Subcompact Publishing

Craig Mod does a much better job than I did a few posts back in articulating what is so special and revolutionary about Marco Arment’s The Magazine, which Mod cites as an exemplar of what he dubs Subcompact Publishing.

The clarity of The Magazine is exciting. It’s doubly exciting because it’s precisely the sort of app at which incumbent publishers balk. This is expected. Again, from Christensen:

Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.

We are the new customers: The new readers, the new writers, the new publishers. The Magazine is indeed cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient than most other publishing apps.

Read the whole thing here.

How one geek just outdid the entire publishing industry

Most of my friends and colleagues in journalism or the magazine world have never heard of Marco Arment. A few more may have actually used his offline article reader, Instapaper. But I’d be willing to bet that almost none of them realize that, earlier this month, Marco surprised everyone by simply doing a few things that the combined brain trust of the newspaper and magazine industry have talked about for years:

  1. He launched a new, digital publication.
  2. He charged for it.
  3. He began making a profit on it. By the second issue.

Marco Arment, a developer, small business owner, blogger and technology-focused podcaster, launched The Magazine a few weeks ago. It’s a stripped-down, gorgeous, text-only (for now) iOS Newsstand publication that gathers a biweekly collection of topics that Marco says is not limited to technology but which will “appeal to people who love technology.” After reading the first two issues, I’m thinking of it as something close to the experience of reading Harper’s in the 80s and 90s, when each issue begged to be read from cover-to-cover. Or, perhaps a very thin New Yorker, without the cartoons. Point being, this is a good solid read, albeit one you can make your way through in a couple of quick subway rides or bedtime reading sessions.

The Magazine is a lean, bi-weekly (though that could change) collection of mid-length articles that so far have tended toward the kind of personal essay that shines a pin-spot on a small slice of life that ultimately reveals something of the bigger picture. In the current issue, for example, there’s Gina Trapani’s visit to the sperm bank as she and her wife do the pre-work that goes into two women having a child, Lex Friedman’s  paean to the joys of wet-shaving and John Siracusa writing movingly about something you thought did not exist: a video game with a good heart.

The price for this and a few other pieces, every other week: two dollars a month.

Is this a bargain? Dollar-for-dollar, no, in the days when you can pick up a year of Wired or Vanity Fair for half that. But that’s not really the point. Because, if it weren’t for those two dollars, these stories would not exist. In the footsteps of similarly independent-minded Louis C.K., whom Marco invokes in his first issue, The Magazine is the result of a refreshingly single-minded purpose: to create something unique, not just as an artistic outlet, but as a business — a business, it turns out, that was given an extremely short runway.

Marco explains:

I’m starting this with a staff of one. I can develop the app, procure and edit the articles, and write occasional articles myself. There’s no venture capital funding, no corporate backer, and very little starting capital. My biggest fixed cost is the up-front design and development of the app, and my biggest recurring cost is paying writers. If it doesn’t turn a profit within two months — just four issues — I’ll shut it down.

Partially from these constraints, and partially in the spirit of Louis C.K.’s anecdote, The Magazine’s articles won’t be laid out separately for portrait and landscape orientations. Articles won’t have custom designs at all. You won’t see any infographics, slideshows, or interactive panoramas. These multimedia features can all be valuable, and they have their places in other publications, but not here.

So, it would appear, the experiment part is over. The Magazine, young as it is, is a profitable success. It has no photos. It has no massive multi-hundred megabyte downloads. Instead of taking minutes (or hours on slow hotel or departure-gate wi-fi), The Magazine downloads in seconds.

And it’s profitable.

Will people pay for content? Ask Marco.

When I started working on this in August, it was definitely a risk. And until a few hours after it launched, I didn’t know whether it was going to be successful and well-received, or a huge waste of three months and a lot of money.

In hindsight, it was obvious, but only because it succeeded. Had it been received poorly, its failure would have seemed obvious in hindsight, too.Of course that wouldn’t work.

All these years, publishers have been trying to figure out new and better ways to force people to pay for their content — whether through increasingly intrusive advertising models, selling user data or putting up paywalls and meters. And the whole time, the answer was right there:

People will pay for content.

They just have to want to.

Keep an eye on The Magazine and other independent publishing efforts. You just might learn something.

 

Sparrow in the coal mine

I’m as guilty as the next guy for grumbling when I heard that Sparrow — the excellent OS X and iOS mail client — was just end-of-lifed thanks to Google purchasing it and the team that developed it.

I don’t begrudge the team their success; my complaint is simply that a great thing that I get to use every day is now going to start bit-rotting and will, eventually, no longer work.

By then, I hope, GMail will have become Sparrowfied and this won’t matter. But that part of me that loves supporting indie developers won’t get its itch scratched when I’m using my free and vastly improved Google webmail.

What’s really interesting about this, though, is that it’s looking more and more that the developers really didn’t have much choice, as this seemingly successful app family may have actually been unsustainable as a business.

David Barnard, developer of another essential iOS app — Launch Center Pro — used his experience and numbers selling Launch Center Pro to make an educated guess as to whether Sparrow was making enough money to survive. His analysis is sobering: making money in the low-priced app business is neither easy nor automatic:

We’ve all read stories about and been enthralled by the idea of App Store millionaires. As the story goes… individual app developers are making money hand over fist in the App Store! And if you can just come up with a great app idea, you’ll be a millionaire in no time!

That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but that is honestly the way the public perceives success in the App Store…

After 4 years in the racket, this is my best advice for making millions in the App Store: build a game, a gimmick, or an app that has some sort of revenue outside a one-time purchase. Oh, and if it’s a game, make it “free-to-play”. You might be able to build a sustainable business selling useful apps, and carve out a decent living for yourself, but it’s almost impossible to make millions.

Unless Google buys your company.

For anyone who enjoys the richness and relative affordability of the current OS X and iOS app universe, David’s post should give pause.

 

Can local advertising for small businesses be easier?

There’s no question that local advertising on the web should work. After all, the digital space is where audience is growing. Also, it’s much, much easier to target potential customers, geographically, demographically and psychographically.

And, yet, outside of Google’s products, there haven’t been a lot of easy, simple digital solutions to help a small business to promote itself. Banners may or may not help with branding, but small business — even in service industries — is a retail business. Branding’s nice, but if the phone doesn’t ring or the leads don’t appear in the inbox, the prototypical Mom or Pop is probably not going to re-up that campaign next month.

That’s why I can’t stop thinking about a new approach just announced from Publish2 called BreakingPromos. It falls into that “I wish I’d thought of this” category.

The idea behind BreakingPromos is simple and inspired. It starts with the premise that many savvy local businesses already know how to promote themselves through Twitter and Facebook  – sharing news of a Happy Hour deal or the new swimwear collection, for instance — but that such promotions work almost exclusively for the existing customer base only. It’s smart to market to your fans, true, but it’s not enough.

Advertising needs to attract and create new customers. How to do that, using the spirit and methods of Twitter and Facebook? Enter Breaking Promos.

  • It’s a platform for local advertisers to create tweet-like ads, which are then aggregated on a local news site. These are also then sent on to the advertiser’s own Twitter feed, Facebook page and beyond. But they start on the local news site, where an interested local audience is concentrated.
  • These promos are categorized and promoted to the site’s users, becoming themselves valuable content about the commercial/retail/entertainment life of the community.
  • The price point is extremely low — a buck or less — and sold in bundles of single-use credits. Because this is a reverse-chron feed and, assuming there is decent adoption of the platform by competitors, the system is set up to motivate frequent use of credits and to reward that use through immediate retail traffic or lead generation. If you’re thinking this sounds like gamification of the ad sales process, you’re right.
  • It’s self-managed on the back-end by the advertiser him- or herself. Once a relationship is established, whether through traditional sales channels or word-of-mouth, there is no further need of administrative or sales support by the local news site.
  • It’s promoted on the local site through a ticker of current deals, a landing page for all promos and, if the site is being creative, through integration with other utility/service content for users.

This is how they’ve mocked it up on the Publish2 site:

Price of entry for the local advertiser is as little as $10 to start (with each placement costing a dollar). The cost to the local publisher is as much as half of that dollar to be split with Publish2. In John Paton’s parlance, five stacked dimes per ad will flow to the publisher. Not a lot to be sure, until and unless there’s scale.

So there are a lot of if-then statements in the Breaking Promos promise, but on the face of it, it starts to feel like at least one piece of the local puzzle — the one where advertisers in the community get instant gratification for their ad spend — is being solved. There will still be the need for branding campaigns, long-form videos, events, etc., but this simple approach to scratching that primary itch may free up sales and production resources to actually start to deliver those more ambitious programs for local and regional advertisers.

What do you think? Is this a step in the right direction for local publishers who want to help businesses in their community to succeed? Will this kind of direct-response advertising have the kind of ROI for local businesses that the want and need?

Pie photo by Joselito Tagarao, Creative Commons license.

 

Finding ‘a better way’ for online advertising

Quote

Terry Heaton takes a look at Facebook’s stand against The User Annoyance Issue:

Or, as Ries and Trout demonstrated in Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind, you can “Make and position an industry leader so that its name and message wheedles its way into the collective subconscious of your market-and stays there.” I’ve always liked the word “wheedles.” Such a nice, friendly thought, eh?

This is both the success and failure of mass marketing, but times are changing. ESPN had the clout to say no to online ad networks, because they wanted to control the advertising on THEIR site. You may not like some of their ads, but you’ll never be confronted with a 30-second preroll on ESPN.com. Facebook is now saying “there’s got to be a better way.” The jury is out here, but I applaud their position.

In print, Sunday should be an event

While papers start cutting back on the number of days they publish in print, they shouldn’t miss a great opportunity to make those days they do print be really special. Sunday, for instance.

Remember The San Francisco Panorama? It was an issue of McSweeney’s that took the form of a fat Sunday newspaper.

It cost a small fortune ($16). It had section, after section, after section. And it was unabashedly PRINT.

It sold out. It sold out on the day it was first distributed in SF, then it sold out its overrun for national sales.

Yes, The Panorama was a one-off stunt, but Sunday papers can still be weekly events. And, if they’re full of readable, useful and fun journalism and relevant commercial content, newspaper companies can charge a lot for them.

In book publishing, some emerging authors are finding paper and ink are no longer the best way to a reader’s heart

Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz, cc, flickr

A while back I was talking about how great it was to see music artists like Sam Phillips turn the old system upside down and not only publish her own digital music, but also bring her fans behind the curtain while she made it.

It seems the same thing has been happening in book publishing.

I was checking my local library queue the other night and saw that I was number 277 in line to borrow the new book from Michael Connelly.

I didn’t feel like waiting that long, knew I had some credit at Amazon and figured I’d just download it to my Kindle app. Live a little. Splurge.

I learned two things: 1) The book’s not released yet and 2) We live in times where an actual physical object, made of materials and labor, delivered to my doorstep, costs less than a tiny cupful of data, delivered wirelessly.

That’s right. The Kindle version of the new Michael Connelly novel costs more than the new hardcover:

But that’s not really the point of this post. The point of this post is that my thwarted intention to buy the new Michael Connelly — and my recoil at the price — led me to glance across the screen to the chart of top mystery books where the latest by Stephen Carpenter — a pixel-turner called “Killer” — was on offer for the remarkably reasonable sum of $2.99.

How can you not take a chance on a book for three bucks?

As it turned out, money well-spent. The guy can write. I’m looking forward to finishing it later tonight.

And that is the point of this post. That Carpenter is not alone. That readers can be found outside the traditional channels. Check out all those titles at the top of the Kindle charts with the tiny prices: In the publishing business, right now, disintermediation happens.

Stephen Carpenter — a successful screenwriter — is now also a successful novelist thanks to his ability to publish his first book on Kindle, price it reasonably and keep many more of the dollars than if he had gone through a traditional publisher.

“I think it’s an incredible step forward for authors and readers alike. I read a columnist the other day who likened the development of the e-reader to the Gutenberg press, in terms of progressing the written word. That’s obviously an overstatement, but I think it’s great that so many people have access to so many books inexpensively–and that so many authors can publish without going through traditional channels.”

And then there’s Amanda Hocking, who has gotten a great deal of attention lately as “the most successful indie author” on Amazon. To date she’s sold 700,000 books, according to Business Insider.

She gets to keep 70% of her book sales — and she sells around 100,000 copies per month. By comparison, it’s usually thought that it takes a few tens of thousands of copies sold in the first week to be a New York Times bestselling writer.

The comparison isn’t entirely fair, because Hocking sells her books for $3, and some $.99. But that’s the point: by lowering the prices, she can make more on volume, especially impulse buys. Meanwhile e-books cost nothing to print, you don’t have to worry about print volumes, shelf space, inventory, etc. And did we mention the writer keeps 70%?

Hocking and other authors are making a tidy living publishing without publishing houses, using the massive distribution and reach of Amazon to rack up numbers that would qualify them for New York Times Bestseller status. If The New York Times didn’t ignore this category of sales, that is.

This list, for example, has almost 40 authors — most you’ve never heard of — who are selling 1,000 books a month or more through Amazon. They’re not all wearing spats and lighting stogies with $50 bills yet, but they’re reaching real readers and collecting real dollars.

What do you think? Are traditional publishers in trouble here, or is this the beginning of a glorious revolution in authoring and reading that has benefits for everyone, classy-imprint houses included? I hope it’s win-win-win, but for an industry that seems so afraid of digital that it prices downloads to prop up physical book purchases, I’m not holding my breath.