If You Build This, Magazines Will Come

If You Build This, Magazines Will Come

During WisCon I had a brief conversation with Jed Hartman about my continued sadness that more online magazines don’t have an eBook version of their stories so I can easily load them on my eReader and thus read more fiction. He agreed that Things Must Be Done, but there are questions of logistics and reader/audience desires plus the technology to make it all happen. We came to the conclusion that making this work is about more than just creating an eBook version of the magazine, but also delivery and access. There’s a niche here that needs filling, but in order to do that, we’re going to need coders.

I want to propose an open source coding project and gather coders around me to make it happen, but I have no flippin’ idea how to do that. I also want to get some more feedback on this idea and work out the kinks. Luckily, I have a blog, so I totally know how to do that. So here are the questions, issues, problems, and goals I see surrounding all of this.

  1. Relatively easy eBook creation. Though programs like Calibre can create EPUB (and other eBook format) files, Tobias Buckell recently pointed out to me that this is not the optimal solution. He equated it to people using Microsoft Word to create web pages. Yes, the program can do it, but the code it generates is from hell. Not fit for anyone except really clueless newbies. We wouldn’t want that for these eBooks. So a primary aspect is to figure out who or what will generate clean code for EPUB.
  2. How many eBooks? Many online magazines do the monthly or semi-monthly thing, but for those that publish every week, do readers want an eBook for every story, or is one per month good?
  3. Free or Not Free? Many online magazines are free, which is a yay. Should their eBooks be free as well? I am personally in favor of charging a small amount for the files for the convenience of having the eBook format. The fiction will still be free on the website, of course. What are other people’s thoughts on this?
  4. Delivery System. Outfits like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony will deliver magazines to subscribers automatically, but only if you have a device that stays within their ecosystem. Like, if I subscribe to a magazine through B&N but use my Sony Reader to read it, it won’t show up each month on its own, I’d have to download then transfer it. Plus, I imagine that many online magazines would want to sell or make their eBook versions available through independent eBookstores or just from their site. I had an idea that I’d like to be able to embed and deliver eBooks with an RSS feed like you do with podcasts. That way, if you subscribe to the feed, you automatically get the file. It would be nice if this worked with paid eBook files as well. This is where the major coding work comes in. How do you set this kind of thing up? And would you need an accompanying program to then transfer the eBook to your eReader?
  5. Subscriptions or Individual Payments? Going along with the system I described above, will readers want to subscribe up front to many months worth of a magazine or would they be happier just paying per month?

This is what I’ve come up with so far, but please feel free to add anything else you think should be under consideration and please give your thoughts, solutions, etc. to the above. I feel that if this is done right, we may end up with a really cool program or online service that can handle all of these things. But, as I said, I’d want this to be open source and made available to magazines for little or no cost, if possible.

I’d love any suggestions on how to proceed from here.

23 thoughts on “If You Build This, Magazines Will Come

  1. re: #4
    I thought Fictionwise had an option to “download all new content to your ebook reader,” but now I can’t find it.

    I wouldn’t think that a push model would be that hard, though.

    I’d totally be a customer for this project, but I can’t code, so I can’t help there…

  2. It has occurred to me that the IPOD could have a significant impact on the magazine industry. He’s done two critical things – developed a screen reader large enough to be comfortable for people with varying degrees of eyesight and trained a generation of people to be comfortable paying 1.99 or 3.99 or 5.99 for content. There’s an opportuntiy here.

    1. the iBook app can read EPUB files, so however we create these, they’ll be viewable on the iPad. Also, if magazines want, they can upload the files to iBooks and sell them there. :) As much as I am not a fan of the iPad, I do agree that it’s great for getting more people reading.

  3. I would love to subscribe to a magazine. It should be cheaper than their print version. But, if their version is free online, I would still pay a little bit to have it in epub format.

    The way I picture it is you go to an online webzine or the online presence of a print magazine, log in to your account, where you’ve already subscribed for a year (or more, or in perpetuity) and download the latest issue. Or the last month’s worth. Or older issues you hadn’t downloaded yet. Or even back issues (if they can get the rights to publish those in epub). Or whatever. I’m not sure if I’d want the individual stories as individual files, but options are always good.

    My question is:

    Will they expire? If they’re going to expire, then they’d better be free.

  4. Can’t offer much expertise of my own, but there’ll be a post at Futurismic later today echoing the call for assistance; would very much like to get behind a scheme like this. Might be a great way to kickstart some sort of webzine federation at the same time…

    … any other way I can help out, let me know. :)

  5. I think this is a fantastic idea. Coding confuses me at the best of times, so a resource that would make building ebooks an easy task would be wonderful!

  6. You read our minds: Kelly and I were lamenting not knowing how to do the very things you suggest. I shall be watching this process with great interest, and let me know if there is anything we can do to help (like if you want to fool with A&A files for testing or whatever).

  7. Hey Tempest. Cheryl Morgan and I and a group of us specced out many of the interface parameters to make this kind of idea work and potentially take it a few steps farther a couple years ago but then the economy hit me sideways and I couldn’t carry it through I was just starting to dip back into it last year and then I got pregnant (and the first trimester basically hit me upside the head again). I’m a human factors engineer and would love to be involved. I also have a domain name sitting around waiting for this sort of project, and can host the development stage of an open source project in my multi-domain account…

  8. Hi Tempest–

    I met a guy at BEA who is a real eBooks guru and knows How To Do It. Will dig out his info and send it along.

    Fun to talk about this at Readercon.


  9. epub is just XHTML, CSS (with a few extra properties) and images with a bit of additional XML for packaging (a table of contents and a metadata file). This means that things are not so awful for online magazines, which presumably already use XHTML and CSS, but yeah, some open-source tools to help people get from point A to point B would be a nice thing.

    If I were starting a magazine from ground zero and wanted to make it easy to publish both online content and ebooks, I’d use an extensible CMS (perhaps Drupal, it’s got a great developer community behind it). Use regular old theming to format web content, and develop a module that allows the site admin (or readers!) to pick the content they want to publish in a book, specify whatever metadata they want (title, year, what goes on the spine, blah blah blah), then click a button to generate the .epub book.

    There’s http://www.juliansmart.com/ecub but it’s closed-source.

    1. The trick is formatting it the way ebook readers expect it to be. You can fix a certain amount of it by tweaking the CSS, but there are expectations that make it more difficult.

      For example, ebooks are expected to have indented paragraphs. Web pages typically don’t. It’s more common to put a blank line between paragraphs (a no-no in ebooks) there. Sure, you can tweak the paragraph tag CSS to compensate for that, but then you have to fix the paragraphs that shouldn’t be like that. You wouldn’t have to worry about that distinction with a web page, so odds are, those instances don’t have unique class declarations on the paragraph tag.

      It is certainly easy enough to do working forward, but going back over old content could be very time-intensive.

  10. Tempest, I like your idea of a subscription model through RSS. I think the way to do it would be through password protected RSS (via HTTP). You’d have to link the password database to a list of user subscriptions, but conceptually that wouldn’t be hard.

    But I think, and I see this occurring more frequently, that users are less likely to hand over cash to a single website selling a few products (i.e. an e-book for a magazine), and more likely to spend money at a well-known site like Amazon or the iBookstore. These stores also integrate well into devices. An e-book subscription over RSS would require a) a user to manually enter in the RSS feed, b) the user to go to the website to buy a subscription and c) the user to copy the downloaded e-book into their preferred reader. This seems to advanced for most folks and why I think it’s best to go with the B&N or Amazon or iBookstore distribution, because they make it (relatively) easy, even if they control a lot (perhaps too much) of the process.

    1. You’d have to link the password database to a list of user subscriptions, but conceptually that wouldn’t be hard.

      I’d leverage the power of a CMS for that. (see below.)

    2. the problem is that amazon and B&N don’t often accept new magazines for their auto delivery thing. when is the last time you saw a new lit mag there? Amazon does RSS, but then you’re at the mercy of that horrid RSS renderer. I doubt this would be as difficult as you imagine :)

  11. I know Jeroen Hellingman, at Distributed Proofreaders (which creates books for Project Gutenberg), is working on automatic scripts to convert HTML files to .epub. You might want to contact him.

    (Speaking as an e-book user, a mediocre conversion is hugely better than no conversion.)

  12. Speaking as someone who has and loves and ereader device, I would be perfectly happy to pay extra to be able to easily put magazine stories on my device. The optimal price point for me would be around $0.99/story, or, if the stories come in a block rather than being pick-and-choose, around $3.00/5 stories. (Less that way, because I can’t just choose not to get stories I’m uninterested in.)

    I’m willing to pay because, while I certainly can download the HTML page and convert it myself, it’s worth something to not have to bother.

    One advantage of offering them through, say, the Kindle store in addition to as a DRM-free independently-downloaded ebook is that it allows customers to take advantage of syncing across devices. (A feature that I happen to love, since it means I can easily pick up reading a book on my phone if I get stuck in an unexpected line or something.) But I agree that offering only through one particular online vendor or another is unnecessarily limiting.

  13. 1. Calibre is more like notepad than Word. You can use it to create good epub files if you roll your own CSS. If you are already taking advantage of CSS styling in your magazine’s posts, it makes it very easy. For example, with Clarkesworld, I have a very short program that does about 95% of the work for me by pulling the content straight from my website’s database and tweaking it. The rest I can do in Calibre in 5 minutes. Admittedly, I could probably code the rest if I thought it was worth the effort. Probably wouldn’t do an ebook from scratch in Calibre. Indesign CS4 supposedly has some epub export features, but I haven’t tried them.

    2. That’s probably going to vary by publication.

    3. I come down on the side of paying for convenience. I prove it on the website for free and if you want it in another format, I don’t have a problem charging (or paying) a fee. For free fiction to survive, a source (or rather, multiple sources) of income for the publication has to exist.

    4.This is the REAL problem. Amazon, Apple, B&N and others seem completely disinterested in tackling this problem. Yes, you can subscribe to some magazines on Amazon, but how many new publications have made it into their subscriptions enabled program in the last year? I can’t even get them to return email. Apple is no better, insisting on an ISBN for ebooks and, well, not offering the option unless you want to do an app instead. BAH!

    5. Magazines currently offer single issue and year/multi-year subscription options. I fully expect to have both for electronic editions. Toss in the addition of a pay-as-you-go subscription (more like auto-preordering issues at regular price) and you have a nice third option. (Not sure I’d ever buy that way, but options are nice.)

  14. So, I tossed this question to my partner, who is a computer scientist and a huge OSS geek, and he pontificated at me for an hour about the e-publishing world :) I think I’m going to ask him to post his thoughts on ezine publishing here, rather than try to coherently repeat it.

  15. Regarding the free/not free issue, this guy: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ did or does both – he made his books available for free on his personal website, but he also put them for sale cheap on amazon’s kindle store. He was surprised to discover that despite being available for free, some people were willing to pay $2 for the convenience of getting his ebooks from the store site where they were accustomed to shop for them.

    So based on that example, I’d say make them available for free on the magazine’s site, but also put them up on the major ebook stores for a tiny fee.

  16. I wrote the iPhone apps for Fantasy and Lightspeed—pretty simple feed readers at this point, following up in the not too distant future with Android. Lately my focus has been the iPad. And I’ve been looking at book promotion, looking at ways to add value, content, games, interaction, around sample chapters for f & sf novels.

    Long post with ideas and workflow here:


    I really like where you’re going with this. I don’t have enough time to lead anything, but count me in on design and dev. Let’s get a discussion going at Readercon!

  17. I think charging a small amount for the e-book makes sense. Online ‘zines are chronically underfunded, and that might help plug the whole. For people (like me) who are too cheap/poor to pay the extra amount, well, they can still create their own e-books from the free online content.

    I’m sorry to say I have little input on the other issues. What kind of mark-up does an e-book use, anyway? I’ve often wished to be able to go in and tinker with one without converting it to some other format and converting it back, but the only tool I have is Calibre.

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