June 28, 2013 Last Updated 8:12 am

The cry of digital magazine publishers: show us the money!

The past few months I have been listening as one new digital publisher after another cried on my shoulder (well, over the phone anyway) about digital downloads or digital advertising. They had made the big decision to jump into the tablet platform but things weren’t working out very well for them – at least not yet.

One of the points of frustration was the subject of Mag+ CEO Gregg Hano’s blog post – his post centered on tablet advertising.

After pointing to a recent post on the growth of app revenue, Hano expressed his frustration at the slow growth of client and agency commitments to tablet magazine advertising.

“Given statistics like this, what frustrates me,” Hano wrote, “is the number of naysayers holding back their brands, by refusing to either migrate their existing product to digital or, even better, create exciting new products, like the Atlantic Weekly and Esquire Weekly. Instead too many content owners are putting no effort into this space, simply producing PDF replicas of a print product, as though touchscreen devices and apps did not represent an entirely new user experience, creative canvas and distribution method—in other words, a whole new world.”

Unfortunately, this is only one area of concern for tablet publishers. Another is the low number of downloads and paid subscriptions being recorded by many new titles. A big part of the problem, of course, is marketing. It has always been the case that newly launched magazines were at their most vulnerable at launch. Without large marketing budgets to help spread the word, many new print titles would not be given the time necessary to find their readership, or their advertising base.

The ability of a new print title to find space on a distributor’s newsstand often meant the life or death of a title. Today, when anyone can launch into the Apple Newsstand or Google Play, the problem is the glut of titles and the inability of readers to find what they are looking for inside digital newsstands. With all the excitement associated with the launch of iOS 7, one thing sadly missing from Apple’s presentation a couple weeks ago was a glimpse at a redesigned and better organized app store.

Other publishers have told me that they are frustrated with the traditional media investment community. Finding funding for new digital publishing ventures is nearly impossible in an environment where investments have stopped altogether –  and when they do occur, they are usually roll-up strategies run by the same small circle of publishing executives. Like politicians who migrate to K Street, many big name publishing executives go to work for the private equity companies between gigs, only to return again to wreck havoc on the industry once again.

One big media banker has not made a new investment in either B2B or consumer publishing since 2007, the year Apple introduced the iPhone. You think the industry has changed much since then?

There simply is a giant disconnect between the investment community, vendors and prospective publishers. Getting companies with the most to gain to pay attention to new publishing opportunities is pretty much impossible, publishers tell me. PEs continue to want to cash out from publishing, while vendors, even the native digital publishing platforms, concentrate only on traditional media companies, giving cold shoulders to publishing entrepreneurs.

When it comes to advertising, part of the problem can be blamed on publishers themselves, and certainly on the trade press. I’ve written before that the trade magazines that cover our industry are themselves no friend to tablet publishing. Their pages are filled with what I call climate change skeptics – people who write endlessly about the enduring joys of print publishing and who speak at endless events, generally trying to make print publishers feel good about their decisions not to invest in digital. None of the trade press titles have invested in their own native tablet editions, basically endorsing the idea that releasing a replica edition through a third party is all that is necessary. Publishers, too, rarely promote their digital products to advertisers for fear of losing print schedules.

But the truth is that most agencies pigeon hole print and only want to talk about digital in combination with print from the perspective of added-value. Those agencies that do concentrate on digital see tablet magazines as extensions of print and are not in a good position to buy tablet magazines, and so point the sales team back to the print side, creating a Catch 22 situation. (And let’s not even get into the crazy audit bureau rules concerning digital editions.)

No surprise then that ad agency people are not being exposed to the great things happening in tablet editions. Neither the trade press, nor the associations that advocate for the industry have gotten out ahead on the issue of tablet magazine advertising.

Yes, it is all very frustrating. But I’ve got bad news for you: not much will change tomorrow unless you are the one changing it.

For every conversation I have with a print publisher frustrated with the way things stand, I also talk to a new publisher who has never known any publishing environment other than this one. For them these are the best of days. Try to explain to the new publisher of a digital travel magazine that their one million issue downloads is the exception, not the rule. For them, the idea of producing a print magazine seems like folly, they see their future very much digital-only. Some of these publishers have chosen to create their own platforms as they don’t see the new vendors, with their eyes solely on the traditional publishing community, as on their side. They are going it alone and don’t understand the vendor’s obsession with legacy publishers.

These are definitely interesting times, as the famous curse says.