August 1, 2016 Last Updated 1:40 pm

Publishers (and vendors) killed off the digital edition, now they are working on eBooks, too

Sales of digital edition subscriptions and eBooks continue to fall for major publishers as they seek to protect print – but the eBook market is different in one way from that of digital publications, it has Amazon competing in it

A little over six and a half years ago TNM was launched in order to be able to keep track and inform myself in regards to the soon to be huge new digital publishing platform that would emerge for tablets.

Smartphone apps from publishers were still a new thing – Apple, after all, had only just launched their App Store for the iPhone in 2008, and it was taking a while to get publishers on board. But the iPad would change everything, or so we thought.

PopSci-iPad-04-2010In April of 2010 the first apps emerged, and several of them looked great. Bonnier, which had worked to develop Mag+, put out its first app with Popular Science, and early iPad adopters looked forward to great new digital editions from magazines like Wired and National Geographic.

The market was most definitely small for digital editions in 2010, but the following year Apple launched the Newsstand and surely the beginning of the digital edition era was upon us.

It didn’t turn out that way. By 2013, Apple’s App Store team, led by Eddy Cue, decided it was not worth the effort to maintain the Newsstand and keep its subcategories functioning. Even today, four years after this decision, the subcategories for Magazines & Newspapers (the name given to the Newsstand in 2015) are still unmaintained. If there is any reason that Eddy Cue needs to go it would be this one. (I’d rather see him on the sidelines of a Warriors game than at an Apple event.)

But did Apple kill the digital edition? No, they were only a big part of it. Both publishers and vendors deserve part of the credit (or blame), as well.

The rise of the App Store in 2008, and the iPad App Store in 2010, was a big opportunity for those who wanted to take advantage of publishers. Vendors began peddling PDF app solutions, positioning them as some sort of miracle solution, as if editors and production people had never heard of the PDF. They were cheap and easy, and sometimes the vendor employed a revenue-share model so that the apps were actually free to launch.

But print magazine and newspaper readers enjoyed these PDF replica editions as much as they enjoyed those Flash flipbooks vendors sold publishers before apps. Those, too, were cheap and easy, but they were (and are) terrible reading experiences (there are, I will admit, a few rare exceptions).

Those who hard sell me on the value of the PDF replica tell me that readers demand that their digital editions be like the print edition, and so a PDF is the only way to accomplish this. That is utter BS and always has been. The few surveys I’ve seen that might say this is true have questions that are worded in order to give this result. Like asking someone in the middle ages what would they want in a mechanical horse, they would answer one that is a horse only faster, they couldn’t possibly imagine an alternative, and so readers say they want their digital reading to be like print.

The best survey I’ve seen on this subject was actually conducted in the early days of digital editions and asked readers to judge different version of the same product by actually presenting them with examples. Readers looked at print, digital editions on a tablet, digital editions on a smartphone, and a replica edition on a PC or tablet.

Readers looked at the examples and ranked them exactly as I ordered them in the last sentence, with print on top, but an interactive digital edition for tablets second. The smartphone edition placed third, but was well liked. But the replica edition placed last. (What I most liked about the survey is that it came from a company that at the time was selling replica editions – they just presented the results straight.)

It was not only the choice of platform that hurt efforts to sell digital editions, some major publishers produced good interactive editions, but priced them too high. Others forced print readers to choose between print and digital – and since circulation managers routinely discount print subscriptions, the choice to stay with print made sense for the reader (while the publisher was stuck with the higher print and distribution costs).

The latest AAP report seems to show that major publishers are also working to kill off the eBook. This will be harder to accomplish because while the big name publishers control an impressive share of the print book market, their hold on the digital book market is less firm thanks to Amazon and self-publishing.

Things-eBook-300eBook sales, the AAP reported, fell 18 percent for member publishers in the last report, and no one is confused as to the reason. Pricing.

The big publishers, the ones that worked for a brief time with Apple, have wanted to raise the price of eBooks all along. Amazon is now letting them do that, not out of a sense of justice, but in order to let the publishers inflict self-damage – at least as far as digital is concerned.

It is easy to see the two different pricing strategies being employed simply be going into Amazon’s Kindle store and seeing which books are $9.99 (or even higher) and which are much lower. Those that say “Sold by Amazon Digital Services LLC” are priced inexpensively.

Of the top ten bestsellers, seven are sold by Amazon, three by a major publisher.

The future of the eBook, however, is probably safer than that of digital edition apps. Amazon has a vested interest in its success, and continues to grow its market share (though admittedly it is hard to get very solid numbers because Amazon is so vague in its reporting).

Meanwhile, Apple has lost interest in digital publishing since the death of Steve Jobs. Before that, we not only got the Newsstand, but iBooks Author, as well. iBA may have launched three months after Jobs died, but it was obviously in development long before that event. (One sign of just how disinterested Apple is in its own software is that it lists the copyright for iBA as 2015.)

The weak link in digital books, though, remains the same as digital magazines and newspapers: publishers. Unless publishers begin to see digital editions/books as a legitimate distribution platform, they will continue to slavishly stick to print and the web.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so gloomy about the prospects for digital editions and eBooks. It took print publishers more than a decade to finally figure out that the web wasn’t going away. Today, when you talk to a magazine or newspaper publisher about “digital” they mean the “web” – everything else is just something else that they don’t really understand. Maybe this attitude will change… in a decade or two.

  • David Roberson 3 months ago

    we’ve had these exchanges before, and while i appreciate your hard work in covering the space, you’ve left out one critical element — the money. consumers aren’t willing to pay more for digital editions, and there’s simply not demand from the advertising community to support the expense of building robust digital editions. that’s more a function of collapsing demand for all magazine and newspaper media than it is the digital edition format specifically, but they’re linked.

    i think the focus should be on where consumers want, and will pay for, a digital delivery format on tablets and phablets that publishers of all sorts could exploit.

  • Bill Everly 3 months ago

    Price is certainly a key, both for e-books and digital magazines. But one problem with the digital magazines in the newsstand was that apple kept sending out cancelation notices each month. Imagine if print circulation managers did that.

  • Mick Sylvestre 3 months ago

    That’s so true it’s frightening. The old model business of Magazine and newspapers has proving to be an old horse. They problem is technology is going faster than they can keep up. They get the gist of it, but they don’t know that buyer habits have changed. They keep looking at he cost of restructuring and then the what they get in return. The old economical model does not apply to the modern digital age. So they must find a method to offer both without breaking the bank and making record profits year after year…

  • Colin Crawford 3 months ago

    Digital replicas were driven initially by the publishers and auditing bureaux trying to ensure that the digital replicas would essentially count as print copies. It was driven more by cost considerations than providing a good user experience. The idea of replicating a print magazine on a digital screen was always ridiculous. There are many examples of a legacy medium replicating into a new one, until they figure out how to properly take full advantage of it. No-one will mourn the end of digital replicas but we look forward to the evolution of content presentation on digital devices.

  • Andy Kowl 3 months ago

    Not only may people not want to pay for digital publications, nobody reads them. In the B2B space where I spend most of my time these are usually free. There is nothing dynamic about most of them, nothing interactive with rare exception. Over the past 3-4 years I’ve asked easily 100 people of all ages if they read a digital publication. Maybe 7-8 said yes. Publishers themselves don’t even read them. In B2B at least the consensus is the only people who read them are the advertisers checking on their ads, or other advertisers looking for their competitors. Funny thing is, now the vendors producing them are claiming soon they will be dynamic and, in effect, do what responsively designed websites do today. I suspect most readers will do what they do today: eliminate the middle man and stick with responsive sites.

  • Marion Gropen 3 months ago

    There is a very large difference between the publishing economics and strategy for books and for magazines and newspapers.

    In the ebook marketplace, my experience suggests that publishers actually love ebooks, and the ebook revolution.

    They do NOT love the monopsony power that Amazon is gaining over all publishers (self- and otherwise). Therefore, the large houses are trying to keep bookstores alive.

    In addition, it has been made crystal clear that readers won’t support enhanced ebooks for most types of content. It’s very analogous to the fact that readers won’t support any illustrations for many types of content, nor color illustrations for most types of content, in print.

    There are types of content where video, color graphics, or something else may make enough of a difference to support the effort of creating it, and at a professional level of quality, but we have to listen to our market, and to what readers value enough that they’ll pay more to get it.

  • Larry Genkin 3 months ago

    The current situation (and ultimate solution) involves these 3 points:

    1) Readers don’t want to read replica’s because they are difficult to read. No one wants to zoom, pinch and squint their way around a magazine. Take a look at what South Florida Opulence is doing with their digital edition and you’ll see what digital magazine content needs to look like to be successful —

    2) There’s so much free content available on the Internet, the market for those willing to pay for content is small and shrinking. Publishers need to have a business model that’s not based on subscription sales.

    3) It’s not Apple’s fault that few people want to take up storage space on their devices for apps. For content today to get serious readership it needs to be browser, not app based.