Almost four years ago, when I first conceived of this project, the third generation iPad was released. Steve Jobs’ promise of the iPad revolutionizing publishing was hitting a good stride; many publishers of popular magazines offered digital versions of their magazines on Apple’s Newsstand. However, problems regarding the magazines themselves frustrated users, from plain PDF files being offered up at expensive prices, to gigabyte bloated magazines with layouts and features so complicated the apps required instructions. Furthermore, creators took umbrage with Newsstand’s “limitations” to offer flexible subscriptions. Discussions spread through the internet regarding how digital publishing should evolve. I read opinions optimistic for the continued potential while others were readying the “trumpets of doom.”
Craig Mod wrote a popular essay entitled ‘Subcompact Publishing’ was one of those which embraced the potential so long as the publications veered away from the legacy design and practices the major publishers brought from print over to digital. He proposed digital publishing resemble the Japanese subcompact automobiles which first seemed underpowered and featureless, but became serious challengers to the big three American automobilemakers after the oil crisis….
(The Pivot, cont’d)
He indicated, “it’s almost impossible to produce a digitally indigenous magazine beholden to those legacy constraints (more than a dozen articles, published on a monthly cycle, and articles bundled to ship at the same time)” and proposed a “Subcompact Manifesto” laying out the following “indigenous” qualities of digital:
- Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
- Small file sizes
- Digital-aware subscription prices
- Fluid publishing schedule
- Scroll (don’t paginate)
- Clear navigation
- HTML(ish) based
- Touching the open web
As it turns out, there were a number of magazine apps already applying Mod’s manifesto including Marco Arment’s ‘The Magazine’, which Mod highlights in his essay, and Timothy Moore’s ‘Letter to Jane.’ However, both programmed their own apps. I required either a service or a developer to create one for me. My research into would-be app publishing platforms such as Prss, which Apple eventually bought, led me to 29th Street Publishing, a New York based start-up specializing in independent magazine apps and who counted Timothy Moore among their core staff. In addition to having an opportunity to work with Moore on my app, 29th Street Publishing offered a (then) profit share system which was friendly to my budget. The other services just asked too much either upfront, in profit share terms (on top of Apple’s take), or both. Plus, I was impressed with the apps 29th Street Publishing created; they truly embodied Mod’s manifesto. I only lacked content. As I could not fulfill the subscription cycle requirements of the contract yet, I dedicated myself to building a backlog of interviews to deliver on a quarterly basis.
Fast forward to the present. The digital publishing landscape has changed drastically. Apple killed Newsstand (a more celebratory thing than mournful one if you ask publishers) and made “creating” and “playing” the focus of the iPad (Pro); they no longer speak of it as the future of the written word. Marco Arment killed his app as did Jim Dalrymple, who retired the The Loop Magazine in April, 2016. Most cited the difficulties of actually earning an income as subscriptions and single issue sales plummeted after the initial high, and continual problems of discovery in the App Store strangled any potential to reach new readers. “[The] App Store is not a place for independent publishers,” wrote Dalrymple in his eulogy to his app. Even publications created through 29th Street Publishing have been slowly going quiet, either producing fewer issues or ceasing publishing (on an app) outright. Those that remain have been their core clients or those who employ a multi-pronged approach, of which the magazine app is actually a small part.
Meanwhile, new platforms on the web have emerged such as Medium, which mixes digital journalism with social media conventions, and new blogging software/services aimed directly at serious writers such as Ghost have been gaining traction. The writing was on the wall. But since I have been working these past three years to create content envisioned for a native app experience, I felt I should at least make the attempt. As you may recall, I even explained my reasoning for choosing not to publish on the web and the controversy earlier this year over ad blockers vs. news sites seemed to at least lend my line of thinking some credence. However, I could not shake the feeling indie magazines weren’t working out as apps.
My choices were clear. I could stay the course and begin publishing through 29th Street Publishing. However, given the aforementioned status of digital publishing combined with the financial commitments not only to engage their new platform licensing model, but also to Apple’s developer program, the risk was more palpable now than three years ago. Additionally, the contractual prerequisite to publish on a set cycle–even one of my own choosing–still remained formidable given the three years it took to create only three issues’ worth of content. My other choice was to quickly pivot to publishing on the web. I’m obligated to the filmmakers to share their interviews with the public before the information becomes outdated. Operating a web magazine would allow me to publish sooner than later, and as it turns out entails fewer costs than developing and selling an app on the App Store. Another advantage is I would no longer be bound to the promised schedule of a subscription based model. Without such pressure, I can devote myself to the quality of the interviews. I can post new interviews whenever I complete them. For a one-man, side project, this seems the more sensible choice. Naturally, I need to conceive of a way to monetize my efforts without resorting to ads, but I believe the solution may be selling curated, cross-platform compliant eBooks of the site’s content.
Taking everything into consideration, I have made the decision to pivot. I am working hard now to create the Indievisual Magazine website not as a “storefront” site for selling the magazine app, but as the actual place the content resides. Publishing the articles will be relatively simple enough as the text files will convert easily to a web engine’s editor, but there will be challenges to making sure the website scales appropriately as more content is published. I will also need to learn more about and become acquainted with the retail systems which will allow for the sale and delivery of the eBooks I hope to publish in the future. Naturally, this will also entail studying the ePub format in order to closely approximate the experience I originally envisioned for a native app. Despite these new hurdles, I believe this decision provides more benefits than drawbacks. More than anything, I am excited to have the words of the independent filmmakers I’ve interviewed reach the audience for which they are meant. Please stay tuned here or the Indievisual Facebook page to learn when the first interviews are released.