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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Lifestreams and Magazine Streams

David Gelernter has a fascinating essay over at Wired on: The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It. He argues that our web-based spatial metaphors for computing are being replaced by time-based metaphors, or what he calls lifestreams, which are highly individual and instantaneous, which get melded together to form a global worldstream. Some of his commentators think that Gelernter was ‘under the influence’ when he wrote the piece, it is certainly an intriguing and allusive mix:

Until now, the web has been space-based, like a magazine stand; we use spatial terms such as “second from the top on the far left” to identify a particular magazine. A diary, on the other hand, is time-based: One dimension of space has been borrowed to represent time, so we use temporal terms like “Thursday’s entry” or “everything from last spring” to identify entries.

Time as a metaphor may seem obvious now. Especially because it’s natural for us to see our lives as stories, organized by time. The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It

He predicts a world in which our digital experience is much more individual, more transient, more self-narrated, but completely accessible  since it is wholly based on information streams, managed for us by stream browsers, which divert channels from the global information lifestream.

This future doesn’t just kill the operating system, browser, and search as we know it — it changes the meaning of “computer” as we know it, too.

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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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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.