Will it blend? Lean publishing meets subcompact publishing

What would happen if you put Peter Armstrong’s Lean Publishing Manifesto in a blender with Craig Mod’s Subcompact Publishing Manifesto? Nothing until you pressed the necessary switch to bring its purposely arranged dangers to life. But then what?

The blades would slice and dice the essentials of the book world, the magazine world, and the digital world. There would be no oil-and-water separation. No nasty kale gobs.

You would be left with a concoction that could provide all new digital indigenous publications with the essential vitamins needed to create a valuable, compelling space for their ideas and content to shine.

Central to Mod’s subcompact manifesto is the idea that publishing platforms can be built without excess. He likens subcompact publishing to Honda’s 1967 N360, envisioning that Honda engineers dumped out all the parts they used to make cars on a table, went over these parts with a fine comb, and then selected only the absolutely essential parts to create the N360. He underpins his manifesto with seven characteristics for subcompact publications:

  • small issue sizes (3–7 articles per issue)
  • small file sizes
  • digital-aware publishing schedules
  • scroll as opposed to pagination
  • clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • engaged in the open web.

Central to Armstrong’s Lean Publishing Manifesto is his mantra that a book is a startup. He identifies four parallels between books and startups:

  • Risk: Both have slim chances of succeeding and are at risk to the market.
  • Creative: Both rely on the creative process of an individual or a small group of people.
  • Stealth: Both are traditionally developed behind a veil of secrecy, although crowd-funding platforms are changing this.
  • Funding: Venture capitalists and publishers play very similar roles, and both rely on the occasional blockbusters to continue with their business.

Blending these two manifestos will give new digital indigenous publications a framework to reduce financial risk, build and leverage community, and reach readers across the open web.

Financial Risk
Both manifestos focus on mitigating financial risk. Armstrong relies on startup logic to mitigate financial risk by stressing that publishers create a product people will actually want. Reader feedback has always been an important part of the publishing process, but it usually comes from a development editor as opposed to actual readers. With lean publishing, Armstrong opens the door for feedback direct from the audience.

Mod reduces financial risk by cutting luxury—Rob Ford’s supposed Gravy Train if you please. By stripping back robust design and interactive features that take time, special tools, and know-how to build out, subcompact publishing limits its expense. Compare subcompact with epic publishing, a term used by Jon Lax to describe everything that subcompact publishing isn’t: think McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and then think the New York Times’s Snow Fall piece. Snow Fall took 11 people six months to make. McSweeney’s asks writers not to submit pieces that require unique formatting. Why? Because they’re “just not that smart.” But perhaps McSweeney’s is the smart publisher here: I would hazard a guess that the budget for Snow Fall—just one of the tens of thousands of pieces that the Times publishes annually—could financially fuel McSweeney’s several years over.

For new publications in the digital world, taking all measures to reduce financial risk when advertising value and reader support remain low is an imperative.

Build and Leverage Community
“Imagine if a group of writers for top magazines decided to write for you instead?”

That’s the question Deca poses in a video introducing the idea behind the publishing platform. More than providing readers with the opportunity to receive their stories unmediated from a traditional publisher, Deca asks its readers to become involved in the editorial process by submitting story ideas they’d like the collective of writers to explore. To borrow language from Clayton Christensen’s work cited by Craig Mod, readers are hiring Deca to help them with the problem they’ve encountered: a lack of investigative journalism. This hiring process resonates with lean publishing’s ideals of creating something that readers have expressed interest in since the beginning, but Deca’s idea of involving readers in the editorial planning process isn’t novel. Newspapers rely heavily on a much more informal system of story leads from members of the community it serves, but editorial planning in magazines, especially with the larger mainstream magazines, happens behind closed doors.

This democratic opening of the editorial process is a space for startups to pander to the market principles that drive lean publishing while capitalizing on the turnaround time afforded by the lightweight publishing tools Mod and Armstrong support. By starting from the groundswell of involvement in community, publishers can create what their readers want to read and leverage that community to continue a cycle of positive reinforcement.

For new digital indigenous publications, community is an important aspect to consider when launching, as the quality of this community will dictate future revenue models.

Reaching The Open Web
By embracing the open web, Mod and Armstrong ensure that our blended concoction of lean pub and subcompact publishing is based on HTML 5 even if the product is destined for iOS and Android ecosystems.

On September 5, 2013 Esquire UK turned heads in the magazine world by launching a weekly edition for the cost of 99p through their app on Apple’s Newsstand. The move was the first of its kind and marked a stab at subcompact publishing from a larger publisher. Behind the decision, editor Alex Bilmes told the Guardian, “We still have a loyal readership but there is a whole world of men out there who didn’t grow up in the time of men’s magazines.” He continued, “We need to be where they are. We have the content, now we have to deliver it.”

Sixteen months later, Esquire UK discovered that maybe this segment of readership wasn’t frequenting Newsstand. On December 25, 2014 the magazine released their last issue of the weekly, and on January 15, 2015, they announced that the weekly has morphed into a newsletter to be delivered on the same schedule.

As a consolation prize, the weekly’s failing shouldn’t be attributed to print anachronisms. It lived in the digital world and had covers and content unique to it. “You couldn’t print it,” says Bilmes.

Esquire was on the right track, but they missed the open web. Perhaps they would have found more success if they looked at the weekly as a combination of lean publishing and subcompact publishing, and went more subcompact than they did. This blended concoction isn’t synonymous with free. Big publishers have proven averse to giving any digital editions away, but the blend of subcompact and lean publishing can be monetized.  But of equal, if not more importance to monetization, blending subcompact and lean publishing means that these publications can be found—found like Deca, which sits behind a paywall, or found like The Long + Short, which doesn’t.

Potential readers need to know that you exist in order for you to be successful. New digital indigenous publications don’t need any help to fail, and hiding exclusively in Newsstand is an example of the help these publishers don’t need.

In combining the ideals of lean publishing and subcompact publishing, new digital native publications, regardless of whether they are published by Esquire or a recent university graduate, can succeed. If they keep their costs down, build and leverage their community early, and live at least in part on the open web, they’ll have made the best of subcompact and lean publishing. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll stick around for the long haul.

Works Cited

Armstrong, P. (2013, February 17). Lean Publishing. Retrieved February 28, 2015, from https://leanpub.com/lean/read

Deca. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.decastories.com

Introducing The New-Look Esquire Weekly – Esquire. (2015, January 15). Retrieved February 28, 2015, from http://www.esquire.co.uk/magazine/article/7646/esquire-weekly-welcome-to-the-new-look/

Lax, J. (2012, December 2) Subcompact Publishing Meet Epic Publishing. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/subcompact-publishing-meet-epic-storytelling-3c5aa3d6375f

Mod, C. (2012, November 10). Subcompact Publishing. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from http://craigmod.com/journal/subcompact_publishing/

Sweney, M. (2013, September 2). Esquire To Launch Weekly Tablet Edition. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/sep/02/esquire-launch-weekly-tablet-edition

2 Replies to “Will it blend? Lean publishing meets subcompact publishing”

  1. This essay offers a bold statement on the future of the industry via what it deems ‘digital indigenous publications.’ In the basic sense this term refers to the combining of subcompact and lean publishing models that are meant to save the industry through various costs, outreach, and web measures. This argument is presented in a logical format with concise points, making it both agreeable and easy to follow. Though ultimately persuasive, this essay does suffer from two main deficiencies.

    By laying out the seven characteristics of subcompact publishing, this essay appears to give a clear outline of exactly what components of this ideology it will be merging in order to create the hybrid model. In the end, however, the author only mentions how to merge two aspects of subcompacting, and focuses only on one in depth. By providing all seven and only addressing two, the argument appears less thought out, and would potentially have benefited from either omitting the others or clarifying the segmentation. On a related note, this essay also lacks a similar list of properties pertaining to lean publishing. Instead of listing the lean publishing qualities it will borrow from, the essay uses a start-up metaphor that is only vaguely carried out beyond the introduction. Giving a complementary list would have ensured greater reader comprehension and cohesion throughout the paper.

    Beyond this minor point, however, the true lacking in this paper is in its refusal to dig into an issue and offer a strong, stand-alone opinion in regards to a solution. For example, the essay discusses Deca and Esquire UK as examples of community building, yet does little more than discuss the business models or failures of each in turn. This essay should have done a more detailed dissection of these examples in order to point out what worked, and how it could be applied to the traditional publishing industry. In the same vein, the author briefly touches upon potential monetization of this hybrid, yet does not offer any ideas as to:
    A) How this hybrid fully looks
    B) How publishers could begin to profit from it monetarily

    Though this essay lists numerous examples of similar or inspirational business models, it never clarifies what this could or should look like in traditional publishing. As a result, this hybrid appears far more theoretical than realistic. Sure, pay walls may sometimes work for web publications, and public opinion can help direct news reporting, but where (and how) will these apply to the book industry specifically?

  2. The essay puts forth an exciting idea for how to organize and execute digital publications. By drawing on two thought leaders in the digital publishing world, the author has very strong shoulders on which to stand on, and manages to elevate our thinking on how to organize and execute digital magazines. The essays not only makes this blended concoction palatable, it makes it seem delicious (or at least good for us).

    What is less easy to swallow is the organization of how the ideas are presented. A clear example can be found near the end, when talk of business models appear in the section about the Open Web instead of in the section regarding financial risk. Other examples of an unclear flow in the presentation of ideas can be found in the inline annotations. This disorganization and lack of clarity around the issues calls into question the three main ingredients that the author has identified for his blend.

    Now that the Chef’s blend has proven to be a hit, he needs to devote time the plate’s presentation.

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