Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Enviable Attractiveness of the Magazine Format

Flipboard had a great introduction a few weeks ago"A Prettier Way to Browse the Social Web" (NYT). Robert Scoble went overboard "Overall this is an extraordinary iPad app and one that will shake the media world for quite some time". Scoble may be partly to blame for the amazing user response which promptly swamped and downed the servers which drive this clever and rather beautiful app. For a while new subscribers have been filtered and phased in through rationed waves of invites. My invitation arrived a couple of days ago, and after a few sessions and hours of enjoyment I share Scoble's enthusiasm. It is a lovely app, and really a new thing that can only work in the iPad ecology (crisp colourful images, touch, speed, cacheing and that lovely screen).

Flipboard so far only runs on the iPad (but there must be ways to bring it to the iPhone 4 with its fabulous screen) and if you have an iPad I advise you to get it. It is to this point entirely free. Here is a short video that gives you an impression of its smooth and seductive operation. The company describe Flipboard as your 'personalized social magazine'. It certainly feels 'magaziney' in a very good and attractive way. It should also be very interesting to magazine publishers in showing how it might be feasible to integrate magazine content with social networks. How magazines can integrate with social networks is really the next big challenge for the digital magazine industry and Flipboard have taken a crack at the problem. At this point Flipboard only directly supports feeds from Facebook and Twitter. But that is enough to be getting along with; in my opinion, Flipboard is very Twitter-friendly, even though it may not become my favourite iPad client for tweeting (I dont have a favourite on the the iPad at all). Flipboard is actually rather more disruptive of the RSS-feed market and professional blogs than it is of the magazine industry. Interesting, because in my view RSS feed apps look rather thin and uninspiring on the iPad, and Flipboard has jumped in and gone beyond the RSS feed/reader approach to create a rich smorgasbord (images, YouTube, Tweets, as well as extracts from web articles) rather than the text-heavy RSS drip feed. If you thought that RSS feeds might be disintermediating old-newspapers and magazines, you maybe thought wrong if newly Flipped magazines and newspapers start re-intermediating familiar layouts and formats. Some commentators have suggested that the 'aggressive scraping' that Flipboard does is a substantial breach of copyright (it will for example, take cues from your Twitter feed and cache lots of images and stories overnight that you might want to click-through to when you wake up to read your Twitter stream, this cacheing is in most/all cases done without permission from hosts).

We don't know what the legal issues with such pervasive, background, ferreting and cacheing may be. But if I were a magazine publisher, I would start figuring out some partnership deals with Flipboard and tell the company lawyer to calm his aggressive and injunctive instincts and keep quiet whilst we watch what could be going on here that interests magazines. The deals should involve advertising revenues and/or subscription services: there is already an Economist collection, a 'section' in Flip-speak (more magazine lingo), taken from the Economist's free web services, why not have a full content-stream available through a Flipboard subscription? Flipboard is going to be a great host for iAds. Free and curated collections should have great promotional value for the magazine brands behind them. Flipboard is definitely a vessel which magazine publishers should aim to climb on board -- rather than sink the ship through charges of copyright infringement. The way Flipboard manages to co-ordinate and mix pre-packaged content selections from established media with the randomness of Twitter or Facebook feeds is truly impressive. And the Flip metaphor in both borrowing from and breaking the magazine paradigm, is much more attractive and compelling than the simplistic grid of Google's Fastflip (itself perhaps a source of inspiration/exasperation for the Flipboard founders).

So, I really like Flipboard. But the thought that really stays with me is that its conception and execution is an enormous compliment to the magazine industry and the quality of the illustrated magazine format. Users and technical gurus love Flipboard because it combines social agility with the extraordinary attractiveness of magazine layout on the iPad. The remarkable and delicious touchability of magazine stories and picture callouts all this with page sliding, or flipping. Heck, Flipboard even has a table of contents which you make for yourself as you work with it. But it really is a table of contents and the sections within it are also organized hierarchically in good old magazine style. Hear this magazine publishers and editors! Magazines look fantastic on the iPad. iPad developers who want to make their apps look truly elegant and readable ape the style and layout of a magazine. The iPad is made for digital magazine go to it!

I find it strange that many magazine editors and publishers want their magazine to look less like a magazine on the iPad. As one of our more go-ahead magazine publishers said this to me the other day: " I want to do something different with the products other than just serve them up in a different format - what are your thoughts?"

Exact Editions have quite a few thoughts on this topic. Starting with the observation that putting magazines to work as apps is NOT just serving them up in another format. But the big news from Exact Editions this week is that we have started serving digital magazines to the print subscribers of one of our most long-established magazines. The subscribers have been learning from the address label which accompanies their weekly magazine that a complementary digital edition is theirs, as soon as they choose to log in. They can in fact use this Shared Access Code with their personal subscription account on either the web, or in their branded magazine iPhone/iPad app.

More about this in our next blog. But in the meantime I leave you with this poser: if the coolest app in the Apple universe is trying to look as much like a magazine as possible on the iPad, why are not more publishers trying to make their digital magazines or their magazine apps look even more like a magazine on the iPad? Rash prediction: I think that the best digital magazines in the next few years are going to be more interactive than the ones we commonly see now. But they are going to be even more magaziney than you imagine. Getting digital magazines right is a matter of making their format entirely magazine-like but totally appropriate for digital delivery. Flipboard may be borrowing ideas and architecture from the magazine industry, but it is also pointing the way in which digital magazines can steal back some of that innovative glitter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why the iPad is Still Really Good for Magazines

It seems that quite a few of the big magazine companies are unhappy about the way that Apple is managing, 'controlling' if you like, the app store. First there was an article in Folio magazine, then this was picked up by All Things Digital and then the blogosphere erupted. According to Folio magazine:

.... getting an app approved can be a frustrating ordeal, especially when publishers find out at the 11th hour that their proposal has been rejected (in what increasingly seems to be arbitrary fashion). Condé Nast famously had to rework its iPad apps when Apple announced that it wouldn't accept Flash. The iPad is Great But Remember—It’s Apple’s Way or the Highway
This is loose reporting. First, developers obviously hear 'at the 11th hour' (which just means 'at the end of the process') that their app has or has not been approved by Apple. Do you think that they would be happier to be told before they submitted it that their app was going to be rejected? There is no timetable involved, there is no guaranteed outcome to the process. It is an 'approval' process. Second, the Apple approval process is certainly getting to be more predictable and less arbitrary. There are some reassuring signs that it is loosening up somewhat. Third, it is ludicrous to suggest that Condé Nast were caught by surprise that Apple would not support Flash. This was clear well before the iPad was launched and should have been obvious to anybody who was following Apple's strategy for the iPhone in 2009. Apple would have had to change tack significantly to support Flash and if Condé Nast were listening to Adobe whispers, rather than Apple directions, they were clueless. Adobe .... words fail me. It is not doing a good job for the magazine industry.

And Peter Kafka at All Things Digital says:

Time Inc. executives “have been going nuts,” trying to figure out how to get Apple (AAPL) to approve a subscription plan. One of the more desperate suggestions, which apparently didn’t get traction: Pulling the publisher’s apps out of the iTunes store altogether.
Subscriptions, whether they’re for ink-and-paper magazines or their digital editions, are a big deal for Time Inc. and every other magazine publisher. They value them in part because they provide recurring revenue, but primarily because they provide a treasure trove of data. Time Inc's iPad Problem is Trouble for Every Magazine Publisher

Some bloggers have turned this into a generalised fact. The e-consultancy blog reports it as a universal truth that magazine subscriptions are not allowed: "So far, no other publisher has been able to sell subscriptions through the iTunes store either." This is completely false. Exact Editions has been selling subscriptions to magazines through iTunes for nearly a year. Plenty of other developers are now doing so. Exact Editions may have been the first developer to help magazine publishers sell subscriptions through iTunes, but there are now dozens more. Peter Kafka has got it wrong in suggesting that Time Inc does not know how to sell magazine subscriptions through the iTunes system. The problem is, as he hints in his next sentence, that Time may want to develop its own in-app subscription service and its own analytical reporting on customer usage. Both of these are no-no's with the Apple iTunes terms and conditions.

Apple is being more explicit and more open with its policies and its directions to the market than it was a year ago. The terms and conditions for app development are now published. If Time is not reading the developer agreement that it has signed up to, that is not something to "go nuts" about. Apple should not be blamed for objecting to magazine publishers trying to re-invent the wheel on in-App subscriptions. iTunes already supports in-app purchasing on magazine subscriptions and the market will get very messy if there are lots of different terms and conditions for buying stuff through iTunes. Nor should Apple be blamed for not allowing publishers to invent and deploy any form of spy-ware or tracking software that they attach to 'their' magazines when deployed in iTunes. One of the snags with the still nascent Android app developer market is that there is not yet a recommendable and standard method for deploying in-app subscriptions. I hope that there will be soon. But, when it comes it will have arrived because Google or a major Android player deploys it. The Android market-place will not work if each participant re-invents all the commercial rules. Apple is doing us all a service in trying to establish solid and consumer-trustable e-commerce standards. Apple is also, in my view very rightly, jealously guarding and defending the privacy of its users. If the magazine publishers (or the games publishers) were allowed to deploy all the intrusive and malevolent data-collection services that can be devised for mobile e-commerce we would all be the losers. I am not suggesting that Time Warner will put intrusive tools in its apps, but I am saying that we need a gatekeeper to make sure that rogue publishers and developers do not abuse the system. On this, I trust Apple more than I trust Time Warner or WPP. Apple has to do some of this for the apps market if it is to be trustable, and Google will have to do something similar for its Android market it its going to work.

There are ways of selling subscriptions to magazines in iTunes; there are ways of selling subscriptions to digital magazines on the web that can then be read with a free or paid for iTunes app; there are ways of doing most of what magazine publishers want to do. Some of it can be done within the Apple e-commerce system. Some of it has to be done in another way. But the fact is that the iPad is a wonderful device on which to read a good magazine and the big magazine publishers need to get on board quickly and with subscription services that users will buy. Apple is not stopping them. They are reluctant to sell through Apple to consumers whose identity they cannot track. But the plain fact is that this is always the way they have sold single copies through the news stand, nobody knows who buys a news stand copy. iTunes is the digital equivalent of the kiosk. It is the way publishers can sell magazines to the general market, without getting much feedback on who is buying. That is a good start, but iTunes is not a good way of selling annual subscriptions at the prices that publishers would like to charge for annual subs to magazines or newspapers. iTunes is not a good way of selling to a highly targeted market. B2B publishers will sell some magazines through iTunes but it is not the way they are going to nurture their core audience (precisely because the publisher will find it hard to determine exactly who the readers are). If the big publishers want to sell annual subscriptions to consumer magazines they will need to figure out how to sell them direct. They will need to build their own digital circulation and not expect Apple to do it all for them. It can be done and is being done. The best place to start will be by converting the existing print subscribers to digital subscriptions (not 'instead of' print subscriptions but 'as well as'). Furthermore, magazine publishers should be careful for what they wish. To hope or expect that Apple is going to solve all their distribution and platform problems is to bank on a solution that would be uncomfortably monopolistic and threatening to their long-term interests.

Get cracking on the iPad, but look also to what you can do with the web to sell subscriptions to your services. This is the direction that magazines should be taking.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

In Praise of Not-Reading

Reading is, in these days, an over-rated activity.

Most of what is most important about books is now about not-reading them. I was reminded of this deep but counter-intuitive truth by a blogger (An American Editor) recently complaining that his To Be Read pile (TBR Pile) was getting unmanageable because it was full of ebooks that often cost nothing and were without physical presence.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing. Acquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Case of eBooks
American Editor is here admitting to a very old-fashioned mistake. He has not caught up with the twenty-first century. Books are now not really for reading -- or to be more accurate -- they are only occasionally, under the most special circumstances, for reading. Publishers are partly to blame for this (culpable, since all publishers, especially of newspapers and magazines, know that their profits are entirely dependent on selling stuff that the customers do not read) and digital book experts would be much more on the button if they spent less time fretting about 'reading'. And part of the problem is that the digital experts operate with a vastly over-simple model of what reading is. The conventional wisdom is that proper reading (sometimes called 'long form reading' -- a ghastly phrase for a dubious concept) is the measurable phase in which you open all the pages of the book and look at them, the hours and minutes through which a book, conveyor-like, passes, between the moment that you bought it and the moment that you shelve it in your personal library, never to be looked at again. Incidentally, 're-reading' is a much more interesting concept than mere 'reading', but we note that in passing and may return to the topic on another occasion (you will have observed that you can do that with writing as with reading). This Taylorean model of, conveyor-like, reading predicates that in serious reading our eyes scan more or less consecutively the whole book from page 1 to page umpteen. Efficiently and quickly. The time and motion expert holding a stop-watch, just as Google analytics calibrates our use of the Google library. As though reading a book might not actually comprise understanding it, or failing to enjoy it, or realising pretty instantly that it was not worth reading at all. Under any circumstances.

Of course, reading has always been, but is becoming steadily more, episodic; very little of our reading is like this conventional model of continuous reading, and most of us who now work in intellectual or bureaucratic activities which involve web-based reading, spend a lot of time, yes reading, in ways which are not at all like the way you first read and enjoyed Babar, P.G. Wodehouse or Jane Austen. You see, we spend a lot of our time and energy deciding what not to read. And these decisions matter. Possibly even as much as enjoying Babar, or re-reading Jane Austen.

Our understanding of digital books would be much better if we spent less time wondering about how we might read them, and a lot more time thinking about the ways in which we may use them without necessarily, or even at all, reading them. For certainly, and beyond all doubt, when there are 20 million books in Google Books Search we will not seriously, continuously, read more than the tiniest fraction of them. There are a lot of things that we need to do with books and it is not at all clear to me that we have a framework in which these activities can take place with digital books, half as effectively as with print books. For example, we need to be able to:
  • search them (that activity appears to be brilliantly covered by the already mentioned Google Books Search)
  • provide access to them (possibly well covered, in the USA, by the afore-mentioned)
  • buy them
  • listen to them
  • lend them to a friend or a colleague
  • translate them (well)
  • quote from them
  • (ideally) cite them when we quote them
  • non-consumptively compute them (we none of us know quite what that might involve)
These are all important points, but I will admit to playing a rhetorical trick with this list, my bullet points, and the bold face. The key point about the list is the recurrent 'them'. There are so many things that we need to do with books aside from, and apart from reading them. The key thing about digital books is that we need them. We need digital books to be the 'object' of all these newly digital verbs and activities. Digital books need to be as versatile and as 'real' as physical books in all these ways, even though they are now becoming entirely virtual and insubstantial. The big challenge that Google, Apple and Amazon have yet to project is that books themselves are becoming networked. And the Google, Apple and Amazon models of network usage will inevitably fail if they are not truly book-centric.

May I recommend (unreservedly, though I have forgotten most of it, and disagreed with much of it) Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Have Not Read. Which, in case you mistakenly decide not to read it, has many reviews here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Google Books Search over the Summer

Judge Chin is still considering his decision in the case of Google ..... His ruling may come this week, next week, or in a few months. Only he and his team have a good idea of that. Meanwhile Professor Pam Samuelson has produced a very thorough, balanced, somewhat critical review of the proposed Settlement and of Google's efforts in a 60 page paper for the Minnesota Law Review. If you haven't been following GBS too closely, this is an excellent place to get an insightful review and summary of what has been going on. If, like several hundred lawyers and digital library experts you have been following GBS too closely for years, you will already have read her piece and it will have reminded you of stuff that you had forgotten. Her conclusion:

The future of public access to the cultural heritage of humankind embodied in books is too important to leave in the hands of one company and one registry that will have a de facto monopoly over a huge corpus of digital books and rights in them.
Google has yet to accept that its creation of this substantial public good brings with it public trust responsibilities that go well beyond its corporate slogan about not being evil. Google Books Search and the Future of Books in Cyberspace

I have been a 'qualified' supporter of Google Books Search from the beginning. The qualifications are coming more to the fore. Whatever Judge Chin decides, we can be sure that Google Books Search is going to be mired in legal complexities for years to come. The international ramifications of the venture are hopeless and will sap energy and innovation. Google Books Search, if it is approved, will work badly and too patchily for European literature and libraries, and it will be especially rough and unsatisfactory for British literature, libraries and universities. It will be a mess of conflicting and irresolvable copyright regimes for years. Google itself seems to find it hard to innovate or roll out new services. A clean and direct implementation of Google Editions has been 'promised' for this summer, or this year, but it has been promised before. Several times. No doubt part of the reason that it is being held up is that its roll out may have unpredictable or unwelcome legal consequences (or unwelcome splash-back from the court of public opinion). Google Editions when it comes should be a very useful and popular service, but Google have to get it out of the door before it can properly grow and bed itself into the array of digital books that is now mushrooming.

Pamela Samuelson points to the lack of substance in Google's mantra 'we will not be evil'; but its arguable that Google has failed in a more fundamental and troubling way. It has failed to sacrifice the idols of its founders; it has failed in corporate governance. Page and Brin met and worked together in a project for digital libraries. The Google Books Search proposition was clearly motivated in part by Page's promise to digitize the libraries of his alma mater the University of Michigan. The two big leaps in the Google Books enterprise, were first to dream of digitizing millions of books in one universal searchable index (the original project, defended by an appeal to 'fair use' and the transformative effect of a large database of books) and then secondly to aim for a commercial settlement to the 'class action' suite, through which Google, the authors and publishers would effectively enclose, exploit and privatize millions of copyrights for which they cannot claim ownership. I suspect that the Google Books project, and especially the Library component, has always been too close to the goals and aspirations of Google's young founders. The big and aggressive steps that the company has taken to stake out its claims have been part of the founding DNA, the dreams that brought Brin and Page together. The third 'founder', Erik Schmidt joined the company in 2001. At about that time the initial steps for the Google Books enterprise may have been taken, perhaps Schmidt may have been too much the 'new boy' to question the goals of the original founders. Schmidt should have spotted that there were copyright problems, he should have noticed that there were at least issues of politesse involved in digitizing and then using for profit, stuff that did not belong to Google or to the Universities with which they worked. I bet that he has since then wished that the aims of the Google Books undertaking were more clearly understood within and without the company. And more cautiously and generously drawn. At some point Google has to take a much more humble view of its role, and at that point things might start to work in its favour.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Convergent Digital Solutions for Publishers

Do not say that we do not listen to our market. One of my colleagues was explaining how our system of Shared Access Codes (SAC) enables a publisher to offer a comprehensive service to subscribers who may soon be getting and wanting both a print subscription, web access, and an app for their iPhone and iPad. The Exact Editions service enables publishers to do this... and it can be viewed as a comprehensive distribution platform for the publisher. But the publisher interlocutor on the other end of the line, remarked to my colleague "Ah, so you have a convergent service".

And this struck us as an important insight. Whereas it is natural for us to view our solution, which offers a variety of manifestations of the same content (iPad, iPhone, web and/or plain old print) to the user as a comprehensive set of distribution options via the same account - for what our 'Shared Access Code' does is create an identity bridge between these different environments for the user -- this publisher was viewing the matter from the other end of the telescope. What the 'SAC' does is produce a convergent solution for consumers bringing them access to the same thing. The SACs provide common access to the same thing: the same magazine, and the same individual account associated with a single subscriber. So rather than seeing our range of options as providing divergent channels of distribution, we now try to think of the complex as providing convergent access to the unique account.

The point of course is that the ideal service for a digital publisher is one which converges both on the consumer (allowing her access to the same magazine distribution from a multiple range of 'platforms' and 'devices') and on the magazine - bringing consumers and subscribers from the full range of distribution options to the same magazine and the same brand.

It also seems to us very important that digital magazine distribution solutions (whether for the iPad, or for the next big thing) should preserve the identity and the brand of the magazine. One of the strongest aspects of the iPad/iPhone marketplace is the strength and recognition it gives to brands. Even the rather small badges that cover apps have sufficient visual strength to carry a brand: