Practice Preaching


      Bookmark and Share

Again, the dichotomy of being a digital content magazine rears its head here at EContent. Early this year, we worked with E-Book Systems on our very first foray into digital delivery of the entire magazine. Yes, we've been reporting on digital replica (flipbooks, ebooks, PDF) formats for years, but like many publishing companies, our rate of technology adoption rivals that of your average sloth. Thus, this experiment in digital publishing (just going into action as I write) was met with a fair amount of internal head-scratching, if not outright resistance.

Any enthusiasm about the format was almost drowned out by cries of: Who reads emagazines? How will this help us build print circulation? We don't have the infrastructure to produce/deliver/ customer-service these things. And so on.

I'm guessing that anyone reading EContent has had a digital idea or initiative met with a similar can't-do cacophony. While many obstacles we faced were quite real, an equal number were of the "this sounds hard and I don't want to do it" variety. And yes, it was hard. While flipbook vendors (like almost all tech salesmen) are quick to promise easy-as-turning-a-page production and usability, the more difficult issues have nothing to do with hyperlink-enhanced editorial or advertising.

In fact, the most challenging concerns were about developing a business strategy that a virtual edition would both support and be supported by. The central question was the same one that's dogged magazine Web sites for years: How does one offer content via digital channels without undermining the print business model?

The Wall Street Journal, often lauded for its dexterity in this balancing act, offers a 13-issue print subscription for $59, to which you can add a Web subscription for $39. A one-year, Web-only subscription sells for $79. The New York Times offers content sliced and diced in a variety of ways: Current content is free to registered users, but archival content carries a fee. The Times also offers a NewsStand replica edition for 65 cents per issue, $13 for M-F issues, and $28.80 to receive the digital edition seven days a week.

I could go on describing the variety of strategies old-school publishers are using in trying to build a post-Web business model. But this various and sundry approach indicates one thing pretty clearly: There is no one proven way to deliver the mix of paid, free, and à la carte content to produce that most tantalizing of media cocktails. It's like the martini: some like vodka, others gin, some shaken, others stirred, and the preferred degree of dryness varies as much as the individual palate. But that isn't what business people want to hear. They want a recipe for the perfect martini before they'll even think about buying a cocktail glass, much less stirring up a pitcher full and handing them out to their paying customers.

I could go on describing the variety of strategies old-school publishers are using in trying to build a post-Web business model. But this various and sundry approach indicates one thing pretty clearly: There is no one proven way to deliver the mix of paid, free, and à la carte content to produce that most tantalizing of media cocktails. It's like the martini: some like vodka, others gin, some shaken, others stirred, and the preferred degree of dryness varies as much as the individual palate. But that isn't what business people want to hear. They want a recipe for the perfect martini before they'll even think about buying a cocktail glass, much less stirring up a pitcher full and handing them out to their paying customers.

According to Hilary Choi, E-Book Systems' manager of strategic alliances and business development, "The goal of epublishing is similar to a lot of business goals. Our clients are looking to bring revenue into their company." But let's face it: even the venerable Wall Street Journal tried more than a few structural models before they arrived at one that brought them relative success. E-Book's objective is to bring a print-reading experience to the internet. "We want to help publishers reduce costs, but provide their customers ease of use." As Choi points out, "Even the way we read has evolved through time, but we've stuck with the book paradigm for about 2,000 years." With the internet, she even suggests we may have taken a step backwards—"to the scroll."

Undoubtedly, flipbook formats better emulate the experience of reading a magazine while allowing for the non-linear linked experience we've come to expect with the internet, as well as some formidable multimedia-enhanced opportunities (in an E-Book edition, you could hear me read this editorial to you or even see video of me demonstrating the format, for example).

But, as always, these initiatives need more than usability and techno-chic to achieve significant adoption rates. Publishers need to understand how digital editions will help them enhance revenue without undermining print models. Advertisers want to know why they should try yet another way to get to customers. Since digital replica formats became BPA-approved for audited circulation, this format provides an inexpensive way to add subscribers, especially foreign ones. Choi also suggests that advertising could be modified in a variety of digital editions to serve a very specific demographic. And of course, for advertisers and publishers, digital formats provide real-time usage statistics that print just can't offer.

That said, inertia remains one of publishers' greatest hobbles. Given that magazines are low-margin properties to begin with, risking hard-earned revenue on as-yet-unproved business models doesn't move their publishers off the block. And, as Choi put it, "Sometimes when everyone is so busy with their own work, they just don't have time to think about new things. But you can't make a print book talk." Unfortunately, we still have to wait and see whether or not readers and advertisers want to listen.