end trickery.
  9. Finally, the article is scheduled for publishing, which means that it has to be prepared. Editors will prepare and optimize the images, image captions, large image views, tables, excerpts, search engine description, thumbnails, related articles, and tags.
  10. Eventually, the article is published, and everybody is happy and excited, sharing it on social media and via email and on Snapchat and in blogs. We’ll monitor comments and respond to questions and requests. An article might require an update or CSS or JavaScript enhancements a while later.
  11. The next day, the entire process starts from scratch, giving us approximately 300 articles a year.

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Expert reviews play a crucial role in our editorial process. In fact, every sixth article sent for review doesn’t make it to the end… Oh, wait, our authors might not need to know that!

People Behind The Scenes

Now, the process is quite involved, and obviously there are people behind each of these tasks — dedicated, professional people whose work, of course, has to be respected and, consequently, remunerated. Whether an author gets paid the honorarium isn’t open for discussion. Even if they don’t want to get paid (for example, because their job description includes evangelizing for the topic they’re writing about), we pay them or at least donate their honorarium to a charity of their choice.

We follow up at the end of the month to ensure that every author has submitted an invoice. Paying is a matter of principle and respect — respect for their time, effort, work and dedication. These are to be appreciated and applauded.

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Over the years, we’ve worked with over 1,000 authors from 50 countries. We’ve been privileged to meet many of these authors in different parts of the world. Large view.

Everybody involved in writing, editing, publishing or maintaining the articles gets paid. Here are the heros behind the scenes, involved in the publishing process:

  • Authors usually invest weeks and weeks of work to write just the perfect piece and to refine the article under editorial guidance. Over the years, we’ve worked with over 1,000 authors from 50 countries of the world.
  • Reviewers, being professionals with projects of their own, invest precious spare time in the evenings and on their lunch breaks to review articles and send questions, feedback and suggestions. In the board, we have around 90 people committed to review our articles.
  • In-house editors (including Iris, our senior editor) our junior editor Yana, and me (editor in chief) coordinate on the progress on the article, making sure it’s properly revised, adjusted, edited and published.
  • eBook editor Cosima tirelessly prepares some of the articles for print and eBooks, including retaking screenshots in high resolution and adjusting links and references.
  • Remote editors work with authors and reviewers on articles for the various sections of the website, including Heydon Pickering (accessibility), Rey Bango (coding), Alma Hoffmann (design), Chui Chui Tan (UX), Michel Bozgounov (graphics), Marko Dugonjić (typography) and Derek Allard (mobile).
  • External proofreaders, Andrew Lobo and Owen Gregory, take good care of the tone, voice and grammar of articles, polishing them but also protecting the author’s unique writing style.
  • Our illustrator Ricardo Gimenes has to reset his alarm clock every month to be able to finalize the illustrations and visuals on time (he lives in São Paulo, Brazil).
  • Our manager Markus, who runs the business and coordinates articles and events (and makes sure all of our crazy projects run on schedule).
  • Our in-house front-end developer llya Pukhalski takes care of our lean and clean CSS and the performance and maintenance of the website.
  • Services such as MailChimp, Trello, GitHub, Shopify, Heroku, Slack and Spotify keep the entire team creative, focused, sane and in sync.
  • External development and servers, hosted with MediaTemple, often raise the costs in a given month, too.

When you add up everything, it’s quite a sum. So, how expensive is it?

Editorial Costs: $17,300 Per Month

Every article published on the website requires work from a good number of people. When broken down into hard numbers, this is what it looks like:

  • New authors get $200 per article. Existing authors get $250 (way underpaid — if possible, we’d pay much more).
  • Our most active part-time section editors (coding, design, mobile, graphics, UX design and Wordpress) work with the authors to give feedback on their outlines and on the technical accuracy and structure of their articles. Most of our articles are quite lengthy (the average word count is 4,000 words), which results in about 4 hours of work of reading, making notes and giving feedback, costing us another $200 per article.
  • Each article is reviewed by two people on our experts panel. That’s $120 per article on average.
  • Our two (freelance) proofreaders should get paid, too. Together, they receive $1,600 per month (or $80 per article).
  • Once an article is finished, our editors (Cosima, Iris, Melanie and Yana) prepare it for publishing, including image optimization and bulletproofing in WordPress. They get €7,700 per month altogether (not much, you see): Divided by 20 articles per month, that works out to €385 per article.

The editorial costs add up to a whopping $865 per article on average, or $17,300 (USD) per month. This still doesn’t include the expenses for server maintenance or the full-time in-house front-end developer, adding another €6,100 per month. So, in reality, it’s more like $23,400 per month, or $1,170 per article.

We need to cover our costs to keep the website running. And that should be our concern, not yours, which is why we’ve been coming up with all kinds of products, from printed books to eBooks to workshops to conferences, backed up by the almighty advertising in the sidebar.

The Way Forward? The Smashing Membership

The spread of ad-blockers has prompted us to rethink our revenue strategies to keep this little website alive. We fully encourage the use of ad-blockers, and we actually use them ourselves. We’ve got to keep the servers running, though. And we can’t neglect the problem, because advertising revenue has dropped 50% compared to the previous year.

We would never consider introducing a paywall. Blocking content would clearly go against our editorial principles. As odd as it might sound, we strongly believe that the content we publish belongs not to us, but to the community, because it’s produced by the community.

Being squeezed into a corner, we had to look at our options. One of them was to introduce sponsored content, which you have probably noticed by now. Sponsored content still goes through editorial review and proofreading before getting published. We had many internal discussions, arguing for and against it, and I’ve always been firmly opposed to it, but we decided to try it out on a small scale. Still, unless we’re willing to run a massive amount of sponsored content on the website, it won’t make up for the drop in revenue from banner advertisements.

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It’s been a long journey already, but we’re looking forward to the next 10 years! Large view.

What’s next then? The Smashing Membership. Starting from November of this year, marking our 10th anniversary, we’ve prepared a lil’ something special. No, nothing as simple as an ad-free experience. Rather, it’s a nice little package that (we hope) will give you tangible benefits and make you better in your day-to-day-work. It’s also a quite challenging new undertaking that we’ve been working on behind the curtains. Take our word for it, we’re putting a lot of effort into making the membership work well, and we’ve been driving ourselves crazy figuring out just the right mixture of features to include in it. We’re pretty sure that it won’t leave you feeling indifferent. But not everything at once!

In the next post, we’ll feature the people who keep the entire Smashing universe running — and we’ll talk about how we design and organize conferences, and the most popular animated GIFs and emojis floating around the office (and Slack) regularly. Curious? Well, stay tuned!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (ms, il, al, mrn)