Why the replica edition is not going to disappear anytime soon
Magazine publishers continue to release replica edition apps into the Apple Newsstand, as well as into alternative digital newsstands, to extend their brand, save production costs, and hope for incremental revenue
The magazine replica edition has gotten a few premature obituaries lately, as some media reporters, who really should know better, have written that there is a trend towards native digital editions.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, of the last 100 or so new digital editions to be released into the Apple Newsstand, the vast majority have been either replica editions (70+ percent), or else PDF-based digital-only start-ups (half the remaining). The native digital edition remains the choice of only a small minority of digital publishers (though it makes up the majority of new digital edition stories here at TNM – after all, what is there new to say about a new replica edition app?)
(It is not my intention to start a flame war, or call out articles I feel are wrong on this subject, so I don’t feel I should link to these stories that are appearing – a search should reveal them.)
What drives these stories about the replica’s demise is mostly anecdotal evidence provided by publishers who, having first launched replica editions, have now launched new native digital editions. Some are reporting better downloads and digital subscription sales, though most simply say that reader satisfaction has increased.
This makes sense, designing a publication for the device or publishing platform it will be read on, is exactly what art directors see as natural. But one publisher, when explaining to me why they are producing replica editions, said readers see no difference between replicas and native editions. Knowing that they had recently reduced the size of their magazine in order to save print production costs, I asked them if they had simply taken the same file they had previously used and shrunk it down for the new print size? Of course, not, they said, the art director made adjustments to the page designs and kept the fonts the same size as the previous version. So, I asked, it is OK in your mind to shrink down pages for digital, but not print?
So, the numbers don’t support the premise that the replica is dying, but why is it true that publishers are still producing replica editions?
They make sense
There are lots of good, reasonable reasons to produce a replica edition. The first is that it can be the perfect solution in some specific circumstances. A good example would be the publisher who wants to make available their archives of past issues. I don’t expect, for instance, to have Gramophone or TIME magazine go back decades and reformat all their old issues. Making available in replica form will do, especially if they are searchable.
The special insert or ad section that accompanies a print edition may be more easily converted to digital in replica form, and another circumstance where producing a replica may make sense.
With Apple failing to clean up and maintain its Newsstand, many publishers have had it with the world’s largest company. Sales are falling, and the most recent publisher’s statements are showing that many publishers who depended on the Apple Newsstand to grow their digital edition circulation are growing disenchanted.
Apple is, in other words, doing their best to convince publishers to launch apps for Android, Windows and the other digital newsstands. But many of these alternative digital newsstands are filled with replica editions, some require them. Because of this, to get into these newsstands the publisher resigns themselves to the replica.
Few of these alternative digital newsstands are eager to reveal their sales numbers, even when prodded. But publishers say that the small number of sales they are seeing are still worth it because the cost to launch a replica edition into them is minuscule, and to keep readers happy they feel they need to be everywhere.
It is no secret that many publishers are not inclined to add a new designer or invest in a digital publishing platform. Some have said to me that their experience going back two decades with the rise of desktop publishing have made them gun shy. Will they be forced, as they were in the ’90s, to always upgrade their software, to buy new digital devices and PCs, because technology changes so quickly.
This makes the sale pitch involving costs and revenue sharing so attractive to some publishers. Vendors who say that the publisher does not have to invest a penny, and may start recording incremental gains in digital revenue, are lured to many digital publishing platforms. Some publishers, who have launched native digital editions for the iOS platform, feel that they can also use these other platforms in this way.
Because of this, a large percentage of the new digital editions released into the Apple Newsstand each month are coming from revenue share platforms. Most of the revenue share platforms launch the apps under their own developer account, as they manage the revenue share accounting. One platform now has over 360 titles under their name, another has over 500.
Many of these vendors have been successful in getting publishers of magazine licensed for outside the U.S. to use their platforms. Hearst, for instance, has one Apple Newsstand app for Cosmopolitan. But inside the Apple Newsstand it must compete with more than two dozen other Cosmopolitan magazine apps, the vast majority of which are replica editions. A look through the reader reviews for these apps often turns up a reader frustrated that they have downloaded the wrong edition.
The December reports have not been encouraging as magazine publishers in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia have been reporting either declining growth in digital editions, or even outright declines. One Hearst magazine, for instance, which could report well over 200,000 in paid digital subscriptions at the end of 2013, reported 118,000 in December of 2014. A Condé Nast title reported only modest declines in digital subscriptions – but they were still showing declines. That is not what publishers expected.
Still, neither the trade associations or the publishing companies themselves want to talk about this much, instead they are concentrating on creating their own metrics in hopes they can convince advertisers that things are going far better than the media is saying.
One major publisher during a conference call last week, seemed to be betting the farm that Next Issue Media would be driving digital subscriptions. That company’s most important title, with a rate base of 3.5 million, is recorded only 11,199 in digital readership coming from NIM in its latest report issued last June, 0.3 percent of all readers. Will the new publisher’s statement show a major increase? I will certainly be looking to see where, if anywhere, increases in digital subscriptions are coming from.
The replica edition may not be going away, as there are too many reasons to continue to see them launched, but whether they will translate into sustainable sales remains very much in doubt.