Publishing tools for electronic magazines

Printed magazines like Harvard Business Review, Wired, The Economist, and others offer an electronic version of their publications, be it as an application for Apple’s Newsstand1 or through third-party providers like Zinio. But what do you do if you are a smaller size magazine that needs to have an electronic edition?

Lightweight magazine publishing

Marco Arment is the founder of Instapaper, a ‘read-it-later’ app that lets you save web articles for later consumption. He had the idea to convert the “hand-picked selection of the finest articles and essays saved with Instapaper” –which are published at The Feature-- into an electronic magazine of some sort, and charge a monthly subscription fee. But he realized that he didn’t have the rights to the articles linked in The Feature. So, he decided instead to publish a magazine with good quality original content.

On October 11, 2012, Arment launched The Magazine, _a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times_2. Being Arment a developer, he wrote the app for The Magazine and the necessary publishing system himself.

Arment made clear from the beginning that if The Magazine didn’t reach break-even after the first month of launching, he would close the project. As Seth Godin explains, for this kind of initiative to succeed, you need to have built a tribe of followers. Arment has quite a tribe, be it from his blog, from Instapaper, or from his weekly podcast… The Magazine reached break-even a few hours after being launched.

The Magazine’s Business Model

For readers, The Magazine is an advertisement-free publication that for $1.99 a month offers five or six medium-length articles (1200-1500 word range) every two weeks, designed to appeal _curious people with a technical bent_3. The publication comes in a lightweight format, in an Newsstand app that makes reading really pleasant.

For authors, The Magazine pays a competitive flat rate for accepted work4. The Magazine’s contract with writers gives the publication non-exclusive rights forever, but after 60 days of publications authors are free to resell or republish their work, as many do on their personal blogs.

Part of The Magazine’s Value Proposition is to offer good quality content. Coherently, a few weeks after launching, Arment hired Glenn Fleishman5 as the publication’s editor.

The Magazine’s revenue stream comes from its monthly subscription fee. By choice, The Magazine sells no advertisements. Cost structure is mostly editors, freelance author fees, software development and hosting costs.

One of the Key Activities of any non-free publication, charging subscribers, is managed by Apple’s App Store.

A Key Asset of the publication is the The Magazine’s publishing system. Developed by Arment, it consists of a backend application that handles article creation and publishing, and an application for iPhone/iPad. It enables The Magazine to push each issue to its subscribers.

Having no printed counterpart, The Magazine doesn’t need to follow traditional publishing clycles of monthly or weekly publication6. The articles are mostly text, with photos or illustrations, always of good quality, used sparingly. This makes each issue really lightweight, and downloading them really fast7.

Content is King, but some tools are indispensable

The Magazine has attracted attention from people who think there is an unsatisfied need in electronic magazine publishing tools. For example, Daniel Genser and Jamie Smyth recently launched TypeEngine, a publishing platform that _helps writers and publishers create Newsstand magazine apps that are designed from the ground up for Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Publishers own their apps, release magazines under their own name, and get subscription fees paid directly to them from Apple._8

TypeEngine’s pricing model is attractive: There is no sign-up fee. When you are ready to launch your publication as an app for Apple’s Newsstand, TypeEngine charges you a $99 one time fee, and a recurring monthly fee of $25. TypeEngine charges 15 cents for each issue your subscribers download9.

Some people asked Arment if he would license The Magazine’s publishing system so they could use it for their own publications. He has explained why he won’t do that10, and what he thinks of TypeEngine. His point is that he set out to make a publication, not a publishing platform. Those who think that having the right publishing tool will make them succeed as publishers are doomed to fail.

Publishing platforms will soon make it easier to get into Newsstand. But making magazine-quality content on a regular schedule, getting enough subscribers to pay when there’s tons of great online content for free, and keeping the subscribers interested after they’ve paid — those are hard, they’ll always be hard, and a lot of people are underestimating those challenges and thinking the biggest barrier is an app.11

I agree that the availability of e-magazines publishing tools doesn’t guarantee great content or success, just as publishing an ebook for Amazon’s Kindle or Apple iBook Store doesn’t guarantee sales. Even having great content doesn’t guarantee sales. But if you want to publish an electronic magazine, you need a publishing platform like TypeEngine. The availability of this tools certainly lowers the barriers to new entrants to the magazine’s publishing market.

  1. Newsstand is a built-in application on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, dedicated to downloading and displaying digital versions of newspapers and magazines. (cfr Wikipedia.) 
  2. cfr this post announcing The Magazine on Arment’s blog
  3. cfr About The Magazine
  4. Most features we publish will be at least 1500 words long; many articles hover in the 1500–2000-word range. We pay a flat rate for accepted work, paid within 30 days of publication. The rate is $500 for essays and $800 for reported work. For reported pieces, we pay additionally for photos, audio, and video, to be negotiated as part of the assignment. We can pay some modest expenses for reporting as well. (cfr The Magazine, Pitches.) 
  5. Among other things, Fleishman writes twice weekly at the Economist’s Babbage blog
  6. A consequence of coming from the printed world is that the electronic version of paper-printed magazines is in many cases an almost exact replica of the printed version, advertisements included. This means that each issue weights several hundred Megabytes, occupies lots of space on your iPhone or iPad, and takes a long time to download. And worse, they are not always pleasant to read, because the layout that makes sense in the printed world it is not always the best format for reading on a tablet or smartphone. 
  7. When I say ‘fast’ I am speaking of download speeds over 3G here in Perú, which is definitely not the fastest connection in the world. 
  8. Another similar innitiative is The Periodical, which is in beta at the time of this writing. 
  9. Follow-up: The Loop and the TypeEngine model
  10. For example, “Did we just rip off Marco Arment and The Magazine?”, “Calm down, Marco: micropublishing is about more than just The Magazine” in answer to this article on PandoDaily, or My master plan for revolutionizing the future of publishing and saving tablet-native journalism
  11. “Calm down, Marco: micropublishing is about more than just The Magazine”
business-model digital-content e-zines electronic-magazines magazine-publishing subcompact-publishing value-proposition

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