English: Honda N360 日本語: ホンダ・N360
English: Honda N360 日本語: ホンダ・N360 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tend to overdo it online — from bloated Web sites packed with features the majority of users don’t want to fancy emails that get caught in spam filters or trashed without their images being loaded. And we find these overly complex initiatives difficult and expensive to maintain. They have user interfaces that are too packed or too subtle, which prove to inhibit usage. They have search engines with elements as puzzling as they are ineffective. We can be our own worst enemies online.

We could be on the brink of a second chance.

A recent manifesto entitled, “Subcompact Publishing,” by Craig Mod, calls for publishers to not make the same mistakes with their tablet versions. Mod’s point is that minimalism has many virtues, and the subcompact movement in automotive design represents a scaling back to essentials that transformed driving and cars in very positive ways — making autos more affordable, reliable, and durable by simplifying them toward their essential functions, and ditching non-essential aspects (fins, grills, chrome, and unreliable electronics). This is the basis of his metaphor, and the specifics are clear and compelling:

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

— Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)

— Small file sizes

— Digital-aware subscription prices

— Fluid publishing schedule

— Scroll (don’t paginate)

— Clear navigation

— HTML(ish) based

— Touching the open web

Mod’s example is the Magazine, a new tablet-based publication that publishes a few medium-length articles on a variety of topics every two weeks, and charges $1.99 per month. Mod celebrates its approach as a realization of his constraints:

When I first saw The Magazine I smiled.

I smiled because it was so sensible, so rational, and so immediately obvious.

It felt like a platonic mobile-publishing container. No cruft, all substance. A shadow on the wall. The kind of app that’s doing nothing fancy but everything right. The kind of app deemed anathema by Future Publishing Authorities because, quite frankly, it’s boring.

This is the risk we all court — making technology to impress ourselves and one another, and losing sight of what users want and will use. I’ve argued before that if we had paid attention to this a decade ago, we would have built sites with simple HTML versions and PDFs, and saved ourselves and our users a lot of pain, and ourselves a lot of expense. Now that we have an opportunity to reorient to what the customer might want on their information-consumption devices of choice — tablets — let’s gain some inspiration from this quote from the master of deceptively simple design, Steve Jobs:

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


10 Thoughts on "A Call for Simplified Tablet Publishing — "The Subcompact Manifesto""

Simplification in the mobile and tablet space is critical, but there still appears to be an arms race happening to provide more bells and whistles on publisher platforms. For example the current developments in article level metrics add value to some users, likewise visual abstracts, videos and data hosting. If embellishments become more widely embraced there is a risk that publishers without them will not be able to attract authors and the expected reader experience will change thus increasing the baseline demands of publisher platforms.

If you get a chance look at what Metro have done with their daily tablet edition for commuters: http://www.metro.co.uk. They have made a very neat job I think of simplifying the content and reordering it for tablet consumption. Associated Newspapers really seem to have got it right, at least as far as my commuting behaviour is concerned!

As this seems to be a popular place for controversy, let me be controversial. 😉

My view is that publishers should spend less time worrying about platforms, methods of delivery, level of bells and whistles, and concentrate on pure content, i.e.

• Clear, well copy-edited, readable text — we know this has been steadily going downhill over recent years
• Good punctuation to aid reading
• Well structured, correct XML content with appropriate granularity
• XML containing structure of content but not visual aspects (e.g. use emphasize not italic: )
• References and citations should be “agnostic”, i.e. contain only data, with no hint of “style”, and should contain no punctuation (e.g. brackets around year)

Presently very few XML files are released, even to a journal subscriber. They are jealously guarded in publishers’ “archives”. From the few I have seen most are erroneous and therefore useless anyway. 😉

If publishers simply publish the XML (and only the XML), according to the above specs, then any format for any device can be produced on the fly, and delivered to the user. The user can even choose what reference and citation style they prefer — I would argue that the idea of “house style” is outdated.

So, concentrate on first class “content”, give the reader the XML, and let them (or 3rd parties on their behalf) “render” the content to their desires. Publishers then need not worry about any platforms being used now, or any that might come in future. Job done.

And addressing the specific subject of Kent’s post, people can choose to have a simple, minimal style, or a complex, busy one.

I’m happy Kaveh has emphasized the importance of good language in text, achieved mainly through diligent copy-editing done by a qualified copy-editor — who is not going to come cheap. It’s difficult to keep up with scientific literature so it’s more important than ever that papers convey important information without requiring readers to re-read sentences and mentally translating them into a form they can understand.

As Kaveh has said, let us concentrate on the content — the content the reader cares about.

Kaveh, I think that’s a truly excellent idea. If the future of publishing looks like that, then I shall be very happy.

I wonder how realistic it is? Biomed Central already make their articles available in XML format, which is great, although I’m not aware of any tools that make use of the XML for the purposes that you describe. However, the XML schema that Biomed Central use is, I assume (correct me if I’m wrong) just their own internal version. Your idea would only work if all publishers could agree on a common schema. That, I suspect, could be trickier than it sounds.

But if that hurdle can be overcome, then in principle, it should be pretty easy for the rest of the steps to happen as you describe.

Hi Adam

I am not familiar with BMC’s XML, but in any case, any well structured XML can be converted to another, relatively easily. The STM world seems to be standardizing on NLM (or JATS now), so perhaps that will be the de facto standard. If we can get this working with one publisher, then perhaps others will see the advantage.

Of course the whole point of the time and money spent on creating XML was so that any format could be created in the future with no (or minimal) extra work. So the idea is not novel at all. It’s just that we cannot seem to get away from viewing the PDF as definitive version. It is in fact the XML which should be the “version of record”.

Well said that man. The PDF v HTML argument is for the most part silly — they are just two human readable representations of what should be the underlying version of record in XML (or some other machine-readable form — but XML wins hands down for the time being). With definitive XML, producing PDFs, HTML, .mobi and epub etc is just a matter of translation. And citation style and layout should then be something the consumer gets to choose to suit their personal preferences (this argument made in a longer more waffly form in http://dx.doi.org/10.1087/20110309)

The technology is available now; just legacy, inertia and commercial considerations keep the brakes on.

I too had the question as to the importance of HTML by the author. My company, RareWire, provides an App Development platform that got its start in publications, building Apps for The Atlantic Magazine and Ebony Magazine, among others. For proper issues, we still tend to use PDFs, but have also begun including a “reading” mode that provides a simpler flatter interface for reading articles. It seems to be quite popular.

My point is that App creation can be handled in several ways, we could include HTML content and regularly include XML feeds as well, both easily formatted to meet the UI needs of the end user, but PDF is still easy to create, implement and lightweight enough to make it viable. To the point of the commenters above, the content is the key, the PDF/HTML/XML is just the delivery.

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