There is no way around this fact: the first batch of magazines adapted to the iPad failed to deliver. Six months after the initial excitement, the mood has turned turned sour. See the figures below, they show the downturn in circulation for the much publicized iPad versions of a few American magazines:
- Wired: 100,000 downloads in June, 22,500 in October and November : down 78%. According to the Magazine Publishers Association, that’s not even a meager 3% of the average print copy circulation for the first half of 2010 — for an iconic tech magazine…
- Vanity Fair: 10,500 in August, 8,700 in November, down 17% and less 1% of the print sales.  (These numbers include single copy sales and subscriptions, which represent the bulk of the print revenues for US magazines).

According to WWD, using figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, several high profiles glossies show the same pattern: iPad downloads are in sharp decline everywhere.

For this regular user, such numbers do not come as a surprise. I’ve been reading Wired and Vanity Fair in paper form for years. As a non-US reader, the benefit of the iPad version was obvious: instant availability, no need to look for a higher-end newsstand providing international fodder. Plus a serious discount: at a European kiosk, a glossy can fetch €9 or $12; on the iPad, it’s $3.99, I was getting a bargain for my monthly fix. Plus extras such as the occasional video, and the convenience of back issues loaded in the memory chip of my tablet…

What went wrong, then?

1 / Comparison kills. I began to harbor some doubts when traveling to the United States: I realized that, instinctively, I was picking up the very same magazines at newsstands. With the product available at the right combination of time, price and location at nearby kiosks, having it on my iPad suddenly lost its appeal.
A (retroactively obvious) fact emerges: a magazine designed for print is much better on, ahem… paper than on bits. The browsing experience, the photographs, even the sensation of reading long form articles are all more enjoyable on a physical glossy. Publishers lured themselves into thinking electronic convenience plus a dash of add-ons would fill the gap between paper and tablet. Nope, they didn’t. Once ubiquitous availability removed the storage advantage (which only appeals to the road-warriors segment), the magazine on paper won. (Newspapers are a different story).

2 / Convenience. OK, videos or interactive graphics are fun, but they can feel gadgety, creating a kind of visual noise that detracts from the reading experience. Also, the convenience of back issues stored on the device is oversold: in the paper world, when it comes to retrieving an old article, no one will dive into a pile of magazines anymore, that’s the internet’s job. Similarly, due to the rigid browsing experience on a tablet, very few will be tempted to leaf through back issues stored on their device. Carrying a year’s worth of non-searchable issues is therefore useless.

3 / Execution. As I write this column, I download the January 3rd edition of the New Yorker. At least, I’m trying to. The mostly black & white weekly weighs about 100 megabytes and the download stream is erratic. The latest issue of Vanity Fair took several days to finish downloading. (To be fair, the 700 Mb of the latest Wired issue, loaded with videos, was done in a matter of minutes, while the previous one took a solid hour).
Here is what is acceptable: The Economist. Wether I pop up my iPad or my iPhone, the app knows I’m a subscriber and prompts me, showing with the latest issue’s cover. One button. Download. Twenty seconds on a wi-fi, less than two minutes on a 3G network. No login, no purchase confirmation. In addition, my subscription grants me constant and seamless access to the magazine’s web site.

4 / Price. Asking the consumer to pay the same price for an electronic product with a debatable advantage is a bad idea. Two ill-advised concepts (also applicable to newspapers) are at stake here.
Even if they deny it, many publishers are still in the “let’s defend the paper” mode. From a theoretical strategic perspective, a bold move would call for accentuating the decline of the doomed part of the business to give more oxygen to the promising one. Even though a measure of caution is understandable when going through such a transition, the dominant sandbag posture is by no means justified. Its effect is simply to delay the inevitable.
The second idea reflects a related tendency to yield to short-term financial pressures: an electronic magazine costs less to produce? Let’s first and foremost restore our depleted margins. This will have two dangerous consequences: for one, it discourages true innovation; and second, it opens a wide field for pure players unburdened by the past. Until now, publishers have been somewhat preserved by the high barrier to entry into their business: their financial power and business acumen notwithstanding, tech companies have been consistently unable to build a serious editorial venture. This might not last as traditional publications are shrinking and as a new breed of journalists will be more than happy to forgo some of their elders’ prestige in exchange for the freedom to create new and exciting publications.

It would be unfair to blame publishers such as Condé Nast for the the disappointing performances of their iPad first steps. Six months to adjust to a completely new medium seems acceptable. And the current experiences still produce some helpful lessons.

#1 Don’t try and replicate old concepts. Go for new ones. The balance between text and photographs, for instance, needs to be reinvented. The way images are presented and even produced must also be adapted to the new medium. This would be a better use of an art director’s team than, month after month, redesigning a landscape version of a magazine originally intended for a page, like Wired or Time have been doing.

#2 Make up your mind. For tablets, the choice will be between rich media magazine — again, yet to be invented – and content centric, Economist-like, i.e. less sexy but efficient. Ideally, news content for nomad devices should come in two flavors: one, loaded with multimedia, dedicated to tablets that will mostly connect through wi-fi, and another lighter version designed for the mobile phone’s small screen, which relies on low-speed cellular networks.

#3 Encapsulate the web. Personally, right before catching the subway, for a speedy and efficient offline reading, I’d love to have my iPad quickly download a set of 200 URLs of my favorites newspapers web sites. (In real life, cellular data networks still are painfully clunky). With the web, we take for granted things such as multi-layer reading, search and recommendation engines. Unless tablet publishers find a way to offer a unique e-magazine-like experience, these features will be missed.

#3 Price wisely. Don’t expect a wide adoption for the e-version of a magazine (or a newspaper) priced at the same level as the paper version. The pricing structure for online news content begins to emerge. In its recent report (PDF here), the Pew Research Center released data consistent with most publishers’ estimations. People who regularly buy content on the net are willing to spend about $10 a month, which could translate to a yearly ARPU of $100-$120.

If you thing that’s small, just consider the ARPU of advertising supported websites: very few are above the $10/year water line. Another conclusion of the Pew survey: the paid-for market remains highly segmented. Have a peek at this table:

Those who are willing to pay for content are definitely the richest and the most educated. Not necessarily bad news: after all, many businesses thrive in luxury markets….

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