December 9, 2012

The Magazines

Craig Mod wrote an extremely important essay about the future of publishing called “Subcompact Publishing” that you should read if you haven’t already. In his follow up, there were the echoes of an idea I take issue with, care of Ryan Singer at 37signals:

“Tablets are waiting for their Movable Type”

I couldn’t disagree more.

Movable Type, Wordpress, and other blogging platforms were successful because they removed barriers between authors and readers. Their arrival marked the first time that it was relatively easy for authors to self-publish. This led to an explosion of great new independent content online. The idea that the same results would occur if only it were easier to publish to native is short-sighted: Even with better authoring software, there are still extra barriers between authors and readers that exist in native publishing.

The Drawbacks of Native Publishing

The crux of Singer’s idea is simple:

Wouldn’t it be awesome to publish my own magazine on the iOS Newsstand?

Singer implies the answer is yes, because he’s only looking at the benefits. In reality, things are more complicated. The benefits of native publishing are appealing to the reader:

  1. Push notifications of new content
  2. Background downloading for offline reading
  3. Simplified purchasing

However, there are numerous disadvantages to the author:

  1. Push notifications require a running a server which is configured to notify users of new events.
  2. Native apps must be built, submitted to the App Store, and be maintained (should bugs be found or programming APIs changed).
  3. Native content is subject to censorship by the controlling store.
  4. Non-negotiable pricing terms.
  5. Native publishing limits the readership to owners of the devices supported by the native apps.

Singer is advocating the creation of a “Moveable Type for Native” application or framework to alleviate these problems. As Mod points out in his follow-up, there are already companies like The Periodical Co. who are working hard towards this goal. Although I wish them well, they seem ill-equipped to do so, because they can’t control the last three of those big downsides. Software would definitely be able to mitigate the first two issues, but the others are much harder to deal with.

Let’s assume a best-case scenario: a platform owner like Apple is the one to improve the authoring tools and tackle these challenges. Apple already offers iBooks Author, a beautiful ebook creation application. It’s easy to see them expanding their foothold in publishing by offering a similar Newsstand Author tool, complete with a hosted push notification service. They could relax their stance on censorship of magazines – they already don’t censor ebooks or music. They may even change their tone on pricing, but I wouldn’t count on that. They’re still left with issue #5: Readers without iOS devices won’t be able to access the native content.

For authors, reach is a huge deal. One of the reasons web publishing was and is so desirable is because it levels the economics of reach: It costs the same to have 5 readers as it does to have 5 million. Compared to the web, native publishing only limits the number of people who can view the content and adds additional operating expense.

Given these drawbacks, authors like Singer must ask themselves: Is native publishing worthwhile? Even if a software solution existed, a non-trivial amount of overhead would be required to support it. (Implementation, dealing with subscriptions, customer support, censorship, etc.) Further, readers can already get similar features through existing technology like RSS, Instapaper, Pocket, or Safari’s built-in Reading List feature. Is native publishing really better than the web?

This is an open question that no one yet has the answer to, but I’m betting against.

Publishing for native has a very different set of requirements and cost/benefits as compared to straight web publishing. The balance of these costs and benefits probably isn’t good enough to justify the effort to most people, no matter how good the authoring software.

Bonus Alternate Ending

What do Heather B. Armstrong, Paul Ford, and Deadmau5 have in common? None of them want to configure a push notifications server. Probably. I don’t know any of them well enough to say for sure, but I do know this: People want to do what they want to do. Writers want to write, musicians want to make music. They don’t want to troubleshoot code compilation warnings or figure out ambiguous errors from iTunes Connect, the infamous App Store backend.

People also want to share what they make, and discover what others have made. With print ceding ground to the web, there are new opportunities abound.

Luckily, there are people like Marco. Marco had both the foresight to realize this and the skills to take advantage of it. He created The Magazine, a platform for the things he loves: Writing in and around the world of technology. The Magazine lets both authors and readers get what they want: All the advantages of native publishing with minimal overhead to the author, and with content being owned by the authors, maximal reach. (The fact that The Magazines publishes articles in their entirety on the web at a later time helps too.)

I believe there will be more people like Marco, and more publications like The Magazine. There will be a Magazine for short films, specially tailored to download large video content and play it. There will be a Magazine for Music, built as audio player with new playlists every week. There be lots of different kinds of Magazines. There will even be Magazines which compete with each other, and that’s OK.

Instead of individuals trying to self-publish on native, authors will rally around these new magazines. Magazines that are specifically geared to showcase their content and manage the technical aspects of implementation and support. This will be the way many authors get their content get published on native devices. Many other authors will remain happy with web-only publishing. For everyone else, there will always be sandals or sneakers.

While it will be a big shift, I believe digital publishers of the future will be a combination of talented engineers who know how to leverage technology and smart editors who can pick great content.

No matter what happens, 2013 is sure to be a banner year for publishing. I can’t wait.