Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Two new digital magazine apps suffer from using publishing solutions that cut production corners

It is sometimes hard to explain to some publishers what the difference is between native tablet magazine design and replica editions that are enhanced. For many, the end results look similar, and besides, do readers really notice a difference? Does a reader know that one magazine used InDesign to create its digital magazine, while another made a PDF and uploaded to a third party server?

I think the answer is that many readers do notice, but I will admit that there are probably some who simply don't, of it they do they don't really care.

There are two ways a publisher can create a tablet magazine: one involves using a digital publishing platform that creates interactive pages right in the software, another is to create an image file of a completed print magazine page (even if that page is sized to the tablet's specs) and then either upload that page to a third party server as is, or layer on top some interactive elements such as links, video, etc.

App Coder Magazine, the new digital magazine meant to be a showcase for Tapedition is an example of the PDF based method of creating a tablet edition. The app is buggy and prone to crashing. But once one gets the issue to download what one find is a simple image file for each page. For Tapedition, the idea is that if you design for the iPad's page specs it really doesn't matter that what the results are is simply a static page. The sales point is simple: you want a digital magazine we'll give you one.

The problem I have with this concept is that tablets are not just display devices. They can do more and so, therefore, should digital magazines. If these types of were limited to old Kindles then I could understand the attraction, but these PDF solutions are being presented as a solution to digital magazines to be read on the iPad (as well as Android tablets in some cases).

Another way to build digital magazines is to simply start with a replica edition of the existing print magazine and then layer on top of a PDF or JPG file interactivity. Many vendors that started with selling Flash flipbooks have been trying to move from their initial products into more sophisticated digital publishing solutions in this way.
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It is important to understand, though, this this movement didn't start with the iPad, but goes back a long ways. The big sales pitch by flipbook vendors has always been that a publisher could, if they wanted, to make their flipbooks more interactive. The idea was that these flipbooks would be housed on a publisher's magazine website and that the sales teams, in particular, could up-sell their customers to add links, video or other interactive features. A few did try to do this, but most found that it wasn't worth their efforts – neither readers nor advertisers were terribly attracted to these flipbooks found on magazine websites.

In fact, research backed up the first impressions. When asked which platforms they preferred, online flipbooks finished dead last – print was first, then either eReaders or tablets finished second depending on whether the question involved books (eReaders) or magazines (tablets).

That meant that if these vendors were to continue to sell their solutions they would need to be able to provide solutions that would move these flipbooks onto the iPad. The first job was to create a shell app to house the replica editions, then to move into more and more interactivity in order to convince publishers that they should continue to work with these vendors rather than hand off tablet editions to their own staffs.

NewspaperDirect has been a leader in this area. Their apps for major newspapers such as The Boston Globe ePaper are a long way from a simple replica edition.

Texterity, too, is trying to make the transition to the iPad. For many publishers, their first tablet editions are building built by the same company responsible for their online flipbooks. The enhancement that is Texterity brings is the same as NewspaperDirect: text versions of stories included with the replica of the print magazine. It is a step ahead of a plain Jane replica, but just barely.

One of the problems with these enhanced replicas is that their production is automated. This, of course, is seen as a positive by many publishers until they see the results. For instance, with the new tablet edition for Wisconsin Golfer the Texterity system interprets golf scores as phone numbers. So on a story where the golf scores are presented as 74-73-78-225 (three rounds of golf and the final score) the app sees this as a phone number and creates a link.

Because the sales pitch of replica makers is that the production process is automated it is doubtful that many of these companies will be able to survive when the majority of magazine publishers realize that they will need to be creating better, more interactive digital magazines, designed from the beginning to be read on the devices readers choose. But some will, I suspect, be able to make the transition. But right now, most of the results, from either DIY app makers like Tapedition, or from flipbook makers such as Texterity. are less than ideal.