Mags enter digital age

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Long-promised and long in the making, the first digital distribution magazines-exact page-for-page replicas of the ink-on-paper product in downloadable searchable form-will come this summer.

Electronic distributor NewsStand will make the Harvard Business Review available to digital subscribers in June, while NewsStand competitor's qMags launches the first major consumer title-Hearst Magazines' November 2001 Popular Mechanics issue-in October. Other titles debuting on qMags are trade publications: Crain Communications' Ad Age Global (an Advertising Age sibling) and two as-yet-undetermined titles from CMP, a's investor.

Publishing technology providers such as qMags, NewsStand and Zinio Systems could provide an attractive alternative considering rising paper and postal costs.

For qMags, individual magazine publishers sell digital subscriptions. Subscribers get passwords to a secure portion of the qMags site, which contains an Adobe Acrobat-based magazine file.

For Popular Mechanics, yearly subscriptions to qMags' version of the publication will be the same basic price-$21.95-as its print version. Subscribers to both will pay an as-of-yet-undetermined premium.

QMags charges magazines 1.5 cents per megabyte per transmission. Qiosk President-CEO Richard Seet estimated that, depending on ad files, an average 100-page magazine would weigh in around 5 megabytes, and thus cost 7.5 cents. QMags will make money on service charges, which Mr. Seet said were less than 50 cents per transmission.

One possible complication is photographic rights. While many media companies rejiggered writer contracts to tie up rights in existing and future mediums, that issue is knottier when dealing with celebrity shots and celebrity shooters.

"[Photographer] Annie Leibowitz will not sign over her electronic use rights for anything," said Peter Meirs, Time Inc.'s director of alternative media technologies. (Time Inc. currently works with Zinio.)

Besides alienating readers, digital magazines that eliminate elements of the print version are not countable circulation under Audit Bureau of Circulations rules, Mr. Meirs said.

Advertisers, meanwhile, express concerns. "It just may fragment the readership a little bit more," said Eric Blankfein, VP-director of media planning at Horizon Media, New York, leading to fears advertisers won't be "sure if [they're] getting the same reader you would expect." qMags executives contend users of the digital product skew younger and more upscale than a magazine's typical readership, but Mr. Blankfein said this wasn't necessarily an incentive.

Mr. McGill said Popular Mechanics would not start charging advertisers until qMags-related circulation became "significant," around 10,000, he said.

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