June 17, 2015 Last Updated 7:50 am

Larger tablets may not provide a boost to digital publications, but better retail options will

A modest proposal to free up the retail side of the digital publication business, to allow third party sales so as to not depend on the device makers to be good retailers

The Condé Nast magazine WIRED is pretty damn sure Apple will release a super-sized iPad in the fall. So are both Apple rumor forums (they mirror each other, so that is not unusual). As Apple can’t keep anything a secret anymore, there is no reason to doubt that a 12.9-inch iPad is coming.

But will this mean anything for publishers? Will this provide the boost to digital sales publishers have been seeking?

Not likely, and I think Apple would agree. That is one reason why the Newsstand is going away and Apple News is coming. Many in the tech industry (and some in media) believe content is being uncoupled from periodicals, and that the future is not the newspaper or magazine branded by the publisher, but the app branded by the app maker and compiled by the reader (as well as an editor at the app maker).

The problem with digital publications, at least as we have seen them these past five years, is not the devices we must read them on, but the retail environment where they are sold.

The Apple App Store and Newsstand is like a bookstore where the showroom is at the front, with one or two displays with a couple dozen books, and thousands more titles piled up in a backroom. Theoretically, everything can be bought, if only the reader wants to spend the time to go into the backroom and shuffle through all the books. Otherwise, it is easier to just browse those few books seen on the displays up front.

The solution to digital edition sales may be to uncouple the app from the device maker. If a magazine or newspaper app could be sold anywhere – on the publisher’s own site, on third party sites – then those that could create better online stores than Apple might improve sales for the whole industry.

But Apple wouldn’t do this because they would lose their commissions, right? No. Not at all. There is no reason these stores couldn’t actually just link back to the Apple store, the same way a publisher provides a link on their own website.

But right now, all the work being done to sell media apps is being done by publishers, with Apple getting a 30 percent commission whether the buyer comes from the publisher’s website or was browsing the App Store themselves.

The model for this approach, I suppose, is Magvault.com Magvault improves the retail store for digital publications by providing the reader more ways to find a title. It not only lists digital magazines by category, but creates new sub-categories, breaks titles out by country of origin, and by app store.

Potentially, this would be enough, though it doesn’t solve the issue of publishers still having to go through the trouble of producing different files for different platforms (it is as if a print magazine needed to produce different spec-ed print magazine for different retail stores).

Another model is Next Issue Media, the consortium of major publishers who have invested in a all-you-can-read subscription service. The advantage of Next Issue, at least for those publishers with their digital publications inside the store, is that they have a marketing partner to help promote their titles. Not surprisingly, those publications have seen a bump in sales (registered as single copy digital in their audits). But there are only around 140 titles inside Next Issue, it is a pretty exclusive club (which is part of the point). Also, it adds another place where a production professional needs to submit their digital issues. It doesn’t simplify, it adds on.

A couple TNM readers have reached out and expressed enthusiasm for the idea of a larger iPad, thinking it will provide an answer to issues involving digital publication sales. I understand their thinking, and certainly think a larger display would be of benefit to many replica editions that are today rather unreadable (some are not so bad).

But consumers love their mobile devices, so any publisher who thinks they will be able to simply live with a PDF will find those smartphone reader unimpressed. Designers will still have to design for the devices readers use (though most art directors would understandably feel the larger display opens up a world of possibilities for better design).

One might argue that the sales channel is not as restrictive as I am making it out. After all, one can not only sell their digital publication through Apple or Google or Amazon, but also through Barnes & Noble, Zinio, Magzter, etc. This is true, but each of these platforms have their own systems, requiring publishers to submit and resubmit their materials. A better system would be to standard apps, and free the retail side.

In print, a publisher produces one product, and that product is the sold and distributed through multiple channels. In digital, the publisher produces many products, each sold by companies often pretty poor at creating attractive retail environments. This isn’t working, at least for publishers.

Alain Parkeat is a sometime contributor to TNM (and not his real name, if you haven’t guessed by now).

  • Ethan 3 years ago

    You don’t mention that content problem: Content that is commoditized (not original), and an overabundance of advertising taking the place of that original content. The publishers had ample opportunity to avoid Apple News, but they squandered it on circulation and AAM guidelines.