Innovation watch

A bucket brigade
July 1, 2013

Mano Strauch

Last October, the day before Newsweek announced it would be shutting down its print edition, Peter Bilak launched a crowdfunding campaign for Works That Work, a new design magazine that is experimenting with a new, crowdsourced distribution strategy.

Based in The Hague, Works That Work has been “circulated” as far as San Francisco, Russia, and Brazil in the hands of readers, friends, and backers who pick up copies at half price from central hubs and sell them to friends, bookstores, and other outlets. The first issue of this semiannual publication came out at the beginning of this year, so it’s too early to tell whether spreading Works That Work this way will, um, work.

To get issues to São Paulo, for example, Bilak enlisted a friend, Lukas Timulak, who was working in Portugal, to carry 10 copies–all he could fit in his suitcase–to Lisbon. Timulak passed them on to Frederico Duarte, who carried them to São Paulo and gave them to Bebel Abreu, who runs a graphic-design and cultural-production studio there.

Abreu supplemented the issues with 27 others shipped straight from The Hague, and 10 more from another social distribution chain. She will try to sell the issues at full price, and in theory make a little money. “The more people get to know the magazine, that’s the most important,” says Abreu. “If we make some money out of it, we will be free to do it a second time.”

The process took months, making the unorthodox distribution strategy practically useless for magazines that come out more frequently. Issue number two is scheduled for July.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The idea is similar to Bilak’s approach to teaching: When you don’t have the right tool for a job, you build that tool. That’s what the Works That Work team did with the crowdfunding campaign, too. Kickstarter wasn’t available in the Netherlands, so they built their own version and raised 29,000 euros, enough to launch and print the magazine, but not enough to distribute it.

Bilak says crowdsourcing is a small part of his overall distribution strategy. The vast majority of sales come directly from the Web, and each copy is mailed separately. Around 20 percent of the issues are passed by hand, and another 10 percent are moved via traditional European distributors.

The scope of the magazine makes Bilak’s plan more feasible, too, as does its luxury market. An issue costs $20, and they printed 3,100 copies of the first edition. But it’s still questionable whether (and how much) the crowdsourced distribution can scale. Magazine distributors exist because of economies of scale, says John Dorman, president of Newsways, a Los Angeles-based distributor. “You’re not a mass-market title, so you don’t need huge numbers,” says Dorman. “And you probably don’t have a big advertising base to support, in which case it’s probably easier for you to experiment than some others.”

Distributors help get magazines to newsstands and bookstores and in front of new people, he adds. And that’s also Bilak’s goal. He says the idea behind Works That Work is to reach beyond the world of design, to show a lay audience the creativity that inspires design and how it exists in the world.

Nathan Hurst is a San Francisco-based freelancer