Monday, August 9, 2010

Publisher and developer share responsibility for quality of tablet magazines; The Atlantic Monthly appears in iTunes

It's Monday morning and the Zinio site is down for maintenance, pulling dozens of magazines offline and their publishers out of luck.

It is the risk one takes when depending solely on third party vendors for development and maintenance -- something many publishers who use flipbook vendors know only so well. (The Zinio site was down only briefly, and appears up now.)
Publishers who choose to outsource their app development -- that is, most of them -- are stuck between a rock and a hard place, just as they are with their print production, dependent on their abilities of their vendors, while scared to invest in the talent necessary to do the work themselves. Publishers are so used to the ins-and-outs of print production that they rarely sit back and think about all the little things that go wrong with the most traditional of formats: bad inking, pagination and binding, constantly price fluctuations, postal issues, and the like.

Overall third party vendors are getting fairly bad reviews for their work for the iPad. Zinio, for instance, which launched immediately, was rewarded for giving early iPad owners access to content. But the Zinio app still has no search function, is way too dependent on their own website, and is at the mercy of their own publishing partners -- not their fault, of course. As a result, the app already appears outdated and primitive.

For publishers who decide to go with third party developed branded apps, the choice of developer is, of course, crucial. It shouldn't need to be said, but the number of apps in iTunes is not a good guide to who is a good developer.

The Atlantic Monthly's new iPad app hit iTunes this weekend, the second iPad app to appear in iTunes from the developer RareWire, they have no iPhone apps. Who is RareWire? Good question, because their website offers few clues. A "contact us" page was created, but remains blank. A "Who Is" look up only reveals that the company website is registered to a Vancouver, Washington p.o. box.

As a publisher I get nervous when my vendors are invisible and hard to contact.

Which begs the question, why was this app developed? Is the magazine really committed to the tablet platform? Was this a freebie? Who knows? I guess all we can do is look at the app as it appears.

The Atlantic Monthly app costs $4.99 to download, about a buck off the cover price. It's doubtful iPad owners will cheer, however, since the magazine offers a one-year (10 issues) subscription price of $24.50, or $2.45 per issues -- once again iPad owners are paying a premium over print subscribers.

(Frankly, this is the fault of the aggressive circulation strategies publishers use to maintain their rate bases. After all, publishers would prefer to get more from their readers, but generally stick it to their single copy readers rather than their subscribers. Nonetheless, none of these pricing strategies make any sense to me. With distributor costs associated with single-copy, and postal costs associated with mail subscriptions, you would think publishers would be more aggressive with the iPad -- but I think this remains a leftover of "we won't make the same mistake we did with online by giving it away, so we'll charge the maximum".)

What is this? Oh, it is the first page
of a two-page spread ad. 

The first thing one notices with this app is that the portrait mode layouts are the same as the landscape, leading to confusion right out of the gate. The very first two-page spread looks fine in landscape, but makes no sense at all in portrait -- see examples left.

If the reader opens up the app in portrait mode it is difficult to navigate around by swiping because the advertising department did not provide the iPad edition with different ad copy for both portrait and landscape views. For a good example of how this should be handled, look at the Wired app's handling of advertising.

There is a navigation button to be found on the bottom of the page which when pressed opens up a thumbnail page toolbar, though the arrow intrudes on the page when in portrait mode.

The page turning navigation (swiping) is smooth and well done, as is the zoom controls. Once one gets used to navigating around the magazine the reader can become comfortable. Since the advertisers are probably getting the added iPad exposure for free they probably won't be complaining. But art directors (as well as the ad agencies) will not like knowing that their spreads don't really work if the reader stays in portrait mode.

(It gets worse the further you go into the magazine. For instance, the spread on pages 40 and 41 does not align, and this continues to occur on every editorial spread throughout the book.)

The app's handling of video is nice (see below). The problem with the video was that it was podcast quality and seemed like a complete after thought.

Left: an arrows shows the reader this article contains video;
Right: a video window embedded inside the page that allows for full page view.

In the end, this app does not feel like a commitment to the form, but rather a rudimentary first effort, possibly pushed on the publisher by the developer. It is hard to tell if the publisher is seriously committed to the tablet as a publishing form or was talked into this by either the developer or the editors. In either case, it is hard to get too excited about this effort.

One bad sign is the lack of screenshots in the iTunes store -- just one shot of the cover. There is also no link to the developers site with this app. The other app in iTunes from RareWire, for 435 South, does contain a link to the developer's website, so maybe this was a mistake.

A more thoughts on iPad publishing apps after the break.

Generally, iPad owners don't like paying for PDF versions of their magazines. A good example of this is the ACP Magazines app for Gourmet Traveller, an Australian magazine. While the app is free to download, it will cost you $5.99 per issue to get the content. The reviews in the U.S. iTunes store are brutal. Checking the Australian iTunes store the reviews are not much better, with six times more one-star reviews than five-star ones.

One comment that I found interesting was from an Aussie who wondered about publication timing. "I would have expected a digital version of a magazine to be available before the print edition. At the very least, you'd think that it would be available on the same day as the print one! Where's the latest issue?"

Even as late as 2007 I was getting hearing from a media owner that they felt articles should not be posted online until the print issues has mailed.

Publishers are facing these same timing issues with both smartphones and tablets. To way to have the most control is for the apps to be dependent on RSS feeds under the control of the publishers, as opposed to getting new apps through Apple's system. The other way to look at it, though, is to see the iPad as simply another newsstand and letting the issues hit as they will.

Getting this right on the iPad is essential as soon the whole system will become more complicated as tablets appear running the Android OS (as well as others). For those who think dealing with Apple is complicated, just wait for the other tablets to appear.