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Interview with Safari's Mark Brokering

A Model for the Magazine Industry

Mag stack Once upon a time I subscribed to more than a dozen different magazines.  Keeping up was overwhelming at times, particularly since many of those magazines were a half-inch thick or more.  (Anyone remember the good old days when Wired used to have some serious heft?!)  Now I can count my magazine subscriptions on one hand.  I still crave the content and the writers, but I prefer to read this information sooner than the print model allows.

I use RSS feeds and other techniques to obtain some of this material.  And even when I'm 30K feet in the sky on a flight I have my Kindle 1.0 with the terrific KindleFeeder service to provide my daily dose.  Despite that though, I feel there's a huge hole in the magazine model and I have a suggestion that could go a long way to addressing it.

I'm talking about a service that starts by providing access to all the magazine content on the planet.  It would be delivered wirelessly to my various devices (Kindle, iPhone, MacBook Pro, etc.) and I'd (gladly!) pay a monthly fee for it.  What I'm describing is fairly close to the Safari Books Online model, only applied to magazines, not books.  So rather than getting physical copies of BusinessWeek, FastCompany, etc., in my mailbox from time to time (and several days after the material was written), I'd get it immediately and have access to it anytime, anywhere.  (Btw, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing a full-page ad in a magazine about the great additional content that's available this month on their website...especially when you're on a 4-hour flight and and wifi isn't an option!)

I would gladly give up my print subscriptions for this service.  Yeah, I know that's one of the reasons the magazine industry is so afraid to build such a beast.  They need to learn a thing or two from the music and newspaper industries though.  Magazine publishers: Yes, your revenue base is likely to be smaller in the future.  Deal with it.  Btw, that's going to happen anyway, so why not acknowledge it now and start doing something about it?

So how much would I pay for an all-you-can-eat magazine subscription model like this?  At least $50/month, maybe more.  That's a lot, I know, but I'd expect some additional functionality built into the system to justify that price:

  • I want the full contents of my favorite magazines.  I don't want every magazine delivered to me in this format...I'll never get through it all!  But I absolutely want to pick and choose which magazines automatically show up and include 100% of the regular content.
  • I also want to be able to pick and choose certain columnists and other features/articles from some of the magazines that aren't in that first list.  Again, these should be delivered automatically, without all the other content I don't care about from that particular magazine.
  • Most importantly, I want this system to learn about me and my interests.  If I happen to read a lot about baseball, send me the hottest new baseball article from a magazine that's not part of those first two lists.  Help me discover things I wouldn't other wise find!
  • Include a terrific social networking platform.  Make it super easy for me to send articles, excerpts, etc., to any of my friends, regardless of whether they have a subscription.  After all, exposure to those who don't have a subscription might provide the nudge they need to sign up.  And give me a finder's fee if they do!

You might be wondering how magazines earn their fair share when each customer is paying a flat fee for access to everything.  Simple.  It's all based on page views.  My device keeps track of what articles I read and sends that information back to the service so that my monthly payment can be split into pieces and divvied up to each magazine I've touched.  Maybe one month I only read ESPN The Magazine.  OK, my entire monthly payment goes to them.  Again, this is very similar to models we have in the book industry.

Over the course of a month I'm probably accessing 20, 30 or more different magazines this way.  That means my monthly payment gets sliced up pretty thin, so why would a magazine publisher have any interest in these small payments?  Two words: advertising revenue.

You currently pay an annual subscription price for most of those magazines you get in the mail.  That subscription rate typically covers printing and shipping...and that's about it.  Magazines get the bulk of their revenue from advertisers, of course.  There's no reason advertising can't be part of this model too.  Yeah, I know Amazon's magazine subscription model on the Kindle doesn't include ads.  That's one option but I'm not sure it's the best.  We're all used to seeing ads in magazines, so there's no reason they can't be present in an e-model with the same content.

In fact, I'd argue that the advertising component is where this could really change the industry.  No more static images.  No more wondering whether your target audience actually saw the piece.  And don't forget about that third bullet above.  This needs to be an intelligent system that knows a lot about me.  As a result, every customer becomes part of a much more highly targeted audience.  That generally means a higher CPM rate...or perhaps a completely new model.  (Yes, those same old privacy advocates would choke on this idea...that's OK, they can keep killing trees with their print subscriptions!)

If the Kindle is any example it's clear magazine industry leaders have their heads in the sand.  More than a year after the Kindle was announced there are only 24 magazines available for it.  I'm sure the common magazine publisher complaints are, "we don't like Amazon's terms" or "we don't want Amazon to become the next Apple and control our channels."  Any magazine executive with that point of view should be fired.  Now is the time to be experimenting, not hiding in your foxhole.  The Kindle represents yet another storefront and a chance to learn more about your customer.  As the old saying (sort of) goes, those who don't pay attention to history (e.g., music and newspapers) are doomed to repeat it.


Francis Hamit

Dear Joe:

You can get this very thing at your public library with those big electronic databases. Many magazines are available there concurrently with their print editions. You also don't actually have to go to the library since you can access them from your home computer. When I was involved in all of that Copyright litigation, this is where I went for updates. It only took a few one or two word search terms. Ironic, since the database companies were among the defendants. Oh, and it's "free". Your tax dollars at work.

Joe Wikert

Hi Francis. Your options is terrific...if I'm at home or the library. I travel quite a bit though and I'm looking for something more portable. And even though everyone doesn't travel like I do, there's still the benefit of having it at the gym, in line at the grocery store, etc. In short, I think the portability factor is huge with this.

Francis Hamit

Joe, if you can sign in from your home computer you can also do that from most mobile devices. It's all the same World Wide Web.

Joe Wikert

Hi Francis. My problem is often when I'm unable to use a wireless signal. That's typically on a plane but there are other situations as well. And, even if I have a signal, I don't want to have to wait for downloads.

Here's a great example: If you've got a Kindle, you know how pleasant the reading experience is on content that's delivered to it. Now compare that to the experience of trying to read content via the Kindle's browser. Painful.

So again, it's about portability, but that includes content that lives locally on your device and isn't reliant on always having web access.

Book Calendar

They tried this a while ago with a service called Contentville which folded. They were planning on selling every type of content through a single source. Unfortunately, the authors guild could not figure out a way to sell individual magazine articles in a giant database. Also, they had trouble with theses from colleges which they put online. The problem is selling individual magazine articles.

Each magazine has dozens of different authors involved. I am sure this will be figured out eventually.

This was in 2001. I am sure it can be solved now. I like the idea of a true content supersite that sold everything imaginable.


Lucas W.

What I'd like to see is a some kind of one-click-PayPal-like application that would allow you to buy individual articles from various magazines through their websites. One-click is the key here - no credit card number typing, etc. Just because I don't want to subscribe to your magazine does not mean that I would not be interested in paying 25 or 50 cents for an article that's currently behind a pay-wall that only current subscribers can access. The all-you-can-eat model could also be applied here, as Joe is suggesting.

Ann Kingman

I like this idea very much. In all honesty, I *like* the ads in some of my favorite magazines, particularly niche magazines that are geared to a hobby or interest. Not all advertising is evil, it's only untargeted, intrusive, and poorly thought-out ads that are bad.

Francis Hamit

Library databases include PDF files that reproduce the ads. Ads are content,too. You can download articles for free and print them out from a public library as "fair use" as long as it's for non-commercial purposes. These are the same databases that commercial firms pay big subscription fees to access. That has to do with a legal decision called "American Geophysical Union Vs. Texaco". This was a precedent case for the Tasini Decision, which is still not a settled matter.

Some people, myself included, have tried selling individual articles al la carte. It hasn't been a successful model. Here's the reality; if people don't want it, they won't download it, even if it's free. If they do need it, they will pay a reasonable fee for it as an e-book. Mine go for $4.99. That's for research-grade non-fiction.
I'm experimenting at Smashwords.com with some fiction designed for cellphones and ereaders (very short segments) on the "set your own price" plan and some non-fiction about freelance writing at a buck each. Those are part of a work-in-progress book offered on a cafeteria model.

We're still trying to figure this out, which means trying some experiments. Not all experiments succeed. Edison made about a thousand tries before he got the right filament for the light bulb.

Amazon Shorts sold everything for 49 cents. Some of the same articles are now on the Kindle for 80 cents. IMO Amazon Shorts didn't gain any traction from the low price. I think it hurt the brand. Perceived value is key here. What would you pay? And why?

Joe Wikert

Quite a few publishers, including my employer, O'Reilly Media, Inc., have their content in Safari and I don't think any of us would say this has hurt our brand. In fact, I'd argue the opposite. We're making sure our content is available as many ways as possible and I believe our customers appreciate that.

Francis Hamit

Your demographic is almost entirely early adopter geeks. Far different from the general public. Also, I imagine your material is a bit fresher than mine. Some of it dates back to the 90s. I tried all kinds of price levels going in and discovered that price does not drive sales; hence my comment above people not downloading free material if they don't want it. Another problem is standing out from the crowd with your material. Zipf's Principle of Least Effort plays a big role in the selection process. People do tend to take the first instance where they find what they are looking for as the place to buy it. There's not much comparison shopping, especially online. Perversely, the lowest price is not always the best price for an item. Those public library databases are free to users, but not all that convenient. Lexis-Nexis sells the same articles for three dollars each al la carte. My own research showed that my local public library's database subscriptions worked out to about four cents per citizen in the county per year, but there were less than ten thousand actual downloads from that pile of over 24 million articles, so each actual download cost the library system about $1.65. The original authors of these articles see none of that money, which is what the Tasini case was all about. The original publishers who did not pay for those rights get between 35 and 70 percent of those revenues, from tens of thousands of libraries worldwide. The copyright law badly need reform, but as long as 99 percent of the authors are so disinterested that they fail to register their copyrights, nothing will be done to change this. Something should be done because more information is distributed electronically now than ever before. Those who create content need to be fairly paid.

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