In these giddy, pre-iTablet days, there’s a lot of speculation about how such devices could redefine the magazine industry. Here’s my take on things. Deep breath now, there’s a lot to get through.
Firstly, it’s important to say that the various netbook/Kindle crossovers with touchscreens that are currently prelaunch, including the Crunchpad, the book-like Eee Reader and OLPC2, plus the vaporware Microsoft Courier as well as whatever iPad/Mac Touch/Touchbook thingy that Apple has planned for us, are being designed with a number of activities in mind – one of which is clearly reading books, newspapers and magazines. The only potential issue with that is that backlit LCD screens are not the best surfaces to read long stretches of text from – most people just don’t find it comfortable to sit and stare at a permanent light source that is being shined into their eyes from the white of the page (so I’ll try to keep this short).
The Amazon Kindle, the Sony eReader, iRex’s iLiad, Plastic Logic’s forthcoming eReader (pictured above) and others use a different technology – electronic paper – which isn’t backlit, and so is much easier to read from. None of this changes the fact that the Kindle and its brethren, having brought eBooks into the public consciousness, will immediately become painfully unhip as soon as the iTablets take over- because with internet access, movie watching capability and more, tablet computers are simply more useful and more glamorous. It’s about the whole product, not the core functionality, which is why VHS beat the visually superior Betamax. Until colour electronic paper is ready to leave the lab, Amazon and others should probably save themselves the marketing expense, and admit temporary defeat.
If we assume that these tablets will, within a few years, become the hybrid, portable, always-on media hubs we were promised in the Jetsons, the next question is: how will magazine publishing adapt?
The industry is clearly keen not to be caught out like the music industry was with MP3s. The big music labels back in the day were in so much denial that the recording industry apparently went to court to try (unsuccessfully) to stop the first MP3 players being produced in 1999. The industry also wants to avoid the newspaper dilemma – publishers were so excited to give away their content for free in the early days of the web, that there was no thought to an industry business model – and the toothpaste is proving difficult to push back into the tube.
Most big magazine brands currently have some kind of online presence, but they mostly exist to support the print brand. Very few are stand-alone profitable – so if digital editions of print magazines are going to become popular tablet fare, they need to get a pricing structure sorted out from day one, or risk even more reliance on a reluctant advertising market (periodicals in the USA got 61% of their revenue from advertising in 2007 according to this spreadsheet), not withstanding the fact that web ads bring in less revenue than print anyway (no scarcity value), and that digital magazines will find themselves competing against Google AdWords among others, for reach and cost effectiveness.
A few players are poised to try and dominate the pay-for distribution model for digital magazines. The clear market advantage must be with iTunes – Apple’s increasingly misnamed distribution, indexing and playback software for music, movies, iPhone applications and more. (In fact, iTunes has been distributing digital magazines since 2006, in downloadable PDF form.) Its digital newsstand will most likely take the same form as any other page within its system, with a viewing interface probably much like Cover Flow. If you want to have your mag highlighted on the home page of a particular territory or demographic, you pay Apple for the privilege. The App Store has already demonstrated that variable pricing works just as well within its walls as the “every tune costs 79c” model; its podcast function shows they can handle subscription downloads. It’ll probably be up to the magazines to decide if they want to sell single articles, or only entire issues, but I’d expect Apple to push them to offer both.
Unsurprisingly, the industry doesn’t like the idea of handing control (and 30% of each sale) over to Apple, and so Time Inc has apparently called in Conde Nast and Hearst to develop their own digital distribution software, a bit like how Conde and Hearst (aka NatMags) teamed up in 1977 to create the distributor COMAG in the UK. They know magazines, they want to control how the digital future will develop, and also keep the cash.
However, do they really know digital magazines? While all three continue to produce great print magazines, none of them can be said to be at the forefront of particularly groundbreaking digital content. Conde Nast, for instance, may rule the newsstand, but its online offerings have long been criticized as far from living up to their offline standards. And are they really in a position right now to invest heavily in an unproven model for digital distribution?
And there’s one big difference between what happened to movies and music, and the current state of the magazine industry: until iTunes saved the day, there were no industry distribution channels for music or movies. Suddenly something that was only available as illegal downloads could finally be monetized. Some money was better than nothing.
However, in the case of magazines, there is already an existing industry surrounding the production and distribution of digital editions, built up over the last few years by different companies who have been refining interfaces and gaining strategic partners in preparation for just this moment, when tablet-style technology brings them far wider audiences. Time and Vogue may not have joined in yet, other than putting articles online in a non-magaziney way, but many of Hearst’s biggest properties (Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire) are already available on Zinio. Indeed, I recently caused a flutter in that particular segment by writing a piece comparing different digital vendors. And that didn’t even cover half of the software vendors already working in this field.
And all of this is to say nothing of the Googlephant currently sitting on the coffee table, with Life, Vibe, Ebony and other magazines already available for free via Google Books. It’s a workable solution for those magazines not worried about upfront income, but who wouldn’t mind a few crumbs of advertising pie, in return for their archives being accessible online for free – or for micropayments, as Google revealed in a document to the Newspaper Association of America last month, using a Vanity Fair article as their example (PDF). More publishing tie-ins can be expected from the big G, if current form is anything to go by – Fast Flip, for instance, seems almost designed as a touchscreen interface for magazine browsing. Expect Google’s influence to grow as their free OS becomes available this time next year.
There are other players also fighting for this space. Maggwire is just one magazine portal already in position to start microcharging as and when the time comes; Emagazines is the brainchild of a hugely successful magazine subscription agency, and already sells big-brand digital magazines. Plus many of the magazines themselves have hugely disparate digital strategies that change all the time.
What will happen to the magazine industry and its readers over the next two years of tablet hype is hard to predict with any certainty. My guess is that most magazines will continue with their own websites and social media circles to keep a buzz around the brand, while making their print editions simultaneously available for one price on a few different prominent PDF-ready platforms. It will be up to the readers to choose depending on the interface and the package they like most. After all, iTunes may still dominate digital music sales, but Amazon still sells enough MP3s to make it worth offering, as do eMusic and Napster (who offer monthly subscriptions for music downloads based on the age-old publishing strategy). And just as iTunes put added emphasis on singles but didn’t kill the album, and Hulu clips haven’t ended the full-length episode, so it will most likely be for magazines (and, by extension, newspapers).
Meanwhile, print will continue doing what it does best, for those who know how to make the most of that particular medium – which is a bigger discussion for another time. There will be some publications who can’t wait to go online-only as soon as the digital business model is proven, which is fine, and they’ll be joined by thousands of small publishers, a handful of whom might just make a bit of money this way, as it is in the wonderful world of print-on-demand magazines.
Left in the middle, however, will be those digital vendors who currently offer publishers animations, embedded video and the like, at a premium cost. Though sometimes effective as attention-grabbers, they’ve often felt a bit gimmicky to me – either way, in a digital near-future where scans and PDFs seem likely to dominate tablet reading for the next few years, the onus will be on these providers to demonstrate that the enhancements are worth the price.
In other words, it’s going to be a mess – but that’s ok. If the tablets do revolutionise the reading habits of tech-friendly ABC1s – and the success of the iPod and the iPhone suggests that they just might, over the next five years – then what they will bring with them is a sudden shift towards the mainstream of the kinds of industry conversations and investigations that have been quietly going on for years, exploring what a digital magazine can be, how people will read it, and how they will pay for it. Suddenly, big players, big money and large audiences will finally be in play – and unlike with the music industry over MP3s, almost all of them are facing forwards, trying to shape a future rather than clinging on to the past.
The next five years will be fascinating and bloody; within the next ten, we should have a clearer idea of exactly what a digital magazine is (or can be), and how people read it (or interact with it in some other way). Watch this space, and hold on tight.