Talking Publishing with Marco

One thing that has really been on my mind lately is how publishing is changing. Many think it is a bit crazy that I went with a paywall, but even more crazy is that I was thinking of shutting down the site as it is and doing a periodical on the iPad instead (cooler heads prevailed).

I have a ton of questions about publishing, so I thought I’d ask some of them to someone more savvy than me, in this case, Marco Arment.

(This interview was done via email.)

Ben: I always felt like Instapaper really hit its stride with the iPad version — so even though the iPhone version came first, in my mind Instapaper really is an iPad app that just happens to have a web version and iPhone version. So I wonder if the iPad mini is going to be that platform for The Magazine and iOS reading devices alike, or if the full sized iPad still wins out at the end of the day. How do you think the iPad mini is going to shape digital reading?

Marco Arment: It’s a tough call. For long reading sessions in Instapaper, I prefer the Mini’s much lighter weight, as I bet most people would. And I think Apple’s probably now selling far more Minis than 10″ iPads, so the Mini is going to become the dominant iPad form factor very soon.

But for The Magazine, I actually prefer the 10″ Retina iPad — we invest a lot in getting great photos and illustrations, and while they look good on the Mini, they look absolutely stunning on a Retina iPad.

So for now, I’m torn. A future Retina iPad Mini might make the choice easier.

BB: I have to think that if/when a retina iPad mini comes out it will cannibalize sales of the iPad — that’s certainly not a reason to make such a device, but it seems that form factor is far more popular than the iPad is. I think the iPad mini finally does what people truly use these devices for right now: makes it easy to consume web/app content. On that note: Craig Mod’s Subcompact Publishing article is a treatise about breaking down publishing into its most simple aspects. At the heart of what Mod is talking about, I think, is a platform for delivering and monetizing content (without all the cruft). Both publishing and monetizing content are very difficult to do, but with The Magazine you seem to have captured this notion very well (and it seems successfully). And a lot of people are clamoring to have their own The Magazine-style app that they can publish to and make money off of. What does the future look like here? Would a single author, for pay, Newsstand app even stand a chance at success?

MA: The Magazine brings value to readers in multiple ways: it delivers great writing, it develops each article with a professional editor, it garnishes and enhances the articles with great photos and illustrations, and it delivers this in a good Newsstand app.

If you remove some of those parts, the result won’t be as compelling to readers. It’s hard to predict whether a single author, presumably without the editorial and art resources, would be successful even if the app platform was free.

It would depend on the author. Like everything else, I’d assume some would be successful and most wouldn’t.

It also depends on how you define success. Authors who are currently “successful” with blogs can probably get enough out of a Newsstand app to deem that a success, too, if they can minimize its costs. But then they face a big problem: either all Newsstand articles are available on their blogs for free, which means blog readers don’t have much incentive to pay in Newsstand, or the Newsstand articles are exclusive, which means their Newsstand apps are now competing with their blogs for the best articles and the authors’ attention. And that would probably lead to a decline in their blogs’ quality and eventual audience erosion.

It’s a tough call, and a difficult balance, for people who already have blogs. That’s why The Magazine isn’t just Marco.org Magazine.

BB: Have you found that the authors writing for The Magazine are running into some of the same issues you just described? The struggle between the lure of getting paid a going rate for an article, which they would have otherwise just posted on their site — perhaps a site that makes them very little (or no) money by comparison?

MA: I set up The Magazine to help that in two ways: it pays more than many writers would get from their own blogs (currently $800 per article), and it also permits writers to republish articles written for us on their own sites just one month after The Magazine publishes them.

Individual authors with Newsstand apps could take a similar approach — put articles in the Newsstand app first, then release them later on their sites. But that won’t be appropriate for many authors’ content. So, again, it depends.

BB: As most know by now, I run a paywall here on my site. At one point we privately talked about the pricing of the paywall on my site, and I mentioned that I was thinking about lowering the price to spur membership growth — I asked you: ‘What do you think about lowering the price to $3/mo?’ Your response was that you thought I would be making 25% less money.

The assumption I made with your answer is that once you charge, you charge, and consumers only view a price as a price and not a dollar amount. With you being an advocate for paid apps, and now charging for a subscription to a periodical, what have you found to be the consumer mindset around pricing of both one-time and recurring purchases?

MA: Apps, The Magazine’s subscription, and TBR’s paywall are all strongly affected by perceived value of their medium and market expectations on price.

For instance, as I’m sure people have made very clear to you, a lot of people believe that anything they read in a web browser should be free, because almost everything that can be read in a web browser has always been free.

When the App Store launched in 2008, it was a new enough medium to most people that expectations were reset. Websites were still expected to be free, but apps were expected to be $0–10. (That fell to $0–3 after about two years and appears to be holding steady there.)

Anyone who tries a paywall on a website (at any price), or tries to charge $30 for a mobile app, is going to lose most potential readers or customers. (This might not correspond to lower profits.) They’re breaking the market’s price expectations by pricing above the boundary for what’s usually acceptable. Today, that boundary for apps is about $5, but that boundary for most websites is $0. Once you’re above that boundary, it doesn’t matter as much whether you charge a few dollars more or less — you’re losing sales because it’s over the line, and it’s almost irrelevant how far over the line you are (within reason).

Magazines are a fluke on iOS: they have different price expectations. Big-name iOS magazines can easily charge $5 per month. The New York Times charges about $15 per month. So for The Magazine to be $2 per month sounds extremely inexpensive in the magazine world, yet that’s $24 per year — far more than I could earn per customer with a traditional app.

The perception of magazines being worth that much only works because people don’t feel like they’re paying for the app — they’re paying for the content. The app is just a container. I can’t charge $24 per year for a magazine app — I can charge $24 per year for magazine issues. Nobody buys your paywall subscription for your layout, no matter how nice you make it.

But because you’re on the web and not considered “a magazine”, almost nobody expects you to charge anything.

BB: Continuing along with that thought process and shifting a bit more to competition in the publishing industry I want to talk about some of the stuff I have seen popping up since the debut of The Magazine, or perhaps that I have just noticed because of The Magazine. The Awl has a magazine that is very similar to The Magazine, in that it is very focused and very untraditional. The New Republic has also relaunched with a similar goal (but still old-school magazine feeling).

Since launching my paywall I’ve seen a huge amount of others trying similar models (though I doubt doing it because of me). To my eye we are fast approaching a breaking point, where the early adopters of user-supported sites will continue to profit, but the late comers will find it impossible to gain traction.

I think the same exists in Newsstand as users are only going to be willing to have so many magazine-like apps on their devices if they have to pay for them. As you said, The Magazine is $24 a year, when traditionally (at least with the car magazines I purchased as a kid) yearly subscriptions seemed to hover closer to $19.99 a year. What do you see this landscape looking like in 3-5 years — will we all be rolling back to advertisers, or will users be paying more for content? Or something else completely?

MA: First, I disagree with the notion that there’s ever going to be a point after which it’s impossible for newcomers to gain traction. People say this a lot about web companies and the App Store. It’s true for some markets that have major network effects, like social networking and online auctions, or markets with huge barriers to entry, like web search and banking. But in the content or general-app business, a fresh take on an existing idea is always welcome. If you’re putting out something truly good, it’ll get traction.

I think we’re seeing the App Store pricing model settle into a pretty mature state now, which isn’t too far from the web: if you want to make a newsworthy splash and get tons of users, your app, blog, or website needs to be free. You can either offer paid premium services, in-app purchases, or ads to cover costs, which may not end up being very profitable, but you could strike it big if you’re lucky.

Or you can charge money and probably make much more profit per user, but you won’t have the explosive growth that only comes with free. The chances of striking it big with a huge audience or a big buyout are much lower this way, but with an app or web service, your chances of making a sustainable living are higher. For content sites, though, I’m not sure if that’s true.

I don’t think this will meaningfully change in the next few years. It hasn’t changed much in the last few.

BB: That’s a good point. Perhaps phrasing it as impossible was exaggerating a bit much — but I do think that with subscription type services it will be exponentially harder to gain traction after we reach point X. My reasoning is that people simply don’t cancel subscriptions that easily and can only realistically spend so much money on them. Therefore each person reaches a point of subscription saturation where before they take on a new subscription they have to cancel another. I think that is a hard thing to compel consumers to do. I guess time will tell here.

MA: We’re very far from the point where most people actually can’t afford to subscribe to a few more publications. People who choose not to subscribe are usually doing so as a value judgment (“This isn’t worth paying for”), not because they can’t afford a few dollars a month. And with so many new subscriptions being so inexpensive, the “can’t afford more” point is being pushed even further away.

When budget does become a factor, it might sort itself out more easily than you expect: people have limited money to spend on subscriptions, but they also have limited time to read them. So if someone wants to subscribe to something new and needs to make room in their budget, it’s probably pretty easy to choose what to eliminate: the one that they keep not making time to read.

People feel content-overload guilt more when they’re paying for something. If you don’t read Marco.org for a few months and then start reading it again, it’s no big deal — you weren’t paying for it. But if a pile of unread magazine issues just keeps growing in your bathroom because you can’t get through them quickly enough, you’ll feel like that subscription is wasted money, and you’ll consider canceling it.

One of the reasons The Magazine only publishes 5 articles every 2 weeks, and that I don’t intend to publish more articles or more frequently, is because feedback indicates that I’m keeping people’s backlogs manageable. For most readers, unread issues aren’t piling up, minimizing that guilt that they’re wasting their subscriptions.

BB: To your point about a fresh take always having a shot, how do you plan on keeping The Magazine fresh — is that solely done through the content, or through exploring more publishing styles and avenues?

MA: I think it’ll be done primarily through content. Content is enough if it’s good.

Originally posted for members on: February 20, 2013
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