Digital Reading gets Deeper

Yesterday, after several months of work, The Wire magazine on the Exact Editions platform entered a new phase in which all the back issues are available to all the subscribers as a searchable and browseable resource. If you are an iPad user you need to pick up the freemium app here. It allows users to search all the content for free, and shows the search results in snippet form.

As a digital magazine, The Wire packs a staggering amount of information access into its £29.99 annual digital subscription. There are 353 issues now in the archive, so a very keen reader could just about get through the whole thing in a year. But that is not the way we are now reading stuff digitally. The current version of the Exact Editions platform (version 7.0) is giving more weight to tools which encourage the different style of reading that we are all learning to use with digital publications. I think of them as  the three “S’s”: searching, syncing and sharing.

For example, the latest issue of the Wire has an article about a cool sounding musician Ryoko Akama. Having read the article, I turned to the array of back issues and searched for by name through all the back issues. It turns out that the Wire has been writing about her since 2009 and it is easy for me to then sync and save all the pages on which she is mentioned. Once I have these search results sync-ed they show up on my Bookmarks.

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Searches for Ryoko Akama saved and bookmarked for future reference

Since these pages have now been located and are held on the device I can tweet, message or email a reference to any page that I know will appeal to my friends who share an interest in electroacoustic music.

At the top end of the magazine market, publications of real quality are seen as valuable and prestigious publications, either because they are very elegantly and carefully designed and edited, or because they are sources of real expertise on the subjects that they cover. Some magazines are both beautiful and authoritative and those are the magazines that have most to gain from going to a full archive and to choose digital solutions that encourage deep reading.

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Are Magazines About to be Forked?

Forking happens in software projects when a developer or group of developers takes code that has been developed by one community for one purpose, and then duplicates that code and takes it off in another direction. Forking an operating system or an ‘open source’ software project or application may be perfectly legal and within the spirit of the free software. For example, Google launched Android as a free and open operating system for mobile software development and more or less invited other companies to adapt and innovate from it. Since Google had given Android an ‘open’ status, Amazon was perfectly within its rights to use this free and open operating system for its own benefit and chuck out the ‘detachable elements’: Google Search, YouTube and Google Maps, that Google would probably like all Android implementations to keep on board. Amazon’s tablet operating system (which it doesn’t call Android) will now, probably, steadily diverge from Google’s to become a different beast.

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Over-delivering the Archive

Publishers are having a problem with ebooks. The problem is that the new tablet readers are working and ebooks are selling, but there are worrying signs that prices are falling, competition is increasing, and there is a race to the bottom. Best-selling print books used to cost $24.99 $19.99 or $14.99. Now there is an increasing tendency for best sellers to be priced low, low, and lower.

It is partly because of Amazon and Apple’s success at controlling the users and their increasing dominance over pricing and discounts that is leading big publishers to consolidate. The book publisher’s nightmare is that they become irrelevant as the book that customers buy is an increasingly trivial electronic object. Apple and especially Amazon disintermediate the publisher, traditionally placed between the author and the reader, by directly connecting the two parties. It doesnt help that the simplicity and ease of producing an ebook mean that the publication process appears to bring nothing to the party. Anybody can now produce an ebook from a book-sized Word file. Since the book publishers are so uneasy about their precarious postion in the tablet publishing process, it is perhaps strange that many magazine publishers have decided that digital magazines should be treated in much the same way as ebooks. Many of our best magazines, to pick two standout examples: The Week and The Economist have taken the view that their iPad apps should work in pretty much the same way as an ebook. Reduce the design element, lose much of the structure of the print publication with its careful layout, drop some of the illustrations: skip some of the links and cross references and standardise the typography. All in the aim or producing a simplified and easily reflowed reader experience for a range of tablets.

While simplicity and ease of use are strong qualities, there are signs that the goal of producing consumer oriented magazine apps that you can sell per issue at a price of say $4.99 an issue or for an annual sub at $150 is not going to work out too well. The Economist has been getting some flack on this score on its iTunes page.

Part of the difficulty that all these ebook style magazine apps face is that it is hard to deliver an app that feels like real value for $150 when it also feels and reads much like an app made from a web site, or an ebook app which will be much cheaper than an annual sub. The fact that you get a new one each week does not necessarily increase the perception of value.The customer experiences a series of weekly app episodes which do not connect and each feel rather thin and insubstantial and the whole subscription really does not amount to more than a collection of dislocated issues. The collection probably cannot be searched and once you have them on your device the issues hard to keep track of. The iPad has just replicated the problem that we know we have with printed back issues: they are hard to access and probably impossible to search. They don’t in their virtual form ‘feel’ more valuable than a pile of yellowing print issues on a bookshelf.

One of the problems with this ‘issue-based’ way of thinking about magazine apps is that these app designers have lost the value of the archive in the proposition that is being built. It is as though they have been designing magazines that could be read on a collapsible stool or a shooting stick, whereas for many consumers the experience of reading a magazine should be like sinking back into a hammock or a plush leather chair with all the richness of the magazines cultural heritage at one’s side. At Exact Editions we have always regarded the back issues and the archive for a magazine as an essential part of the value proposition in its digital form.

Exact Editions has been working with Gramophone over the summer months on its 90 year archive which has just gone on release and all 1000 issues can be easily browsed from within the app. Robert Andrews in PaidContent had this comment:

If publishers can achieve similar value in the bottomless digital realm, they could end up accomplishing the notion of magazine-as-service – a massive archive of content that is not just a historical curiosity but which has everlasting relevance, and an ongoing reader payment relationship like cable TV enjoys.

The economic pay-offs are also attractive, flipping the production cost base from one in which so much hard work and cash is spent on producing content that will soon be stale to one in which costs are considered an investment in a future-proof content repository that can keep on giving. Paid Content

Many subscribers will have very little prior idea of the richness and extraordinary variety of the Gramophone archive. They will be surprised and delighted when they dabble in it and sample it through browsing and searching. But I do not think that many new subscribers will be buying the magazine simply because of its archive. Most magazine customers do buy magazines mainly for the interest they have in the current issue and the next few issues. That is not really the point of having the archive available to all subscribers. The point of having the archive is that the subscription will seem to be much more valuable to any subscriber, and the subscription is indeed a much more valuable and luxurious offering. The point is to dramatically over-provide because that way the subscription appears to be much more valuable than a collection of 6 or 12 one-off issues. And for that reason it is more valuable. Appearances count. When a year’s subscription gives you complete access to a magazine that covers the history of the recorded music industry, an annual subscription of $59.99 is going to seem more palatable.

Going back to the predicament of book publishers: $59.99 is a price  that no book publisher can seriously contemplate for an ebook. Very few punters will buy books at $59.99 — we are seeing that magazine subscribers think about digital things differently. To many magazine publishers it is not immediately obvious that their archive is an important and valuable asset. The early signs are that the Gramophone subscribers love it. If magazine publishers can turn their excellent brands into ‘future-proof content repositories’ they are sitting in a good place.

Browsing back issues from the 20th century

Reasons for Optimism about Magazines

Ed Needham who was editor of FHM in its glory years — the late 1990’s when its circulation crested over 750,000 — has given a rather depressing interview for the Press Gazette on his gloomy fears for the magazine industry:

Perhaps sensitive to the difficulties that some of his former magazines now find themselves in, Needham is reluctant to discuss any individual titles, telling Press Gazette: “Idon’t really have an opinion to be honest.”

But moments later he adds: “It’s clear that the entire publishing industry has got its work cut out trying to plot a confident road ahead.”

(further on)………….

To publishers pinning their hopes of tablet devices being the saviour of the industry, Needham urges caution.

“It may be but it’s yet to demonstrate that that’s the case. I can understand why people are putting their faith in it, but I think it’s a long way from being demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction that that’s how it’s going to work.”  Press Gazette — Interview with Ed Needham

We can understand how an editor who has had an amazing switchback success with FHM and Maxim may feel that the digital path for magazines is now too difficult, and too uncertain for him to want to be fully engaged. But Ed’s scepticism is excessive and his gloom is emotional rather than rational. Here are three things to consider:

  1. Apple has shown that digital magazines work for tablet users with their iTunes Newsstand. Sales are promising and renewals are definitely encouraging. Subscription revenues through the iTunes Newsstand are growing at a promising rate. Apple know this. Amazon and Google also know this. Why do you think Amazon and Google are so keen to launch their own tablets? Why do you think they give ample shelf room to their (currently ‘very small’) magazine offerings when they launch their new tablets? These big companies know that magazines are working on tablets.
  2. Digital magazines on tablets are still very new. They are still barely at the toddler stage, three years old. But notice that like all toddlers they are growing up at a remarkable rate. Some of the biggest and best magazine brands still have terrible  apps and hopelessly misguided publishing policies, but this means that there is plenty of scope for improvement and the best apps are now getting it right! And they are working on platforms that are improving dramatically year by year. We know that apps for iOS and other tablet varieties will be much better in two years time than they can be now. Think bandwidth, resolution, size, memory. All these enablers are improving by leaps and bounds. Does anybody think that ink on paper magazines will see similar technology leaps in the next two years?
  3. Publishers have figured out how to make magazine pages, designs and layouts look really fabulous on the iPad. They are gradually working out how the digital magazine experience can be even more seductive and more compelling. In the next year or so we will see some very interesting developments with magazines and the social graph (think Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard etc). But think also about magazine communities and the extraordinary advantages that magazine publishers have (in contrast to consumer book publishers) in not only knowing who their audience is (name and reader number), but also knowing how to reach them directly and intimately through the fact that magazines are periodical  and are sold on subscription. No other consumer-facing product has this certain secure and regular contact with its audience. The community nature of special interest magazines give their publishers considerable digital scope. No more than Ed Needham do we know how this will pan out. But it is already working well for magazines that have taken the plunge with their digital offerings.

In short there are at least three reasons for digital optimism about magazines. First, digital magazines as apps are already working commercially. Second, there is every likelihood that the platforms will get much better in the next few years. Third, the community and social aspect of the digital magazine has yet to be explored or developed.

Magazines and Digital Streams

John Battelle has a really good blog on the future of magazines.

He summarises some of the difficulties which original content sites on the traditional web are facing:

Nearly all web publications are driven by the display model, which is in turn driven by page views. But we all know the web is shifting, thanks to mobile devices and the walled gardens they erect. The new landscape of the web is far more complicated, and new products must emerge. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

Although the environment is tough for magazines that want to make a new digital thing, this in fact means that its a great time to do it. If you can figure out how to do the difficult thing well this is the moment for a content-oriented digital publisher to get going. There are enough encouraging signals out there to suggest that it should be do-able:

As we all know, the industry has historically punted on getting anyone to pay for content on the Internet, but that’s changing – people pay for Netflix, the Wall St. Journal, Spotify, various apps, etc. I think folks will pay for quality content if it’s truly valuable, so let’s pretend for the purposes of this example that your new publication plans to be in the “valuable” category.

If you want to sell your publication on the Big Guys’ platforms, you have to play by their rules, which means you turn over 30% of your circulation revenues. That’s a hefty chunk of revenue to lose before you even begin to pay for other costs! You can keep all the revenues from folks who buy your publication on the web,  but if they want to enjoy it on their iPad or Kindle via a native application, well, you have to deal with Apple and Amazon. Google’s Play store takes a smaller cut, but it takes a cut nonetheless. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

So the enterprising digital magazine needs to create great content that large enough communities will pay for, and that the publisher can then sell across all platforms. He then goes on to consider the complications and the cost of managing content across all the different device platforms. and formats, that are emerging, and the comparable cost and complexity of tracking/measuring audience statistics across similarly diverse and incompatible environments. And he concludes:

….. cheer up. Because I really do believe these issues will be solved. So far, we’ve written off magazines as dying, because we can’t figure out how to replicate their core value proposition in the digital world. But I’ve got a strong sense this is changing. Crazy publishing entrepreneurs, and even the big players in media, will sooner rather than later drive solutions that resolve our current dilemma. We’ll develop ads that travel with content, content management systems that allow us to automatically and natively drive our creations into the big platforms, and sensible business rules with the Big Guys that allow independent, groundbreaking publications to flourish again. Musings on “Streams” and the Future of Magazines

We are seeing some of these trends growing at Exact Editions. Customers are buying subscriptions (and at much higher prices than they will buy ‘normal’ apps). Customers are renewing their subscriptions at promising ratios (comparable to print circulation stats) and audiences are steadily growing — especially on iOS devices, but also from direct sales to web users who may be deploying an extraordinary variety of devices for consumption.

The challenge here, as Battelle understands, is to make the magazine experience so robust, so compelling, so design-rich, that the users are ‘in’ the magazine as much, or even more than, they are ‘on’ the Kindle, or ‘with’ the iPad, or peeking ‘at’ the iPhone. The challenge is to make the digital magazine experience the focus of the reader’s pleasure and her experience. Not an easy task, but increasingly do-able.

I suspect that Apple’s iTunes will remain the most important market for digital magazines in the next year or two. But there are clearly going to be some competitor platforms, and they will help to make the market more interesting and more innovative. There are plenty of opportunities for clever and entrepreneurial publishers to make these markets work in ways that please consumers and drive the bottom line.