Osprey are one of British publishings steady success stories. They are a middle-sized publisher with a world-wide reputation for publishing illustrated military history books. Osprey has spread its wings and now does other things, but it is the military history books for which they are most famous. They also steadily win awards for innovation and digital publishing initiatives.
In the early days of the iOS app store, Exact Editions worked with Osprey to bring a handful of their titles to iTunes as apps, with all the illustrations, maps and diagrams in place. It was a small experiment with half a dozen titles, which did well and were remarkably trouble free in the sense that they kept on selling, steadily. Then Apple changed their rules and decreed that digital books could only be published in the iBooks store.
Osprey have now come up with an interesting magazine concept which will showcase their illustrated titles in a new way. The World War II Military History Magazine is initially available only in iTunes and will bring its subscribers a battle, campaign or weapon from the war, each month. The very first issue features the Battle of the Bulge.
Publishers used to issue big books in serial form, before they were released in volume form. This was done with fiction, notably Dickens in the 19th century. More recently, throughout the 20th century, reference publishers would often publish major reference works in part-work form, through newsagents before releasing a complete book: a children’s encyclopedia or a do-it-yourself manual.
The contemporary reasons for considering serial publication of book-type material have nothing to do with these 19th century constraints. The Osprey innovation is notable because it may be a responsible and attractive way of aggregating content in a way which creates value for consumers and for the publisher. For it is a striking feature of most our current digital distribution channels that they provide book publishers with zero potential to creatively aggregate content. Apple and Amazon, neither allow publishers to deploy subscription book collections not provide any interesting ways for publishers to group books in the distribution channels. The cynic would suspect that the app-store rules are so tight, and needlessly restrictive in these ways, because these two meta-publishing titans want to maintain close control of the way in which books, and indeed magazines can be sold.
Why might a book publisher wish to establish an aggregated audience for a specific series of book-like products?
- Selling a subscription service is a way of selling a relatively high-priced offering at relatively low-priced slices. This works for magazines as apps, which are both cheaper than most e-books on a month at a time basis and more costly/valuable than most e-books on an annual basis, and so it should work for a series of book-derived magazine issues
- Selling a subscription service which customers tend to auto-renew through the iTunes subscription mechanism is a way of building a large audience which can grow, and grow. Strong digital magazines are on a steady escalator to higher subscription numbers.
- The content aggregation can re-inforce the attractiveness of the subscription offering. When this World War II Military Magazine has 2 years of back issues, it will be a real mine of information from 24 books, and highly attractive to anyone with an interest in that period
- Apple and Amazon tend to ‘disintermediate’ a publisher from her audience. Publishers have got used to this (big chain booksellers and supermarkets also do it) but establishing an audience that is strongly focussed on the publisher brand because the content is delivered serially, and to a degree exclusively is a way for publishers to reclaim their direct audience and emphasise the quality of their brand.
We have no privileged insight into Osprey’s publishing plans, but it will be really interesting if they can find ways in which their periodical venture starts to tell a story in its own distinct style. Through the sequence and order in which the books appear. This first issue already has a ‘taster’ for what I take to be a forthcoming issue on the Battle for Dieppe.
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