Making digital publishing work

by Steve Watson in October 2013
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There’s lots written about the relative merits of digital magazines, both good and bad. I’m always wary of anyone who claims to have distilled it all down into a simple rule (the phrase ‘lean forward’ is generally enough to send me packing) but for me the key to success is finding a way into readers’ lives. A paper magazine sits in my bag / on my desk / on the bedside table until I’m ready for it, but most magazines I download to my iPad or phone just sort of get forgotten.

The exception that proves the rule is The Magazine – I read every issue, and I love it because it has found that place in my life. Every other week a new issue arrives on my phone; five stories, all of them based vaguely around technology, all of them well written, carefully edited and simply presented. And that’s it. It was designed to be read on phones and tablets, so there are no huge file sizes, acres of display advertising, page swiping or other annoying hangovers from print publishing.

I have at least one magazine with me pretty much all the time, but sometimes I just don’t want to deal with it. I might be on a crowded train or in an annoyingly dark room, and that’s when The Magazine comes into its own.

It was created by Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment and is now edited by tech journalist, podcast host and two-time Jeopardy winner Glenn Fleishman (his CV has to be seen to be believed). When Glenn and I ended up chatting on Twitter we set up a time to speak – I thought it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on publishing, and he didn’t disappoint.

The following text is long but it’s totally worth it, showing the thinking of an incredibly adventurous, ultra-motivated entrepreneur pushing at the boundaries of magazine making, and taking in the importance of paying writers, the print versus digital debate and the difference between tech and publishing. It’s inspiring stuff.

What made you want to get involved in publishing mobile magazines?

I don’t know if I would have taken the risk on my own, because ordinarily you need enormous overheads to make the experience good for readers. I’m just grateful that Marco had the itch he had to scratch to put in his hundreds of hours of expert programming time to make the app, because that’s one of the biggest barriers to getting into the space.

It’s very difficult to work on mobile, but he created an iPhone and iPad app that’s terrific. I came in as editor from issue number two almost a year ago, by which time he had already cracked the app side and delivered something people were paying attention to. So the problem then was editorial, rather than the structure, form or delivery, and that made it very appealing to jump in there.

It’s interesting you were attracted by the editorial challenge. I’ve been looking at some other mobile-only magazines and one of the things that makes The Magazine stand out is the editorial – I can feel your presence as the editor and that’s really valuable.
I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel like these days there isn’t a place for the sort of features I’m interested in writing. I think it’s maintained in other countries that have a different newspaper or magazine culture… like in Germany it’s a whole different thing. If I were in Germany I’m not sure I would have become the editor of The Magazine, because there is a richer culture of different kinds of writing that has been sustained.

In America I feel like there’s a dearth of stories that are told at a certain depth. We aim to publish around 1,500 to 2,500 words – sometimes we creep a little bit higher than that, but that’s long enough to tell a complete story about a person or thing with a real emotion behind it.

You used to see it in newspapers all the time, but that has changed. So you have all these reporters who know how to tell these stories, you have the stories that need to be told, and now we’re in the position to say that if the economics work, we have the right way to deliver a certain kind of story at the right editorial standards. The finances just balance out; it just works to mean we can put the money in to dial the quality wheels to the right level on reporting, editing and production.

So you pay your writers?
Yes, and that’s actually why I pitched Marco saying I should be editor, because he offered a decent fee to start with, and within two weeks he doubled it. Because he realised two things – one was the revenue was good enough, and second he wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of writing he wanted consistently for free.

The first time around people will say, “Yeah, okay I’ll write something,” but to get people at a higher level who can put more time in he was going to have to pay more. He recognised that, and that showed me he was thinking about this in terms of how to create an ecosystem for the writer as well as for the publisher, and that’s why I inserted myself in the middle.

How much does it cost to make The Magazine?
In the latest issue in the editor’s note I’ve put in some cost information. I spoke to a colleague recently who reads the publication – he’s an industrial designer and he said, “You know, I have no idea how you do this.” I explained some of the mechanics, and he said, “You should tell people what you’re spending. Because it’s so opaque to us as readers, and it might be part of the value.”

So we spend about $2,000 an article: the writer gets $500 to $800 depending on the kind of article, then we have photography and illustration – we typically commission one illustration per week, which has been wonderful. We send people out on photo shoots, we license pictures and we have creative commons, and then we have me, plus a part-time managing editor, a copy editor and a proof-reader.

A conventional publication, like a mainstream glossy magazine, they’re going to be putting maybe $5,000 to $10,000 into the same length of article, so we’re operating on much lower budgets than that, but between us we put out stories we’re really happy with.

Working with independent publishers you find lots of Frankenstein’s monster business models, where the magazine came first and a way of paying for it kind of sprouted out afterwards. But it sounds like Marco had the business plan in mind right from the start?
Marco didn’t know how successful it would be, but his largest sunk cost when he launched was entirely him. He didn’t have a staff, so it was entirely the effort he put in during his spare time that made it happen. I’ve estimated it and I think it would cost you around $200,000 to $300,000 if you went out and hired somebody to build an app like The Magazine.

And that’s not meant to be daunting. I’m not saying, “Don’t try to do what we’re doing folks,” but more recognising the skill of it. As I’ve worked with developers to update the publication, I’ve realised that even things that seem minor can cost between $10,000 and $40,000 to implement. I’m just lucky that one of the best mobile app designers in the world designed and built this for himself, then sold it to me.

The folks at 29th Street Publishing and The Atavist and other platforms, they’re coming at this from a different angle and I hope it will work for them, because I want there to be more magazines – I want there to be more publications. But they have to figure out how to fund an uncertain process – some of them are programmers, but they have to raise the money, pay people during the six- to nine-month development cycle, then put the thing out there and attract publications in a sufficient quantity that the relatively low monthly fees add up to enough to support this entire ecosystem.

We have it almost the opposite way – we have this app that was essentially free, because Marco made it in his spare time, so every dollar from dollar one was additive to him without having to outsource. When he brought me on he had a salary to pay and so forth, but he already had all the economics in hand and he knew that he was going to clear a very nice profit at the end of the day.

So where do you see it going? Now The Magazine exists it would presumably be fairly easy to use it as a platform for other publishers, like 29th Street and The Atavist are doing?
Marco was employee number one at Tumblr. He and David Karp developed this site and he saw first hand what it’s like to support other people on a platform you’re developing. So there was very little interest for him for that.

When he sold The Magazine to me I bought the application code outright, so I own the publication, the code base and intellectual property, and I also have no interest in taking that direction. I’ve been involved with supporting people in the past too, and you really have to choose that route deliberately. If I wanted to do that I’d have to go out and raise, I’d say, $300,000 to $500,000 and probably hire three people, then I’d have to be able to guarantee that within a year I wouldn’t have run through that money and would have revenue coming in at a sufficient level.

I also actually think bespoke apps may not be the way to build a platform, even though I have one. If I was starting from scratch and wanted to build a platform, I think an HTML5-based app, which uses offline storage and all these modern techniques, might actually be the better option.

And of course Apple gets 30% of all the revenue off the top from subscriptions or anything we sell on the App Store. I actually don’t object to that – they provide you with a holy pulpit giving you a place to yell about your wares, they help with marketing, you show up in the best of lists – all these things are good. But I think the value of that is waning, and of course it doesn’t get you access to the Android platform.

So what do you see in the future for small independent publishers?
I’m very excited about the future, because I do think there’s going to be a place for small publications on a scale we haven’t seen since the days of early print presses, when everything bloomed. Electronic publications reduce the cost of entry and I think we’ll see lots of micro-publishing platforms emerging, like The Magazine. Some of them will succeed, or persist, or whatever measure you want to use for success, but the big problem remains marketing it and reaching an audience, and finding a way to turn that into revenue.

Some organisations don’t need to derive revenue from a publication, so I think we’ll see a lot of those. In fact I’m surprised by how few we’ve seen so far. It could be large companies, or publications that want to repurpose existing content and use it as a way to draw people in. I also think there will be labours of love – there are millions of blogs out there run for small audiences, and some of them thrive at the level they need to; they only need to make $500 a month to cover costs and a little bit of time, so if they make $600 it’s gravy.

Then you bump it up a level and there’s things like The Magazine. We’re independent, and I’m the only one deriving any part of a full living from this. And at the moment that’s sustainable.

But then you bump it up another level and you have full-scale publications like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, and their operations. So what’s the difference between The New Yorker and The Magazine? It’s partly infrastructure and the ability to spend money, but I think at some level The Magazine doesn’t suffer comparison to The New Yorker in terms of what people might want from a magazine. I’m not pretending to be The New Yorker, though that’s what I aspire to, but being a small publisher in this medium reminds me of the early web in terms of the levelling of the playing field.

I was building commercial websites in 1994 and it was two or three years before you could really differentiate a company with a billion dollars from one with a thousand dollars. Micropublishing doesn’t remove the barriers, but it does lower the threshold so that if you’ve got a well-designed app, a well-designed publication and a good experience with good editorial, it doesn’t seem that different from the highest-end publications out there, which are doing the same thing in the same medium.

I think the same is true with InDesign – somebody working with a cracked version of InDesign is using the same tools as the people sitting in Condé Nast’s offices. Does print have a place in your life, or are you entirely digital?
I love print. I come from a print background – I was one of the last people to be trained as a typesetter, starting on my high school newsletter and on through college working with these great guys in their 60s and 70s who had been designing their whole lives.

My first love was print, and electronic for me has always been fine but it’s always been an approximation of a thing. I think it’s only in the last three to five years that the web has become a medium that feels like it has the rich potential of print, and is a different thing that is establishing its own kind of form, so it’s almost like it’s a different sort of publishing experience.

But I would like to do print, and in fact I’m working on a collection of the first year of The Magazine’s work. We’re going to produce a book, and we’re going to crowd fund it because we’ve had many tens of thousands of subscribers to The Magazine through its history, but the churn means there are many more people not subscribing than are, and the constant refrain I hear from people who subscribe and then unsubscribe is, it got to be too much for me – I can’t read five articles every two weeks.

This is why people have stacks of unopened New Yorkers and Economists in their houses, it’s the same reason – they want to read the whole thing. So from my perspective doing a print edition our threshold is probably to sell the equivalent of 2,000 print copies of what will be a 200- to 300-page book, and we’ll illustrate it, and the other goal with the Kickstarter, the reason to go with crowd funding rather than do it upfront, is putting it together and selling it is I want to gauge demand and know whether people really want it, and I want to pay the authors again.

We have non-exclusive rights and we could go back to the well, but as a 20-year veteran writer I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk to everyone we want to put in the collection, and say we want to pay you $200 more, but if we exceed our goal on Kickstarter the writers will get more money, the illustrators and photographers will get more money, so it’s not all going into Glenn’s pocket or to fund The Magazine, it’s going back to the creative people who made it possible. I want it to be a rising tide and I want the authors on board, telling people they’ve got an article that’s going to be in this great collection, and if we beat the goal, I get more money!

If that goes well I’m going to look into what it would take to do a quarterly version of The Magazine, which wouldn’t be all the articles but maybe a selection of the best things from that period. We put out 130 articles a year, so in a quarter it’s 35 articles, so conceivably we might put out 15 or 20 and it might cost something like $10 with shipping to get the print version that you can walk around with and hold in your hands. I think it’s a wonderful split model – we’ve been an electronic publication in the first year but we need to have something in print.

We’ve got a few other ideas too – one is a podcast of interviews with the authors of articles in the magazine, presented with audio from the field, so we’ll produce and edit a programme that will be a little bit like Public Radio in the US. You won’t need to buy or read The Magazine in order to appreciate the podcast, but it will be a good advertisement without being too overt, and another arm of what we do.

So we’ll have print, audio and the electronic version, and we may even have professional readers read out every article every week, to give another path of access to people who are busy and can’t get through articles. I’ve spoken to a number of people and they say if they could listen to it or listen to some articles, it would make them more likely to subscribe. It’s very inexpensive in relative terms – it might only cost $100 more to get an article read and edited and inserted into the issue, and if that brought in more subscribers it would easily pay for itself.

I think that to be a publisher today, especially a small one like myself, you’ve got to have all of these different things going. The first year was perfecting what we do here into something that’s repeatable for ourselves, and we’re kind of at the point where this is a machine and we know how to get stuff in and out, so the next year is expanding, not necessarily by doing 10 new publications, but by making the best of what we’re doing, and reaching more people who want what we’re doing in the places where they want to get it.

Image © Gabe Bullard

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