PRSS aims to be a low-cost iPad magazine factory in the cloud

By launching their own iPad-only travel magazine, TRVL, in September 2010, entrepreneur Michel Elings and photographer and writer Jochem Wijnands garnered glowing reviews and a shout-out from Apple (s aapl) SVP Eddy Cue.

Now the Amsterdam pair want to help other would-be publishers feel the same glow — by giving away dedicated new web-based software they recently wrote themselves to redesign their own publication.

Called PRSS and launched on Thursday, the template-driven production suite lets people drag and drop web objects to design pages, is free for anyone to use and saves on distribution costs by storing magazines on Amazon’s (s amzn) cloud hosts.

TRVL claims to have clocked 700,000 installs, around 450,000 regular readers and has impressed by introducing a model in which individual destination articles, rather than an entire magazine, can be downloaded in its app.

But, still, Elings and Wijnands had an itch. And its name was Woodwing, the 12-year-old company that makes one of the most popular packages for producing iPad magazines.

“I had to learn Adobe InDesign to use Woodwing and it wasn’t really intuitive,” Elings said. “We were happy using it for a while but, in our app, it took seven steps just to tweet an article link — 30 percent of users go away when you build in an extra step.

“Distribution costs for Woodwing, InDesign and all the others are so expensive. People were downloading terabytes of data from our magazines, this wasn’t cheap to us. We also had to pay Apple a 30 percent cut and Adobe takes a 30 percent – you have only 40 percent left!” Elings says he didn’t mind paying Apple 30 percent but had to pay Adobe 30 percent on top of Apple’s commission.

The pair had enough when Woodwing last year agreed to a closer Adobe tie-up in which it became an InDesign reseller. “It was a blessing in disguise,” Elings says. “We thought, ‘Let’s do it ourselves.’ I wanted to make the magazine design software that Apple forgot, where everything just works.”

Re-making the maker

So, just like Wijnands, who has photographed for the likes of National Geographic for 15 years, and Elings, whose former consulting firm advised Apple among others, had done with their earlier tablet-only magazine incursion itself, they set about trying to reinvent the very software used to make such magazines.

The result is PRSS, the web-based suite the TRVL team now uses to make its own magazine. The benefits are smaller file sizes and cheaper distribution costs, Elings says.

“InDesign made a picture of every page, even when it was just text. Our photos became four times larger. A magazine was nearly 200Mb. In our software, the magazine is now 35Mb. We just cut 80 percent of the file size and the photos are even better.” The reduction means magazines can be downloaded and read quicker.

And, rather than rely on Woodwing and Adobe to host those hefty uploaded titles for distributing to iPad Newsstand customers, PRSS keeps them in low-cost Amazon storage. “Today, I uninstalled InDesign. We can do everything in the cloud,” Elings says.

Give it away now

TRVL is not the only publisher to write its own tablet magazine production software. U.K. magazine house Future has also created its own suite, Folio, on which it is now building several selected titles — weening itself off the large industrial packages and offering Folio to other publishers as a service.

Although Elings and Wijnands conceived PRSS for themselves, making it widely available is also a strategy they want to follow. The service is now live to interested enquirers, and TRVL hopes to profit from a commission.

“PRSS will be totally free to use,” Elings tells me. “But, if you start distributing a magazine, you will have to pay a small fee to us.

“You don’t have to pay us a license fee, commission or share revenue with us — but you have to pay for distribution costs from Amazon. We want to take a little percentage of the download costs, we are going to make that fair and transparent. We will make a very small amount of money.”

Do it yourself

The proceeds may support TRVL’s independent travel photojournalism efforts, but Elings also appears to hope such actions can help kickstart an independent tablet magazine market.

The prospect is tantalizing. In the 1980s and 90s, desktop publishing (DTP) software and cheap printers helped amateur bedroom designers make their own newsletters, fanzines and posters. The web has unleashed that creativity still further. But, in tablet-specific publishing, production remains the preserve of a few established publishing houses with the resources to rent the kind of software packages Elings has come to detest.

“iPad magazines aren’t taking off yet because the apps are badly designed,” he told me. “They are all going for multiplatform instead of doing individual platforms right.

“We want to help the market. If this works, a lot of new publishers will start up — you can start your own magazine. We want to make an iPad editing app as well, where you can make an iPad magazine on your iPad — that would be cool.”

Such a thing could amplify the democratization of publishing from which TRVL’s Wijnands and Elings have themselves benefitted.

“We met each other by coincidence,” Elings said. “A day after, we started our own magazine. I was one of the few in the Netherlands with an iPad. I said, ‘Why don’t we start a magazine? We can charge less than National Geographic and become very rich. Well, that didn’t quite work out — it was early days.”

TRVL has scored points if not yet riches, gaining 100,000 downloads in its first year — and doubling that figure when Apple introduced in-app download and, later, Newsstand. All articles are free to download — only “coffee-table”-style photo “books” cost $2 — and the title is trying to sell interactive ads like those it runs currently for Canon.