Interview: Meet Nick Disabato from Distance

The web touches everyone’s lives today. It creates new opportunities, while at the same time disrupting old businesses. It’s affected publishers almost more than any other industry, taking print’s popularity as free web content became more popular.

Today, we’ve got an interview with a publisher of a new design magazine, Distance, about the ways he uses the web to get his magazine published and his thoughts on design. It’s different than our normal interviews with web app developers, so we hope you enjoy it!

Thanks for taking the time to do an interview with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and Distance Magazine?

Nick Disabato

Thanks! I’m Nick Disabato, a designer and publisher from Chicago. Right now I split my time between freelance work – consulting for startups and agencies on how to make useful, beautiful things that people will want to use – and editing and publishing Distance, a quarterly journal with long, lively, well-researched essays on design and technology.

I was excited to originally back Distance Magazine on Kickstarter. Can you tell us a bit about the Kickstarter process and how it worked out for you?

Kickstarter has been great to me. This is my second project, actually – the first was Cadence & Slang, a small book about interaction design – which went successfully and was shipped in 2010.

Kickstarter is an amazing medium for funding creative work, especially one-off projects. Many of my backers have turned into friends – one of Cadence & Slang‘s backers even wrote for Distance’s first issue.

Why is design so important to technology, in your opinion?

Design is not just how something looks, but how it works. Design is a crucial part of technology in both respects; people won’t want to use something if it doesn’t look interesting or inviting, and they won’t want to keep using it if they get frustrated in the process.

Tell us a bit about the process of making a copy of Distance Magazine. How do you go from raw articles to a printed and digital Magazine?

First, authors reach out to me with an idea that may or may not be fully baked. I’ll get on a Skype call or two with them, and bat the idea around to figure out what makes sense for an essay. At this point, the author usually has a good sense of what all will be required of them, and if they decide to go forward, more often than not, they’ll end up with a finished essay.

At the end of the call, I usually ask them to put together an outline of their essay: what specific points they’d want to make, and what they’d research to get there. I make suggestions to the outline and they begin writing. I give them about five weeks to finish a first draft.

Then we have a few weeks for us to collaborate on editing. I go through and do a pass for copyedits, tone, voice, and research direction. I’ll pepper the essay with a lot of comments to cite certain works or elaborate on specific points. Sometimes I reorganize things if the argument isn’t flowing logically.

Typesetting takes about two weeks, and printing takes about four. In the last week of printing, I post the digital bundle. I borrow a friend’s station wagon, fill it up with books from the printer, and ship them over the next two days.

All told, this process takes about five months, meaning I’m usually working on two issues of Distance at once.


How do you collaborate with the Distance writers?

I’m a hands-on editor, guiding the essay from unfocused concept to full execution. Lots of designers don’t know how to put together a rigorously researched essay, having last done it in college – if they’ve done it at all. So I try to help them out, and I encourage them that they’re able to pull this off with the right guidance.

What web apps are essential to your workflow?

Google Docs is the really big one – it’s how I coordinate with, and provide feedback to, my authors. Dropbox is a close second; it’s how I back up existing work and coordinate with our illustrator and copy editor.

I use CloudApp to host the digital bundle for Kickstarter backers and press, Shopify for my store, Stripe for the payments gateway, and Fetch to serve digital bundles to Shopify customers.

Distance lives as a digital and print magazine. Which one is really the future, in your opinion? Will print magazines ever die?

Our sales are split about 55/45 digital/print, so I don’t think print is dying. But print does cost an awful lot more to produce, and we price each format accordingly.

Print will only die if it isn’t produced well. There isn’t much of a future for mass-market paperbacks; lots of people just load those onto their Kindle now. We can look to music for the rest of the answer: vinyl has blown up in popularity, along with thoughtfully packaged “deluxe edition” versions of a new album. People like beautiful books that care about typography and print quality. Those will thrive.

Print is still beautiful

Distance’s digital edition is in PDF, mobi, and ePub formats. Why do you ship it in all of those formats?

Because the publishing landscape is too fragmented to support only one format. Nobody knows how to convert ePub to Kindle, and PDF generally looks bad on dedicated e-readers. It’s painful to create (and maintain) three different formats – four, if you count the print edition – but I’ve never heard of a reader hurting to read Distance on their own terms.

Would you ever consider making a dedicated mobile magazine app for Distance?

I’ve thought about it, but that would target just one platform. If I targeted iOS, everybody would want a Kindle edition. If I targeted Kindle, people would want to read it on their Android tablets. You can’t make everybody happy.

How do you feel about the state of digital publishing today?

We have a long way to go before we can embrace a unified ebook format. Someday we’ll get there, but it might take many years. For now, I’m trying to do the best I can with what I’ve been given.

Thanks, Nick!

We’d like to say a special Thank You to Nick for taking the time to do this interview with us. Distance has been my favorite digital magazine I’ve ever read, and it’s already given me ideas and inspired me. Their example article that you can read free online, Hard Fun, might easily be the best writing about social games, ever.

Distance has the potential to be one of the best digital magazines on design, but it needs readers’ support to get there. You can purchase a subscription today to support it and get great reading material at the same time. If you do, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the magazine in the comments!