October 9, 2014 Last Updated 12:30 pm

Platform-first philosophy for magazines may soon evolve to sales channel-first

Publishers look for ways to drive sales of digital editions outside the numerous digital newsstands as sales stagnate, even as the number of platforms they develop for grows

The enthusiasm for developing new digital editions has ebbed considerably following a year and a half of inaction by Apple, Google and Amazon concerning improving the sales environment for digital publishers. Apple gets much of the attention, with its Newsstand unmanaged, and with its App Store team safely locked behind a firewall. But neither Google nor Amazon has stepped up to fill the void (in fact, Amazon, currently is at war with many major publishers).

Since 2010, the strategy most newspaper and magazine publishers have employed – at least those interested in native digital editions – has been to develop for Apple’s iOS platform first, Android second. Digital publishing platform companies, from Adobe, Mag+ and Aquafadas, to smaller ones, have done an excellent job of adding Android support – then later other platforms, as well.

The idea was that iOS was where the sales were. More consumers owned iPhones and iPads, and the App Store was an established retail outlet with a proven track record of driving sales for developers. In 2011, Apple added the Newsstand, another attempt to help publishers by allowing for automatic downloads.

Android soon overtook iOS for marketshare, but not necessarily sales for publishers. But publishers saw that Apple was playing the same game it had with the Mac and that Android simply had to eventually surpass Apple’s system for both ownership of devices, and then (maybe) sales.

Then there are the numerous other digital newsstands that offer reading apps for the various devices, and sometimes their own devices, as well. At best, these digital newsstands, while offering a wide selection of titles, only offer readers either exact PDF replicas of the print magazines, or else enhanced version that may contain added multimedia material or else provide text versions of the stories.

AppleNewsstand-10-2014

Apple has stopped maintaining the Newsstand in mid-2013

But then a not so funny thing happened: sales from the Apple ecosystem began to falter, while sales from other platforms did not necessarily increase to compensate. 2014 has not been a great year for digital publishing, with growth of digital editions continuing, but slowing tremendously. What publishers are learning is that throwing their title into a digital newsstand, or all digital newsstands, is not driving sales.

Several digital publishing platforms have been ahead of the game on this. A few, for instance, have developed a widget for publishers to use on their website for direct sales, or some other mechanism for allowing reading digital editions. (See this guest column from PressPad to see what they are doing.)

It is a great start.

What publishers are now seeking, is the ability to offer digital subscriptions in the same way they have offered print subscriptions – without the reader completing the sales on the site of a third party such as an app store or the through a digital publishing vendor.

iMac-iPadThe easiest way to accomplish this, of course, is through the use of web readers. Jake Sebastian, marketing creative and Communications Manager at Aquafadas, penned a guest column on his company’s solution on Monday.

Other companies, such as Adobe, are also realizing that the only way around the app stores is to use the web browser as the reading app. The Financial Times, which early on dumped the App Store in favor of a web app solution, may appear to be a good example of this approach, but it should be remembered that financial publications have a built-in advantage as readers have a financial interest in subscribing. The WSJ took the exact opposite approach, remained in the App Store, and has been successful.

Reader studies conducted early on in the tablet era showed that readers preferred using eReaders and tablets for newspaper and magazine content consumption than they did web browsers. The web is for reading bits and pieces, it was assumed, and long form worked better in print and on larger digital devices.

One senses, though, that this is changing. Smartphones are larger, tablets smaller (though Apple may release a giant iPad next year), and reader preferences appear to be all over the map.

If Apple has anything up its sleeve, like its own reader, or a decision to close the Newsstand, we’ll know soon (as its iPad event is upcoming). But it doesn’t look like it. My own conversations with Apple personnel has revealed that they are not even conscious of the condition of their own App Store, with contact after contact expressing surprise at how bad the store has gotten. The latest communication with Apple I received after being requested to outline the problems publishers were experiencing was “we will keep this in mind for future enhancements.” Very discouraging.

The consequences are that platform driven sales are slumping. The demise of The Magazine is discouraging to many digital publishers. But it probably shouldn’t come as a shock. Print magazines with robust websites that can drive subscriptions, are outperforming magazines that depend exclusively on sales being driven from within the various app stores.

We are at an interesting point in the history of digital magazines: well beyond the point where publishers wonder if they should create digital editions for tablets and smartphones, and not quite at the point where we know how to succeed at them. Some, who clearly are not magazine publishers, are saying this shows that print is not dead. Hey, do I have to repeat this? No one thinks print is dead – it is just not as profitable a platform than it once was. Print will continue. In fact, those publishers doing print, plus web, plus digital editions, are enjoying the most success.

No digital newsstand, at this point, is proving to be a wild success. One can not judge a newsstand by the number of titles it carries. It is the number of subscriptions and single copy sales that is the measure of success. Soon, it appears, publishers may say that their number one sales channel is themselves, with the sales coming from other digital newsstands simply an added bonus.

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