Comag in a precarious position

Comag is in the magazine distribution business. It is the kind of operation that fulfils very useful roles in the publishing economy but this role is largely hidden and ill understood. Sad news this week as it appears that its owners and investors, two of the world’s biggest magazine companies: Conde Nast and Hearst UK, are pulling out of their joint venture and withdrawing their support. Comag is important as a link in the export chain for many British consumer magazines and perhaps even more important for the import of US publications to the UK market, If you buy a US consumer magazine in the UK there is a good chance that it will have a Comag price sticker on it.

There has been no full explanation of why business became so rough for Comag in 2016, but news reports suggest that last year the company lost £4 million. It is probable that this unexpected and painful loss was caused by foreign exchange fluctuations. If Comag was buying magazines from US publishers on a discount from the US published price and selling these copies at £ prices that had been agreed and negotiated with large UK distributors, then Comag would have been subject to a  very uncomfortable squeeze. This could be seen as a lesson in reverse Brexit. A weak £ should encourage exports and squeeze imports. This was the squeezing imports side of the equation, but the British importer pays the penalty. Whether a weaker pound will help the UK magazine companies that export to the rest of the world is not so clear.  Consumer magazine publishers do not want to increase sticker prices even if they can see inflation coming. Perhaps a weak £ will simply ease the margins of the companies, similar to Comag, that arrange for distribution of British published magazines in the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

The big lesson for magazine publishers is simple: get some efficient digital distribution in place, and consider offering your loyal subscribers a print/digital combination at a competitive price. That way temporary disruption of the physical distribution network should be simply temporary.  An efficient digital distribution will also mean that your magazine subscriptions can also be sold directly into overseas markets at prices that go straight to your bottom line.

When digital editions are better than ebooks

The ebook format can be quite unsatisfactory in an educational context and we can see this when we use some of the Exact Editions book collections. Let us take the example of the 70+ books from MuseumsEtc.

The MuseumsEtc Collection of books is distributed through the Exact Editions platform for digital reading. This format beats ebook software, as found on the Kindle or iBooks readers, in four ways that matter in research and teaching.

  • all the content is delivered exactly as it is in print;
  • each print page is also a web page and is therefore easily cited;
  • the collection can be easily searched as a group of books
  • the licensing is for the whole institution and allows for unlimited reading by simultaneous users

The digital book should look exactly like the print version

All the content in the print books has been exactly replicated, page by page, on the digital platform. So, the layout, the illustrations, the exact text, the pagination, the typographic format and even the front covers will be found in the digital books. The digital version should be indistinguishable from the printed version


A double page spread from 10 Must Reads: Interpretation

Knowing the exact page matters for references and sharing

Digital pagination is exactly as in print pagination. Each and every page on the digital platform has its own url (as does every double-page spread). So the book can be easily cited or linked to, students can provide links as references in their assignments and and lecture notes can be given as click-through links. Pages can be shared through social media and readers can be confident that they are seeing exactly what would be seen in the print book. As every page is a distinct digital object with its own url it is easy for other apps to target the content.


Tweeting a double-page spread from The Museum Blog Book

Searching a group of books can be very useful

All the books in a collection can be searched, as a group or individually. This brings out the advantages of a curated body of content such as the MuseumsEtc collection, where readers may well be interested in the way that a topic is treated in other sources. The searching function is similar to, and as easy to use as, the Google search routines. Boolean search functions are also supported.


Searching the MuseumsEtc collection for ‘interactivity’. Over 120 results

Unlimited and multiuser access for the whole institution

The MuseumsEtc Collection is licensed annually on a subscription basis for individuals and institutions. The individual license allows for use on the web and through the Exactly app (available for iOS and Android devices) for downloadable use on tablets or phones. Institutional licenses are priced on a campus-wide basis and allow unlimited and simultaneous use by all members of the institution. New content is added automatically to collections as the content becomes available and libraries are provided with user statistics, remote user access and comprehensive online support.











Burl Ives on Digital Subscriptions


News organisations are gradually realising that subscription or reader membership solutions are the only way of making a commercially sustainable digital news service work, what hope is there for ordinary magazines and radio stations in clawing back advertising revenues from Google and Facebook if even Yahoo has to throw in the towel? The near impossibility of advertisement-backed news and reporting has some important cultural and political implications. Since Exact Editions has been successfully selling digital subscriptions to magazines for over 10 years we think it useful to summarise some of the lessons that we have learned. Rather conveniently most of these crucial issues are concisely summarised by the Burl Ives Donut Song.

  1. Its written on the rainbow in letters made of gold. The most crucial point is that delivering a digital subscription reliably and consistently is something that readers and consumers will pay for. A properly designed web service delivers via this arc-shaped rainbow, web subscriptions consistently to all your subscribers. These subscribers buy their renewable subscriptions and these transactions accumulate gradually and they are made of gold.
  2. When you walk through life you will have no cares if you walk the lines and not the squares. Mr Ives was really onto something here. Walking the lines means giving full focus and attention to the editions and issues of which your publication is concerned, and yes there will be gaps whilst you stretch between your regular editions. The publisher has to make sure that the digital editions are at least as good and attractive, as complete and as beautiful as the print editions which have previously established the newspaper or magazine’s reputation. As Digiday puts it “push away from the trap of commoditised online news”
  3. Watch the donut not the hole. The thing is, by concentrating on the lines in the right way, we now have much bigger donuts. One of the great advantages of a digital edition and a digital subscription delivered to all paid up consumers is that the whole archive is available and searchable. So a subscriber is getting new issues every week, month or quarter, but they are also getting continuous access to a fabulous archive a donut that imperceptibly swells as each new issue is added to it.
  4. Written on the rainbow there’s wisdom to behold. Once we have this donut properly baked, sugared and sized up, most consumer publishers will find that there is a large and profitable market for institutional subscriptions. Magazines such as Crafts, Gramophone, Dazed & Confused, have through their rich and extensive archive a database of considerable value to universities and research institutions. Printed magazines and newspapers have been scrupulously collected and shelved by educational libraries, but they are much more valuable and useful when they are databased and delivered digitally on a campus-wide basis. Yes indeed archives can be made of gold.
  5. Alligators dance, the bulldogs all wear pants. This is the best bit of the song. If you watch the lines and not the squares, if the publisher delivers an archive as well as a set of monthly issues, year by year, it turns out that the subscribers (institutions as well as individuals) need the subscription to continue. They want the renewals just as much as the publisher wants and comes to depend on them. Watch the donut and not the hole.

Next time Woody Guthrie on the Grand Coulee Dam. “River while you are rambling you can do some work for me”.

Open Access finally arrives….


For more than 15 years the Open Access movement has been striving and promising to make all scientific and scholarly literature freely available to “users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” Budapest Open Access Initiative.

There is a growing awareness that Open Access really is going to happen after all these years, and to a curious degree it is happening in a much less regulated and decentralised way than might have been expected. Here are a by no means exhaustive list of the trends and changes that are bringing Open Access about (I give this list in no special order of importance):

(1) Sci-Hub — the increasingly popular, free, online database of millions of scientific papers that is run from Kazakhstan without publisher permission.

(2) The largest medical charities, the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and others are now requiring that the science they fund shall be published promptly and fully as open access. These billionaire charities are following through by setting up their own direct publication channels to facilitate and guarantee open access.

(3) Innovative startups in the scientific and research areas are building their business with guerilla forms of open access publishing: ResearchGate,, Google Scholar and others are persuading researchers and scholars to publish, or make freely available through their own branded web pages, the research and the articles they may be publishing through conventional journals.

(4) Some long-standing Open Access publishing initiatives are growing steadily: such as Cornell-based Arxiv, CERN-based SCOAP, PLOS, Scientific Reports and many others.

(5) The established commercial publishers have found it difficult to adapt their model to the requirements of Open Access publishing and they seem increasingly to be working on the assumption that Open Access publishing will arrive (indeed Scientific Reports, mentioned under (4) is a service developed by Springer/Nature).

None of these developments need be terminal for the existing model of STM periodical publishing, but taken together they look like a profound change is coming.

While Open Access is inexorably and increasingly decisively happening, it is not turning out to be a simple process. Ten or fifteen years ago, evangelists working towards the open access goals where mostly convinced that there would be a reasonably intelligible process of transition, whereby major scientific journals would somehow switch to a new open model (gold), or they would be replaced willy nilly by a system of open repositories (green). This is not the way the system is evolving. We are instead seeing a very diverse and ingenious explosion of initiatives moving in different directions and with somewhat contradictory expectations: funders want research results to be published as soon as possible, but they also want to maintain editorial standards; researchers want their papers to appear in the most prestigious journals but they also want to make them freely available from their own web pages; there are compelling reasons for publishing all the data, but then there are also legitimate privacy concerns etc. From the trend of recent years, it seems very probable that Open Access will continue to evolve under the pressure of funders, governments, researchers, libraries and indeed publishers without their being a generally agreed and desired outcome. A high degree of pandemonium is to be expected.

Publishers and libraries have been reacting to this development by increasingly investing in or developing services which assist or organise open access publishing in various indirect ways. Services which facilitate discovery, or the communication of research or metrics which help to assess the quality and influence of published articles, etc.

If there is an enormous variety in the profusion of Open Access research and scholarship in the coming decade, it is very probable that there will be increasing confusion about the format and the reliability of this content. One consequence of this will be that services that can provide stable and consistent resources will even more be valued. For Exact Editions, with its commitment to preserving full and complete archives to magazines the message has to be “keep calm and carry on”. We will also be working to ensure that collections of books with complex and rich designs are also preserved exactly as they were printed.


Digital Libraries and solutions for digital readers

Libraries are clearly becoming more digital, but today we get a reminder that physical books and periodicals are still key assets. Cambridge University has started work on a repository to hold millions of the books and journals in its collection. £17 million to construct a facility which will hold books that can be provided to readers within a day’s notice.

Preserving the physical collection is a vital task, especially for research libraries like that at the University of Cambridge that have priceless collections of books that are in many cases very rare. But the task of digital preservation is also important and this is an area in which Exact Editions is focussing its efforts. Exact Editions tackles the task of preservation in four distinct ways:

  1. As our name declares, we believe that magazines and books need to be preserved in a format that matches as closely as possible to their print format and arrangement. So the pages should look exactly the same in the print and the digital version. This matters because digital versions that do not faithfully match the appearance and layout of the print originals are failing in the task of preservation.
  2. The books and magazines should be searchable and instantly available. The searchability issue is critical, it is one of the biggest  advantages that comes from having books in a digital format, and digital stuff that is not searchable and findable through URLs is dark matter on the web. Books that are instantly searchable and retrievable are much more useful than books that can only be handled with care, and accessed with difficulty.
  3. One of the most difficult issues when considering the issue of preservation is that of file formats. It is a racing certainty that in 20, or 40 years time we will be reading via software with devices and programs that we cannot at this stage begin to imagine or guess at. There is no way that we can predetermine the formats and solutions that have yet to be discovered, but a responsible platform can at least aim to handle all the content that it manages in a consistent and uniform way. Furthermore we work with Portico to provide a backup service for any resources that we supply to libraries on a perpetual access basis.
  4. Finally, an important step in the direction of preserving the books and periodicals which have been created in a pre-digital economy, is to make them as enjoyable and in some ways even easier to read than their print sources. Again, making the digital resources exactly like the original printed pages, is one crucial condition, but it is also important that the context of the whole publication is also preserved or even enhanced, and in the case of magazines that have been published serially over decades or even a century, this poses some new problems. We do not expect our readers to be pulling hefty volumes off a digital shelf. With the complete archives that Exact Editions is now supporting, the previous years (or decades) can be accessed through a stacking interface — as it were piling up the back issues on the virtual space of the reader’s screen; and with the collections of books that we now offer to the library community we arrange the collections, in analogous fashion. In this way the reader can move very  easily from one book to another, or if the reader prefers can open as many of the volumes as can be laid out in the tabbed interface of a web browser.

Carcanet books arrayed




Opera magazine with issue stacks