January 19, 2017 Last Updated 4:47 pm

The Apple App Store holds few pleasant surprises these days as publishers deliver mostly PDFs

TNM used to make a regular habit of looking for new, good, digital edition apps, but the store is full now only with replica editions of foreign publications, discouraging readers from returning on a regular basis

There was a time when the major purpose of TNM was to find and look at new digital edition apps. Each day I would go into the Newsstand and find a new app from a publisher –whether a commercial publisher or a self-publisher who had discovered the joys of creating their own digital magazines.

I’m told that sometime in early 2013 Apple made it clear to a few select vendors that they had grown disenchanted with the Newsstand – they certainly didn’t tell the rest of us. But soon thereafter one could see that the App Store team had stopped making sure the subcategories of the Newsstand were updated. The subcategories stopped working altogether, and for a time only a couple apps actually appeared in the categories. Apple fixed that, but didn’t fix the store itself. Even to this day, the “New” part of the sub-categories does not show “new” apps at all, but are simply all the apps listed in alphabetical order. Apple knows, but doesn’t seem care.

By 2015, when Apple ended the Newsstand and made it merely a regular category called Magazines & Newspapers, it was clear that unless it could make billions from publishers it was not going to pay much attention to them. A last gasp effort was made with the creation of Apple News, but that was badly launched, and has proved a disappointment (especially since the only real reason for Apple News would have been to combine it with a robust ad network).

By 2016, I had stopped regularly checking out the App Store, and this morning I realized that it had been months since I even bothered to check at all.

It has always been the case that the majority of new apps were replica editions, little more than unreadable PDFs, created by vendors who did so free of charge so they could enjoy a revenue share should anyone choose to download them and buy an issue or two. Volume is key. While a publisher might make pennies on the sale, at least there were no costs for them. For the vendors, they too make only pennies, but with hundreds, then thousands of these replicas filling the App Store, the numbers might add up.

Since it was only a matter of time til most US or UK publications had their own digital edition, the newest apps were coming from foreign countries, in foreign languages. Apple never organized the App Store in any sensible manner that would make it easy for someone who was only interested in English language magazines or newspapers to find something to read, the App Store soon became a weird place filled with publications, the names of which, could not be understood. The publishers of these digital editions, targeting a local audience, nonetheless placed them in the US, Canadian or UK stores, but didn’t bother to create an English translation for the app description so readers were (and are) presented with apps that look like this:

Puoi scegliere l’edizione del giorno, o un’edizione dell’archivio, e consultare gratuitamente la prima pagina o acquistare l’edizione completa. Sfogliando le pagine del quotidiano, ingrandendo i contenuti, ruotando il dispositivo, sarai libero di leggere in piena comodità e nella modalità preferita.

Great, if you can read Italian, I suppose.

Today, the newest apps for digital editions remain almost always PDF replicas. In those rare cases where the app gives readers a native digital edition, users often complain of bugs or worse. Few apps give the reader a good sample of the magazine for free, so it is hard to tell if it is worth your while to invest in it. Others, like the app for Art in America, use screenshots of their covers only, not giving readers an idea of the inside of the magazine might be readable or reformatted for digital devices.

One sign that readers have given up can be found in the reader reviews. It used to be that within a week a magazine or newspaper would see dozens of user reviews for their app. It gave them insight into how readers felt about their digital publishing decisions. Many publishers hated the feedback as it was often negative, more often than not a complaint that the apps weren’t really free since they were still forced to pay for the issues. People like free.

But I checked out several newer apps in the store and found few comments. One new app had a 1-star review from a reader who said the app ripped him off of his subscription and that he had tried to contact the publisher, who did not respond. Another app, from German publisher Gruner + Jahr, looked promising, as the app description contained promotional screenshots that seemed to show native digital layouts for both the iPhone and iPad. Great! But I couldn’t get the app to give me a preview so I gave up (being in German, I was at a distinct disadvantage trying to figure out the app – but those prices were in English, however).

Publishers will regret the day they gave up on digital editions. The costs seemed high, but that was because there were additional, new costs such as signing up with a digital publishing platform, or hiring a good designer comfortable with the new formats.

When you consider the lack of print and distribution costs associated with a digital edition, it is obvious that they could have been a tremendous cost savings. Also, when titles shutter their print edition they could still have a digital edition – but when your digital edition is a PDF replica of print, what can you do?

As for Apple, I don’t think Eddy Cue or Tim Cook are readers like Steve Jobs. If they were they’d be embarrassed by what Apple has done to publishers and their digital editions.

I suppose I should give the App Store a look every once in awhile, but my Psych 101 class taught me all about Pavlov’s Dog and how when you don’t get positive reinforcement even occasionally you stop your behavior and move on.

I, and readers, have moved on from Apple’s App Store, getting them back will be very hard, indeed.

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