The future of online publishing

It’s an exciting time for publishing. After what feels like years of magazines and newspapers ignoring the Internet in the hope that it will go away, a new wave of innovation is happening. I wanted to share some of the content that I think provides some good context and thinking around this topic.

In one of the most important articles of 2012, Craig Mod defines a new way to deliver content called Subcompact Publishing. He starts off with an important observation:

In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. It’s the easiest way to make an Old Thing feel like a New Thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.

Craig continues with a Subcompact Manifesto. The gist is that this new type of publication is small (both in issue and file sizes), HTML(ish) based, and completely focused on portability and reader needs. But it’s important to hear Craig talk about this, so if you haven’t read his brilliant article yet, it’s a good idea to do that first before continuing.

Craig’s post prompted quite a few responses. Jason Kottke followed up with a bunch of examples of Subcompact Publishing, including three of my favourites: Evening Edition, NextDraft, and The Magazine.

Jim Ray wrote a good summary called 29th Street Publishing and the Next Wave of Digital Publishing, in which he also points to some of the challenges that exist on the publishing side to make this a reality:

Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, which is what many traditional publishers have been using to quickly put together iPad versions of their magazines, is trying to solve an impossible problem. Publishers don’t have the resources to build digital native versions of their print magazines (which still manage to be quite lucrative, btw) so they bolted some tools onto their existing workflow and shipped it. This has all happened before, of course, when these same publishers were trying to figure out how to make workflows built for printing presses talk to an FTP server.

By starting fresh, 29th Street (and other upstarts, like The Magazine) can build proper apps that readers actually enjoy, instead of just pushing out a bloated PDF of a magazine into the Newsstand app.

I linked to this a while ago, but I want to mention Ben Brown’s concept of Reader Aware Design again, because it’s very relevant to this discussion:

Enormous piles of data are being collected about our browsing habits. When do we visit? What have we visited recently? This information is squirreled away in the cloud in order to better sell us things. Instead of just handing all that data over to Google and Facebook and Twitter, sites should leverage some of it to enhance the reading experience. In addition to becoming device aware through responsive design techniques, our sites should also strive to become reader aware.

Ben did more than just write about this — he has since released Aware.js, a jQuery plugin that implements many of the features he talked about. It’s definitely worth checking out. I’m keen to play with it on this site as well.

I also like Frank Chimero’s reflections on another emerging form of publishing he calls anthologies:

I think the web is heading toward an age of anthologies, where users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume. Anthologies are distinct from remix culture, because the source material is not modified. Some of these tools will be automated like Flipboard or Facebook’s timeline, but I’m interested in the opportunities of manual tools which require our attention to pass over what we’ve saved, bookmarked, liked, hearted, and favorited on the web. The chosen material is sorted, arranged, and given edges. An anthology flies in the face of the web as it exists, simply in that one may “finish” because it “ends.” I hope we are finally admitting to ourselves that we can’t stomach as much as we thought. We’ve realized that the way to make sense of this meal is to step away from the table for a while and come back later.

Frank mentions Readability’s Readlists as an example of this. I haven’t tried Readlists because I’m still a little uncomfortable with taking other people’s work and packaging it in a way that sends very little traffic back to the original source, but maybe I’m just being old school.

Finally, on this week’s episode of 5by5’s The Crossover, Gina Trapani and Jason Snell discuss the evolution of publishing, and it’s the perfect companion to what’s been written on the topic over the past week or so.

In short, we’re about to see an influx of great ideas in the publishing industry, and for the first time in a long time, it looks like readers like us will be the real winners.