January 10, 2013

The sub-compact digital-only knitting magazine that will save publishing


Wait, this is the order in which it’s done? I’ve been getting it so wrong …

What does a periodical native to mobile devices look like? What, when you strip away unnecessary crust built up over centuries, methods tied to the oddities of print publishing and unconsciously carried over—the monthly cycle, the number of articles, layout, navigational cues, even cover design — when you strip away the artifacts, what’s left? This, finally, is the season we find out.

The phrase of the hour is ““sub-compact publishing”, best exemplified until now by Marco Arment’st The Magazine. This is the time for periodicals that work equally well on the wider internet, but function seamlessly, with no learning curve, on a device. Given the struggles of other offerings like The Daily, perhaps it’s simplest to say this is the time for magazines that work.

Among the most intriguing ideas to emerge is The Holocene, joint project of Corey Pressman, Kim Werker and Brett Sandusky. Born of a meeting at an O’Reilly ToC conference in Vancouver,  The Holocene, if it is successfully brought into existence, will be two things. First it aims to be a periodical, a magazine about crafts and makers, with writing, photos and, most essentially, step by step guides for crafters that work intuitively on devices. In his post announcing the project, Sandusky compares it to GPS navigation.

Remember when Google first launched directions in Google maps, and everyone would print them out and bring it with them in their car? And now, our phones tell us turn by turn directions, using GPS to track our progress, and we only need to be concerned with what we’re doing in this very moment.

This is what we’re trying to accomplish: The Holocene is going to be the publication that moves beyond printing out instructions for DIY projects, and becomes part of the doing, fixing, making,
crafting experience.

Second, The Holocene will provide a platform for others to create their own periodicals using the tools developed. The project is currently in the running to win funding as part of the ToC Startup Showcase (you can and should vote for it here).

I got in touch with Sandusky to ask him more about the project:

You go into some detail on your announcement post and the Holocene site, but why this format? Why the mobile device periodical rather than, say, the app with links to content?

There are a number of reasons. First of all, our goal is to offer the best, most valuable experience we can to our readers. The format of the microzine, where we publish brief but frequent “issues”, is the best way, in our opinion, to offer great content quickly, allowing our readers to find something valuable and subscribe. One thing to note is that, unlike the traditional magazine subscription model which is an all-or-nothing proposition, we are looking to a different type of subscription – one where readers can subscribe to only the content they are interested in, and not be forced into something they don’t want.

Secondly, the technology around digital publishing is moving away from native applications toward a more web-based, open, cross-platform experience. Many publishers jumped on the iOS app bandwagon, built an iPhone/iPad app, spent a lot of money and then realized two things: they would have to do it all over again to accommodate Android users, and they were never going to gain any insight into customer behavior with their products because Apple owned that data. We’re not trying to be big-brotherish, but the idea here is that we want move toward a smart product where usage analytics become a key component in consistent improvement on the user experience.

I should mention, however, that we are not decidedly mobile-only. In fact, we want readers to be able to access their content on every device they own. If your toaster oven is internet-enabled, we want to be on it.

I am also not going to discount the momentum happening right now surrounding this idea of sub-compact publishing. As digital publishing products become more and more ubiquitous, transformations are taking place and one of those is related to content format, length, and monetization. What The Magazine is proving right now is that it is possible to monetize small, targeted chunks of content. There has long been an issue with trying to monetize smaller snippets of content outside of the ad revenue approach — look at blogging for an example. But, here, we are saying, this content is valuable, and it can stand on its own. In light of this, it’s an exciting time to be launching a microzine.

Also, with all of our respective backgrounds in book and magazine publishing, building a periodical just felt right.

Holocene will be craft-specific — you yourself are a knitter — but you see it as a platform to integrate step-by-step instructions into a sub-compact publishing context. One obvious application would be cooking. Has Martha Stewart made it rain cash on you yet?

If you know Martha, please send her our way. We are all big fans.

But, in all seriousness, The Holocene, as it has been conceived of, is meant to be a publishing platform for this type of microzine content, specifically that which has (digital) multimedia components and some form of instruction. Our stab at a first product on that platform is going to be for knitters and crocheters, since this is what we know best and where the idea originated. Beyond that, there are so many applications that we are all very excited to learn about, and there’s the possibility of discovering some partnership opportunities. Cooking is a great example, and one very close to our hearts; so are many other DIY and make-space crafts.

One huge difference for us is that the knitting community already has a very lively self-publishing market, where patterns are bought and sold and artists are paid. The cooking space has two major challenges: it’s incredibly over-saturated and most people get recipes for free online. Hence why your comment about Martha Stewart is actually very apropos — I think it would take a strong brand like Martha Stewart to really actualize the full potential of The Holocene for cooking.

Do you have a point at which you’ll consider The Holocene to have been a success? Perhaps if/when the first issue comes out? Or when the platform is first adopted by others? Or is expanding the conversation about the sub-compact publishing model enough?

This is a great question, and one that I think requires strong consideration. For me personally, I love the thrill of the launch, so bringing this to market is going to be a great milestone of success along the way. Ultimately, I am excited to build a product that I desperately want and believe will change how we approach and interact with this type of content. I am sure our definition of success will evolve as we continue working on the project.

I should mention that we are also thrilled to be part of the burgeoning discussion around the next age of digital publishing. The reception and support we’ve gotten so far from friends, old and new, has been great. The chance to help move our industry forward feels like a major success in itself.

This is less a question than a request: once the magazine goes live, could you dedicate an early issue to bookbindery? The implications would be fun.

I love this idea! Bookbindery is such an amazing artform and it’s exactly the type of thing that could benefit from our step-by-step instructions. Corey has suggested, clearly directly from his anthropological genius brain, that we can call this the “Oroborus Issue.”

Those are some fancy mittens you’ve made. Where can I get a pair?

Thank you so much! I am sure that Kim and I are going to be knitting and crocheting a ton of new projects in the next few months as we test new patterns. Send us your sizing and we’ll get on it!




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.