Tablets Demand Magazines Rethink Themselves

Magazines suddenly became an interest of mine this morning while reading Instant Millionaires [non-affiliate Kindle link] by Max Gunther. This is why I love Gunther’s books: they stimulate thought.

No one sees a future for magazines in the digital age. Why a magazine when it can be done with a website? What I discovered is that what others see as a weakness of a magazine is also its greatest strength. But because I might use this idea for myself, I will not elaborate beyond that.

This led me to investigate magazines on the NookColor and iPad this morning. As usual, not owning either (yet), I did my in-depth investigations on store demo models.

I don’t have any NookColor screensnaps, but I do from the iPad. But I will discuss both.

The NookColor screen is just gorgeous, period. It lends itself very well to typical magazine gloss. I downloaded two samples of women’s magazines plus Guideposts (a magazine I know from print ages ago). I chose those because they are more design-heavy than male magazines and also feature a ton of ads too. I selected Guideposts especially because of its printed-version size.

NookColor currently offers ninety-three magazines. All of these magazines seem to be PDF-like with proprietary Barnes & Noble extensions. This is both good and bad.

The good: You see the full design of the printed magazine and miss nothing.

The bad: Print design does not translate well to a screen, period. It especially doesn’t translate well when that screen is smaller than the printed magazine paper.

Barnes & Noble tries to overcome text being too small to comfortably read (even on that very sharp screen) by offering Article Mode. This is akin to Readability. It pops up a separate window with the text and illustrations reformatted for easier reading. It’s annoying. It’s like having to pull out a magnifying glass to read.

This is also the case with Guideposts magazine, which — if they didn’t change their format in over a decade, when I last saw the printed version — is nearly a 1:1 translation.

It doesn’t matter how sharp the screen is. There is just something very annoying trying to read a magazine-like layout on a screen, even when the text is readable. Something just feels very, very wrong.

The sharpness of the NookColor screen is evident when doing pinch-out zoom on one of those glossy highly-designed cosmetic ads. It’s stunning to see such detail without noticing any pixels. If the iPad 2 comes out with a similarly-sharp display, it will stun millions too. There’s just no contest between the NookColor and current iPad screen. The NookColor wins.

The demo model of the iPad obliged me by already having two sample magazines installed on it. One from Martha Stewart, another was Geo.

The Stewart magazine had an interesting motion cover. A pink flower (carnation?) blooming. It also faded into a nice loop.

But the Stewart magazine was also an absolute disaster!

First, there were instructions on how to navigate it. Say what? Look, if you’re selling a magazine, people expect that user interface. Why go and screw up people’s heads with something different?

Second, I couldn’t tell when to scroll or when to swipe. And scrolling in some instances led to a horror show like this:


Click = big


Click = big

Look, ma! No bounce!

Why should anyone wind up with half a screen of blank gray?!

Then there was Geo, which gave us this:


Click = big


Click = big


Click = big

It’s nice that electrons are free, by why all the white space? When we read from screens, we are used to what we see on the screen we use all the time: The Internet. No website would last for long wasting so much real estate. And that print must be pretty on paper, but on a screen, it’s just too damned small. Also, the entire effect is like looking at a static PDF. Which makes me wonder if magazines think they can succeed just by doing a PDF dump of their pre-print files. I don’t think they can.

This kind of thinking also spilled into a children’s book in ePub:


Click = big

Look at how the page doesn’t fill the screen and part of the other page bleeds over.


Click = big

Navigating this was a total disaster. It wants to display two pages at a time, like an open printed book. That leads to this horror:


Click = big

Getting stuck between two pages! Say what?!

I don’t think any child would find this experience enjoyable. It’d be frustrating as hell.

Another part of my testing was downloading a PDF from the Internet Archive. It has every issue of a great magazine most of you have never heard of: Processed World. This classic magazine — which I once subscribed to, that’s how highly I thought of it then — is now available for free in PDF form.

I was really, really looking forward to reading these some day on an iPad, but this is what happened with the test PDF I downloaded:


Click = big


Click = big

I got nuthin’! Say what?

Steven Troughton-Smith says he thinks the Internet Archive is using the JPEG-2000 format, which iOS does not support. This is a tragedy. It puts so much of the free Internet Archive out of reach of the iPad — which is ideal to read them on! I hope Apple will consider adding JPEG-2000 support to its iBooks software so everyone can take full advantage of the Internet Archive.

It wasn’t worth it to me to try that PDF on the NookColor. I already knew it wouldn’t display from a past test.

It might seem like the Processed World test doesn’t fit in here, but it does. PDF is a cheap way for niche publishers to test the electronic publishing waters. Should they wind up using JPEG-2000, they’d be screwed. And this does make me wonder if this disability of iOS is something Android tablets might exploit to their benefit?

Finally, I tried to check out a new magazine available for the iPad in the App Store: Hoodgrown [iTunes link]. I follow the publisher on Twitter and it’s been interesting reading.


Click = big

Unfortunately, even though the magazine is free, it’s not something I could download onto a demo iPad. The App Store wanted me to sign in with my account to get it, and that’s not something I’m willing to do on a public machine!

I can’t comment on Hoodgrown, not having used it. But the publisher has tweeted that he doesn’t think 7″-screens (like the ones on the NookColor and Galaxy Tab) are good for magazines.

Well, having tried some magazines today, what’s become clear to me is that publishers have to rip up their models of what constitutes a magazine, period. Just taking print — or print models — and dumping them to the screen isn’t a wise course of action. The screen has made us expect certain things. Screen design does not translate well to print. And print design does not work on a screen. These are entirely different models, different vocabularies and grammar.

There really should not be an insurmountable barrier to designing a magazine for the screen that would work well on both a 7″ 16:9 screen and the iPad 9″ 4:3 screen. All it takes is thought. And thought is what was missing in the samples I tried today.

1) If you’re going to frame your product as a magazine, use the interface people expect.

2) Stop thinking you can get away with dumping pre-print files onto the screen and expect that to work.

3) Throw out printed magazine design and learn screen design.

The screen is the future. Magazine publishers who don’t understand this are following resistant print book publishers down the path to ruin.

At Barnes & Noble, I made a point to stop at its huge magazine stand. I picked up several different magazines and wondered how they would translate to the screen.

Many of those magazines will never make the transition. They will go out of business. Because they are competing against nimble websites that can deliver the goods faster and fresher and mostly for free.

The few magazines that understand where their strength lies will make the transition — but they won’t look like their printed heritage at all.

Finally, Hoodgrown magazine raised an interesting question in my mind.

Just recently Apple informed European publishers that they can no longer use the App Store to give away the electronic versions of their printed product. Apple doesn’t like not getting its 30% cut of the action.

Hoodgrown is being given away for free right now. I wonder how long Apple will let them get away with that?

This brings up a very thorny issue. Because the more I think about it, the more the Hoodgrown model makes sense: Give the magazine away for free and support it via advertising.

But how does Apple — or any newsstand — make money that way?

This is a conflict that needs resolution. And it better be resolved soon because not everyone is going to give magazine publishers the subscription prices they’re expecting to fetch. People will go to free alternative websites, further undermining the chances for survival of all magazines.

8 Comments

Filed under Android, Barnes & Noble Nook, Digital Overthrow, iOS

8 responses to “Tablets Demand Magazines Rethink Themselves

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Tablets Demand Magazines Rethink Themselves « Mike Cane's xBlog -- Topsy.com

  2. Steve W, Indialantic FL

    “…the more I think about it, the more the Hoodgrown model makes sense: Give the magazine away for free and support it via advertising.

    “But how does Apple — or any newsstand — make money that way?”

    Apple makes money by selling iPads. The other newsstands….

    BTW: Since you seem to be an expert, maybe you can answer this question: What percentage of the newsstand price does Barnes and Nobles get for magazines printed on paper? Is it more or less than 30%?

    • mikecane

      I don’t know what B&N’s cut is. Apple makes money by selling iPads but they’re still kicking off the digital versions of print editions that are offered for free.

  3. As far as I’m concerned, you’re right on the mark here. It seems strange that magazine publishers haven’t figured this out yet until you stop and think that they’ve got absolutely no interest in doing so.

    It’s the same story being played out in media after media, today’s big players don’t stand to benefit from the opportunities that new technology has delivered. Their flawed strategy is to delay as long as possible, maximizing earnings from existing business, while dabbling in new media with the hopes of making a switch as late as possible when the pot is sweeter.

    Too bad for them, I’ll bet on new and more nimble players who realize what big media has (deliberately?) overlooked and who will steal that future from them before they can even get there.

    I’m not following this very closely anymore, but neither have I seen any magazine on a tablet that seems to have been designed for the experience it should be. I hadn’t heard of Hoodgrown, either, so I might check it out.

    In the meantime, I look forward to seeing where you might go with this.

  4. The main problem with the Cane-thesis is that its not “the screen that is the future” but “a screen is the future”….. there is no one ideal digital environment for magazines. Currently the iPad is the best, but a magazine-designer, or a magazine-publisher has the difficult task of designing a magazine that will work well in any number of soon to be announced screen formats and with a variety of clever touch interfaces (each of which will be pretty intuitive if you have played or gamed with a few apps on the device). The magazine designer of 2012 has to design a ‘virtual publication’ which will manifest itself well in subtly different ways in different environments.

    • mikecane

      Yes, but they can still do better *now* instead of doing what they’re doing.

      • Magazine publishers have consistently underestimated the threat and the opportunity that they have with digital subscriptions to services that have to be worth paying for, if you are going to charge for them.

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Tablets Demand Magazines Rethink Themselves « Mike Cane's xBlog -- Topsy.com

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