Like many people, I spend as much (if not more) time thinking about the future of reading as I do actually reading. I’m not proud of this situation, this meta-reading. Most of the time it seems like just another self-created obstacle to getting real reading done.
Nevertheless, it’s been a good week or so for reading about the future of reading — specifically how magazines might publish more enjoyably and potentially profitably via Apple’s Newsstand application in iOS. It got kicked off by a guy named Craig Mod, who used to work for Flipboard and who now writes mostly about the future of publishing. He’s one of the various end-of-print gurus who have arrived on the scene to explain how things might/will/are changing and what shape books and other writing should take in the future. His latest essay, and the prompt for this blog post, was “Subcompact Publishing,” his name for a kind of streamlined publishing approach to magazines. Some of the ingredients of this approach include: smaller issues, smaller files that download easily, intuitive navigation, no more false article pagination, smaller subscription prices, and a more fluid publishing schedule.
The most prominent (and first?) example of this approach is The Magazine, a new iOS-only publication run by Marco Arment, the proprietor of Instapaper and general promoter of more rewarding online reading. Mod uses Arment’s pub as a springboard into ruminating about how Arment is doing everything right: The Magazine is quick to download, easy to use (no cutesey instructional videos necessary), compact, etc. It’s a publication that makes productive use of the distribution mechanism of the Newsstand and how we often find ourselves reading these days, bent over our phones while we wait for life to get rolling again.
(For more generalized context, see Mod’s own post-op post on the essay’s immediate aftermath, with enough links to wipe out at least half of your work day.)
After reading the article and all of the subsequent online re-statements and slight filagrees, I thought: this is the literary magazine of the future, both a way for lit mags to remain relevant and also pay their rent more efficiently. I realize that there are online literary magazines already but I must admit that I don’t read them that often. I think this is for two reasons. First, I have to remember to go to the online lit mag site; it’s a part of Internet Town I always forget is actually there, while I get stuck in Blogville traffic pretty much every day.
Second, and somewhat related, I have a perhaps old-fashioned notion of fiction as ideally separate from the online sprawl of news and posts and the overwhelming barrage of photos and all of the roadside blight we cruise by on a daily basis. Art, in this context, feels designed as a deliberate escape from this roiling flux, a momentary stay against confusion.
Now this subcompact idea may not be the best for most regular, general interest magazines — the result is an awfully denuded conception of a magazine, a definition so small it might squeeze our current notion of a magazine down to an unrecognizable jam — but it seems ideal for niche publications, and there are many more niche magazines than there are general interest magazines. And what is a literary magazine but a niche publication?
I see several advantages. First, it seems like a convenient way to eliminate the ideological and institutional cruft that has attached itself to many literary magazines. (I’m generalizing recklessly here, I realize, but go with me.) For example, currently only the bravest, most well-funded magazines come out a whopping four times a year. And when they do come out, they’re too big, little paperback books rather than something more like a periodical, something to shelve rather than browse-on-the-go. They’re magazines experiencing an obesity epidemic. Plus, unless you live in a big city with an insanely well stocked periodical section, you’re still only getting a random snatching of what’s available out there.
But if magazines were to forego print for a relatively straight-forward app, they could spend a little less time on design and on the burden of distribution while focusing the majority of their attention on the content. Most (remember: generalizing) lit mags that include art or photos make that art feel kind of perfunctory. It just doesn’t really ever look that good or feel integral to the overall gist of an issue.
Also, you could publish more often, maybe even — gasp — monthly. Most lit mags come out too infrequently to have any kind of blip presence on the radar. I think that despite the internet’s tendency to disintermediate everything, there’s still value to creating an issue — or, as Mod calls it, edges — as a way to preserve the edited and ordered mass that is a serial publication, the constructed artifact, while preserving some of the porousness of the web and presenting it in a setting that’s always with you.
Now this doesn’t mean I don’t love the keepable artifact lit magazines we already have, best exemplified by all of the McSweeney’s publications. But their relentless design novelty does make me wonder if a lit mag is supposed to be kept and presented like a book? It seems like a magazine’s main duty is to do the pioneering work of finding new tunnels of literature. And sometimes, admittedly, this won’t pan out. I like these well-designed bundles of paper, but to exert such a design effort at this initial, exploratory stage of future literature reconnaissance seems like a possible misdirection of human energy. Or to put it another way: the web/app is the street art; the book is when you decide that graffiti is worth housing in a museum.