October 10, 2014 Last Updated 10:42 am

The 10% digital-to-print rule: magazine publishers attempt to understand what success with digital magazines looks like

But with no print magazine or established website to help drive digital subscriptions, some digital-only publishers are struggling to succeed with their new launches

There is an ongoing debate concerning what exactly a digital-only publisher should expect in sales when they decide to launch their first publication. Several discussion boards on sites such as LinkedIn are centers of talk about the number of downloads and paid subscriptions a publisher can expect to achieve.

Some digital publishers are beginning to share their numbers with their fellow digital publishers to get an idea about their level of success. One publisher of a new digital-only magazine wrote that they are seeing around 30 downloads a day, but of those downloads only about 5 percent subscribe. The numbers add up to far less subscriptions than they originally believed they would get.

screen480x480-1Four years ago, at the beginning of the tablet publishing era, predictions were all over the board regarding the future of the platform. Some were very sure digital subscriptions would soon match print, while others, such as Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone fame, said it would take a while before readers opted to read on digital devices. “Not months. Decades, probably,” Wenner told AdAge. Despite this, Wenner Media soon launched apps for US Weekly and Rolling Stone.

If the goals for digital editions were initially all over the place, the reason to launch has remained the same: to preserve rate bases. Any additional circulation coming from digital means having to spend less money on print and distribution – and even more importantly, on those discounted, mailed offers to readers.

In my conversations with publishers and editors concerning their goals for digital circulation, most were very hesitant to point to a specific threshold. One publisher told me that to put forward a number would mean that not reaching that number would mean failure. “We can’t afford to fail, so we just work it every day,” this publisher said.

But if forced to put a number on success the number I hear most often is 10 percent: 10 percent of a print magazine’s total circulation being digital. It is a modest, but difficult goal to achieve.

Looking at four the the leading consumer magazines in the U.S. you can see why 10 percent seems like a reasonable number.

WIRED and GQ, two Condé Nast magazines, are right there. WIRED has, according to its June Publisher’s Statement, just over 10 percent digital circulation (subscriptions and single copy), while GQ is only short by a tiny amount.

One can see the challenges with growing digital circulation from GQ’s statements. The first time GQ reported digital circulation was June of 2011 when it reported 0.3 percent of its circulation as digital subscriptions (a higher total for digital single copy). Six months later it was up to 2.6 percent, and 18 months later it was 5.6 percent. Growth continues, but probably slower than some would have initially thought.

screen480x480Hearst Magazines’ Esquire and Cosmopolitan are not as far along. Esquire, for instance, is reporting 8.4 percent of its total circulation as digital in its latest Publisher’s Statement. Cosmopolitan, with a much higher total print circulation, is at just over 5 percent, and actually is one of the few magazines reporting less digital circulation in its latest report than it did in its previous report. (This may have been caused by problems with their app’s subscription mechanism.)

So what should someone launching a digital-only magazine expect? Some vendors are selling their services based on ridiculous promises of riches in digital publishing. Caveat emptor, right?

But there are, or have been, examples of fairly successful digital-only magazines. The Magazine reached 35,000 subscriptions quickly at launch, according to its editor. But that particular digital-only magazine was launched by a well known developer, Marco Arment, and enjoyed constant promotion by Apple. Now that it has been announced that the publication will be shutdown, its editor says subscription are between 7,000 and 8,000.

Making matters worse, Apple has stopped maintaining the Newsstand, something that no longer can be ignored by publishers.

“Apple’s disinterest in the Newsstand didn’t doom The Magazine,” editor and publisher Glenn Fleishman told Cult of Mac, “but it certainly meant that people who were already subscribers forgot it existed, and contributed to the drop in subscriptions.”

On top of the situation with the Newsstand, Fleishman also noted that Apple constantly sends out reminders concerning subscriptions that will renew – a perfect mechanism for promoting subscription cancellations.

Since a digital-only publisher does not have a print magazine to base their success on, they will have to consider another metric. One might be a percentage of their web readership.

Many digital-only publishers only launch supporting websites after the launch of their app – that is clearly too late. Some others have started e-newsletters or used email lists to help promote their new titles.

No matter what support mechanism one uses, at least having one allows the digital publisher to begin measuring their success rate and developing their own 10% rule.

  • Thea 3 years ago


    Your comment, “Making matters worse, Apple has stopped maintaining the Newsstand, something that no longer can be ignored by publishers.” intrigues and alarms me. Can you please site your source(s) for that?

    Also, you may be interested in a round up we do every 6 months that looks at the top digital titles. They are overall headed towards 12% or 1 in 8 magazines.


  • jrhmobile 3 years ago

    Before we can define what “successful” numbers are, we need to agree to terms.

    Publishers like to report “downloads”, which I equate to walking by the magazine rack and looking at a magazine. I understand that rationale. Those numbers are the biggest, the easiest ones to quantify and audit. But as the digital-only publisher in your second paragraph outlined, that number isn’t any more profitable than having browsers thumbing their way through an issue on the newsstand.

    The number that rarely gets reported is the “take rate” of viewers subscribing to the product. I had a discussion in summer, 2013 with a group publisher who widely reported downloads of 25-30K for her pubs, but a “take rate” of between 800-1200 an issue for her titles.

    Those kinds of numbers make ad sales challenging. She explained that her digital ad sales was more a qualitative than a quantitative sale. She reported that “she wasn’t selling by CPM” — not surprising, when you’ve got circulation of less than 1M per issue …