There are important differences between the market for scientific, technical and medical journals (STM), and the market for consumer magazines. For one thing, the STM market is almost entirely in the English language, which is not true for consumer magazines. For another advertising is much more important in consumer magazine publishing. But there are also similarities between the two industries and one of the similarities is that the consumer magazine market will inexorably drift towards electronic delivery, as the STM market has already done.

There was recently a fascinating discussion on a librarians list (Liblicense) about a question posed by a specialist publisher: Is it time to stop printing journals? Mark Leader points out that the printing and print distribution part of the operation is really expensive and perhaps little needed. The many responses to his question are archived here (you may need to scroll down the page to reach the ‘re – Is it time to stop printing….‘ thread). The overwhelming consensus among the librarians is that the patrons really only now care about the electronic version. One librarian blogged this comment:

We certainly don’t need to keep the print to satisfy our user base. Two years ago we stopped getting any print for our ScienceDirect titles [ScienceDirect are the biggest aggregator/publisher of STM periodicals] I did not get a single question, comment, or expression of concern from faculty or students. We’ve reached the point where librarians tend to worry a lot more about the print than the people who use our libraries do. [see Scott Plutchak blog]

Scott is a librarian at a big American research university, but what has already happened in Birmingham, Alabama, is now happening in every major university. its clear from the other librarian responses that the electronic journal is now what really matters to researchers, whereas only 7 years ago the print version was sacrosanct.

Academics by and large now depend on the electronic journals, not on the printed issues — and yes many of them, if they are over 50, will still prefer to read a printed version, but this they will probably print out for themselves. All the searching, the finding, the browsing, the access and the distribution are happening through the network. This consumer practice has changed remarkably quickly, and the journals have remained pretty much unchanged as print objects (titles the same, articles very similar, pages the same, design the same, editorial and refereeing process the same, citation and abstracting the same). Its just that the print objects are now electronic resources. The whole business has gone electronic and the publications are arranged, and thought about, as though they were exact digital replicas of the original paper products. Remarkable consumer change is allied to remarkable conservatism about the publication form.

This wholesale change in research publishing practice has taken about 10 years to evolve (Elsevier’s ScienceDirect went into Beta-testing in March 1997). STM journals are now primarily electronic. If the use of paper was banned the system will still work perfectly. I conjecture that the consumer magazine publishing will take about 10 years from now to make the same transition. Paper will not be banned, but it will be more expensive and less used. We will still have print magazines in 2017, and they will have significant uses and loyalties attached to them, but the overwhelming weight of publishing effort and of consumer attention will be fixed on the digital magazine.

Two more conjectures: consumer magazines will remain multi-lingual (there are at least 30 languages where signficant consumer magazine publishing occurs) and consumer magazines will remain attractive advertising networks. You can count on it, and the publishers who succeed in the adaptation will be the ones who figure out how web-based advertising can help the consumer magazine to thrive.