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What is a book in the age of the iPad? An interview with Craig Mod

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Craig Mod is a writer and designer who splits his time between Japan and the US. Formerly of Flipboard, much of his writing is concerned with ebooks and digital publishing — the pitfalls the industry falls into, and how best to avoid them. His most recent essay, Subcompact Publishing, sparked a lot of online chatter last November over its vision for a minimal, service-oriented publishing future. I sat down with Mod in December during his latest stopover in Tokyo to talk about these ideas, Japan, and more.

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Sam Byford: What are you up to in Japan this time — anything interesting?

Craig Mod: I'm partially just kinda escaping. I like to take a couple of weeks at the end of the year and just work on writing projects that I'm working on in the background. I find the end of the year is a nice time — it's very free of distraction, news is winding down, nobody wants to have meetings anymore. I feel like you have about two weeks after Thanksgiving to do things, and then everyone shuts off, so I like coming out here. I have my apartment out here, so it's easy for me to come out. I was in the woods of New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony last year, working on writing projects, and I thought I'd just come out here this year. Japanese New Year is great. It's quiet.

My favorite thing to do is climb a mountain on December 31st. So you can go to Takao-san — it's not too far away, the trains run all night, and so you can just go out to Takao at 11pm and climb up and there's a temple at the top, and there's sort of little yatai stands (food stalls) the whole way up, and you can get your amazake (sweet sake) and get all sorts of little food, you can eat your toshikoshi soba (Japanese noodles traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve). It's great, I don't know, it just feels like a very spiritually healthy way to celebrate the New Year.

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S: The trains even run out to mountains on New Year?

C: Yeah — I think the Takao lines have a specific "Let's go to Takao-san and celebrate the New Year" sort of thing. Also, I'm having all my essays translated to Japanese right now, so I'm giving a talk at the Apple Store January 10th, I'm gonna have three or four of my most recent essays in Japanese released on Kindle, and hopefully iBooks — if iBooks ever launches in Japan, which is weird, right? I think it's coming, little elves tell me it's coming very soon. So I'm out here kind of working with my translator trying to get the language right, I mean... the Kindle just came out a month ago.

S: It’s weird to me that such a technologically and book- literate country is really behind on those things. Why do you think that is?

C: It's strange, because Sony released their E Ink based e-reader back in like 2003. I remember being out here in the early 2000s, going to Bic Camera, picking up a Sony e-reader, and thinking it was a cardboard display model. Then you hit a button and the screen flashed — it was just like "holy shit, this is amazing, I've never seen anything like this before." They did nothing with it.

One of the problems is is that the publishing industry is so tightly controlled by so few people. Dentsu controlling a lot of the advertising, a lot of the publishing happens in backrooms and there's a few individuals making those decisions, I think that makes innovation a little bit more difficult.

"I think nostalgia is very quickly replaced with convenience."

S: You once wrote about the minimal style of Japanese book covers. It seems like that kind of aesthetic is something that would really translate to digital.

C: I think it will. I think part of the reason why you didn't see Kindle take off here as quickly as it did in the West is that the Kindle is a non-Japanese company, Any outside platform disrupting an entire industry is going to have a hard time getting in — they're not going to make it easy. Publishers aren't going to bend over backwards to license their content to Kindle. Amazon's been negotiating for years to get out here.

So, I don't know, I think it's an inevitability, and I think that the the port has been opened, so to speak. Just sitting here even an hour ago, a businessman, maybe in his 40s, 50s, was reading his manga on an iPad mini. I don't know, I think nostalgia is very quickly replaced with convenience. I think in a year or two from now, we'll probably see a lot of digital book activity here in Japan.

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S: How do you think that Subcompact Publishing will go down in Japan? Do you think it's something that Japanese publishers would be receptive to?

C: I've already gotten a lot of emails from Japanese publishers, and it's gotten picked up on a couple blogs — despite being in English, which I think is encouraging. I just want to get it out there as quickly as possible in Japanese. I think it's in an interesting place right now, the Japanese publishing ecosystem. I left for California two years ago because I felt like it was really hard to make any progress here, and the industry was very reticent to push on digital books and build the systems — there wasn't enough of an entrepreneurial startup culture here to build the tools and systems that were going to define the future of reading and the future of publishing. But I think we're in this inevitable inflection point where everyone is going to have a tablet, everyone has tablets, everyone has smartphones.

"Subcompact Publishing is just saying 'Hey. Blank paper. Maybe 200 pages. With a nice binding that isn't gonna fall apart. Slap it all between two pieces of cardboard.'"

There's a point where the friction of not publishing on digital platforms is going to be outweighed by the economic incentive that is lost by doing that. It's kind of a nice time now — it's like, in the West, we've gone through a lot of painful gesticulation, especially around iPad magazines, and what a lot of the early magazines looked like and how they did it wrong. So the Japanese industry seems to moving into this space where the West has solved a lot of the question marks, or at least, answered a lot of these question marks. Maybe they don't have precise, perfect solutions to what digital publishing should look like, but there's certainly a lot to learn.

S: So in the US too it seemed that Subcompact Publishing resonated with a lot of people. Do you think that this is something that's really going to take off — is it going to be a movement? Are you going to see a lot of people thinking the same things you're thinking, launching publications in the next year — or is it a pipe dream, so to speak?

C: No, I mean, it's not even a movement. The Subcompact Publishing ethos, I don't know, it feels like saying "A book should be made of paper and have a cover." There isn't anything particularly innovative about it, it's just making very clear these inevitable foundations for what digital publishing should look like, how it should function. Imagine everyone's doing all these weird prototypes of what a book should be: it scrolls, for example, and now it's like "Oh, let's put together a book." And everyone's making these weird, overly complex books. In one, the paper unfolds, it's kinda like a scroll, but it's not. Subcompact Publishing is just saying "Hey. Blank paper. Maybe 200 pages. With a nice binding that isn't gonna fall apart. Slap it all between two pieces of cardboard." That's it.

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S: So I guess the example that seems to best embody that is The Magazine. But if you look at that app, it's super minimal, very spartan, it's very well-thought out, but it seems really obvious to the point where you wonder why it hadn't been thought of before.

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C: Yeah, exactly. And that's what got me so excited to consolidate that thinking, get it out there, because it seemed like this is as obvious as breathing air. You know, sometimes when you're so close to a medium, as we all are — to books, to the way magazines work, and the way distribution works for physical things, and the way publication cycles are for physical things — and then a new device comes out that requires you to take a step back and disconnect from everything that's part of the incumbent industry, it can take a little while to create the proper distance. And I just think we've played around for two years, we've made a lot of mistakes for two years, some people have been doing exactly what Marco's doing, but they didn't quite get the physics right, so to speak.

"What Marco defined is literally just sheets of paper, a binding, and a hardcover, that's it."

What Marco defined is literally just sheets of paper, a binding, and a hardcover, that's it. That's what The Magazine is. And just in the same way, a book, fundamentally, is composed of these universal attributes. Marco's magazine is just defining those universal attributes. It's not the end of where these things should go, this is just the absolute base. From there, you can start looking into how do you incorporate photography, how do you incorporate design of the page, how do you incorporate different publishing cycles.

S: I guess part of it is semantics, because you're comparing The Magazine to a book — but The Magazine's calling itself a magazine. And if you look at all the digital magazines on an iPad, they're almost all terrible; they're super heavy designs, very focused on “interactive content” that doesn't make for the best reading experience. Is The Magazine the new way to make a magazine, or is it a new thing entirely?

C: [long pause] Even the very notion of a magazine is sort of anachronistic, isn’t it? The bundling together of X number of articles and having a certain number of pages and everything. The Verge is effectively an internet magazine, for example, but it doesn't have the same form as traditional magazines. The thing that The Magazine does well, and I talk about it in the article, is that it provides a service. What it does is it packages it in a way that is super easy to use.

I think what The Magazine's done, what Marco's done inside The Magazine, what I've tried to outline in Subcompact Publishing is just "How do we create as minimal as possible a space, so that you can add interactive content on top of that if you want to." I think that there's something nice about having a packet of information delivered, and part of why I talk about chunking together groups of articles in Subcompact Publishing is because I'm of the mindset that users shouldn't be forced to constantly pull to refresh, constantly suck on the teat of information for an endless stream of new content. It should come to them when a certain amount of great content is ready. That’s the idea.

I think part of what makes The Magazine or Newsstand interesting is that it is a delivery mechanism. It's a delivery and payment mechanism — the payment component is critical. Because that's something that's always been hard to do on the web, on the open web. How many sites have you ever paid for for content? Zero, right?

"Users shouldn't be forced to constantly pull to refresh, constantly suck on the teat of information for an endless stream of new content."

S: Not zero.

C: What have you paid for?

S: I've paid for the New York Times... I've donated to some things.

C: Yeah, that's the thing, you have to donate — there's no formal structure, recurring payments is kinda difficult to pull off on the web. The whole system is a little bit janky. So there's a certain potential in the Newsstand. On one hand, it would have been great if Apple had iBooks and Newsstand combined into one formal reading environment. But because they haven't done that, at the very least they've created an abstract distribution and payment layer that you can add to your applications.

S: So there's one thing you’ve written about that The Magazine doesn't really do, which is put stuff online for free, outside of the app.

C: They kinda do...

S: A few weeks after the fact. I don't think it's clear that it's going to be a standing thing going forward. (Note: as of writing, only the first two issues are available outside the app.) Do you think this is something that Marco absolutely needs to do? When you put out Art Space Tokyo you took the time to do a really nice web version for free. How's that worked out — do you think you've been vindicated in doing that?

C: I'd love for Marco to do an A/B test and see what the conversions are like. My gut instinct tells me that having the full articles online would produce more conversions, because you'd be more inclined to link to things that are being written for The Magazine. Marco has frequently said that he wants to hire more high profile journalists, more "real" journalists, pay the rates that "real" journalists should be paid, and so if that's the case, then there will be these amazing articles living inside The Magazine's ecosystem. Having the full articles online is going to get ten times more links than having a truncated, three paragraph version.

And I think people aren't paying for the content explicitly — what they're paying for is that package, what they're paying for is the convenience. They're paying for the fulfillment of a certain job that that app brings, which is this consolidated list. I as a user shouldn't have to think at all about “How do I get to content?” “Where do I read it?” “Do I have to go and grab new content?” No, it's just going to be there. If The Magazine has a little badge on it, that means "Great! New candy for me."

If I open it up is it going to take 20 minutes to download a 500 meg .pdf or chunk of images? No, you just know it's going to be quick and it's going to be right there. And that's worth paying for. If you put the full article online it just acts as marketing, the best kind of marketing.

"Apple created this great, abstracted payment and delivery method, and the only thing they've showcased it with are these clunky uncomfortable-to-use old media apps."

But really the funny thing is is that it's so weird that Apple has done so little promotion around the potential of Newsstand. Apple created this great, abstracted payment and delivery method, and the only thing they've showcased it with are these clunky uncomfortable-to-use old media apps, super apps, super magazines. It's very strange.

S: Well, I think it's like gaming — when are they going to promote it? When it gets to this tipping point where they realize people are buying the device for that reason.

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C: It doesn't take a genius to know that we're going to be reading our magazines on these devices going forward. This is it. Apple has one of the most important publishing hardware platforms going forward. They have the digital book. It's kinda strange that they didn't define the reading guidelines for something like this — not more strictly, they didn't define them at all. That said, I think there's still opportunity for someone else to come in and own this space.

Flipboard is a great example of a company that has amazing content, amazing reading experiences. They have a great table of contents to read or to discover stuff, to discover new publications, new magazines. Flipboard as the kind of company poised to own that sort of space to me seems like a no-brainer. And even guys like Instapaper: if Marco was of the mindset to say "I'm gonna own this space. I'm gonna hire some people, and we're going to have a great table of contents, and you're going to be able to subscribe to publications inside of Instapaper."

Pulse is another company that is clearly trying to own the holistic "This is where you come to read great content." And there's no reason why they couldn't build some sort of payment system or subscription system into their ecosystem as well. And they're on Windows, Android, iOS. It could be the one-stop publishing place, the so-called "moveable type" for tablets, moveable type with a payment system built into it for tablets. Pocket is doing really well, too — I think they're killing it. Their desktop app is great, all their widgets have been redesigned, they look and feel awesome, I love spending time in Pocket. Pocket's great, right?

S: Yeah. It's kind of counter-intuitive that the desktop app would be that good, in a way. I feel like the reason Pocket works as a concept is you're thinking "This is something I don't want to read on my computer, it's something I want to take to a sofa on my iPad." And that's what I have been doing, but then the desktop app comes along and I find myself on the train using it, if it's a shinkansen (bullet train). If it's a long train.

C: It's funny, the length of the train ride determines what device you're gonna use. Also the comfortability — the presence of tablets. Yeah, all these companies: Apple built Newsstand, and it just so happens that The Magazine built what is effectively the bare-bones version of what a comfortable reading environment feels like on iOS, and Marco used Newsstand to build that. It doesn't mean Flipboard or Pocket or Pulse or any of these other sort of reading spaces can't become the Newsstand, the universal Newsstand.

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S: So whatever hardware any of those companies chooses, they're tied to whatever OEMs can produce. Do you think there's any limitations to the reading experience by the technology of today? Is there any advance that you think we would need to see?

C: I'd love to see E Ink be as responsive and fluid as what we have here on the iPad mini. I've stopped using my Kindle entirely now that I've got the mini.

I got my Paperwhite before the mini, and there are a few usability problems with the touch Kindles that drive me nuts. The E Ink, you never know what's happening when you swipe, there's no grounding, there's no — did we just move right, or did we just move left?

S: I really wish it had the buttons.

"They need the buttons. The only thing you do with the freaking device is switch pages."

C: They need the buttons. The only thing you do with the freaking device is switch pages! 99.999% of all your interaction, switching pages. Those things drove me a little bit nuts. But I do love the feel of E Ink, and I would love if we could get E Ink that looks and feels as responsive as LCD and it’s in full color. A retina iPad mini would be good too.

The main reason I was using a Kindle was that the normal iPad was just too big. With the iPad mini the weight is right, the battery life is right, it just feels great to read with, and every day I've been doing one or two hours of reading on the iPad Mini has been awesome. I think the iPad mini is really a breakthrough device. The iPad mini, the Nexus 7, the Kindle HD — all these 7-inch-ish tablets — that's the breakthrough comfort zone for reading devices. It's no longer an issue of hardware. It's a problem of tools, it's a problem of distribution mechanisms.

For example, social reading inside of Kindle. I would love to be able to do a small reading group with a few friends, I'd love to be able to say "Hey, Sam, let's read this book about this weird technology together," and we can go in there, and I open the book and it shows me where you are in the book, you almost race each other along the length of the book, you can drop notes for each other, you can highlight, I can see exactly what you've really spent time digging into, and the only reason we can't do that is because the Kindle ecosystem is locked up.

You have some startups that are trying to fix that: guys like Readmill are trying to build better social reading platforms, but there are business development problems. How do you get access to all of Random House's backlog? Developing that relationship, and getting access to that firehose is a non-trivial problem, so it makes it hard for startups to innovate in that space.

So, no, I mean all limitations in reading and publishing, journalism, magazine publishing, book publishing, it's all about systems, ecosystems, tools. It's so hard for a publisher to put out a digital book, it so hard! Why is it so hard for a publisher to put out a digital book? Creating an .epub is still freakishly difficult to do it well, and to feel like you understand what's happening under the hood and you have control over the final output.

"Why is it so hard for a publisher to put out a digital book?"

S: Maybe that'll be fixed by the time we have a retina iPad Mini.

C: Probably! This ecosystem's always been about chicken and egg problems. The iPad comes out, and suddenly there's an awareness that tablets are a thing, we're probably going to be reading on these things going forward. Great. Okay, now we have tablets. Then we have to build the software for it, but before we build the software for it, we kinda do all these really clunky versions of how do we take all this existing print infrastructure and shove it into a tablet. So we spend two years doing that.

And then finally, publications like The Verge start launching and everyone starts doing mobile-optimized web versions of their websites, and slowly — it's actually pretty quick, when you think about it — slowly but surely, everyone is moving to a very tablet-aware mindset. And the saturation of the devices after this winter season is going to be at this tipping point where it doesn't make any sense to not ask, even if you have no interest in publishing, "How big is the market, how much money is there to be made in this market?"

Every six months we're going to see 3 or 4 very obvious things that we weren't doing that someone's going to start doing, and then the whole industry shifts and follows that. Two years ago, hardware was more of a limiting factor — now it isn't.

"Kindle Fire was like the worst consumer electronics device ever released on people."

It's a good time, it's an interesting time, the market has moved so quickly. A year ago, all there was was an iPad. There was an iPad, there was some Galaxy stuff that no one knew anything about, and there was a Kindle Fire. And Kindle Fire was like the worst consumer electronics device ever released on people. It's one of those things where you just wonder "Did Amazon lose any credibility because of how bad that device was?" The Kindle HD, I haven't touched one, but I'm assuming it's better.

S: Yeah, we gave it a pretty good review.

C: Yeah, I'm sure it's a lot better. And you have the Nook tablet now too. The baseline is figured out now, and all the specs are up to par. iOS is definitely not the only game in town either. If your app is dependent on growing your user base, you have to be on Android — there's just no way around it. If you're working inside the traditional VC system and you need to show a certain amount of user acquisition, user growth, you have to be on Android.

S: Because The Daily managed to get what, 100,000 paying subscribers? I feel like their financial issues weren't really down to the subscriber count, it was more the incredibly large staff they were maintaining.

C: No, I mean, it was incredible — they were pulling in, what, 3 million dollars a year? Something like that, just on subscriptions alone, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering that it was iPad-only. Single device, single platform.

"You just want one place to build and send your article, send your data, and have it look great on all platforms."

The whole promise of tablet publishing is to be able to produce your content in one place, and then be able to say “hey, I'm going to push it out everywhere.” And the nice thing about reading, about text, about magazines, about a collection of articles is that the UX doesn't have to be complex — as we've seen with The Magazine — in that a minimalist user experience should translate fairly universally across any platform.

There's nothing specific in The Magazine that couldn't be brought over 100% on Android, and so wherever you are, the design and the user experience could be identical. It's something a publisher shouldn't have to worry about. As a publisher, I don't want to think, OK, I'm pushing out to iOS with one set of rules, and now we have to redesign something and push out another app for Android. You just want one place to build and send your article, send your data, and have it look great on all platforms. That's the dream. We'll be there, soon.



Interview condensed and edited by Sam Byford and Thomas Houston

Photos of Japan courtesy Michael Wayne Goodman and Gary Cycles

The Verge
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