Marco Arment makes zines cool again, and potentially profitable
Instapaper founder and Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment attracted a lot of attention in the middle of October with the launch of The Magazine, an iOS-only publication that focuses squarely on good writing without the multimedia add-ons that characterize “traditional” digital magazines. But the second issue, released on October 26, heralded even better news: It’s already self-sustaining.
No venture capital funding. No backer. No big brand on the masthead. Total staff: one man.
The Magazine shares more in common with an old-school zines – DIY paper publications hacked together and photocopied by high-school hobbyists who distributed the mags to their friends – than anything that could be sold on a newsstand. But it took less than two weeks to start making money. Enough, apparently, to not only cover its costs, but also for Arment to raise the rates he pays his writers.
When Arment launched The Magazine, which he publishes every two weeks and distributes via Apple’s Newsstand for the iPad and the iPhone, he gave it a daunting financial deadline. “If it doesn’t turn a profit within two months – just four issues – I’ll shut it down,” he wrote in the Foreword.
Too easy. In the second issue’s foreword, he writes: “The Magazine now has a strong enough subscriber based to be financially sustainable.” Thanks to healthy subscription uptake – the magazine costs $1.99 a month – he has been able to raise author payment rates so that they’re competitive with print magazines. “My goal was to reach that level after a few months,” he writes, “but it only took a week.” In the future, he hopes to raise rates above what print magazines pay.
Arment is a pioneer in creating a one-man publishing model for magazines on the iOS ecosystem. The model represents the extreme extrapolation of the do-more-with-less cost-cutting measures that have been creeping into magazines in the face of dwindling advertising revenues and precipitous circulation drops – but with a positive spin. Arment is in effect doing everything he set out to do with nothing.
His only fixed costs, as he explained in his first Foreword, were for upfront app design and development, which, given his talents as a developer and his networks as a techie, were presumably not all that steep. As soon as the first issue went out the door, those costs were also done and dusted, leaving him the luxury of directing most earned revenue into editorial. Which is why he can already pay author rates that match print magazines. Already, Arment has published a range of interesting stories – all targeted at a tech-interested readership – including pieces on daredevil Felix Baumgartner, the Playstation 3 game “Journey,” a profile of App.net, and the “weird schism between geeks who love sports and those who don’t.” (See below for our back-of-the-envelope calculations on the economics.)
Because it’s only in its very early days, there’s a fair chance The Magazine will ultimately turn a nifty profit. It’s priced at such a rate – less than $2 per month – that a reader doesn’t have to think too hard about subscribing, while also having the potential to bring in meaningful revenue once it passes a few thousand subscribers. No doubt The Magazine picked up an early burst of subscribers because of the publicity it received at launch time, but if it can foster a reputation for quality journalism – and early signs are promising – then it stands a chance of earning more readers over time. Of course, it could also prove a novelty that peters out as the press dies down.
The economics of the one-man publishing model at least seem favorable on their face. Let’s assume that Arment paid $15,000 for app development and $15,000 for design – both conservative estimates. So, that’s $30,000. He’s publishing only four original stories each week. Let’s assume they’re 3,000 words each – which, given the content in the first two issues, actually seems a little above average. If Arment was paying a competitive print rate, say $1 a word – which is about the going rate for a medium-league publication that is more frequent than a monthly – that would set him back $12,000 an issue. Twenty-six issues a year: $312,000 for all editorial costs. Arment does the commissioning and editing himself, which should be an arduous workload, if he’s doing it right, but still gives him about two days to spend on each article.
So, editorial costs plus design and development costs for year one: $342,000. If Arment manages to get to 20,000 subscribers, that would give him $477,600 a year. He has to give 30 percent of that to Apple, so that takes his net to $334,320. That leaves him about even. So, not a huge money winner, but certainly an encouraging first-year effort. That makes it a good lifestyle business, but certainly not the next Huffington Post.
In truth, the real numbers are all probably a bit lower. It’s unlikely Arment already has as many as 20,000 subscribers, but it’s also unlikely that he spent $30,000 on design and development. That’s probably why Arment is, so far, saying the magazine is “financially sustainable” rather than “profitable.” But only one of those variables – subscribers – is likely to change, and if Arment does his job well, it could grow large. Through the App Store, he is playing to a global audience and offering a quality product for a low price.
The Magazine’s success is anything but a foregone conclusion. Arment is competing not only with digital magazines, but also with all other forms of longform journalism and free content on the Web. It’s very possible that the initial excitement about the product will soon wear off once the novelty dies down, and that readers will switch off their subscriptions. It might prove impossible to sustain a high editorial standard as a one-man operation, especially when the initial buzz of editing a publication inevitably turns into hard goddamn work.
The upside for Arment, however, is that it’s just as hard, and more expensive, for his competitors. The trends are also working in his favor: More and more people are reading on tablets and smartphones, and they’re doing so for longer periods of time.
The Magazine is also a lightweight, low-fuss product. There are no ads, add-ons, nor even pictures. In the Instapaper tradition, it’s just a page of easy-to-read text. No page-turns – just scroll down. Let the story take over. If traditional publishers can learn anything from Arment, it’s that high-quality journalism doesn’t need high-tech trinkets or adds – video, audio, slideshows, graphics, whatever – to appeal to readers. The power of a good story is enough.
So where to from here for The Magazine? It looks like we can expect it to stick around for a while longer. Arment says that he’s not going to try to up the frequency, because he prefers to make each issue better. And initial subscriptions have been strong enough to allow him to explore other areas for expansion, “such as more articles per issue, professional editing, and illustrations.”
Those are modest aims, and The Magazine is a modest product. But if it leads to an era in which the one-man publication becomes a viable business model – well, the implications of that might prove to be anything but modest.
Highly relevant update: Arment has made his first hire for The Magazine. He has employed Glenn Fleishman as executive editor. Fleishman, says Arment in a blog post, "will help sort through submissions, edit, and work with authors to develop articles."