ebooks and digital magazines

I follow a publishing mailing list that has this week been having a big gripe about ebooks. The main sub-gripes seem to be:

(1) The market has stalled (no sales growth except in the self-published field) and the big publishers have lost interest.

(2) Amazon dominates the space and it owns the audience. There is scant retail competition.

(3) The format and the licensing terms are very limited (print books are nice to look at and much better to collect. Does anybody collect ebooks?)

Aside from these gripes it is widely acknowledged that:

(4) Audio books are a growing market for which there seems to be a promising future.

This last point is interesting because whereas audio books are not ebooks their success is clearly driven by digital innovation, and they are indisputably a new digital format derived from print. Same titles, usually with same publisher, editor and author, similar market/audience, and pretty much the same content. Only oral not text. Its almost as though the digital success that has happened in the consumer books market is precisely the one that was not expected — a return to the spoken word. This generation of consumers appears to want books in their digital form to be worth listening to, not all-singing, all-dancing, re-flowable bundles of text.

While I am not an ebooks expert I have some sympathy with all these ebook grumbles. Especially the complaint that ebooks have minimal design quality and tend to lose the visual strength, typography, layout and illustrations that will have been in their print sisters. But it is also interesting to compare the ebooks complaints with the state of digital magazines. There are important differences.

While the biggest magazine publishers (eg Condé Nast or Hearst) have been at least as disappointed as the big 5 book publishers. The disappointment has a different cause. For these very large and previously profitable consumer publishers the problem has been that digital magazines have completely failed to deliver the advertising budgets that made their print predecessors so profitable. Print is still the medium that works for consumer brand magazine advertising. Digital advertising in magazines is nowhere. Behind this desperate disappointment there have been some modest successes in selling digital subscriptions to individuals. The digital successes are often quite specialist and high-brow (The Economist and the New Yorker for example) but they exist and they suggest that serious or strong magazines can attract and retain digital subscribers. So there is some encouragement for the future there.

There is also a big difference in the retail market. Amazon has a small share of digital magazines (less than 5%, my estimate) and the biggest player is Apple’s iTunes, but Apple has not dictated a digital file format or standard on terms of sale for digital subscriptions. As a consequence Apple is a prominent distributor and collects all iTunes subscriptions but it is certainly not in a position of monopoly control. Digital subscriptions to magazines are successfully sourced from the web, from Android and plenty of small digital suppliers with their own standards on format and license terms. So, there is an a sense still much to play for in the digital magazine space.

Gramophone Archive the earliest years — available through the digital edition

On the last point of comparison it is interesting to note that digital magazines, in spite of the lack of a ‘winner-takes-all’ standard emerging, appear to be in some important respects very definitely an improvement on their print ancestors. So much so, that even those readers who prefer the print format are likely to find some advantages in having the digital alternative. Digital magazines can be rather gorgeous and attractive on high definition devices and we are rarely tempted to say this about ebooks.

But the most striking advantage is that digital magazines can now afford their subscribers and users the immense convenience of a complete and fully searchable archive. A digital magazine that carries its complete archive with it is in this sense much richer and deeper than the printed issue that it is gradually supplanting. The success of some magazines in developing and audience for their databased back issues is in one way a bit like the unpredicted and largely unforeseen success of audio books in digital consumer culture. Five years ago many in the magazine industry thought that spiffy, interactive, instantly updated apps of the latest issue was the way the industry would go. But, in fact, it seems that the digital audience most appreciates a solution which is in many ways surprisingly familiar, even retro, to the periodical reader — a browseable and searchable repository for all those back issues that might be relevant to the enthusiast or fan who subscribes to the current issue.