The Gleam of a Better Publishing Model

Craig Mod wrote a great article about what he calls subcompact publishing – a term that draws parallels with the 1967 Honda subcompact car. His premise is that the publishing industry has translated too many details from the physical medium to their new digital offerings, details that do more to bloat and confuse their product than create a publication that is perfectly suited to its new habitat. His suggestion is to go lean, to drop the idea of packaging a lot of articles into big issues that come out every month, and instead release a few articles, more often and using a much lighter format.

By dropping in weight, the user interface also gains in usability because every issue is only a few articles in length, which can all be listed on a single screen without the need to flip through pages, scroll or zoom around. Additionally, Craig Mod advocates using established technologies like HTML/CSS to mark up and style the content, which ensures that the file sizes are light and the content can also be published onto the Web. Craig dives into a lot more detail in his article, and I definitely recommend reading it in full.

A great example of this lean publishing approach is Marco Arment’s new publication for iOS called The Magazine, which publishes four articles every two weeks. Marco has initially launched this project as an experiment, but it has proven profitable almost immediately after launch. The lean approach, it seems, can work.

But are apps the right solution? David Heinemeier Hansson wrote a post about the stupidity of packaging every new magazine into its own app, reinventing the layout and navigation engine in the process. Such magazine apps are often bloated, slow and buggy, delivering poor user experiences. David writes:

It’s like every magazine is reinventing HTML and programming their own browser for it. Of course that’s going to end badly!

The solution when it hurts to hit yourself is to stop hitting yourself. Custom app development to publish a magazine is just nonsense.

I agree. I said the same thing a while back – the Web is the perfect distribution channel for publishers aiming to reach consumers through mobile devices and tablets. We’ve been developing Web technologies and layout engines for a very long time, and we have an army of designers and developers able to work with them. Today’s browsers are much faster and much more capable than ever before, and our mobile devices are almost always connected to the Internet, either by WiFi or through a mobile network. The lean magazine approach can work, but it need not be an app.

There is one missing piece however, and it is payment processing. On iOS, Apple has your credit card on file. Should you want to subscribe to a magazine through Newsstand, the digital publication marketplace on iOS, you can do so just by filling out your password. You’ll be paying Apple, not the publisher (who will in turn receive their payment from Apple), which increases trust, especially for new publications. They also provide an option for trial periods, meaning that people can subscribe to a magazine for free, and then automatically activate the subscription when the trial period runs out. This removes the barrier for trying out and subscribing to a digital publication on an iOS device.

No such thing exists on the Web, or at least not anywhere close this level of simplicity. What’s needed is a marketplace much like Apple’s Newsstand, but for the Web. The company running it would have your credit card on file, allowing purchases to be made simply by filling out a password. Having customer’s payment information also allows for models other than regular subscription, for example, the purchase of individual issues or even individual articles. Payment processing isn’t difficult, what’s difficult is to get to that same level of frictionless purchasing that Apple have built on the iOS.