iPad newstand’s troubled birth

By Tim Dawson.

Searching the Apple Store for magazines can be a frustrating business.  Not only are they not sorted in a single place, but only a handful of the magazines that you might find on even a modest newsstand are available to buy.  And when you do find them, the prices – compared to print editions -are something of a lottery.  Some charge a fraction of the regular retail price; others charge rather more.

Publishing houses are slowly entering the market – Bauer has offered an iPad version of Empire since January, BBC Magazines offers Good Food and Focus for the iPad, Conde Nast’s Wired and Vogue have been in the market since November, Dennis has several of its tech titles available through the app store, and Future has its toe in the water with T3 and a selection of special publications available. Haymarket is offering Autocar and Stuff, while IPC has launched a Wallpaper* app.

This slow progress to market, however, is emblematic of the uncertain relationship that exists between established magazine publishers and the tablet market – and there are a handful of factors that preventing a settled market from emerging.

Who’s the daddy?

Last year Apple sold more than 15 million iPads – three quarters of all tablet computers sold thus far, but the company’s dominance may be transitory.  New devices appear almost daily, and there is a broad perception that Google’s Android could, within months, be a serious rival.  A subscription platform for that system is expected imminently.

Deal or no deal

Magazine publishers’ enthusiasm for Apple took a severe knock in February when the company announced its new terms of trade for publishers.  The 30% that Apple takes was already well-known.  Less enticing was Apple’s insistence that the price in the Apple store should be as good as any offered elsewhere, and that publishers would not be entitled to data about their own subscribers.  Since building a customer base to whom they have direct access is an increasingly important element of most magazine publisher’s business model, this came as a bitter and enduringly controversial position.

A towering success

No one so far has managed to make such a success of an iPad publication.  Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has gambled the most on publishing via the product but has, to date, yet to persuade analysts that it has been worth the candle.  Sales for the UK-based The Times and Sunday Times online and iPad editions appear to have been strong enough to keep the company interested, but not to set the market alight.  Meanwhile, in the US, figures have not yet been released for sales of The Daily.  An analysis of Tweets being genererated about its content by Neiman Labs, suggested that initial interest in the title had waned considerably after an introductory flurry.  If that is true, it mirrors the experience of publishers such as Wired and Men’s Health, where strong first-month app sales were followed by a steep decline in sales.

None of this is to say that the online magazine market will not take off, not that it is not worth investment.  The certainties that will allow a stable market to become established, however, seem a long way from solidifying.  In these conditions, self-produced, self-financed publications could gain a foothold, as the big players hang back, which in itself could make the tablet publishing market a more interesting and creative place that would otherwise have been the case, at least for now.  Those which endure, however, will almost certainly be those that are sufficiently fleet of foot to negotiate a business environment in which there is little certainty.