Maura Johnston, founding editor of Gawker’s now-defunct Idolator and more recently the music editor at the Village Voice, is now a micro-publisher. The independent writer is four issues into her new periodical, Maura Magazine, a weekly available only for the iPhone and the iPad.
Johnston, who left the Voice in September after some disagreements with her editors, charges $2.99 per month for a subscription to the magazine, or $29.99 a year. In each issue, she publishes between four and six stories, of which three, on average, are by other commissioned writers. While she still freelances to supplement her income, Johnston hopes to make the magazine her primary gig. Johnston has so far published a range of essays and stories in the magazine, touching on topical issues from K-Pop to Hurricane Sandy to why “Facebook is the Greatest Website in the History of the Internet.”
“I always loved the possibility that you could really do your own thing and find your own audience,” says Johnston of the micropublishing model, which levers off the early publishing promise of the Internet: that good writers will be able to build their own following. Johnston is an old-hand of the Internet, having started her first website in 1994, hosted on her university’s servers.
Maura is the newest title from New York City-based 29th Street Publishing, a periodical publishing house reimagined for the iPad era. Started in 2011 by David Jacobs and Natalie Podrazik, formerly vice-president and product manager respectively at blog platform SixApart, the self-funded company has build a software stack for iOS magazine apps that includes everything from a content management system to analytics to design. Rather than charge a license fee for its software, 29th Street Publishing seeks out writers and artists to work with and takes a cut of any revenue they generate from subscription sales. The startup also publishes The Awl’s Weekend Companion and Bill Vourvoulias’ Latino sports magazine, V as in Victor, which use similar subscription models. The majority of the company’s publications are read on iPhones.
While so far only the three publications are on the market, founder Jacobs says 29th Street Publishing has signed up 18 other micropublishers, including literary writers, bloggers, and photographers. Jacobs says the company is most interested in writers who have a specific voice, have a dedicated following, and who can be trusted to ship on time. The company has also hired designer Tim Moore, who was today profiled by The Verge, and former New Yorker Web editor Blake Eskin, who serves as an editorial consultant.
Until recently, Web content models have been slightly disappointing, democratizing the publishing process but remaining largely dependent on advertising revenue that in most cases incentivize publishers to rack up as many pageviews as possible. Johnston, a music writer and pop culture critic, believes the pageview-driven model isn’t good for culture, because it constantly pushes discourse towards the mainstream – or a mythic idea of the mainstream, which happens to coincide with a commercially inclined demographic that has a lot of disposable income.
“Smart writers who want to say something that might be out of the mainstream, or that there might not be space for in general, more and more of them are going to be turning to this model,” says Johnston.
Jacobs and company believe that people are ready to pay for digital reading material. While such content has been free in the first years of the Internet, Jacobs reckons the time has come in which people realize they should pay for professionally produced content, a behavior in part habituated by the success of paid apps through Apple’s App Store. “We just had a very strong intuition,” says Jacobs of the company’s prediction of a return to premium content, “that there was a pendulum that was going to swing back the other way.”
Editorial director Eskin shares that view. “People are paying for content and want to support those who move them, those they care about,” he says. Now, he says, we’re in a moment in which writers and artists have the tools to reconfigure how things are made, how they connect with the audiences, and how those audiences support them.
The 29th Street model is very similar to Marco Arment’s model for The Magazine, a two-man operation that publishes an iOS app every two weeks that carries four to six stories. Arment charges $1.99 a month for the publication and has said that it became financially self-sustaining within its first two weeks.
However, it’s unclear how many titles the 29th Street model can support. We’re at a very early stage with micropublishing, so we don’t know how many people will be willing to pay for such magazines when there are hundreds, even thousands, in the App Store. For the same reason, it will be hard for those magazines to attract readers, especially when considered among the vast offerings of free content on the open Web, even for niche subjects. By closing off a publication behind the walls of an app, the publishers also limit the extent to which they can benefit from social sharing and thus become part of the daily conversation.
But for many of 29th Street’s clients, a big audience will be less important than the right audience. A small core of passionate readers who are willing to pay can be much more valuable to a writer’s bottom line than a vast but only vaguely interested audience that happens upon the content by accident.
Johnston, meanwhile, wants first and foremost to publish quality writing that readers respond to. She pays her writers what she paid for a blog post at the Village Voice, and she’s hoping to make a bit of money for herself. She’s tight-lipped about her targets, but says she hopes to attract a subscriber base that can be measured in four digits. She’s a good way there already and has been pleasantly surprised about the number of paid readers already signed up. In the future, she hopes to stage events – such as readings, karaoke – to support the publication, not just in hometown New York, but also around the country. She’s even considering a print version of the magazine.
“The [cost] margins on this are low enough that it doesn’t have to be millions of people, it just has to be a substantial enough number,” Johnston says of her venture. “That’s definitely in the spirit of the old Web.”
[Image courtesy Wiertz Sébastien]