Rule one, first do no harm: outsourcing your digital editions can come with major risks to your brand
One of the things I noticed during my final years in the B2B publishing industry was how much user experience had faded in importance to many executives. Discussions concerning a change in format, a new flipbook vendor, or a other prominent features rarely included talk about how the reader might react to the change.
A good example was when our company moved from one flipbook vendor to another who couldn’t, because of their way of producing the digital issues, align page numbers on the screen with the actual page numbers, they were always off by one.
“How could we go with a vendor that made Page 10 in print show up as Page 9 online?” I asked. The answer was that readers would get used to it.
Of course, the real reason that vendor got the job of producing those worthless flipbooks probably had way more to do with the price per issue they were charging, but whatever.
I think about this simple, sad fact every time I look at a new replica edition that proves to be an unreadable mess. Take these flipbook conversions from one of biggest producers of flipbooks for publishers (name withheld just to be nice). This new app for California Lawyer has trouble written all over it the minute you see it in the App Store.
The short app description does a fairly decent job of promoting the magazine, but with only one paragraph it reads as if it were written by someone in a huge hurry. Worse, the screenshot – and there is only one screenshot – is not even of the cover of the magazine, just the logo on a blue background.
The worst part, though, is the actual reading experience. Yes, it is simply a replica edition built off of a PDF of the print edition, but the real problem is that the pages must load each time you “flip” the pages, creating a blue screen that appears, then disappears for a second to almost reveal the pages, then appears again. It is a bit like watching the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore in ’67 (something I’m actually too young to have experienced first hand).
The experience is slightly better if you flip to a page, let it load and then return to it later – then it just loads as you would expect. But this flashing blue screen effect occurs you reach a page you haven’t previously seen.
Not all of this vendor’s apps behave this way. I also downloaded the app for Terry Magazine. The magazine is for the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia – not that you’d know that by the app description, of course.
With this app the reader is given the choice to “read” or “download” the issues to read. Choosing “read” gives you that same effect found in the Cal Lawyer app, though in this case you see red instead of blue. But choosing “download” gives you a smoother, more pleasant experience. It is still just a replica edition, requiring the reader to pinch-to-zoom in order to read the thing. But at least one doesn’t confuse the experience for an acid trip.
Reading Paul Krugman’s column today reminded me of a conversation I had with an editor about job creation. Krugman’s column continues his tirade about the misguided actions of the Congress and the White House concerning deficits versus job creation. I admit that I agree with the premise, but I’ve certainly heard it all before from Mr. Krugman. Sadly, you will never convince those who are part of the austerity clan that spending more in a recession will increase demand temporarily, leading to growth and job creation. Austerity is a religion at this point.
But it reminded me of a talk I had with an editor who was frustrated with his increased work load, and because of this had a pretty bad attitude towards anything labelled “digital”.
“I don’t want to do iPad apps,” he told me. “It would only mean more work for me, and besides it simply can’t be done.”
He went on to explain that both he and the art director would have to do the work, but since art director as a freelancer that simply wouldn’t happen. Everyone involved in the process, other than him, was either a freelancer or vendor, so it would automatically mean more costs – except when it came to his work, of course.
“And we can’t hire anyone, that’s out of the question. Besides, what department would they work in? We’ve made the art directors freelancers, the circulation and sales departments have been outsourced, that leaves me and the other editors. The only department not outsourced is corporate.”
We talked for a few moments about how this effects job creation, in general, and then said our good-byes. Then a couple of weeks ago I got pinged by LinkedIn. That same editor was looking for me to write a recommendation as his company had been shuttered and he was now looking for work.