Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An iKiosk for iTunes?

There has been a spate of news stories in the last few days about Apple preparing (or discussing) a central kiosk for newspapers and magazines. See Bloomberg and the WSJ. This is mostly speculation, but it may be well-informed. It is surprising that Apple have not already launched a common framework for delivering newspapers and magazines via subscription. Many observers assumed that it would be there when the iPad was launched, in much the same way that the iBooks app is there. In much the same way that iTunes is there so that users can buy music.

One reason that we havent already seen an iKiosk is that it is a challenging proposition to build such a service, and perhaps even more challenging to win the agreement of the major publishers who need to be signed up for it. In an excellent post M C Siegler at TechCrunch summarizes the obstacles. He points to four areas of difficulty:

  1. Publishers do not want to surrender control of their subscriber lists and the associated or derivable data on individual use. Apple does not want to allow publishers to 'grab' intrusive information from users of Apple devices.
  2. A thirty percent Apple-tax on subscriptions sold through iTunes is too big a chunk for the publishers to surrender.
  3. Timely publication (especially of newspapers) is a challenge.
  4. Handling full publications (and their archives) is a problem -- remember the first Wired App was over half a GigaByte.
These issues are in subtle ways inter-related, and I suspect that lurking behind them are two bigger challenges that Apple really cannot solve for the newspaper/magazine industry. The first, and the major challenge, is that the old prevailing model of newspapers and magazines being largely paid for by advertising is fundamentally broken. It is not coming back. That model can not be resuscitated (at least in the transition or medium term) by a digital solution. But the publishers' budgets and business models are so wedded to advertising revenues that they will not be able to embrace solutions which appear to abandon or de-emphasize it. Publishers will insist on securing more data on their subscription customers, but they will not be able to do very much with it. The digital advertising networks are not going to be publisher mediated or publisher controlled. The second major challenge, is that it still is not obvious or certain what the 'file format' for these digital publications is or should be. There is a radical unclarity about what it is that is going to be digitised.

Take the issue of 'timely delivery'. Magazines and newspapers that are fed to an iKiosk have to appear in their digital format a few hours after they have been released in print. Or, better, they have to appear in their digital format before they appear in print. The book publishers and Apple have weeks to play with in transforming files from a printed book into iBooks. But an iKiosk must be much faster. If digital newspapers and magazines are to appear reliably and pretty much instantly on the iPad/iPhone they need to be processed automatically from a content management system to an app service. How can this be done, without congestion and additional work in over-stretched design and editorial offices? How can this be done automatically by Apple? Apple can not afford to reach back into the editorial and content management systems of the publishers. This requirement raises in an acute form the question of what a digital magazine/newspaper really is. Is a digital periodical something like a web site or an RSS feed, something elastic and flowing which can be updated in real-time and adjusted from moment to moment through the period of live publication? Or is the starting point for a digital periodical the fact that it is a series of determinate issues, each of which need to be automatically transformed from something like a PDF file into something like a set of virtual pages? Are we talking feeds or pages? Or both?

One last point. These apparently well-informed (because repeated) rumours about an Apple News Stand do not tell us whether the service will be for iPad and iPhone or for iPad only. If Apple's new news service is aimed solely at the iPad, I think we can expect a very adventurous and cool solution, but in being tied to the iPad it will raise even more challenges for publishers who do not want to be platform-specific. If, on the other hand, Apple backs a much looser format comparable to the ePub solution used for iBooks, then we should be able to use and read newspaper on the iPhone with comfort.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Readerly and Writerly Apps by Emma Bradfield

Dan Franklin of Canongate recently noted the potential Barthesian “writerly” nature of apps. Having written to death (pun intended) on Barthes's seminal essay as an undergrad, I geek out a bit when literary allusions are still pertinent outside the academic world (take that Avenue Q and your hurtful song).

Franklin suggested that books have the opportunity to be more “writerly” as an app than in hardcopy, because they “can be much more thoroughly explored on multimedia devices”. With some interactive apps, it's most definitely the reader at the reigns, creating his or her experience, taking the lead and being liberated from preconceived notion of the Right Way to read a book. Indeed, I think Barthes would be jumping for joy if he could read the description in the App store of the recently released MyFry app, with its “non-linear structure [which] allows you to create your own personal narrative”.

In light of the topic, perhaps I should have started with the conclusion, gone onto the end and finished with the middle. However, in keeping with my essay-writing days, I'll stay old skool as it's easier to follow. No one is sure yet how the digital audience want to consume their literature, but the replica model remains tried, tested and successful, delivering a product with is faithful to the original, without disrupting the traditional reading experience too much.

I mostly agree with Joe Pine about people not wanting millions of options, they just want the exact product they want. At Exact Editions, the content remains the same, it's the way of accessing it that changes. Reading your favourite title in print, digital and app, depending on your needs at a particular time, we feel is important. More and more of the magazine publishers we work with are opting for combined subscriptions, so that their readers can read content in three different ways without paying thrice. I'm not sure how book publishers could offer 'combined subscriptions' to print purchasers, but if they could, I trust it would be a significant breakthrough for the book publishing industry. Perhaps the book industry can take a leaf out of the vinyl market's book, and offer download vouchers when the book is bought, just as print magazines come with reference numbers to be entered online to receive the digital and app.

“Writerly” apps, might be intimidating for some and a bit tiring for others, but I'm sure it depends on personal preference. Perhaps a lot of readers are happy with a more “readerly”, passive experience of reading on the iPad, online and in print, after a long, hard day at work, or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, without having to add to it? I, for one, prefer to curl up and just read, but then I've always been a self-confessed book-worm, and not a gamer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Future of Magazines

We have been thinking about organizing/hosting a round-table discussion with some of the digitally aware magazine publishers that we know in the London-based magazine industry.

If we are to host such an event it is clear that this should not be a sales pitch for Exact Editions. A round-table discussion needs to focus on the broader context that confronts the industry as it gradually (perhaps too gradually) moves into a digital framework. If a 'round-table' discussion is not to be a sales pitch, it is important that we identify the broad issues and the strategic matters that should be at the focus of board-level discussions in the magazine industry. These seem to be some of the key issues:

* are digital magazines very different from the magazines that we know? Should they be very different?
* are consumer magazine publishers being too slow to adopt business models which work with the iPad and with a new generation of readers who are primarily digital?
* should print subscribers be offered digital versions as a part of their print subscription?
* is the print audience morphing into a digital audience? Or will we be running with 2 quite different audiences (as seems to have been the case with the web visitors and print readers for many magazines in the last few years)?
* has the iPad radically changed the user's expectation of a digital magazine?
* is the iPad really important, a game-changer, or a flash in the pan?
* beyond the iPad, where will we see the next new digital device which will present a big distribution opportunity for the magazine industry?
* are apps replacing the role of the web site for magazines? Or are web sites and apps complementary?
* how do you make money from apps?
* what is the role of multi-media or interactive elements in a digital magazine?
* can consumer magazines re-establish themselves with strong subscription revenues from digital editions and apps?
* what part of the revenue from digital magazines will come from advertisers?
* how are digital magazines going to adapt to the requirements and opportunities of the social web (Facebook, Twitter etc)?

Mulling over these, as it seems to me, key issues, I am struck by the thought that the challenges that face the industry now are very different from those that we were discussing two or three years ago. The iPad is part of the explanation (which means that it really is a game-changer). But I think there is another important difference. Magazine publishing is now entering a more confident, and a more hopeful phase. Publishers, designers and editors are becoming much more optimistic and positive about the prospects for digital magazines. There is less gloom and doom, and a renewed belief in experimentation and innovation. These are good signs for the industry.