Monday, February 8, 2010

What Will The iPad do to the Magazine Market?

As part of my recent recommitment to popular writing as I enter the very end stages of my dissertation, I’ve been confronted with the rough reality of the writing market these days.  The iPad unveiling has got me really thinking about the possibilities of the device to do for magazines (and perhaps, magazine writers) what iTunes did for digital downloads, and the iPhone did for independent game developers – that is, open up a huge new revenue stream.  There seems to be a lot of promise here – but also a lot of uncertainty, both about the technology itself and about the ways people are going to use it.
I haven’t been able to dig up the 2009 numbers yet, but in 2008 alone the decline in magazine ads was between 8 and 12 percent.  This is partly cyclical, obviously – the down economy has been rough on everyone.  But it seems pretty clear to me that it’s also systematic, the product of wholesale shifts in eyeballs that inevitably effect ad value.  Even though people are reading more now than ever before, a huge proportion of that reading is online.  Meanwhile, the tech-nerd part of me finds magazines laughably dated. 
In particular, I’m frustrated by their anachronistic distribution system, which requires me to either trudge to a bookstore that may or may not have what I’m looking for (I have somewhat obscure tastes), or sign up and pay months in advance for something that I think might be of interest to me at some point in the future.   I also know the system from the inside somewhat, from working at a bookstore.  You may never have thought about this, but about two-thirds of magazines end up in the dumpster behind your local Barnes and Noble, their covers ripped off and returned to publishers for refunds – and when you pay $5.99 for an issue of Time, you’re partly paying for all that waste. That’s just not the way our media world works anymore, and anyone trying to ‘save’ the magazine industry in its current form is riding a dinosaur into the ground.
To the extent that the industry has survived, though, it’s because magazines do some very unique things, and specifically, things that the internet can’t do very well.  Let’s just go ahead and get this out there – while the net can deliver small chunks of news efficiently (as newspapers have found out to their eternal woe), reading on the internet is rarely an actually enjoyable experience in the way reading a magazine can be.  Probably most important, my editor/publisher at Signal to Noise pointed out in an email exchange today, are the high-resolution photos and design features that mark any really top-flight magazine.  As much as I’m proud of my writing, the pieces I published for STN wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling without the amazing reproduction of my photos.  The web is barely ever viewed on a device or in a context where photos can really be appreciated – most monitors are glarey and eye-straining, and photos are usually forced into tiny holes amidst distracting ads and links.  Whereas the web provides an effectively infinite pool of information, the bounded nature of a magazine is part of its appeal – the ‘flow’ of web surfing makes it tough (at least for someone as compulsive as me) to really sit and dwell on a photo or good design in the way a good magazine demands.
The iPad seems like it might solve several of these problems.  If the display is anything like the iPhone’s, its clarity is going to be great for appreciating the high-quality visuals that are magazines’ hallmark.  People are quick to complain about the ‘closed’ nature of Apple systems, and I share those concerns for the most part, but for magazine designers and publishers it’s a bit of a godsend.  The iPad potentially eliminates the need, currently the norm on the web, to design for a broad spectrum of different platforms, a constraint which leads to lowest-common-denominator predictability in things like layouts.  And I know people are going to hate this, but part of what made magazines work as a model for so long is that readers can’t easily skip or ignore the ads, a feature necessary for economic stability.  The iPad (or, more specifically, the built-in reader, which is going to be called iBook) will provide exactly the sort of closed, stable reading platform that could allow for full-page ads interleaved with articles, unskippable, just like old-fashioned print magazines.  The designers at Pentagram have given some serious thought to this aspect.
Most important of all, I am absolutely jazzed by the possibilities of the iBookstore, an expansion to the iTunes store that Apple has announced will provide e-book content for the iPad, and whose possibilities seem to combine the positive aspects of two of my favorite parts of my iPhone.  First, I imagine setting up magazine subscriptions as easily as my podcast subscriptions, and having them appear on my iPad with no active intervention on my part.  I’m sure this model infuriates most micromanagement-inclined geeks, but for me, easy is better, and Apple owns easy.  There is a caveat – ease of use wouldn’t mean much if the iBookstore offered magazines at traditional newsstand prices.  I’ve already mentioned the huge resource waste inherent in physical magazines, and any real magazine revolution assumes that magazines offered in the iBookstore would take advantage of the new efficiencies in production and distribution to offer radically reduced prices.  This is what’s so great about the App Store, where a huge array of programs, including everything from really deep games to serious business applications, are available for a measly 99 cents.  Such prices would make magazines an impulse buy again - at eight bucks a pop, a print magazine in a rack next to the checkout is just a gesture of self-delusion.
Of course, traditional magazine publishers will resist shifting their pricing structure, just as book publishers have strongly resisted lowering prices for ebooks – but the app store’s secret weapon on pricing is its inclusiveness.  Small developers are willing to charge next to nothing for a chance to get even a little piece of the action, which has forced big developers to drop their prices.  To take just one example of this systemic effect, you can currently pay thirty-something bucks for the recent Assasin’s Creed II: Discovery for the Nintendo DS, or you can download a port of the game to your iPhone for ten dollars.  At the same time, these lower prices (along with the huge iPhone install base) drive big sales numbers for hit games, which means there’s real money to be made, a buck at a time.  There’s not an automatic equivalency between games and magazines, of course, but that’s certainly how things could unfold in the emergence of a magazine market in the iBookstore.
There are some definite threats to this bright new future.  The biggest one has to do with the technology itself – specifically, will the iPad turn out to be good for reading?   Some have expressed concern that, in contrast to flat e-ink readers like the Kindle, the iPad’s bright screen could lead to eyestrain and exhaustion.  On the other hand, this might be exactly why it will be magazines, read for a relatively short while, that are most impacted by the device.  The other risk, less serious but worth discussing, is that downward price pressure will make magazine publishing to the iBookstore unprofitable.  There was a lot of panic about this surrounding the App Store as it became increasingly clear that .99 cents was going to be a very common price point.  The inevitable nervous contemplation ensued – how could anyone make money selling a game for a buck?  A lot of people, admittedly, don’t, but if you spend a little time listening to the stories of developers shared with Touch Arcade, you’ll hear an awful lot of small developers – literally one guy in his bedroom – who have been able to turn iPhone game development into a full time job.  It seems like this model could be emulated by small specialty publishers.  And even if there was a real race to the bottom, we could easily end up where magazines actually should be – free, and supported by relevant, well-integrated advertising.
What are the chances of all this actually happening?  I’d say pretty damn good.  Even in the throes of a serious recession, and even with people pooh-poohing the thing left and right in advance of its release, I seriously doubt America is going to have much willpower left to resist mass iPad indulgence once the release date rolls around.  The iPhone has, unexpectedly, turned out to have perhaps its greatest impact on the games industry, and no one has really figured out where the iPad will have the most transformational effect.  In fact, that’s exactly what people seem to be asking most often – “What’s it for??”  I’m really hoping it’s for putting more eyes on magazine pages, and in turn, more money in writers’ and editors’ pockets.

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