Apple Takes Big Bite Out of Digital Subscriptions for Small Mags

    by Susan Currie Sivek
    March 7, 2011
    Photo by "Troy Holden":http://www.flickr.com/photos/troyholden/4153324306/ via Flickr


    Subscriber data is our lifeblood. If they're going to shield that from us, it's not going to work." -- Stephanie Wilkinson

    Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.


    Digital publishing seems like a great opportunity for independent magazines. Getting a new, highly focused print magazine onto the newsstand and into wide distribution is a huge challenge for independent publishers, especially on a tight budget. Being able to reach the public directly through digital technology would appear to be a great way to get around these limitations of print.

    Some independent magazines have tried to do this kind of outreach by creating digital editions and even dedicated apps for their publications. But with new restrictions on subscription opportunities — and the large portion of income from them that will now be claimed by Apple (30%), in particular — some indie magazines are reconsidering their digital efforts, and wondering whether they’re still worthwhile.

    Outsourcing App Development

    Independent magazines, unlike larger magazine companies, usually don’t have the resources to build their own digital editions or dedicated magazine apps in-house. They may instead work with external companies to create these and make them available online, often through Apple’s iTunes Store.


    The Bark has used an external developer to create its app

    One example of this situation is The Bark, an independent magazine about “modern dog culture.” The Bark’s magazine app was created by the company BlueToad. The app allows non-subscribers limited access to the print magazine’s content, while subscribers get full access.

    Right now, The Bark pays BlueToad 20 percent of the subscription revenue it generates through the app. Under Apple’s new plan for managing subscriptions through apps, an additional 30 percent will go to Apple. For The Bark, then, half of the money made by the app will go to Apple and the app developer.

    The Bark’s main focus, as a small magazine, is boosting its print circulation.

    “We’re using the app as an ad for the print magazine,” said Claudia Kawczynska, editor in chief. “The reason that the apps are so appealing is that it’s a newsstand, a platform where people can see this and try it out.”

    “People are so app-conscious these days — and I can see why — but it does hinder the development of good content to spread around,” Kawczynska said.

    Delaying the Digital Edition

    Stephanie Wilkinson, publisher of Brain, Child, a literary magazine focused on motherhood, said that readers have asked for a digital edition of the magazine for Kindle or iPad. The magazine has been exploring possibilities, but hasn’t yet created a digital version.

    “When we see announcements like Apple’s that look so punitive, it kind of disheartens us for jumping into the market right now,” Wilkinson said.

    Small publications also just don’t have the staff, time, or resources to explore every digital option available. Larger magazines and their owners often have entire divisions or subsidiaries that are dedicated to handling digital development and strategy.

    “Having so many different options for us to research slows us down,” Wilkinson explained. “We can’t devote one person full time to doing that kind of thing. If there was a clear path, it wouldn’t be so much of a financial obstacle, but primarily a division-of-mind problem.”

    Knowing Independent Magazine Readers

    It’s critical for highly targeted, small magazines to know their readers well. Independent magazines finely hone their content and advertising to attract a specific readership.

    That makes Apple’s iPad subscription plan a particularly hard sell for small magazines. Apple requires readers to opt into sharing their personal data with publishers, and many readers will likely choose not to share. Indies need that information for marketing, promotions and customizing content.

    “Subscriber data is our lifeblood. If they’re going to shield that from us, it’s not going to work,” Wilkinson said.

    Kawczynska doesn’t think the value of having a presence as an app outweighs the loss of subscriber data.

    “It’s such a restraint of trade,” she said. “The advantage is you’re able to be on the app — isn’t that sexy? But if you can’t get the product out there, it’s really quite worthless.”

    The Android Option

    Google’s One Pass program, announced soon after Apple revealed its subscription plan, seems likely to provide publishers more of that valuable information. It requires readers to opt out of sending their details to publishers, rather than opting into sharing. Plus, Google only takes a 10% cut of subscriptions.

    But Google doesn’t yet offer the slick shopping experience and familiarity of the iTunes Store. It also lacks the valuable, one-click access to the credit cards of the 160 million existing iTunes users.

    The App Dilemma

    Both Apple and Google’s plans seem to offer an opportunity for independent magazines to be available to readers on new platforms and spread reader awareness of their publications. But the additional costs, demand on limited resources, and lack of subscriber data may outweigh these potential benefits.


    Brain, Child magazine does not yet offer a digital edition

    “Those things probably are more advantageous to larger publishers than to smaller publishers like us,” Wilkinson said. “The way we reach people is not a broad, scattershot approach.”

    Brain, Child’s target audience of literary-minded mothers represents “the intersection of two markets that make a pretty small sweet spot. It’s a challenge to try to reach those people,” she said. “We would have to do a very careful calculation to see if the advantages outweigh the expense.”

    Both Kawczynska and Wilkinson are hopeful that additional competition will bring better alternatives for digitally distributing their independent magazines.

    “We hope our readers are patient as we sort it out,” Wilkinson said. “We have to see what makes sense for us as a business while maintaining our great connection with our readers.”

    Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.


    Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

    Tagged: android app developers apple apps google one pass independent magazines itunes subscriptions

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