The topic of digital versus print in regards to magazines has been re-trodden in countless scores of blogs and opinion editorials to the point of exhaustion, but beyond the platitudes and clichés some very interesting axioms around which publishers are starting to orientate their digital strategies are emerging that make for some interesting reading, so I’ll briefly discuss a few of these, particularly in relation to the growth of the e-book industry, below.
Firstly, some background: The rise of the internet as the dominant entertainment platform and news source has been by far and away the main cause of the abysmal circulation figures of print magazines in recent time. This has been met with a variety of responses from publishers, most well noted of which has been the widespread implementation of paywalls, but this has been met with mixed success. While certain large newspapers have reported widespread growth as a result of this monetization model, its effects on the magazine and newspaper industries as a whole is still a matter of some discussion, and there are doubts as to the degree of its effectiveness in the long term. Regardless of this, expect websites which produce large amounts of online-specific content to move towards this model to some degree.
Alongside these web-based developments, the meteoric success of tablet devices has held obvious implications for publishers that, as most of us in publishing are acutely aware, haven’t gone unnoticed. There is now a booming market in digital publications provided through tablet Applications, utilizing a pre-built “walled garden” infrastructure that allows for easy distribution of content. There is some debate however as to the level of real and expected growth for the digital magazine sector.
Another paradigm that is emerging is the fact that certain publications simply cannot survive in print any longer. Advertising revenues and ever declining subscription figures on that side mean maintaining a print publication is, in some exceptional cases, a liability. This happened most prominently at the end of last year with Newsweek, which had been haemorrhaging losses from its print edition for some years. Newsweek has now joined a growing list of “digital only” magazine publishers who claimed they simply could not sustain the losses they had been taking on their print publications.
This ties into the wider issue of the future of print in general, with e-books acting as a good illustration of some of the trends. For some time now, e-reading devices have been touted as the death-knell for printed books. Various statistics are trotted out to back up this affirmation, and there’s certainly good data to suggest that e-reading could very well eclipse printed books in the developed world by the end of the decade. However, as the initial excitement over e-readers has now subsided, more measured voices are now re-evaluating those more hyperbolic, earlier claims; saying not only that is the printed book here to stay, but predicting they can continue to sell well, both independently and as a complementary product.
This ties back into my earlier comments about the magazine industry because it’s quite easy to draw inferences from the above re-evaluation and suggest that the same pattern of a projected plateauing of digital growth and print stabilization can occur within the magazine publishing sector as well. However, once again things aren’t as clear cut as this.
For one thing, magazines do not generally possess the same degree of “tactile pleasure” and durability that physical books convey to their owners. There’s a sense of permanence in building a physical book library that doesn’t transfer over, at least not to the same extent. Also, as Nicholas Carr points out, the initial meteoric growth associated with e-books happened because it was associated with a single-use device (e-readers) that early-adopters quickly picked up (once price points dropped significantly for sales to hit critical mass) and understood how to use, so much so that growth is now. Marketing and disseminating the benefits of App-based magazine editions has been more of a gradual process, since tablets are devices still in their infancy that are used for multiple purposes, and many prospective customers, both with tablet and without, aren’t well aware enough of the advantages digital magazines can offer them. It’s also extremely important to keep in mind just how young this particular industry is, and how in a broader and more macrohistorical sense, digital magazines will only continue to be a hugely disruptive force upon their print equivalents.
As a result it’s far more likely that the norm for the next few years will be that digital magazines will continue their current trend of steady growth and the trend of print-readers migrating over to digital highlighted by the AMA will continue. It remains to be seen however what the equilibrium point for print will be in the magazine space, when it manages to secure itself alongside existing digital editions as another “complementary product”. But expect broad growth across the board for digital magazines, driven in part by the move away from print, ever more tactile and lighter devices, alongside increasing in-app advertising revenue.