Subcompact Publishing

November 27th, 2012

Craig Mod is excited by the possibilities of Subcompact Publishing:

In 1967 Honda unveiled the N360.

The N360 was a kei, or light style car; a subcompact.

I like to imagine the engineers at Honda huddled together, dumping the sum total of all car design and production technology on our worn, wooden table. Around they gathered and together they asked, "What's the simplest thing we can build with this?"


The N360 was something an American car company would never dream of producing. You can't blame them though: they had no incentive by which to dream such dreams. Unlike the American automotive industry, the Japanese automotive industry wasn't beholden to industry momentum or legacy. And when you're not beholden to legacy, you can be excessively brazen.

In the software industry we talk about MVPs, or Minimum Viable Products. The N360 was a Minimum Viable Car.

The N360 didn't make it to the States, but the followup – and near equally cute – N600 did. Next came the Honda Civic, then soon after, the oil crisis. We all know how the story goes from there.


Honda was a nobody in the car industry. But they gained foothold and marketshare by building a car that was more appropriate for many consumers. They had built a subcompact.

So I ask: where are our digital publishing subcompacts?

Mod spends a fair bit of time extolling the virtues of Marco Arment's The Magazine, which I wrote about back when it launched. I've maintained my subscription through the first four issues, but I have to admit that I'm wavering over whether to retain it. The application's virtues remain – it's a beautifully polished application, even if I'd like more control over the presentation of the content that it permits,1 but the content isn't that interesting to me.

In principle, an article extolling the virtues of a wet shave, or the proper way to make a cup of tea could be engaging and fun to read, even to a hirsute guy like me who would quench his thirst with a Diet Coke rather than brew a cup of tea every time; in practice I haven't found them to be so. I'm finding that on average there's one article per issue that I find moderately engaging. It doesn't help that some of the writers, whose work I've read on their own weblogs, are covering very familiar ground. Marco did say early on that he hoped to expand the pool of writers after the first few issues, so I'll probably give it another couple of issues to see if things improve.

Having said all that (and to get back to the ostensible topic of this post), there's no doubt in my mind that the basic model of Subcompact Publishing could well develop in all sorts of interesting ways, freeing up writers to write instead of having to code an application and submit it to someone's app store. It's just a shame that whatever tools people come up with will most likely end up being tied to a specific operating system/hardware type/payment mechanism.

Isn't this a problem the web was supposed to have solved by now?


  1. In particular, I like pagination in my reading apps, dammit! Marco has explained in one of his podcasts that flexible, high-quality pagination is really complicated to do well so for now he's going with a scrolling view.

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Readability improved

February 1st, 2011

From time to time1 I've been known to rant about how I wish the newspaper and magazine publishing industry would stop distracting itself with visions of paywalls and iPad apps and find a way to let me make a single payment that will be shared out in proportion to the number of times I read their various publications. Now the creators of the Readability bookmarklet have gone several steps further than just decluttering the reading experience: they're out to ease the process of paying publishers for their work along the way.

Readability is now an online service that both stores details of stories you want to read later but also divides up the monthly subscription you pay – a minimum of US$5.00 per month – between the various publishers according to how often you've read them each month. Several very smart people are advising them on this, and I really think this could be the start of something huge.

I've just signed up2 and installed the Safari extension, and am looking forward to playing with my new toy over the next couple of days.

  1. You'll note that at one or two points the punctuation in older posts has been corrupted, a consequence of my carelessness when I restored the sight after last year's hack attack. I'm going to spend some time this weekend cleaning all that crud out and restoring proper punctuation to my archives.
  2. One quibble: at the moment you can only pay your subscription via Amazon. I trust that they're going to offer a range of payment methods: I hadn't used my Amazon account in so long that I had to go in and set up a new card.

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Mules and risky behaviour

August 31st, 2010

Andrew Wheeler quoted a couple of passages from a New Yorker article by Susan Orlean1 that make me wish I could afford to subscribe to all the magazines that I'd like to read:

[A] mule knows its limits. It is characteristic of the breed to have an inviolable commitment to self-preservation, which is often misinterpreted as stubbornness. In truth, it is probably a form of genius. A horse will eat until it founders and dies; a mule will only snack, even if it happens upon an open bin of oats. A horse can be enticed to gallop, fatally, over a cliff. In 1942, the Army was researching ways to deliver mules to combat zones. Someone thought that teaching the animals to skydive would be a good way to do this. As an experiment, twelve mules were fitted with parachutes and taken up in a cargo plane. The first six, caught by surprise, were pushed out the door and immediately fell to their deaths. The next six survived. This is because they must have figured out what was going on and absolutely refused to go near the door.

Every mule, then, is sui generis; it leaves no legacy beyond itself, no radiating gene pool to mark its visit to this world. It is as if each mule knew that it had one shot at being here on earth, and risky behavior, such as jumping out of an airplane at ten thousand feel, would interfere with that.

— Susan Orlean, "Riding High," in the 2/15 & 22/10 New Yorker

Nice work.

I wish the magazine industry would stop praying that the magazine-as-iPad-app approach will preserve their current business model and come up with some sort of central clearing house to which I could pay a reasonable sum every month in return for online-only access to a certain number of articles per month across multiple publications and publishers. I'm never going to be able to justify paying for subscriptions to the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Review of Books and a good dozen other print publications every month2 but I'd be happy to pay a few pounds per month to an online library service3 for pick-and-mix access to their contents.

I appreciate that the various publishers would much rather have me signed up as one of their subscribers than get the occasional slice of my subscription when I feel like reading an interesting article here or there, but the net result of their current strategy is that they get not a penny from me. I can't be the only non-subscriber who would send some money the publishers' way if only they'd let me, can I?

  1. Not available to read in full for free online.
  2. And I don't really want the paper copies of their products cluttering up the place.
  3. Perhaps £5, maybe as much as £10. It would depend upon the number of magazines available and how easy it was to browse and access the individual articles.

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Impromptu glibness

May 6th, 2010

James Fallows, writing almost two decades ago about the appeal of The Economist in the American market:

The other ugly English trait promoting The Economist's success in America is the Oxford Union argumentative style. At its epitome, it involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.

American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control. The forte of Oxford-style debate is to be able to sound certain and convincing about a topic pulled out of the air a few minutes before, such as "Resolved: That women are not the fairer sex." (The BBC radio shows "My Word" and "My Music," carried on National Public Radio, give a sample of the desired impromptu glibness.)

Economist leaders and the covers that trumpet their message offer Americans a blast of this style. Michael Kinsley, who once worked at The Economist, wrote that the standard Economist leader gives you the feeling that the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately — and then tried to think what the steps should be.

A certain modesty would seem appropriate in The Economist's leaders these days, considering that after 10 years in which the Thatcher government essentially did what the magazine said, Britain has the weakest economy in Europe. (Remind me, again, why we're looking to the British for economic advice.) But the implied message of the leaders often seems to be, "I took a First at Oxford. I'm right."

[Via PinkPundit, commenting at The Awl]

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The Erotic Probiotic!

August 20th, 2009

When Magazines Merge!

[Via The Browser]

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June 9th, 2009

I stopped subscribing to Personal Computer World magazine about a decade ago, but I still felt a pang of sadness at the news that it's being closed down by current owners Incisive Media.

I remember eagerly awaiting each new issue back in the early 1980s. First I'd read Guy Kewney's news column, then the reviews – software first, usually, then new computers, then peripherals – then the various columnists and opinion pieces, and then I'd work my way through the issue from cover to cover over the weeks leading up to the next issue. Good times.

Obscure fact of the day: I once had an article published in PCW, back in 1995.1

  1. I wrote the article as an exercise for one of my courses at university; I never had any ambitions to become a journalist. The marks I got for the associated essay were far more important to me than the cash or the fact I'd had an article published.

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