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Three Hard Questions for Print Publishers Drooling Over the Apple Tablet

It's Not Manna From Steve Jobs & Co. Yet

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Steve Jobs has reportedly called the Apple tablet "the most important thing I've ever done," but how important will it really be for print publishers seeking a new digital business?

Making tablet-ized versions, like the tricked-out interactive edition Sports Illustrated has envisioned, won't be as easy for publishers as pressing a button.
Making tablet-ized versions, like the tricked-out interactive edition Sports Illustrated has envisioned, won't be as easy for publishers as pressing a button. Credit: Time, Inc.
Already News Corp. and four of the biggest magazine companies -- Time Inc., Conde Nast, Hearst and Meredith -- have created a consortium called Next Issue Media to build a storefront where they want to sell versions of their regular issues tailored to all kinds of devices -- but especially the tablet.

But even some optimists say there are serious blanks that publishers consumers need to fill in first.

How fast can publishers deliver, and then deliver more?

Tablet editions will have to include the best of both print and the web, but mostly on a wireless connection -- a combination that threatens to make downloading an issue and playing with its many interactive features feel like using a slow website that costs money.

It isn't at all clear, for example, how quickly anyone could download an edition loaded with high-resolution photos and video in the first place. It will definitely require a lot more than the seconds of wireless beaming it takes for Kindle to suck a book in from the ether. And then tablet editions will need to include everything that consumers expect from digital media, including interactivity, video on demand, community. When users ask an ad to run a live price comparison, how long will they wait for the results?

"Speed is a big thing," said Gene Liebel, partner at the digital agency Huge. "Look at studies of how users value speed. They're able to tell the difference between 0.2 and 0.6 seconds and find it much more satisfying."

How much will publishers spend -- and how much will consumers?

Making tablet-ized versions, like the tricked-out interactive edition Sports Illustrated has envisioned, won't be as easy for publishers as pressing a button. They're going to have to devote staff, probably expanded staff, to grabbing each page as it's locked down for print, rendering photos and text in the format required for display on the tablet and adding all the extra elements consumers are going to expect.

But consumers will want lower prices than they're charged for print to reflect the absence of a physical product. Existing print subscribers may even expect to get the tablet version free.

And Apple, like Amazon with the Kindle before it, may exert some price pressure too. "Don't ever underestimate the ambitions of Apple in this scenario," said James McQuivey, VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Apple's going to look for exclusivity where they can get it. They're going to try to have influence over pricing where they can. If their device is a runaway success, they're probably going to be in a position to dictate some terms."

So it isn't obvious how soon the new revenue, from consumers or from the higher ad rates publishers think they can get for interactive ads in tablet editions, is going to even cover the costs involved, much less deliver manna from Cupertino, Calif.

"You've got to keep in mind you're not going to be selling a million copies of your digital subscriptions out of the gate," said one editor at a major magazine. "There may come a time when design and photo decisions are made with the tablet in mind, but right now it's still going to be the magazine as the horse and the tablet as the cart."

Conde Nast has sold 12,000 iPhone app versions of the January GQ, priced at $2.99, compared with 240,000 newsstand copies sold for $4.50. It says repeat customers will soon be able to get future issues for $1.99.

Wait, how long until the next issue?

Monthly magazines may have a particularly tricky pitch to make on tablets, which are, after all, digital platforms that people will use to constantly visit the real-time web. Tablet subscribers may well want "glossy" content more frequently than the existing print schedule provides it. Leave readers wanting too long and they're going to spend a lot of time on your free web site or someone else's, perhaps to wonder why they're paying for another bundle of content that only drops by once a month.

"It's just not digital behavior to be loyal to something that's only fresh one day a month," said Mr. Liebel. "On those other 30 days, all the competitors that are free have you back in your browser."

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