I can’t say that the sudden rise of web-delivered digital magazines is a trend I foresaw. It was initially a by-product magazine renaissance that came with the mass ownership of touchscreen devices, but webzine publishing is now a niche in which many startups are willing to specialize.
This year, alone, I have personally reviewed the likes of Creatavist and Readymag, and been hugely impressed, whilst other platforms such as TypeEngine and Origami Engine — despite their names, both are more suited to talk than torque — are making significant headway, too.
My latest encounter with the format comes in the form of Beacon. With a simple approach to creation, publication and selling — even Beacon’s website is a one-pager — it should be the ideal platform for those who want to concentrate on content rather than configuration. But can it deliver the required quality to capture the attention of the reading public?
Taking an initial tour of Beacon, it is clear that this is a long way from being the most sophisticated or malleable magazine-creation platform, but the exact range of options provided — nothing more than the bare necessities — illustrates how a CMS should just get out of the way.
The sign-up process is similarly insignificant. Just an email, a password and the name of your publication are the required inputs, with the last of these doubling as the magazine’s domain.
Even the pricing model is simple: there’s one plan, it’s unlimited, and it costs $20/month, or $200/year.
Beacon’s main dashboard is a library view. There’s an example magazine here, from which you’re invited to learn, and there is also the opportunity to create a new issue.
After giving the new edition a title, it’s just a case of adding pages.
Let’s start with what is, obviously, the first page you’re going to add: the cover.
Unlike the pages inside a Beacon-made magazine, the options for cover page customization are really quite limited. A custom title and a “what’s inside” description can be added, but these are presented in predefined spots, meaning that the only true outlet for creativity here is the cover image, and so this makes all Beacon publications alike, at least to some degree.
The picture or design you upload must be selected carefully, too, as Beacon’s responsive design crushes landscape format images on mobile devices, and unpleasantly stretches portrait format images on computers.
On the plus side, a decent array of meta inputs can be found under the Advanced tab, making for good SEO.
Things get better as you start working on the inside of your magazine.
For starters, content is added via a proper text editor, which provides both the usual text formatting options and the ability to add images, embedded videos and tables.
Equally, there’s more room for manoeuvre in terms of presentation. The page title can be the colour and font of your choosing (there are 12 to pick from), and articles can be given a date, an author, and a summary which acts as a sub-title. Critically, however, there are also four distinct layouts to choose from.
The Full-Fixed layout fills the browser window, with a background image of your choosing, while the content scrolls in the foreground above a static white box. Interestingly, readers have the option to hide the text, which makes this template suited to showing off a sizeable image.
The Large Photo layout copies a current fashion in blog design, serving up a large, custom header image that is slightly obscured by the title. Below that, the main body of content sits on a plain, white background.
Neither the Traditional template, nor the Vanilla template, is a really structured design, as such. Yes, the former has a place for a defined header image at the top, but otherwise, both templates simply display content in a workmanlike single column. The only notable difference between the two is alignment; Traditional floats to the left, Vanilla stays centred.
None of the above layouts is particularly dazzling, although they competently perform the task of delivering content in a readable form.
Putting a Beacon publication into the world is a one-click action — unless you want to sell it, in which case you just need to set a price (Beacon takes ten percent plus Stripe‘s fees) — and readers can then access the magazine via the issue’s unique URL.
When readers arrive, they will be greeted with the window-filling cover, speedy left-to-right navigation and ever-present sharing and index menus. It makes for a pleasant and easy-to-use reading environment.
The only slight letdown is that swiping isn’t enabled on touchscreens. The on-screen arrows work perfectly well, but it just feels a bit stilted in the modern era of mobile first.
Publishers will be pleased to see the in-built analytics, though, which provide a page-by-page breakdown of visits, as well as a list of traffic sources.
Beacon doesn’t utilize the cutting edge of the modern web, or wow your readers with swishy presentation, nor does it provide much scope for customization. What it does do is make magazine-format web publishing really simple, and it provides this service at a reasonable cost.
However, simplicity isn’t an excuse for some of Beacon’s feature gaps, it must be said. Alternative cover layouts are badly needed, and I would certainly welcome the option to upload alternative covers for different devices.
As an easy way of getting your content to market — and selling it — though, Beacon is a perfectly solid platform that new digital publishers should take a look at.