Watching publishing sort of grow in some ways, sputter out in others, is interesting me right now. I’ve found all of two (two!) viable iOS options for publishing—one is Adobe’s system through InDesign, the other is from my friends at 29th Street Publishing.

29th Street has my heart right now; they’re smart people who made good things happen with Movable Type, before that mess imploded. (I hear Mena Trott now sews little dresses, and good for her.)

Their process is super interesting, because it’s made to give digital-native authors blog like tools, but publishing them to Apple’s Newsstand. It started with Letter to Jane, a gorgeous magazine by Tim Moore. LtJ itself started out as a home-brewed iOS app with content hand-coded in a series of “scenes” in XCode. Its premise was simple: you buy a single app per issue. Seemed a little weird when it came out, but now, a great idea, since Apple has allowed deletion and re-download of purchases. LtJ is seasonal, and the tone of the writing and photography combined with the pacing of its publication makes it feel more like a journal of style than a standard-issue magazine.

Letter to Jane’s content inspired to a new publication system with a combination of conduits: a web or locally-hosted editing application (a blog, a feed, a Dropbox folder of stuff) for writers to make their content, an article manager where URLs are added and custom styles are edited or stripped from the content from various apps, and finally, a bunch of backend processes which roll up the content to populate an issue with articles, which is then compiled and uploaded to the iTunes App Store. It’s really the first time online-native writers have been given a tool they understand how to use with a hook into the App Store’s ecosystem.

That’s a wildly abbreviated summary of the process, to be sure, and right now it’s nowhere nearly that neat (Natalie of 29th Street told me, “We’re dealing with the notion of ‘magazine issues’ in a web interface—blogs never had that idea”) but it’s going somewhere that existing web-based publishers can grab onto really easily.

Letter to Jane now has a handsome younger brother who throws a dazzling long pass. It’s called V as in Victor, a weekly sporting magazine by Bill Vourvoulias. Bill’s creating a weekly collection of essays which begin with sport, but tend to be longer, quieter, and more contemplative than most sport journalism—less for the bro set, more for the committed athlete. Bill uses sport as a springboard to everything that sport represents—a physical manifestation of humanity’s animal, emotional side.

The initial app download is free, and comes with two weekly issues bundled for sampling purchases—a year is $30, or $3 monthly, and you can have a free month added to your subscription if you allow them to have your personal information (sure, stalk me, I know where you guys live anyway), which is more than reasonable for a beautifully curated collection of essays and illustrations—and when I say curated, I don’t mean it in the same way that Maria Popova puts together her website of Successories for Creatives. I mean honest-to-God actual curation, with a coherent worldview and selection process intact, a collection of things with a greater meaning illustrated in its collection.

As well as 29th Street’s experiments, Adobe’s recently made some interesting changes to their Digital Publishing Suite offering, allowing unlimited access for single-issue Digital Publishing licenses for Creative Cloud members. This means that if you have a Creative Cloud membership, then you are, in matter of fact, now a potential publisher. Books, portfolios, calendars, catalogs, whatever—anything that can be made and exported from InDesign can be published, and your Creative Cloud membership covers the cost. That’s a huge enhancement over what pricing used to be set at—when Adobe kicked off the program, it was pointed squarely at magazine publishers (specifically: Conde Nast, who premiered it with WIRED’s first DPS issue), which kind of sputtered a bit. As Adobe moves forward with its Creative Cloud initiative, it’s learning and changing to act like a smaller, nimbler company than it’s needed to in the past. It’s also taking a gamble in doing this—since Creative Cloud has launched, Adobe’s revenue has been lower than its projected targets. Not great if you’re a reptile investor who’s making cents on the dollar. Really great if you, like me, are interested in watching Adobe’s long game play out. And really, in the long run, their efforts are helping to build a new kind of publisher—one who doesn’t need such a complex network of salespeople to make good authorship work.

Publishers are not great salespeople. Never have been. The market’s currently-collapsing model of sales involves publishers selling bundles of their publications to distributors, whose business it is to sell to bookstores and newsstands. The bookstores then sell to the public, and do so with a tremendous amount of gamble and waste. Newspapers? Same thing. They sell to distributors, who sell to newsstands and paperboys (and really, if you’re going to strong-arm sales of your publication to someone, why not a 12-year-old kid). The paperboys are the ones responsible for actually wringing $25 out of forgetful Mr. Jackson who never pays his bills. The distributors had already sold papers to the delivery boys, who buy based on belief in their own ability to collect. Having been a paperboy when i was a kid, I can tell you it’s kinda hard for a 12-year-old to summon the courage to be a hardass and stop delivery of a paper to an elder.
The genius aspect of this system is that the publishers never actually have to sell very hard, but always get paid for bulk sales. But that’s being upended, and pubs are all struggling to learn to sell straight to people. The distributor has grown up, the connections with actual sales are the new sure thing, and suddenly, neither publishers nor creators wield much power. Sales conduits do. Publishers are stuck trying to value their work in a way that conveys the value they see in it, and that’s always been more than the public sees. The market’s collapsing.

I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem, I think it’s a perceptual one. Toolmakers make publishing processes so transparent that there is a pervasive idea of, “you can make this, you can sell this yourself” which masks the skill involved in coding an object. Makes sense, considering they have tools to sell you.

So given toolmakers’ insistence of “anyone can do it,” combined with publishing’s terrible sales record, and iOS developers’ race to the bottom of pricing, it’s no wonder the market seems sluggish.

I don’t think it’s sluggish. I think it’s brand new, and doesn’t have a culture yet. It’s still figuring out what it is.

What can we do to change that?

Charge for your content, and make it good enough that you have a weapon against salesforces who don’t care about you one bit. Bloomberg Businessweek has a killer formula for making content that appeals to the TED-listening set, constantly looking towards the future. Their sales are great because the content feels vital to their audience, and it works because audiences would follow that content anywhere. Can Elle for iPad say that? I’m not sure.

Ignore customers who bitch in iTunes reviews that your content is too expensive, if you know in fact that it is not. (if you’re not sure, then listen.) If the whinging continues, then adjust your content and price level to the point that you’re focusing on the market you should be. Understand that sales doesn’t always have a lot to do with the actual value of a work, but what the market will support. Maybe you get into a long game and charge low, then gradually raise your price over the years. Maybe you find a way to create an impression of greater value.

Play dirty. Your fellow designers, publishers, and coders are not only your colleagues, they are your rivals. Steal every notion you can make your own (Copying verbatim just makes you look like a dick. Probably a stupid one. Don’t do that.)

Accept that anyone who tells you “publishing is easy; anyone can do it!” either has no idea what they’re talking about, or wants to sell you a tool. You’re going to work hard. Don’t listen to the get-rich-quick stories from the “blogs are awesome!” era; blogs were never awesome. And for heavens’ sake, don’t try to support yourself through ad revenue alone. Making money from advertising alone is the kind of strategy that puts you in hock to an ad network forever, not to mention makes your publication look like the National Enquirer went on a tequila bender at a sales event.

Above all, be aware of the zillions of abandoned blogs out there. They prove that publishing takes perseverance, talent, and above all: an unusual insight.