29th Street Publishing Remakes iPad Magazines

Perhaps you heard about the demise of The Daily. The first big attempt at publishing an iPad magazine was top-heavy in terms of personnel and technology, and it went under. What does that say about iPad publishing?

Nothing, really.

The Daily was a very early attempt. Now that the hardware and the software of the medium have had some time to mature, successes are emerging, and they look completely different from The Daily. 29th Street Publishing has built a full-service shop to help indie publishers create their own iPad magazines that do it right.

Where The Daily's iPad magazine concept was a massive operation that produced humongous downloads of glitzy content reminiscent of print, the new entrants tend to be short, personal, lightweight, eminently readable and issued at a calmer weekly or bi-weekly pace. They also come in iPhone sizes.

It's like a whole new medium developed for today's readers, rather than an attempt to recreate an old one.

Writing one's own delightful iOS app is the realm of experts, though. When will publishing natively for the touchscreen be possible for anyone with an idea? The Web publishing revolution didn't happen until blogging software made it possible for anyone with a computer to participate. As Ryan Singer at 37signals wrote in November, tablets are waiting for their Movable Type.

We're still waiting for the open-source tablet publishing tool anyone can use. But 29th Street Publishing has built a place for small publishers to start. The company handles the apps, which are spare and simple but allow for just the right amount of personality. 29th Street also handles getting these apps into the App Store, where subscribers can get them. Publishers can concentrate on writing and editing. It's "as simple as blogging," as the marketing copy says.

Its founders would know, as two of them, David Jacobs and Natalie Podrazik, came from Six Apart, which created Movable Type as well as TypePad. (Disclosure time: Six Apart later became Say Media, which is now ReadWrite's parent company. This was all before my time.) 29th Street's latest offering is Weekend Companion from New York-based culture smorgasbord The Awl. I will admit to a certain jealousy about how awesome this publication looks.

I had a few questions for CEO David Jacobs and editorial director Blake Eskin about this whole tablet publishing revolution and whether it's really happening. By way of giving us a tour of the 29th Street tools, they offered some interesting answers.

ReadWrite: Are there really a small, set number of text fields that can take full advantage of an iPad for a publisher? Are the constraints good, or are they merely necessary?

David Jacobs: There is variation in the fields for every publisher. For instance, for V As In Victor, everything is written by one author, who is acknowledged throughout the app (including, of course, in its title). But for The Awl, having proper bylines is critical to their identity as a publisher. So that's a fundamental "text field" in publishing that behaves very differently between two otherwise similar publications. I think you'd be surprised how many things change between different instances of the app.

ReadWrite: This is different from the Web in a lot of ways, but I think the most significant is that there's no going straight to the publisher's domain for the new subscriber. Readers have to get through the App Store gauntlet first. Is that an obstacle for publishers trying to be distinct and independent? How about for 29th Street itself? You don't have control over that App Store page listing your offerings, right?

David Jacobs: We do not have control over our App Store page, but it is important to us that our first several apps are distinctive from a design and editorial standpoint. The diversity of our published work is also important to us. We don't want people to see just a bunch of tech, culture or sports magazines. And when people look us up in the App Store, we're confident that the first 12-15 apps are going to represent us very well. Our platform is only as good the people using it. Compared to what publishing has been going through, programming is pretty easy.

We also don't assume that the Newsstand will stay the same forever. We have given the Newsstand team a lot of feedback, and I know other developers have too. Publishing imprints and labels are a huge part of Newsstand's constituency, and in our (admittedly brief) experience, Apple has been responsive to our concerns and questions.

ReadWrite: Tell us about the pricing and options for publishers.

Blake Eskin: Scope determines everything, so it's difficult to give you a number, but we will build publishers an app as a services project for an extremely competitive fee, plus a modest monthly hosting cost. We can also work with publishers (like V as in Victor's Bill Vourvoulias or The Awl) on a revenue share, with little or no startup cost.

David Jacobs: I would add that we are iterating on our business model and goals as much as on our product itself. That's why we don't have fixed, public offerings. But I think it's fair to say that what other people charge $100,000 for, we may charge $20,000 for. And over time we want that to be cheaper.

Blake Eskin: When publishers focus on the cost of technology, there's a risk that they think of technology as the only cost. We want our publishers to flourish, so we want to make the technology affordable. To succeed, you have to be realistic about the costs of making good work, whether it's money to pay contributors and designers (and yourself!) or time to research and write and edit, and your audience has to begin to understand that, too.

ReadWrite: With the biggest and best Web publishers going paywall, and with the smallest and best going iPad, what happens to people who won't pay for content?

David Jacobs: I am not sure this has to be either/or. Writers and artists need to get paid. And I think that subscriptions/memberships/patronage (all of which are cousins as monetization models) will just be one element.

I like what [Awl co-editor] Choire [Sicha] wrote in The Awl's post about advertiser's "underwriting" work. I'm not saying that The Awl will definitely go that way, but I think that for certain advertisers', audiences and content, it makes a lot of sense. My intuition is that we'll end up with something very similar to what we have now — free content that is ad supported with a premium offering. But (as you know), it's very challenging to make the economics of CPM [cost per thousand ad impressions] operate at scale.