When The Magazine launched just seven months ago, it stood out as the first publication that traded on the principles of “Subcompact Publishing,” a manifesto laid out by designer and writer Craig Mod. (Update: Fleishman has pointed out, however, that The Magazine pre-dated Mod’s essay.) The Magazine was built for the age of smartphones and tablets from the ground up, free from the legacy concerns of traditional magazines, which have been stuck adapting their print products for digital consumption, usually with nothing more than glorified PDFs. Arment’s product, on the other hand, was consistent with the tenets of subcompact publishing: lightweight, easy to distribute, and easy to use.
The problem with that first sentence is that it mirrors the inaccurate belief that The Magazine was the first of its kind. That's not exactly true. I know of at least one previous attempt to implement the ideas of subcompact publishing. It did not have much success, but it did come first.
This dates back to early 2011, about 20 months before Arment launched The Magazine. A startup called Nomad Editions announced the launch of a quartet of weekly digital magazines. Each issue had 6 to 8 articles, no ads, and you could subscribe to one of the magazines for $2 a month.
The layout of those digital magazines didn't quite have the clean, simple, design of The Magazine, but they did come close to matching it for file size, price, and ease of use. They are arguably an early example of subcompact publishing, though I might be the only one to call them that.
If you've never heard of Nomad Editions, I'm not surprised. All 4 of the original titles folded after publishing for 3 or 4 months, and Nomad's subsequent attempts to publish digital magazines also folded as the company turned to offering their platform as a service. (Archival copies can still be had in iTunes for $5 each.)
Curiously enough, Nomad Editions got out of publishing in September 2012, only a couple months before The Magazine launched and showed that the idea of subcompact publishing was practical. As always, timing is everything.
I suppose some might expect me to say that The Magazine doesn't matter because it wasn't the first, but that's not my point (it's also wrong). Marco Arment might not have been the first to implement the idea but he was arguably the first to get it right. He might not have come up with the idea first but he was instrumental in publicizing it and getting everyone excited about it.
I think it would be best to describe Marco Arment's role in the rise of subcompact publishing as being similar to that of Apple's role in the tablet and smartphone markets. Apple wasn't the first to release a smartphone or a tablet, but the iPhone and the iPad were still game changers.
The same can be said for The Magazine.
This might not matter to many people, but there are times when I tend to be a stickler for historical accuracy. So when I see The Magazine described as the first of anything, I want to set the record straight.
This wasn't the first publication to implement the ideas of subcompact publishing, but it was the first to get it right. And that, really, is all that matters. Apple's success with the iPhone and The Magazine's success in the publishing industry both stem from getting it right, not from being first.
Many people share an unfortunate obsession with being first, and I wish it would go away. Often times being second and better is more important than being first.
P.S. The Kindle and the Sony Reader offer another good example of how being second and better turned out to be the winning strategy. Of the first 2 major ER-ink ereaders, the one over a year behind the the first quickly dominated the market.
P. P.S. Speculations as to why The Magazine succeeded while Nomad Edition's piublications failed are outside the scope of this post, but the obvious answers are marketing, compelling content, and timing.