Why iPad Magazines Are Failing



When WIRED rolled out its first iPad edition, the publisher sold more than 100,000 copies. Everyone proclaimed the arrival of the electronic magazine at last.

Vanity Fair, GQ and Glamour also enjoyed healthy rollouts, though nothing near the WIRED debut.

But after initial success, iPad magazines are suddenly taking a dive. WIRED sales of subsequent editions have tanked to 22,000 and 23,000 for October and November, respectively. Other magazines have seen approximate 20% drops. Specifically, Vanity Fair dropped from 10,500 to 8,700 downloads; GQ from 13,000 to 11,000; Glamour from 4,301 to 2,775.

If iPad and electronic magazines are to gradually replace print, they’ve got to grow circulations, not shrink them. And they’ve got to at least do better than my Twitter feed.

Electronic magazine sales in general, and iPad sales in particular, will fail under the existing model.

As it stands, most magazines are charging more for the electronic version than for the print. WIRED, for example, costs $3.99 for every iPad issue, but if you get a subscription to the print version each costs about one dollar.

Other magazines are similarly priced.

The problem with this model is that it’s not “human compatible.” People understand intuitively that a print issue involves the chopping down, trucking and processing of trees, the use of expensive ink and heavy, labor-intensive manufacturing, packaging and distribution. They also understand that none of these costs are necessary for an electronic edition distributed over the Internet.

So to charge more for an electronic version than for a paper version will never succeed. The larger magazine-buying public will feel taken advantage of, suckered, tricked and abused.

The only model that will work is for electronic versions to be significantly cheaper than paper.

Free would be nice. If high-visibility magazines like WIRED offered free versions, the could expect very high subscribership, and could attract better ad prices. Those ads could be video, interactive and viral. The big business benefit of electronic magazines should be vastly superior advertising.

The problem with free is that publications have to fret over existing subscribers cancelling in favor of the electronic version. So the right price is somewhere between the per-copy subscription price for print and zero.

All major magazines should have a print newsstand price, a subscription price which is much lower, and an iPad-edition price which is lower still.

So, for example, WIRED should cost, say, $6 on the newsstand, about $1 per copy with a subscription and maybe 75 cents per issue for the iPad version.

Such a pricing model would make the electronic version cheaper, so people wouldn’t feel robbed. At the same time, it wouldn’t be so cheap that existing subscribers would have an incentive to cancel en masse.

The real money would come from innovation in advertising. But in order to win big ad dollars, iPad magazines need readers. In order to win readers, they need an acceptable pricing structure. Apple can facilitate this with a magazine-specific policy that helps struggling publishers (which is all of them nowadays) publish profitably and magazine-specific design tools that enable print designers to convert magazine signatures into iPad software.

When electronic music hit years ago, the music industry stupidly clung to existing revenue models and old thinking. The result was that they trained a generation to think of illegal music downloads as normal. They lost control of the business.

Likewise, the magazine industry needs to get its pricing model right fast. If it fails, they could condition all of us to simply forget about magazines altogether. And that would be tragic and unnecessary.


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