Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Publishers and vendors alike debate the merits of free digital issues for paid print subscribers, but readers are pretty consistent in their opinions

For the past two weeks I have been quietly calling up a randomly chosen group of publishers and vendors to get their opinions about the issue of charging print subscribers for digital issues. I wanted to know whether the issue came down to technology, costs or business philosophy.

I'd like to report that I found a definite answer, but instead I found that publishers and vendors alike have their reasons for supporting one approach or another.

There are at least three reasons why publishers told me that they believe publishers should charge print subscribers for digital editions:

Bonnier charges print readers for digital editions.
  • A few publishers expressed the view that readers should be charged, period. One said that they, publishers, made a mistake giving away their web products, and they weren't going to make that mistake again.
  • One publisher (and at least one vendor) mentioned that since their digital editions were enhanced, or completely redesigned, they really weren't charging print customers for the same product. The way they saw it, their digital editions (usually for the iPad) were new digital publications.
  • Another issue concerned technology: these publishers simply were not equipped to authenticate subscribers and so the easy way out involved charging everyone
MSLO gives print readers access
to their digital editions free.
Vendors often had good reasons to promote charging print subscribers, as well:
  • Some replica makers employ a revenue share approach. At least one vendor still encourages their publishing customers to charge for their apps. But most do not, but instead share revenue on digital subscription sales. This approach leads to lower up front costs for the publisher, though the resulting product is usually not very reader friendly.
  • One vendor that provides native design solutions subscribed (if you will) to the idea that the native tablet editions were separate products from print and therefore should be charged.
In the end, most arguments for charging, though, seemed to be heavily built into the sales process: digital editions will make publishers money so charge, charge, charge.

Publishers who allow print subscribers to log into their accounts to obtain their digital issues free of charge were generally larger in size. For them, the added costs of authentication was almost an afterthought, the key was keeping those print readers subscribing.

I did not come across any vendors who were strongly in adamant in their view that publishers should offer digital editions free to print subscribers, but the few that were leaning that way saw it as a way to help out the circulation folk.

Despite the wide range of opinion among publishers and vendors, readers are consistent in their dislike of the paid strategy. Even a well-designed digital edition gets a large number of one-star reviews in the App Store if the app requires print subscribers to pay again.

The argument that a natively designed tablet edition should be paid for has merit, but if the print subscriber can not see that the digital edition is different, better, it is difficult to make the reader see the logic in double paying. Free preview issues and well written app descriptions can help here.

The pro-pay argument fails when the digital edition is a replica, however. In fact, since most replicas are less readable, an argument could easily be made that these digital editions should be discounted. But in many cases, the publishers I spoke with appeared to have outsourced everything including strategy to their vendors. One simply said "I don't worry about it, I leave it to the experts." This was more than a little cringe inducing.

Like the issue of website paywalls, I have my opinions but am open to experimentation. In general, if the publisher is producing a unique digital product it makes sense to require the reader to pay. On the other hand, a replica is specifically sold on the idea that it is an exact copy of the print product, so charging again for it makes no sense to me (or the reader).

But that leaves a lot of middle ground. Some publishers simply want to retain, and if possible growth their audiences. So keeping print customers happy is a large reason to create the digital editions – not to mention the thought of reaching new readers.

It probably needn't be mentioned that no one advocated free digital editions for everyone. Yet several media companies have launched media apps for the iPad and Android that are, indeed, free. In just about every case, these tablet editions were reformatted versions of their free website. The Washington Post's news app for the iPad comes to mind.

Launching a paid tablet app might be problematic for those media companies once the decision is made.