Universal Subscriptions

Exact Editions has always worked to help publishers offer digital editions to existing print subscribers. Our first contract made provision for what we called ‘Combined Subscriptions’ a route whereby a publisher could add the digital sub for any of his print subscribers. In practice, this never worked too well (uptake was slight in most cases). For quite a few reasons:

  1. Our web service is designed to handle annual subs (ie 12 months) and it was very difficult to build in more flexible alternatives without confusing the customer experience in the e-store. Many consumer magazines rely on quarterly subscriptions that are renewed ‘automatically’ via direct debits from the customer’s bank.
  2. Most consumer magazine publishers (back in the day) felt that they ought to charge a premium for providing print+digital subscriptions. And this has NEVER worked — basically because consumers do not see why they should be paying a premium for buying the magazine twice …. To the consumer it seems obvious that the subscription is for ‘one thing’, the magazine in two different forms, no way would a rational agent pay twice for the same thing. To the publisher it seems obvious that the ‘consumer’ ought to be paying more for getting a better service. I do not know who is right, morally, in this dispute. In practice, however, the consumer is right. The consumer is always right, and purchasers will not pay for what we used to call ‘combined subscriptions’.
  3. We used to call them that, but we now call them ‘universal subscriptions’. This is a term that we picked up yesterday from Colin Crawford. And ‘universal’ is clearly a better term, because ‘combined subscriptions’ sounds ugly and complicated. ‘Universal subscription’ connotes a simpler, a more open-ended and a more comprehensive solution to which existing print subscribers, the lifeblood of most magazines, deserve full access. But the Exact Editions service is more universal than ‘combined’ because it allows a publisher to offer the print subscribers, access through the web, through the iPhone, and the iPad. One might expect also to add Android access to that range of universal access.
  4. The ‘universal subscription’ proposition is clearly better for the consumer than the prospect of paying extra for access to a digital or an iPad edition, but it is really much better also for the publisher, because the publisher or his distribution arm maintains control of the subscriber list. We can only guarantee to provide publishers with a reliable universal service if the Exact Editions platform can verify subscription status in real time. The big consumer publishers who have been nagging Apple with the demand that they have access to customer data have been pushing at the wrong door. Much better to retain control of the customer data on their own side, and then enable suitably qualified users of Apple iOS devices (ie existing subscribers) to access the accounts which are maintained at the publisher end. Some shrewd newspaper publishers are already using this approach (WSJ, Financial Times).

There is one odd thing about the evolution of the Exact Editions service towards supporting publishers with the provision of ‘universal subscriptions’: it was the arrival of the iPad which made this all seem like the right way to go. The advent of iPad apps and the need to provide existing subscribers with access to iPad apps for their own magazine subscriptions has been the catalyst which is encouraging many publishers also to provide access to web-based digital magazines. The iPad is in some ways a disruptive and innovative move towards a new idea of the digital magazine, but its introduction has helped publishers and consumers to realise that there is value in the simple proposition of a digital edition of the existing print publication.

An iKiosk for iTunes?

There has been a spate of news stories in the last few days about Apple preparing (or discussing) a central kiosk for newspapers and magazines. See Bloomberg and the WSJ. This is mostly speculation, but it may be well-informed. It is surprising that Apple have not already launched a common framework for delivering newspapers and magazines via subscription. Many observers assumed that it would be there when the iPad was launched, in much the same way that the iBooks app is there. In much the same way that iTunes is there so that users can buy music.

One reason that we havent already seen an iKiosk is that it is a challenging proposition to build such a service, and perhaps even more challenging to win the agreement of the major publishers who need to be signed up for it. In an excellent post M C Siegler at TechCrunch summarizes the obstacles. He points to four areas of difficulty:

  1. Publishers do not want to surrender control of their subscriber lists and the associated or derivable data on individual use. Apple does not want to allow publishers to ‘grab’ intrusive information from users of Apple devices.
  2. A thirty percent Apple-tax on subscriptions sold through iTunes is too big a chunk for the publishers to surrender.
  3. Timely publication (especially of newspapers) is a challenge.
  4. Handling full publications (and their archives) is a problem — remember the first Wired App was over half a GigaByte.

These issues are in subtle ways inter-related, and I suspect that lurking behind them are two bigger challenges that Apple really cannot solve for the newspaper/magazine industry. The first, and the major challenge, is that the old prevailing model of newspapers and magazines being largely paid for by advertising is fundamentally broken. It is not coming back. That model can not be resuscitated (at least in the transition or medium term) by a digital solution. But the publishers’ budgets and business models are so wedded to advertising revenues that they will not be able to embrace solutions which appear to abandon or de-emphasize it. Publishers will insist on securing more data on their subscription customers, but they will not be able to do very much with it. The digital advertising networks are not going to be publisher mediated or publisher controlled. The second major challenge, is that it still is not obvious or certain what the ‘file format’ for these digital publications is or should be. There is a radical unclarity about what it is that is going to be digitised.

Take the issue of ‘timely delivery’. Magazines and newspapers that are fed to an iKiosk have to appear in their digital format a few hours after they have been released in print. Or, better, they have to appear in their digital format before they appear in print. The book publishers and Apple have weeks to play with in transforming files from a printed book into iBooks. But an iKiosk must be much faster. If digital newspapers and magazines are to appear reliably and pretty much instantly on the iPad/iPhone they need to be processed automatically from a content management system to an app service. How can this be done, without congestion and additional work in over-stretched design and editorial offices? How can this be done automatically by Apple? Apple can not afford to reach back into the editorial and content management systems of the publishers. This requirement raises in an acute form the question of what a digital magazine/newspaper really is. Is a digital periodical something like a web site or an RSS feed, something elastic and flowing which can be updated in real-time and adjusted from moment to moment through the period of live publication? Or is the starting point for a digital periodical the fact that it is a series of determinate issues, each of which need to be automatically transformed from something like a PDF file into something like a set of virtual pages? Are we talking feeds or pages? Or both?

One last point. These apparently well-informed (because repeated) rumours about an Apple News Stand do not tell us whether the service will be for iPad and iPhone or for iPad only. If Apple’s new news service is aimed solely at the iPad, I think we can expect a very adventurous and cool solution, but in being tied to the iPad it will raise even more challenges for publishers who do not want to be platform-specific. If, on the other hand, Apple backs a much looser format comparable to the ePub solution used for iBooks, then we should be able to use and read newspaper on the iPhone with comfort.

Google Fast Flip and the Future of Magazines/Newspapers

We took a pot-shot at Fast Flip the other day. There are a few more lessons to be drawn. The Search Engine Journal take particularly struck me. My issue was really with their headline: Google Labs Rolls Out Fast Flip, Google Book Preview for News
Whilst one can “kind of” see what SEJ are getting at: images of the publication; full page views; a linear arrangement for navigation (but note horizontal rather than the predominantly vertical scroll in Books Search); the same database squirrelling away in the background to serve pages, searches and deliver links. The overall feel is certainly more like Google Books than it is like Google News. But what had struck me when I first sampled it was the way in which Fast Flip as an interface differs from that supplied for the books collection. The intention is also very different. Fast Flip is really about skimming and Google Books is a proto-reading system. There really are some big differences between Fast Flip and the way Book Search works.

  1. Google Books Search does not present us with arrays of parallel book content, fast flipping between books, the emphasis in Books Search is to drill down into the book. In effect to read the book. If Google had launched Books Search with the manifesto: “In the age of the internet the atomic unit of consumption is the page and the Google library will allow you to fast flip between pages in different books using the relevance tags inserted by Google.” there would have been uproar in the halls of learning.
  2. Some magazines are included in Book Search (though periodicals, including magazines) are excluded from the Settlement) and they are treated pretty much in the same way as books. But again with horizontal layout and thumbnails as an option (primarily, I guess, because of the prevalence of double page spreads). But these magazines are the print magazines not the web services.
  3. Google Books Search allows the user to preview the actual image of the book’s page. But Fast Flip is entirely predicated on the fact that many newspapers have built websites which repurpose their issues to web pages. Google Books Search is deeply ‘type-based’. Fast Flip is snapping images from web pages. Quite a different matter and much less predictable as web pages are often dynamic. In its approach to books Google presupposes that what matters is the actual printed text and its fixed pagination.
  4. Google in the light of their probable/maybe settlement of the Google Books Search cases will be committed to selling individual books. Selling them in large packages to libraries, but also selling them individually. But Fast Flip has been launched in a barrage of Google comment that presupposes (along with much conventional wisdom) that newspapers and magazines cannot be sold through subscriptions on the web. Or only in exceptional circumstances. But Google has a business plan in which millions/billions of licenses to individual titles within Google Book Search are going to be sold to individual consumers (and held within individual accounts until the expiry of copyright or account holder)? If so, digital magazines should also be saleable to subscribers. As we know, at Exact Editions, that they can be.

Google Books Search has plenty of problems (not all of them legal), but in its conception and its goals it is much, much better than Fast Flip. Newspapers and magazines would do much better to pay full attention to the way in which the Google Books Service is shaping up. Fast Flip is an experiment, a jeu, from Google Labs. Google Books is a mammoth, a juggernaut, a tsunami for publishers. Not only for book publishers. Magazines and newspapers need to figure out how they can make money selling digital editions of their publications which sit alongside that juggernaut and which are database driven web services providing paid for and (on many occasions) free access to the content which would otherwise have been printed. If digital books are to be sold online to libraries and individuals why should not newspapers and magazines be licensed to subscribers in very similar fashion?

Joe Wikert’s Magazine System

Joe Wikert works for O’Reilly Media Inc. and has an excellent pulpit at Publishing 2020 Blog. Yesterday he was blogging about his ideal magazine system.

Once upon a time I subscribed to more than a dozen different magazines. Keeping up was overwhelming at times, particularly since many of those magazines were a half-inch thick or more. (Anyone remember the good old days when Wired used to have some serious heft?!) Now I can count my magazine subscriptions on one hand. I still crave the content and the writers, but I prefer to read this information sooner than the print model allows. (A Model for the Magazine Industry)

The Exact Editions system gets close to being in his plan for the magazine industry, but we are missing the target on some of his goals:

  1. Joe wants to have access (so that he can choose) to every magazine on the planet. Steady on Joe, do you mean that the system should support every magazine in every language?Tthat is a pretty big number. We are talking maybe 20 or 30,000 consumer and special interest magazines world wide. Long way to go! This is what I would call a reasonable unreasonable goal. But, I agree with Joe that this has to be the distant target: consumers will want a magazine system to support them if they decide that they want to read Spanish-language, English-language and Japanese-language magazines on a mix and match basis.
  2. Joe wants to be able to read the whole magazine exactly as it is, the full contents, on his preferred device. We can comply with that and the Exact Editions system also provides access to the archived issues to all current subscribers. The archive will go back as far as the magazine publisher has provided us with PDF files. So the Exact Editions system is possibly giving Joe more than he asked for. Archives are easy for digital editions.
  3. But archives are available because the consumers subscribe to magazines as branded entities. Joe Wikert is looking for a system which would allow him to have roaming access to any magazine that he chooses month by month (admittedly for a pretty high ‘eat all you can’ price of $50 a month). Selling a revenue-sharing model to magazine publishers for this universal access scheme is going to be a tough proposition.
  4. Joe wants his system to deliver the content wirelessly to his various devices. Exact Editions can comply with that, provided that the device supports a standard web browser. PC, Mac, netbook, iPhone, Wii — sure those devices are all fine (Joe may not yet be using the Wii for his magazine reading but he should try it out now). The problem for us is the Kindle. We dont yet support the Kindle, but I am confident that Exact Editions will support the Kindle just as soon as it supports standard web browsing and sells its platform in the European market from where most of our current magazines are sourced. It would be nice if the Kindle also had colour. Consumer magazines really need colour.

On one point, we completely agree with Joe Wikert. Magazine publishers absolutely need to get their digital offerings in place fast. At a price and in a format which all their consumers can enjoy.

Positive Consumer Behaviour

Our publishers get an account in which they see in real time the subscription activity on their titles. That means that we can also see real-time sales activity. So I keep a weather eye on the sales window when I am working.

This afternoon someone popped up and bought one title, and then 15 minutes later they came back and bought 4 more. I reckon that most of our sales are down to the strength and quality of the magazines in our ‘shop’. But when we get a multiple subscription with five or more titles in one sub (12 at a time is our record) it is clear that Exact Editions is the factor which is making the multiple sales.