The Library Advisory Board – Autumn 2018

The students are back at university, the trees are losing their leaves and people are sporting woolly jumpers again. At Exact Editions, we know that this change in the natural seasons marks the beginning of the manic ordering season for library resources, so we took the opportunity to pose a few potent questions to the library advisory board. The prevalent theme of this round of Qs was the discovery and usage of online resources.

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Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

Question One
Exact Editions have recently been working closely with discovery partners to have our publishers’ content included in their services. How essential would you say being included on discovery platforms is in the modern library market? Does metadata supersede all other elements of resource discovery?

Response
This was a topic of hot debate with effectively two sides; library discovery platforms and Google. First, in favour of the library systems, the board agreed that they rely on high quality, consistent metadata to function to their best ability. They are also becoming more able to leverage full-text using semantic search which will facilitate external discovery, as well as allowing for the intuitive finding of resources in the library catalogue.

Other members of the board disagreed, they argued that library discovery layers are flawed as they are not designed according to how library patrons do their work, but for how librarians believe patrons (should) do their work. This is not to completely discredit library catalogues, it is important to have a presence, but the main platform for discovery is now Google.

Exact Editions hope to cover both angles — we work with several discovery partners to make our titles visible in library systems. We are also exploring Google’s Flexible Sampling feature which will increase discoverability in search results, whilst also allowing viewers limited access behind our paywalls so they can judge the relevance of the content.

Question Two
How important are usage statistics in the decision-making process for renewals? What other factors are there to consider?

Response
Again we received some interesting answers, with the general consensus being that whilst usage statistics are very important at a base level for evaluating resources (cost-per-use), they do not paint a full picture. The board agreed that usage data can be unreliable and inconsistent. To quote one member, “usage data not as a good metric, but as the best bad metric available to us.”

The other key factor to consider was the presence of faculty advocates, a niche but essential resource may have low usage but be incredibly important to a few users. The overarching conclusion was that any renewal decision will be made due to a variety of factors, rather than sole reliance on one metric like usage data.

Question Three
Are there better ways to guide readers and researchers to the riches of deep archives? Do we need to find supplementary ways of discovering themes and cognitive routes into the resources?

Response
As predicted, the main advice was to use SEO to catch the all-seeing eye of Google & Google Scholar. Further recommendations were to look into pathways for semantic search such as; thematic ontologies or trending topics. In fact, the Exact Editions tech team is currently developing a mind-map feature which will use text reading software to suggest related topics to readers. We hope this will encourage readers to travel back through the archives which contain a wealth of insight.

 

As you can see, this was a very productive round of questions and gave us a lot of food for thought. We’d like to reiterate our appreciation for the contribution of time and effort by the Library Advisory Board, it is great to get some inside perspectives from within the community.

If you’d like to join the conversation, please do get in touch via institutions@exacteditions.com

Billionaires and magazines

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Montagu Norman the cover of Time in 1929

Marc Benioff’s purchase of the magazine Time for $190 million seems to be part of a trend: billionaires buying prestigious magazines and newspapers. The trend includes Michael Bloomberg buying Businessweek, Laurene Powell Jobs investing in the Atlantic and Jeff Bezos buying and investing in the Washington Post. So why are these software billionaires buying such challenged assets at prices that are at least respectable in comparison to the valuations that might have been offered by traditional media investors? Billionaires are not buying prestigious book publishers or TV channels. What is so special about magazines?

It is suggested that one reason for acquiring these opinion-making publishers is that their owner thereby gains a degree of political and cultural influence. But this surely is not the whole story. $190 million spent on lobbying and pressure groups would buy the Benioffs a lot of direct influence in Washington and Brussels —  if that is what they really seek. Cultural influence is another matter, but cultural influence is only guaranteed to the owners of these publications if the publications continue to thrive (and have influence) in a digital environment. These publications have, and are surely seen by their new investors to have, a promising digital future. That is why they are buying.

So, the more interesting conclusion is that software billionaires understand that magazines in the digital age have a reach and a momentum that may not be accessible to other common forms of digital content. Consider the alternatives:

  • as a digital asset music is wonderful but short on cognitive content and it is really only owned by its composers, performers, and the audience
  • social media, has enormous leverage and currency (Marc Benioff was after all keen to buy Twitter ). But social media is anarchic, potentially polluting or reputation-wrecking, as Facebook is discovering. So if Salesforce owned Twitter it might have bought itself a lot more grief and no direct political leverage (which justifies the Salesforce investors who vetoed Benioff’s moves).
  •  blogging and podcasting are dynamic and cognitively rich forms of digital culture, but they share with social media the problem that they are somewhat anarchic and lack staying power, predictable cultural direction and cognitive position.

Why might the Benioffs, Powell Jobs, and Bloomberg value the cultural direction and cognitive position of the magazines that they have bought? The answer to this question (and a similar question about the Washington Post) is obvious. These media properties have a reasonably stable, desirable and persistent character — not just in their editorial, also in their style and audience. Time has a predictable, long running (recall the archive is 95 years deep), and persistent effect on the political climate of the USA and to a degree the Western alliance. Investing in Time is much more politically and culturally focussed than an investment in a social media or blogging platform.

But I think there is another issue here. Magazines and newspapers are reliably persistent (if no longer strictly periodical) in a way that reinforces and clarifies their cultural and intellectual position. Most digital media is not predictably positioned and influential in a specific cultural niche. When you buy a magazine — whether as subscriber or owner — you know what you are buying. So we should expect to see more premium titles being acquired by wealthy patrons who understand that a properly curated cultural icon (the New Yorker, the Economist, Vogue etc) is bound to increase its influence and its brand value in the super-fluid mix of digital content that we now inhabit. Precisely because the cognitive and cultural direction of these properties is well known and reliable, they have a centrality in the digital mix that is now quite hard to achieve and maintain. From this standpoint it perhaps makes sense that the Meredith corporation has found it hard to sell Sports Illustrated or Fortune but Time has found a savvy acquirer. There is nothing wrong with those two brands but they perhaps do not have the unusual position or depth that Time may promise to retain.

If this analysis is correct, it follows that brand values and reputations attaching to magazines are even more important in the digital age than they were in the print environment 30 years ago. Perhaps this explains another flurry of outrage from the last week. Ian Buruma was rather summarily and unexpectedly fired from his job as editor of the New York Review of Books for publishing (and perhaps offensively defending) a controversial and ill-advised essay by a #MeToo culprit. Firing the editor for his poor editorial judgement (a first offence) hardly fits the reputation of the NYRB, but this is an area in which the reputation of the publication might have been even more severely compromised by the essay concerned. In Reddit or Twitter the Jian Gomeshi/Buruma offence would have been an insignificant moment, for the magazine it was — the owners deemed — unpardonable. There is irony in the instant and viral outrage around the affair largely taking place on social media, and this is perhaps a warning for those elite reputations that make a stellar magazine brand. These billionaire owners should be hands off but they might advise their editors in the following terms: “try to avoid mixing your editorial approach with the climate and emotions in the hottest digital content maelstrom. That maelstrom churns every day and it might burn out brand”.

Are magazines still periodicals?

This question occurred to me when I saw a suggestion that the mooted, not yet launched, Apple magazine aggregating service will include newspaper content:

Earlier this year, Apple got into the magazine business by buying a digital magazine distributor. Now it wants to add daily news to the mix. Peter Kafka at Recode

Well, this is only a rumour and Apple’s new magazine-inspired service has not been launched, but it is surely unthinkable that the big newspapers (New York Times, WSJ, FAZ etc) will allow all their content to be bundled into an Apple service in which they have no direct stake. They have been seeing encouraging success with their own audience building for digital subscribers, and that is bound to be a longer term concern for them. But one can see them offering, via Apple, a premium access to news items and some of their content. So much has news content and news distribution been comodified that a deal for just-in-time stories or streamed articles is surely do-able, and if Apple want those stories I am sure they will be available.

Newspapers can no longer view themselves primarily as edition-based periodicals. Once Google news was possible, newspapers needed to make a decision. Either they were primarily news channels freely available through the web, in which case they would be in perpetual and instant competition with every other free digital news channel, or they had to consolidate their audience around a subscriber base, preferably a subscriber base that would be willing to pay for the content that the editors and journalists formed and curated. But to do this well, to build an audience for news in the digital era the news has to be instantly updated and in real time. Digital newspapers are no longer periodicals, especially if they are behind paywalls.

In their hay-day, periodicals, whether newspapers or magazines could reasonably aim to serve their audience with three distinct functions:

(1) opinion via editorial and articles

(2) news via stories or reports

(3) product or service awareness via advertisements

The publication was literally built from these distinct sources — and the staff also would be segregated into these different teams. This three-fold plait of content, carefully woven into each page and issue, was — as it happens- matched by three distinct and yet corresponding sources of recurring revenue:

(1) subscriptions (content delivered by post, paid for by quarterly or annual subs)

(2) newsstand sales (content delivered by the kiosk paid for episodically by $ £ or cash)

(3) advertisers (who paid for pages of content, in advance, so that they could ‘reach’ readers)

After about AD 2000 this three-pillared system of content packaging and revenue harvesting can no longer be relied on. Digital technology has separated the threads, and the idea of a package which weaves these separate commercial strands into periodical issues, editions that appear on a daily or weekly basis, makes less and less sense.

Advertising is the first pillar of content to be knocked away. Magazines or newspapers of the conventional kind simply do not have the precise targeting and broad audience that is needed to make digital advertising work for consumer content.

Very few magazines have been able to stem the digital tide aimed at ad revenue. There are one or two exceptional examples of magazines that have moved successfully to majority funding from digital ads, but the magazines had to be made into databases to take advantage both of product differentiation and audience differentiation: Auto Trader 25 years ago a rather boring magazine for the second-hand car market in the UK has turned itself into a spectacularly successful and effective transactional platform. It is no longer a periodical but a digital second hand car marriage bureau (sometimes orphange?).

Many newspapers, especially in global centres, decided to become news streaming enterprises with news and comment updated 24X7. Digital papers such as the Guardian or the Washington Post are no longer in any strict sense periodicals, their content is organised primarily for their webservices, their sections are sections of the website and their videos are videos for the digital reader. In consequence, much of their content will not be registered in the daily editions that they still print (for how much longer?).

When it comes to retail distribution: magazines and some newspapers are still uncomfortably dependent on physical newsstand sales. But newsstands, kiosks, are steadily disappearing and supermarkets are not a good alternative. Newspapers or magazines that expect to charge readers for news have recognised the need to find the equivalent of a digital newsstand, and an audience that is willing to pay for better and reliable instant information episodically, in dribs and drabs. Because the news feed has to be continuous (to keep pace with the evolving story) there is little justification for separating the content into artificial ‘issues’ or ‘editions’. So newspapers and newsy magazines have been eager to experiment with new distribution or audience building aggregators (Flipboard, Facebook or — no doubt — the new Apple magazine solution), but they do so by syndicating stories or parts of their internal workflow.

But where does this leave the magazines that concentrate on opinion forming and deep content, often for niche audiences? These are the sort of magazines that have always relied on their subscribers (preferably annual and renewed). There are many such magazines covering all areas of culture: politics, religion, hobbies, art, music, technology, professional engagement etc. In many cases the communities and the expert audiences rely on the deep content that they get from their specialist periodical. Increasingly these serious and committed publications, occupying a well-defined niche, are throwing their efforts into building the subscriber base.

Print subscribers continue to be important to securing this revenue pillar, but if the deep archive of the magazine can be turned into a searchable and continuously improved database they have taken advantage of the digital turn. Thoroughly digital magazines such as The WireSight & SoundArt Monthly or the fashion title Dazed are now databases just as much as they are ‘periodicals’. All their content is available to all their digital readers, all the time. Right from the first issue.

The only thing that is ‘periodical’ about them is that they periodically get bigger.

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Sight & Sound archive with stacked issues from 2000s

This last weekend the Benioffs, founders of Salesforce, have personally bought Time magazine “….a treasure trove of our history and culture” for $190 million. Since the new owners view themselves as “caretakers of one of the world’s most important media companies and iconic brands”, my guess is that Time will soon find a more compelling way of presenting and growing its rich archive.

The Future of Magazines

To start with a statement. Modern society is perpetuating an insatiable drive for innovation and new features in the digital world. This demand shows no signs of slowing down, but is change always the best course of action? In the magazine market, let us indulge ourselves for a moment in musing about what may come in the next ten years — more video content, better audio capabilities, personalised integrated ads, compatibility with new technology such as VR, etc. It is easy to become excited by these ideas, just for the sheer novelty factor, but in reality, the discussion would benefit from everyone taking a step back and viewing the history of the magazine afresh.

Think of a magazine, any magazine, print or digital; what is the first thing that comes to mind? The front cover, right? Think Vogue. That iconic choice of font, the recurring layout, the photography. The cover is the entryway to your favourite periodical. Once you’re beyond the cover, then you’re reading the content, which is the flesh and blood of any magazine. Without good content a magazine won’t sell subscriptions, that’s a fact. Magazines can import as many gimmicks and new features as they like, but without consistent, high-quality content they will not survive. The point is that there exists a core set of principles which define and constitute a magazine. These principles are timeless and should not, and likely will not be forsaken for new gadgets. For example, we have long had the capability to import videos into digital magazines, but it remains an uncommon practice. Why?

article imageWell, to put it simply, they’re not needed. That is not to say that digital is the enemy. There have been many amazing features added to magazines in recent decades that have only been possible because of the development of new technology. New audio capabilities and text-reading technology have been used to develop tools that assist disabled persons in accessing magazines. This text-reading software also means that archives can be searched by keyword, which in turn allows the indexing of the content, increasing discoverability and usability in one fell swoop. Citing and sharing articles via social media has never been easier, creating a self-sustaining marketing to attract new subscribers. You will have noticed by now that none of those features alter the content of the magazine in any way, they solely facilitate the reading and distribution of the magazine.

Commercially, perhaps the two most important changes have been the digitisation of archived issues and the development of dedicated apps for magazines. Most periodicals now have their own apps and/or digital version. This portability has opened up a brand new market for magazines, as well as allowing longtime subscribers the freedom to read their favourite magazine wherever they are. Working in tandem with this is the increasing desire for old, archived issues which have been gathering dust for years in libraries and private collections. Scanning technology has meant that magazine owners have been able to bring the past into the present. This has hugely increased the value of magazines as academic resources and as unique windows for our cultural history.

To conclude, there is clearly a digital presence for magazines. Yet there are still print loyalists who have not embraced the demand for online resources. Signs indicate that publishers who build their digital archives and make them available to current readers and subscribers are making their magazines into digital survivors. Many magazines will be lost because they have not invested time and money into making the digital archive work now. It is a matter of foresight, publishers should always keep one eye on the future. A reactionary policy is a dangerous game, and even with a reactionary policy, publishers must realise that we are now living in a digital world. By crystallising their archives publishers would be guaranteeing their content is available for future generations, and as previously said, preservation of good content is the paramount aim of digital publishing.

Subscribe to the Digital Edition of Stand Magazine!

Stand Magazine, a quarterly publication which features the best in new writing, is now available to buy in the Exact Editions shop.

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First published in London, Stand moved to Leeds in 1957 after Editor Jon Silkin had been Gregory Fellow in Poetry there. Since then, Stand has played a major role in bringing the work of Russian and East European writers in translation to an English-speaking audience. Recently, Stand has promoted contemporary Chinese poets, and will soon publish poetry and prose fiction from Indonesia and Singapore.

Stand has always promoted work by new and established poets, short-story writers and critics, and continues to do so. The magazine has published work by writers who have gone on to become established figures – Ken Smith, Tony Harrison, Michael Hamburger, Geoffrey Hill, and Douglas Dunn. Twice winner of the Booker Prize, Peter Carey, first appeared in the UK in Stand. Some of Terry Eagleton’s most acute reviews appeared in many issues of Stand.

To purchase a digital subscription of Stand Magazine click here.

If you would like to purchase a subscription for your institution, please head to the institutional shop page.