Phillip Smith

Dear Publishers: Why ponder 'digital editions' when you could be building digital experiences?

If you’ve ever sat in a room where I’ve given a presentation on digital publishing, or run into me at a some kind of publishing-related event, you will already know that I am no fan of so-called ‘digital editions’. In my experience, they are often expensive and questionable investments that rarely lead to any significant revenue (unless you’re Playboy).

As each year passes, I think to myself “finally, it must be the end of digital editions.” Alas, that has not proved to be the case.

There is such a burst of new technologies available today for creating divine digital reading experiences that I am just floored that certain well-known digital edition vendors are still (very successfully) peddling crap.

I know they are still successful, because I continue to be asked by publishers “Do you think we should invest in a digital edition? If so, who should we work with? Or what tool should we use?

Publishers are in a predicament, it is quite clear to see. Readers are asking for digital products as more of their life moves to new devices. The advantages of having a digital product to offer those readers are clear:

  • Keep the subscriber instead of losing them
  • Deliver a product that (hopefully) costs less to produce and deliver, while still charging a reasonable subscription price
  • Provide a ‘free trial issue’ with very low fulfillment costs
  • Make international subscriptions more affordable and easier to fulfill
  • Access to back issues
  • Last but not least, keeping the cost of renewals low because “digital in, digital renewal”

The challenge is that the range of devices that readers are using is multiplying and the digital edition vendors have not caught up. Not only have they not caught up on the devices, but – more importantly – they are not even close to catching up on the reading experience that people expect today.

Anyway, this is turning into more of a rant than a useful blog post, so I’ll try to get it back on track here…

If you’re a publisher and you’re thinking about investing in a digital edition, start with these questions:

  1. Digital edition vs. adaptable reading experience: Do you want to provide readers with an experience that is device-appropriate, or one that is simply a replica of your print layout? (The reasoning “We can re-use photos licensed for print in a new medium if we don’t change the layout” should not drive your answer to this question.) The term ‘mobile’ applies to just about everything these days – laptops (increasingly smaller), tablets (various sizes), and smart phones (various screen resolutions) – and it’s unlikely that a print layout is going to be an enjoyable reading experiences across them all.

  2. InDesign-centric vs. Web-centric: Do you want to work from the Web version of your stories – the version that includes links to other sites, links to related articles, and so on – or the version that comes out of the print workflow? Remember, if you have a Web site there’s a good chance that you’ve already invested in getting your print-centric content into a digital content management system – thus, you’ve already done the work of the print-to-digital conversion for most devices.

  3. “Somebody do it for us” vs. Do-it-yourself: Finally, do you want to have the control to present your publication the way you want, with the features that your readers want, and own all the data? Or do you want someone to just “get it done” and “keep it working?” Remember, it’s pretty likely that you already have a circulation plan that can be adapted to these digital subscribers, and it’s likely that you’re already taking payments online and managing access to your Web site. Integrating those processes and system into your digital products is not as hard as you think.

There have been some incredible advances over the last year in the capabilities of the modern Web browser. It is the idea of ‘the Web in your pocket’ that draws many people to these new digital devices. And these new devices all run ‘the Web.’ Each of the major platforms – iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Palm WebOS, Kindle – have versions of their devices that support current Web technologies like HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. This opens up a whole new field of opportunity for you – as a publisher – to think about delivering amazing digital experiences, not just a ‘digital edition.’

If you don’t know where to start exploring what’s possible, here are a few pointers:

Hopefully that will give you a place to start. Still have questions, drop me a line. Are you experimenting with a framework, technology, or approach not listed above, leave a comment.


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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