Phillip Smith

Is this the end of digital editions?

A couple of months ago I got to share my feelings about "digital editions" with a room full of unsuspecting publishers at the (first ever) MagNet conference in Toronto. The title of the session was Digital Editions: New Medium for an Old Magazine? and, in preparation for the session, I really had to do some research. The thing is that the session title and description got handed to us presenters (a complaint I heard across the board from other presenters) and we had to do our best. In my case, doing the research helped me to build a more complete argument for why I feel digital editions -- in the traditional meaning of the term -- just aren't a good investment for publishers. Here's why...

WTF is a digital edition?

Basically, these are Web-based environments that re-produce the experience of reading a magazine online (why anyone would want to have that experience is lost on me ... but I digress). The usual suspects of the digital editions world are Nxtbook, Exact Editions, Fluidbook, Zinio, and Texterity and most publications that I've worked with explore the idea of a digital edition at one point or another. With one or two exceptions, they prove to be just too darn expensive to consider, given the potential readership (which is usually, according to most that I've talked to, only a small percentage of a publication's total readership ... but, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule).

What are the costs involved in setting up a digital edition? They vary widely, but tend to be comprised of the following:

  • Set-up fees
  • Per issue / per page fees
  • Per subscriber fees
  • Monthly hosting fees
  • Annual fees

The set-up fees tend to run anywhere between free to $750 USD, to over $2000 depending on the provider and what you can negotiate. The other fees tend to add up fast too; with per page costs being as high as $100 (though they're usually lower) the total cost for a single digital issue of a magazine can be as high as $3,000. And, that often delivers a pretty basic product -- if you want to get fancy with interactive advertising or virtual blow-in cards, you're often looking at extra fees and investing more staff time.

How about something serious now? (or at least more interesting!)

Why am I so down on digital editions? My personal experience has been that a lot of these digital edition providers (with one or two notable exceptions) are still dinosaurs when it comes to "getting it" online, or how the online medium is different -- specifically more open and collaborative -- than the print world. The products they've created are walled gardens, closed environments, and tend to value the quaint replication of a print magazine experience over innovating with the online medium. Voice overs and Flash-based ads just aren't cool anymore.

Another thing is: most subscribers don't want to read a whole magazine online. Unlike the daily newspaper, magazines and other periodical publications haven't had their readership impacted negatively by the Internet (in fact, recent reports say that magazine readership is going up). Aside from a growing population, why is that? Ask me and I'd say: portability and flexibility. You can tote it along to the coffee shop or airport, take it to the toilet, toss it in the stand by your couch, or just flip through it while you're waiting for a bus. The other thing that others have noted is that magazines are artifacts of lifestyle choices; we read (and display on our coffee tables) magazines that support our values, world views, and aspirations.

If I had to put in a good word for digital editions, I'd say that they may hold value for a publication that needs to service an international audience by reducing the cost of delivery dramatically. Similarly, they'd be advantageous in the controlled circulation environment, as every digital subscriber that you didn't have to print and deliver a publication to would go straight to your bottom line. And, finally, the cost-savings of delivering free sample issues electronically is obvious.

All that said, I keep coming back to this question: Imagine what you could do online with that same investment? What if you had to choose between putting out one extra issue a year, or creating an online experience? (What would you choose?)

Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated

So, is this the end of digital editions? Will they go the way of Web 1.0 companies like the first online encyclopedias or Web directories? Probably not, no. I expect that they'll manage to keep their market share for a while until something disruptive comes along and shakes things up. Right now, it's just too easy for publishers to send over their print-ready PDFs and let these companies do the conversion work. However, things are starting to change already...

On one front, magazines are just getting more savvy online. More magazines are investing in online experiences, using blogs, video, and data mash-ups. On another front there are new "digital editions 2.0" players coming to market -- like Format Pixel -- with products that are low cost and completely innovative.

I'm excited to see what the future holds.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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