A few weeks ago I was browsing a photography bookshop in London and came across the term ‘micro-publisher’ for the first time. The friend I was with seemed slightly bemused that I hadn’t encountered the term and explained that it just meant small publishers with tiny print runs. Here’s how Wikipedia defines micro-publishing:
- The book publishing industry sometimes uses this term in discussing publishing companies below a certain revenue level.
- It is also used to describe the use of efficient publishing and distribution techniques to publish a work intended for a specific micromarket. Typically, these works are not considered by larger publishers because of their low economy of scale and mass appeal and the difficulties that would arise in their marketing.
The two meanings seem obviously connected to me, in so far as that the former will be the likely state of companies who only engage in the latter. In fact, as the Wikipedia articles goes on to make clear, it’s only with the growth of Print on Demand that the niche markets to which micro-publishers cater became financially feasible because of a radical reduction in the upfront investment that was necessary. This trend intensified with the emergence of online publishing in general and eReaders in particular. As the Wikipedia articles continues:
Before the emergence of the internet, micropublishing was considered a “microtrend” that would not play much of a role in the publishing world, because costs per copy were too high. The internet has changed this by providing authors and micropublishers with an affordable medium through which to publish and distribute their works.
The Internet is also evolving how the works from traditional publishing, self-publishing and micro-publishing are distributed. The long imagined dream of digital distribution for published works is quickly becoming a reality. For micro-publications, digital distribution may enable greater numbers of authors and potential authors to enter the publishing industry to access readers who prefer to receive and/or consume content in digital form.
Digital micropublishing sites like Scribd and Docstoc enable micro-publishers to easily distribute their digital works using intellectual property licenses. Licensing micro-publications simplifies protecting and tracking those works which are distributed digitally, an approached used for many years by software producers, and in the last decade by MP3 music distributors.
Micro-publishers and authors who use intellectual property licensing sites are not limited to a specific medium (like eReaders) to distribute their works. This flexibility may allow micropublishing to significantly expand readership while protecting copyrights.
The Subcompact Publishing manifesto thinks through the potential implications of this for the nature of the magazine. To produce a digital edition of a print publication leaves a publisher under a very particular set of constraints:
A generalized print magazine may be composed of the following qualities:
- Each issue contains a dozen or more articles.
- Issues operate on a monthly cycle.
- All articles are bundled and shipped at the same time.
Almost all of these qualities are the result of responses to distribution and production constraints. Printing and binding takes a certain amount of time. Shipping the issues takes another chunk of time. In order to find a balance between timeliness of content and shelf-life, a month makes a pretty sensible — if brisk — publishing schedule.
Old into new
So why do so many of our digital magazines publish on the same schedule, with the same number of articles as their print counterparts? Using the same covers? Of course, they do because it’s easier to maintain identical schedules across mediums. To not design twice. To not test twice (or, at all).
Unfortunately — from a medium-specific user experience point of view — it’s almost impossible to produce a digitally indigenous magazine beholden to those legacy constraints. Why? Not least because we use tablets and smartphones very differently than we use printed publications.
One of the great benefits of being part of the emergent publishing world is that you don’t have multiple mediums to publish across.10 You can and probably should focus squarely on digital. Perhaps later — contingent on market demand and content quality — you can consider publishing a print anthology to give your publication a stronger literal edge.11
The author then outlines how ‘Subcompact Publishing’ can take advantage of freedom from these legacy constraints:
Subcompact Publishing tools are first and foremost straightforward.
They require few to no instructions.
They are easily understood on first blush.
The editorial and design decisions around them react to digital as a distribution and consumption space.
They are the result of dumping our publishing related technology on a table and asking ourselves — what are the core tools we can build with all this stuff?
They are, as it were, little N360s.
I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:
- 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
To my surprise, the author suggests that Apple’s Newstand is actually a grossly under-appreciated tool to this end. The argument seems convincing:
Apple’s Newsstand? “But isn’t that where all those horrible things live?” I hear you say. Or, “Oh? That folder I’ve never opened?”
Newsstand is perhaps the most underutilized, under-imagined distribution tool in the short history of tablet publishing. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head at just the right angle, you’ll notice something magical about Newsstand: given the proper container, it’s a background downloading, offline-friendly, cached RSS machine people can subscribe to. For money.
What I find interesting is how much of the innovation in this field has been driven by the facilitation of micro-publishing by others:
The Magazine is no longer alone as an enterprising app-magazine. It has been joined on the Newsstand by a host of publications put out by 29th Street Publishing, which acts as a publisher and marketer for indie editors and writers, and now a clutch of other startups have entered the fray, each toting cheap or free tools that help regular schmoes produce and sell beautiful cross-platform publications. The options available to independent publishers have never been better, but it’s also likely that this space is going to get saturated quickly. Below is a rundown of the new companies that offer digital publishing products.
Here are some of the tools listed in this article:
What does all this mean for scholarly publishing? Three initial thoughts occur to me. Firstly, it’s clearer to me than ever why I’m ambivalent about the growth of new journals facilitated by Open Journal Systems. If the journal is freed from the complexity of sales & licensing then why so enthusiastically reproduce the form of long established non-OA journals? Secondly, these tools could offer new opportunities for dissemination by large research projects, publishing accessible material on an ongoing basis rather than restricting dissemination to the end of the project. Thirdly, it potentially becomes feasible to run public engagement projects on an going basis without being completely reliant on grant funding and/or endless unpaid labour.
Thoughts much appreciated.