GQ iPad sales figures came out the other day. They’re a bit confused. Initial reports read that 365 December “Men of the Year” iPad issue were sold. Later, VentureBeat clarified and wrote that 52,000 GQ Apple apps sold since December.
It’s a long way from 365 to 52,000 and as VentureBeat points out, GQ publisher Condé Nast doesn’t have a breakdown of which apps sold on which device. Meaning, Apple doesn’t provide analytics for anyone — let alone the publisher — to know whether they’re having success on the iPad or iPhone/Touch. This is a problem of course, and one that mobile analytics provider Flurry tries to reconcile.
But while 365 might be low, the iPad as magazine delivery system isn’t going to be the publishing savior hyped by hopeful insiders over the past few months. It’s been said before and is worth saying again: thinking a device saves an industry is a losing proposition.
Outside the novelty factor, few consumers who’ve left print for the Web are going to start paying for a magazine just because it’s on a new form factor. Once the novelty wears off, readers will settle back in where the content is free.
And while novelty can add incremental income, incremental income isn’t significant income. Listen to what GQ VP/Publisher Pete Hunsinger told the magazine trade publication min, “This costs us nothing extra: no printing or postage. Everything is profit, and I look forward to the time when iPad issue sales become a major component to our circulation.”
Hunsinger’s general point stands: digital product distribution is a great thing, but there are development and marketing costs with an iPad app so production isn’t a freebie. Besides, who among us expects him to come out, scratch his head and complain, “365? WTF?”
But compared to the hype of the iPad as a potential publishing bonanza, the implication of GQ’s sales numbers — be they 365 or 1,365 — are disappointing although I hedge with the caveat that it’s very early in the iPad’s lifecycle (about a million sold), and in publisher attempts to create something of value that people will pay for.
Most I talk to say it’s not magazine applications that are interesting, but video from Netflix and productivity applications like Apple’s iWork suite. This leads me to wonder if trying to recreate the magazine experience on a digital device is a bit of a fool’s errand. If it’s content people want, a Web browser sits about anywhere these days for people to get it.
Besides, we’ve played this game before.
The holy grail for Web designers has been the pixel perfect layout afforded in print design. A number of years ago some publications jumped to Flash in order to replicate print layouts but that experiment went nowhere. Publishing services like Issuu and Zinio are still trying to make that model successful today by giving content developers the means to replicate their print design in a Flash interface.
The results? Novel and interesting, but clunky from a usability standpoint. Don’t believe me? Try Sporting News Today.
There’s no doubt that magazine iPad apps do make content visually beautiful, but publishers are essentially asking readers to pay for a design iteration. Are there really enough people with such nuanced design sensibilities to make that a business model?
Of course, design and photo heavy magazines have a leg up in this regard. While Steve Jobs might be offering a world free from porn, I see Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue selling well. So too titles like Wallpaper, Dwell and Monocle that rely on the visual to begin with.
For the rest of us, our iPad apps need to be something in addition to content already available on the Web.
This includes supplemental material (eg., think datavisualizations and interactive graphics, photos that didn’t make the print or Web editions, audio or video clips, etc.) and actual applications (eg., geo-based and social networking services surrounding the content) that people will pay their few dollars for because they can’t get them anywhere else.
If we don’t do that, if we don’t add true and differentiating value separate from the content we already offer, we just spin our wheels playing with the next new thing that’s shiny and bright.