Publishing: yet another industry clinging on to an outdated business model

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

One would hope that, after the much publicised issues that the music industry experienced whilst grappling with digital music distribution, other digital content producers would avoid making the same mistakes. Apparently that’s not so – at least not if the publishing industry is anything to go by.

I love books. Real books. Dead tree editions full of glorious photographs. I’ll even pay good money for them. But, for magazines and run-of-the-mill text content, I’m increasingly looking towards digital media.

Take, for example, a well-known personal computing magazine – PC Pro. Last week I was convinced that subscribing to the magazine would be a good idea but I don’t want a paper copy to carry around with me – I have a tablet computer for that – an iPad that, somewhat ironically, one of the magazine’s Contributing Editors, Jon Honeyball, convinced me to part with several hundred pounds to buy. Now the fact that it was Jon who “sold” the iPad to me is not really relevant – there are many reasons that was a good purchase and that’s the subject of another blog post – but I would hope that a computer magazine would be at the vanguard of digital publication. Unfortunately not – the answer I got from the magazine’s publishers was that if I wanted a digital copy, I could download an application from Zinio and read it that way.

Er… No thanks. I’ll just hold off on that and PC Pro will pick up one less new subscriber this month.

My problems with this approach to magazine distribution are threefold:

  • Apple provides me with iBooks – a perfectly good eBook reader with support for PDF documents and features such as brightness control.
  • If I buy a magazine from a shop, I can read it and then recycle it, store it (forever if I choose to), or give it to a friend to read (if they don’t mind getting their news/reviews a few weeks late) but the Zinio approach imposes digital rights management on me (or at least some form of copy control).
  • I don’t want another application just to read magazines – not unless its truly innovative and enhances my experience (as the Wired iPad application does by integrating content that’s not available in paper form, such as video).

Then there is newspaper publishing. I don’t buy a newspaper every day but I will read one of the free newspapers on the way to/from work, catch up on the latest news via the ‘net, and either my wife or I buy a newspaper most weekends. Even though my preferred newspaper is The Sunday Times, Murdoch’s paywall means I will not consume their online content because there is plenty of quality content available elsewhere (e.g. The Guardian website and podcasts such as Tech Weekly, or BBC News – either via the web or in their excellent iPad application). I did consider the Financial Times iPad application – and I even tried it whist it was free last month, but it didn’t give me enough to justify a regular subscription. I’m sorry to say that paid newspapers are a dying medium – which is a shame – as the standard of journalism available for free is not up to the same standards but there is just not enough there to convince me that parting with money to subscribe to a newspaper (physical or online) is a worthwhile investment.

Books on sale in WH SmithFinally, there are books. I’m not talking about coffee-table books here, but about normal books – the sort of thing you might see in WH Smith or Waterstones. I’m completely at a loss as to why the same book costs the same price, regardless of whether I buy a paperback copy or an e-book. Indeed, given that most of the books I buy tend to be on a “buy one, get one half price” or similar offer the digital versions actually cost more – ludicrous given that there are no printing costs, almost no distribution costs, and that the content creator (i.e. the author) gets paid less.

[Update: 6 August 2010 @13:06: My assertion that e-books cost around the same as paperbacks was based on Apple’s prices – I’ve since found that Kindle eBooks are available at a substantial discount, just as paper books from Amazon are]

I did actually buy an e-book last weekend: after my half-read copy of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street got soaked during a rainstorm on a camping trip, I downloaded the iBooks version and was soon reading again; but I can’t give it away when I’ve finished. Indeed, because e-books cannot be passed on to a friend or given to the charity shop, they have the potential to decimate the second-hand book trade, which should result in even more first-time sales – in itself a reason why the prices should be lower as book sales increase.

So it seems that publishers – be they magazine, newspaper, or book publishers – are clinging on to a business model that is in decline. I’m sure that we’ll have books on our shelves for many years to come, and printed magazines will survive a while longer (although their days are numbered) but newspapers are already suffering,  photojournalism has pretty much been killed off (the last NCTJ accredited photojournalism course has only just given a reprieve)., and real journalism (I mean journalism, not bloggers regurgitating press releases) is becoming increasingly endangered.

If only the publishers could learn from the music industry’s mistakes we might see something new, something innovative, something that makes people want to consume their content but, based on what I’ve seen recently, theres little evidence to suggest that they have learned anything.

9 thoughts on “Publishing: yet another industry clinging on to an outdated business model

  1. I understand the point you’re trying to make, but from your argument it’s the legacy business model that works. i.e. discounted books (2 for 1 offers), the ability to pass the publication on when you’ve finished with it, open source format (print!) etc…

    P.S. Not buying an iPad until I’d feel comfortable leaving it in open view by the pool or on the sand at the beach. (or until I’m allowed to use it during take off/landing and the last hour of a flight to the US).

  2. You make a fair point Mike – although publishers would reather we bought hardbacks than paperbacks anyway – and discounting is only to increase the numbers of paperbacks sold… if eBooks were priced competitively they could sell even more (with larger margins due to decreased overheads).

    As for cost of eBook reader (iPad, Kindle, whatever) – must admit it’s a bit valuable to use on the beach/poolside – but take-off/landing wasn’t too big an issue for me on European flights this week (no last hour restrictions) and there will be loads of lower-cost tablets available soon.

  3. Excellent article, I’m glad that I found it!

    Another tragedy in the decline of publishing lies in the legions of tremendously talented young authors who will never, ever be able to make a living selling their words. The Globe and Mail ran an excellent article last month on how online newsrooms are increasing the burnout rate for young journalists. And another publication (worst citation ever, forgive me) ran an equally interesting article on how freelance journalism is increasingly becoming a not-for-profit endeavour.

    Is it possible that print journalism will become obsolete in our life times?

  4. This post made me think about Flipboard which is a magazine which gets created from your social media network and stories are generated from this. It is specifically for the iPad. What do you think of this in relation to the publishing model and do you think they will adapt for this type of magazine? It can be found at:

  5. @Jim – I do use Flipboard and I like it a lot; however I do find that it falls down a gap between magazine and social networking client… it’s great for casual surfing but I’m not sure it’s the whole answer.

  6. Kindle prices are, in many cases, the same price or even more expensive than their physical counterparts. My understanding is that it’s because the publishers are able to set the retail prices of ebooks.

    Not everyone’s desperately clinging to an outdated business model, however. To my delight, .net magazine offer their subscribers free downloads of each issue, as unrestricted PDF files.

    Meanwhile, JK Rowling refuses to release her Harry Potter series, apparently due to fears of piracy, regardless of the fact that each book was scanned and tormented within hours of release.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.