Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Magazines on the iPad

Joe Wikert has posted a pretty strong complaint on his Publishing 2020 Blog:

Where Are All the iOS Magazine Subscription Apps

I'm certainly not the first to blog about this and I doubt I'll be the last. What I can't understand though is why, after Apple made in-app subscriptions possible months ago, are none of the big guys selling their magazines that way?

Does it have to do with Apple's 30% cut? Are they all trying to find a way to get around this and sell direct? That's what Amazon does. When you buy a Kindle edition via the iPad app you're actually just going direct through the browser, not buying through iTunes. I'm assuming Amazon therefore doesn't have to pay Apple a cent on the transaction. Why wouldn't magazine publishers want to do the same, especially on longer-term subscriptions?

Joe is a magazine enthusiast. He is just the kind of customer that the magazine industry needs. There are lots more like him and these customers will not hang around indefinitely. I have to point out that magazines using the Exact Editions platform can sell magazines through the iTunes platform, using Apple's in-app purchasing system which works very well. We would also note that apart from the magazines hosted by Exact Editions, very few publishers are doing this. Is this because the publishers do not want to surrender the 30% commission to Apple, as Joe suggests? Perhaps, but there are ways round this -- and Joe Wikert mentions some of them: the Kindle from Amazon is exploiting some of these possibilities. Exact Editions has another sort of solution in shared access-codes, and in offering 'freemium apps' for magazines which offer the dual function of providing free promotion for publishers and the opportunity to sell 30 day subscriptions via Apple: reserving to the publisher the right to sell annual subscriptions to readers who will enter a direct relationship with the publisher. There certainly are ways of using the Apple service in ways which suit the publisher.

The relative 'tardiness' of the major magazine publishers in getting onto the iTunes/iOS bus has other explanations. The first is that Apple has not provided a direct and recommended route to market, in the way that it has provided iBooks for Book publishers. My guess, is that Apple considered doing this and then decided not to do so, because the major publishers were not too enthusiastic about the shape of Apple's solution. And the probable reason that they were not too enthusiastic, is that Apple has shown little willingness to share much customer data with publishers (magazine publishers, newspaper publishers or any kind of publishers -- Apple regards the data that it obtains from the users of its devices as private and proprietary). The major consumer magazine publishers care about this because the majority of their revenues and their profits comes from advertising, and they are worried that they will not control and retain these revenues if Apple (or Google, or some other technology intermediary) manages and enables the advertising networks in digital circulation. Surrendering this ground to Apple looks like selling the family silver. I suspect that this is the biggest problem that the major magazine companies have with the Apple platform and the iTunes proposition. They are worried that they will lose out on advertising. This is not a very rational concern, because the plain truth is that the magazine companies are never going to own their digital audiences and the 'metrics' for advertising effectiveness of digital magazines in the way that they have held tight hold of print advertising audiences and metrics. The digital world (Google first and foremost) has changed that. But they can still make money out of advertising, especially with Apple if they get on the digital bus.

There is another reason that magazine publishers have been relatively slow to climb on to the iTunes system with magazine apps, and slow to see how effective for magazines the in-app purchasing option is: many who work in the magazine industry think that the digital future for magazines is somehow completely, or at least radically different from the magazines that they currently produce. They seem to assume that their digital product should be more like Facebook, or more like interactive TV, or more like a web site, than it would be like their existing product. The conventional wisdom in the magazine industry is that digital magazines need to be radically different from what has gone before. There is a marked difference between magazine publishers and book publishers in this respect. Since book publishers assume that digital books, or ebooks, are really very much the books that publishers have always published. Book publishers assume that their market and their business is going to become largely digital in the next few years. Magazine publishers seem to be strangely less confident about the continuity and convergence of their digital future on what they already do. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge facing the magazine industry at this point: to recognize that going digital is inevitable and is mostly a matter of doing what they already do only in a better and more economically digital fashion. Look for continuities and convergence before getting too preoccupied with the radical departures! Because there will be some, and digital magazines will be different.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Shared Access Codes

One of the requirements of the Apple iOS system is that an app should be shareable across devices. Speaking for myself, I now have three bits of Apple kit with the iPhone OS: an iPod Touch, an iPhone and an iPad. I also have a MacBook Pro -- and am wondering when Apple will enable apps to run across the desktop. Following the introduction of the iPad, the Exact Editions apps now have a system of 'shared access codes' through which the owner of an app can share his/her application across the various devices that he/she owns. This enhancement will be rolled out to all our apps and it ties into the iTunes account through which apps, content services and subscriptions are managed in the Apple ecosystem.

The shared access codes are short alphanumeric strings which the subscriber will input to any device that needs to run the app. The Exact Editions system from today provides subscribers with their shared access code through the Preferences page in the customer's web account, and this code can be entered on the panel which comes from the info button "?" on the app's toolbar.

The shared access code also provides an efficient mechanism through which users of Exact Editions web services can access their existing web subscription from within a 'branded app'. Customers who have an Exact Editions subscription and who notice the availability of an app from their Preferences page, will simply need to pick up the freemium app from iTunes and then run their subscription on the iOS device. So Exact Editions now provides a neat and free solution for those of our customers who have noticed that we are supporting branded apps to magazines which they have already subscribed to in their digital format. As it happens, we have also been receiving plenty of requests from print subscribers to magazines with corresponding Exact Editions apps available in the app store. Many such long-term loyal print subscribers evidently feel that they should have access to the iPad/iPhone edition as a part of their existing subscription to the publication. It is a fascinating fact that the development of the app store, and especially the successful launch of the iPad is giving the market for web-based content subscriptions a huge boost. Loyal subscribers to the print editions of Le Monde Diplomatique, the Spectator, and Music Week, email us in the expectation that they should, as of right, have access on the iPhone or iPad to a publication which they have paid for in print. We are also noticing that the publishers feel that it is appropriate to provide their print subscribers with complementary iPad subscriptions, whereas a year or two they were often somewhat indifferent about providing web-based digital editions. The iPhone, and even more the iPad is turning the magazine subscription into a digital proposition.

When I was explaining how this system of 'shared access codes' works to a publisher, she asked me whether Apple minded about this. I guess her thought was that publishers would be able to offer access, via free apps, to web-based subscriptions for which the publisher might be charging a very full price. And Apple would not be getting a 30% share of this subscription sold directly by the publisher. The answer to this is that of course Apple does not mind if users of highly valuable web services start using those services through iOS devices. This has been happening since day one of the app store. One might say that the whole point of the app store is that it should encourage suppliers and customers to cater for the unique Apple-manufactured range of devices that use iOS. If some of these services bring hundreds and thousands of existing subscribers to the Apple hardware, Apple is not complaining. Apple is primarily a hardware company and if iOS apps encourage consumers to use Apple hardware, Apple is winning.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nominalism, Realism and Digital Books

There is a quasi-philosophical disagreement underlying the steady digitisation of literature. A radical disagreement about what digital books really are. In a strange manner this dispute parallels the controversy between nominalists and realists in medieval scholastic philosophy about the status of universals (properties, numbers, virtues etc). Texts in the twenty-first century take the place of properties in the fourteenth. Are books more than texts, are texts more than digital file formats? Are these abstract concepts: "red", "thirteen", "chastity" real entities or are they simply instances and constructs based on our experience of coloured objects, groups of cakes and the people we meet? The nominalists denied the reality of these abstractions and the realists retaliated. Blood was shed. Now we find the digerati divided over the question whether a book is really more than a text; since the ebook nominalists, finding meaning in sentences and texts and not much else, would be be happy with books digitised as texts (preferably in the ePub standard) and the realists say that a book is much more than its text and that the pagination matters, the layout matters, the entirety of the book matters, the references and the citations to the book matter, and of course the illustrations matter; therefore in pursuit of realism, digital systems should virtualise the whole book, not just its text. While Project Gutenberg is at one end of the spectrum (nominalists carefully proof-reading and hunkered down in ASCII or XML), Google with its Book Search digitisation project is at the realist edge -- some would say 'hyper-realist' in its acceptance of blank endpapers and leather bindings, all part of the 'real book' as represented in a Google database. Google probably would, if it could, encode the sensory aura of historic books, the vinegar that comes from cholera-touched books.

But the modern predicament over books as texts, or books as virtual objects, is complicated by a dimension of uncertainty over the appropriateness of treating books as a collective whole as parts of a library and a literature, or of digitizing them one at a time as individual atoms; perhaps, in some cases, with unique and unusual bibliographic or structural properties. Digital nominalists are governed by a standard of simplicity and hold that a text is a text, is a text. But some nominalists are atomic, whilst others favour a more holistic and uniform approach, in the interests of creating a library or a reading platform, in which all books can be searched and individual books isolated as readable downloads. Correspondingly, on the 'realist' side sits Google with its holistic and scalable method, Google's whole strategy for digitizing books has been based on an assumption that all books should be accessed, searched and distributed through a single canonical library. Amazon, which has in most respects taken a 'nominalist' approach to the distribution of eBooks, it doesn't do ePub but its proprietary format 'AZW' is just another ASCII encoding standard, has also embraced a 'holistic' attitude. Amazon offers its customers global searching of the Amazon archive and encourages users to build up a collection, a mini-library of eBooks on their Kindle. Amazon, just as much as Google, would like to have a scalable and totalitarian solution to the whole of published literature. All Kindle titles are atoms in the same collective, distinguished by the fact that they can be sampled or acquired from Amazon, one book at a time as the consumer dictates and purchases.

Perhaps a diagram will aid the explanation of this digital predicament for computerized books:

What approach to digital books heads to the top left quadrant of this matrix? Why, apps of course. If we think of books as apps, they do have a reality and concreteness which exceeds the flatness of the mere ASCII text, but the book as app is also highly individual. Perhaps a paradigm of this approach is the Atomic Antelope Alice App which has caused such a stir. The inventors of the Alice book found an intriguing way of applying 'physics', acceleration and gravity, to the Teniel illustrations in the Alice book. This is obviously a very special and un-generalisable treatment of a classic work, but as an app it is a brilliant proposition. Apps can afford to be sui generis since they stand on their own, and if this gives cataloguers and librarians a headache, too bad. The Exact Editions book and magazine apps are also in this segment of the diagram. It is, I would suggest, the potential inventiveness and the unpredictable future of the book as an application that has the most intriguing potential for the future of digital books (and libraries). If digital books do something completely novel and free-standing, something unprecedented in the world of print books, it will be because they are also software applications and can in that way assume a digital reality which exceeds our expectations of the traditional text.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stone, scissors, paper: and the Digital Book Race

It sometimes seems that Google, Apple and Amazon are engaged in a three-way fight over the digital books space. They each have a very important area of strength: Google dominates search (and search-based advertising), Apple leads and designs the very best consumer devices, Amazon has amazing strength in consumer transactions (logistics). And the three fighters are subtly trying to manoeuvre the struggle into the terrain where their particular strengths dominate. So Google is building a massive library that will interact and benefit from Google's supremacy in search, and a lot of stuff should be free and any hardware device can access its service. Amazon is trying to build individual consumer accounts fed by their logistic strength and transactional breadth, obviously not limited to books, physical and digital, and Amazon care more about managing transactions in the consumer's account than they do about owning the device. Amazon only cares about consumers, so -- unlike Google -- they do not offer anything much to libraries. So Kindle books are readable on the iPad. Apple is trying to establish a superior hardware platform in which their range of interoperating devices cannot be matched: desktop, phone and tablet format working together. If Apple owns the superior hardware platform they will control vital pinch-points through their app store (so far limited to Apple hardware for apps and books). They are all fighting on several fronts at once. So Apple, is erecting a system of apps and phone-based demographics which will be immune to Google search. Google will be blocked in Apple's mobile domain, and Apple has built an e-commerce system that certainly rivals Amazon's, though it does not have anything like the breadth of the Amazon offering (yet). Amazon attempted to get into Apple's patch with a hardware device, the Kindle, which now appears to be completely outclassed by the iPad. Google does not want to be boxed-out by the Apple iOS, so it has launched its Android system which it hopes will attract the collective ingenuity of all the consumer electronics companies who are concerned that Apple might eat their lunch. With retaliatory ingenuity Apple is building an advertising system iAds which may seriously limit the Google advertising dominance. So the battle is three way and in deadly earnest.

Is it a game of stone, scissors and paper? Perhaps one being played in several dimensions. If so, Apple is the 'paper', they were always going to be on top of the rather dull 'Kindle' from Amazon: stone-coloured if not yet quite sunk. But Apple appears to be threatened by Google's incredible scissor-like sharpness in search. Perhaps the analogy breaks down with Amazon contra Google. Is there a way a battleground on which Amazon is beating Google? Amazon does appear to have the beating of Google in one area: third party, cloud-based, web services -- Amazon S3 etc. Perhaps this is the area in which Amazon might ultimately have the beating of Google's over-centralised approach to building a universal library. Amazon needs to build a digital book service which is more collaborative and de-centralised and which attracts libraries, authors and publishers as effectively as they have attracted book buyers.

Is there something that could change the dynamics of this three-way tussle? Lots of things. One development that would certainly change matters would be if Facebook entered the fray. Suppose that Facebook, live up to its name and did a deal with Amazon? We might then see an Amazon that really could outsmart Google in the relationships game. Cloud-based book networks.

Do you think that the Google Book Search judgement will come tomorrow? One of these days....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Optimising e-Commerce in the iOS App Store

It would seem to be potentially useful to report some experience as to what works in publishing books and magazines through the iTunes app store. Exact Editions has been offering iPhone app access for magazines with Exactly for over a year and we believe that there are some lessons that can be drawn and shared (without either revealing trade secrets or breaching the confidence of our publishers -- who own the sales data that we collect on their behalf). This picture tells a story:

This diagram plots the Sales line for a magazine app (Blue) against the number of downloads of the Freemium app (Green) on a daily basis over a couple of months. A number of lessons can be drawn from this graph and the underlying data:

  1. The 'freemium' approach works. A magazine/book publisher who makes freemium apps showcasing the content of the publication, and who uses the in-app subscription service supported by Apple, will have effective distribution of sample content and will make sales of that content.
  2. Clearly, the sales lag the free downloads -- but not by much. One has to get potential users to sample the stuff before they buy, but the sales are likely to come in the next day or two. We haven't yet done detailed regression analysis on this, but the overall trend is clear (and our boffins are now closeted with powerful non-linear, non-parametric, least squared soonest mended black boxes).
  3. The spikes in the data are strongly linked to the introduction of the iPad, first in the USA though this app didn't quite make it into the app store in time for the launch, and second at the end of May in Europe. Further the sales are more strongly linked to the second surge in free downloads, which tells us that this publication has a mostly European (rather than American) audience.
  4. So far all the publications that we have introduced to the app store have had an acceptable uptake of samples. They are all clearly going to have at least several thousand trial installations. But there is a high degree of variability, and we do not know what makes the difference between a magazine app getting 10s of thousands of downloads in the first week or two and another magazine app getting a few thousand free installations. We suspect that prominent promotion by the publisher makes quite a difference, but it is certainly not the only factor.
  5. Our statistical analysis has shown that iPad owners are much more likely to download magazine and book apps than iPhone users, and they are more likely to buy subscriptions to them. The extent to which uptake has been weighted to the iPad has really surprised us. Since the iPad was launched we have seen more sampling from iPad owners and more purchasing from them also. The majority of downloads and sales has been going to the 2 million iPad owners, not to the 70 million iPhone/iPod Touch owners. This disparity has really astonished us and several of our magazines have seen the sales ratio going in favour of the iPad in the ratio 80:20. Other sources have reported that the iPad is very strong for reading and very strong for selling books and magazines. The potential of the iPad for publishers and the reading public has been sensed, but it has still not been fully grasped. Many magazine publishers still do not have a clear idea of what an iPad/iPhone app is or how it can work to drive subscriptions.
  6. Different books and magazines obviously have different 'conversion' rates. We will not speak about these in detail, but we have seen that magazines and books exhibit a fairly reliable consistency in their conversion rate. More installations of the freemium app will lead to more sales, and this allows the publisher to assess the value and effectiveness of their promotion activity. The conversion rates may appear to be somewhat low to the 'outsider', and we regard 1-2% as acceptable, 3-4% as good, but this is telling us that publishers should recognize that the app store is a great medium for having stuff sampled and evaluated, and there will be a lot of sipping and tasting without commitment or follow through. But you will be able to measure it.
  7. Price makes a huge difference to uptake. If you publish an app with an in-app subscription price of £15/$20 you may get less than 3 in 1,000 samplers buying the app, however good the trial experience is!
  8. We have not yet found an optimum ratio for free:closed in offering customers samples of the full content that will be available to them -- there are signs that a more open approach (over 20% a publication being open) maybe more effective than a 'tight' grasp of content. Perhaps this is related to the fact that there will generally be a lot of sampling going on, so having a slightly more convincing 'free' offer may in fact convince and convert.
  9. Since Exact Editions, not Apple or the publisher, carries the 'cost' of sampling (Apple does not pay the server bills or handle the support) it is in Exact Editions interests for the conversion rate to be optimum and high!
  10. The renewal rates on subscriptions are encouraging, but this is one area where the publishers and Exact Editions suffer from not having much, or any, access to customer information (Apple hold all this customer identity very tight). Since it is very much in Apple's interests for subscription renewal rates to be as high as possible (publishers and developers are aligned with Apple in this) it is more than likely that Apple will find it in its own interests to be more forthcoming with publishers and developers about this data.
  11. Customers like these apps and we are getting very positive support messages from satisfied purchasers. Many customers also see the potential of this technology and are recommending that we further develop the apps in ways which will improve them. We agree with this assessment and often find that the specific recommendations are sound.
The most surprising outcome of our analysis has been the huge significance of the iPad. iPad owners are discovering the potential of this device much faster than publishers.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why Beautiful Typography is Pixel-Indpendent.

Khoi Vinh a typographer/designer who works for the New York Times has recently delivered some fascinating comments on design for books and magazines and the iPad and the new iPhone. Here is a quote from yesterday's blog:


Creating a beautiful display and patting yourself on the back for having good typography is disingenuous, I think. It’s a little like saying a high-definition television set makes for better television shows; an absurd claim at best.

That metaphor is imperfect, of course, because television manufacturers have nothing to do with the content that appears on their devices or with its production. But that, supposedly, is the unique value that Apple claims to offer: they build the whole widget. Not just the hardware and not just the software, but the divine unification of the two into transcendent commercial products.

Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple, repeated in yesterday’s keynote address, posits that the company operates at the intersection between technology and the liberal arts. I think it’s reasonable to regard fine typography as falling within that mandate, but unfortunately, they are falling short of that promise. Building a great display for typography without building great typographic tools is a dereliction of duty. (Khoi Vinh at Subtraction)

There is a lot more in the post and much intelligent opinion in the comments.

While I can understand the typographers frustration at the way that Apple seems to have made some very funny (ie poor) decisions about typography and book design, and one sympathizes with Khoi in his shudder when Apple marketeers expostulate on screen about 'perfect' type, when what we see on screen is a 'typographic calamity'. Yes this is all very odd, and very odd indeed is Apple's decision to embrace the ePUB standard for iBooks and then implement it poorly (that calamitous page would be much better with a ragged right margin). This is odd because the iPad is showing that books really do not need to be as typographically simple and neutered as the ePUB standard encourages or presupposes them to be. But it is important to understand what is going on here. Apple really is just building a platform, they are not, contra Khoi, building the whole widget, or even the whole enchillada, and we notice that Apple are trying to encourage app designers and publishers to work with them. It may be that the most interesting things to do with books that Apple announced at WWDC was its decision to allow iBooks to incorporate PDF files directly (albeit in a different 'shelf'). With the new higher specification screens that Apple is producing the whole motivation for eBooks and the ePUB standard (reflowable text, translation of tables to ASCII, etc) is being undermined. Apple is belatedly recognizing this and acknowledging that many types of books (and most newspapers and magazines) will be very poorly translated to iOS if we need to rely on a file-text format such as ePUB, or even WebKit as a rendering engine. PDF is making a come-back.

The plain fact is that designers and typographers who work for digital media MUST NOT DESIGN their books, magazines, newspapers etc for display on the latest widget. They must design for 'resolution independent' display. Designers should surely notice that we now have 326 ppi Retina Display outputs, but they should then dismiss the fact, retinal displays are here today and gone tomorrow, and designers should be fixing books that will look as good as possible on any of the myriad displays that will be in the market next year, when Apple or one of its competitors will announce 'Leica Display' with 652 ppi. That means treating books and magazines as virtual editions which will be read on scores of different platforms, with many different screen resolutions. PDF files will not be the solution to this challenge, but the fact that they are being pushed back into the user's line of vision is an indication that the way the document looks and hangs together (in abstract, in the clouds, in the database) is still a key consideration. The form in which we virtualise books and documents must capture all the ways in which we might want to read, look at or use them. When we have that right we can deliver the document in as many different resolutions and platforms as we need. When books are virtualised appropriately they do not need to be rendered as typographic calamities.