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Issue for September 2011

Beware the Kindle!

Posted on Monday, September 19, 2011 at 2:05 PM

The Kindle and other e-reader devices could become threats to any publisher's business model.

By William Dunkerley

Worlds may collide if the e-reader continues to advance rapidly in the marketplace. Certainly, e-readers represent an enormous breakthrough in reading technology. And the jump from paper to e-reader is nothing less than revolutionary. This could benefit publisher and consumer alike. It's hard to name a publisher that should not be providing content via e-readers these days.

So where do the "colliding worlds" come into the picture? And just what worlds are they?

I'm talking about the sometimes conflicting worlds of publishers and e-reader producers. According to my analysis, they may be on a collision course.

Before I describe that course, let me tell you about an experience that brought this possibly impending problem into focus. It was a self-taught crash-course in Kindle publishing.

The Sad Kindle Saga

A few months ago, it occurred to me that Amazon's Kindle platform could possibly become very utilitarian for magazine publishers. It turns out that Kindle publications can be read without an actual Kindle in hand. You can read them on a PC, a Mac, an iPhone or iPad, an Android, a Windows Phone 7, or a Blackberry.

This means that if you publish something in the Kindle format, it can actually be read on many of the most popular e-reader devices, including the Kindle. That gives you access to a wide audience.

So what could you publish for this rapidly broadening Kindle audience? You might put together a group of thematically related articles and publish them as an e-book. This could be a good way of monetizing archived content. And, as a Kindle publication, the e-book would automatically go on sale at Amazon.com.

Or, how many times have you published an article that basically summarizes a wider body of information? You might produce a longer Kindle version that includes all that extra information. It would be convenient for readers and an opportunity for you to monetize otherwise unused content.

We wondered how easy or problematic it might be to produce a Kindle publication, so we set out to do just that. We decided upon a 5 x 8 format, as the size of the Kindle and other e-readers doesn't lend itself to standard magazine size. We thought a publication designed in the smaller format would be a better fit for the small devices.

Well, what we found is that the process is more problematic than easy. In fact, it seems almost impossible to create an effective page design and have it display properly on the Kindle platform. The Kindle doesn't follow normal guidelines of typography -- basic things like spacing and alignment. That is readily apparent when you look at many of the currently available Kindle books. Their appearance can be enough to make an experienced designer or layout artist ill.

Can the Problem Be Fixed?

We tried to bring concerns regarding our design issues to the Kindle publishing group. But what we got in return were slow answers, incorrect information, and technically flawed solutions. It was not a good experience.

Here's one example: Our design used chapter titles that started partway down the page. We found that the Kindle was able to display this spacing. But when we opened the pages on the Kindle for PC app, the spacing disappeared. The Kindle publishing group's solution? Take out the extra spacing!

This response, as it turned out, seems emblematic of Kindle's general philosophy regarding layout: that they should determine how a publication will look on Kindle, not the publisher. And, unfortunately, they don't favor the established precepts of typography, which facilitate the best possible reading experience.

There seems to be an expectation that publishers should tailor their content to Kindle's specifications. I'm not talking about matters of technology-related limitations that might influence design, but things within the realm of technical possibility for devices like the Kindle.

As a publisher, however, I look at the Kindle as a substrate for my content. I wouldn't expect a paper manufacturer to tell me where on the page my article titles should be, so it's troubling that this electronic substrate provider would do so. It seems like the Kindle folks are mandating design choices that are either more convenient for them or that arise out of their inattention to good design principles.

Do You See the Impending Collision?

There is a fundamental question of who is providing a service to whom. Are the electronic substrate providers supposed to be service vendors to the publishers? Or are the publishers just supposed to assume the role of adding value to the e-reader products? In a sense, this Kindle perspective is similar to that of some online subscription services that impose their own mandates upon us publishers.

For an analogy, think of the ubiquitous vending machines for snacks. They appear designed to dispense snacks in a range of sizes and shapes. The snacks' diverse packaging styles reflect what the snack providers perceive is convenient for the consumers, and sometimes also represents part of the branding image. But what if the vending machine manufacturer were to say that all the snacks had to be packaged in potato chip–style bags. How far would that go? Who's going to want to eat a chocolate bar out of a potato chip bag?

Like snack providers, publishers should have enough control over the characteristics of their products in order to effect the consumer experience they want to achieve. And in publishing, those characteristics are typography and layout. Simply presenting words in a format that ignores established, effective layout practices should not be acceptable.

But It's Even Worse Than That

When we get involved with the e-reader providers, we're getting involved with the computer industry, which employs a practice that is quite alien to that of the publishing industry: planned or evolved obsolescence. Much of the computer industry depends on selling new versions of existing products to consumers who have been using older versions.

What's more, it often becomes impossible to continue using the older versions, even if you wanted to do so. If you have a favorite old 1998 car, you can still drive it on the roads and get it serviced when something goes wrong. But if you have vintage 1998 software, you may not be able to run it on your new computer operating system.

Today's publisher needs to expect an ongoing parade of new e-reader devices. Typically, each one will require you to produce a specialized app and, likely, a customized publication design. The parade will gain momentum not only because of technical advances, but also because of planned obsolescence.

In publishing, we've grown accustomed to the stability of using paper as a substrate. It hasn't required us to produce multiple designs or keep coming up with new ones. The e-reader substrate will.

One result of that will be expenses that we've not had before, ones that will be difficult for us to control. These expenses will arise at the will and pleasure of the e-reader providers.

But there won't be new revenues for us. The e-reader parade will create new publisher expense without significant new publisher revenue. That means that publishing will become less profitable. Just think of where that will lead us: cuts in product quality, cuts in compensation, diminished consumer satisfaction. It's not a pretty picture.

There's also the possibility of e-reader providers jumping into the publishing business. If they view content as just a commodity, and believe they can produce that commodity less expensively than the publishers, they might figure, "Why not do so?"

So What's Next?

Does all this woeful speculation mean that we shouldn't get involved with e-readers? Of course not. That would be impractical.

But it is time for the publishing industry to recognize the evolutionary paradigm that it is up against. And it needs to assert some control over the situation now, while there's still time.

The publishing industry needs to establish typographic and design specifications that e-reader providers will have to follow. Our published material should conform to these standard specifications. And if the bulk of content is available only in that standard, the e-reader providers will have to adapt themselves to it.

That's certainly better than publishers being led around by the nose by the e-reader providers, a situation that would diminish the publishers' sustainability.

I'm going to send a copy of this article to the Association of Magazine Media (formerly the Magazine Publishers of America) and Association Media and Publishing (formerly the Society of National Association Publications) with the suggestion that they develop and promote specifications that will set the standard. I'll also send a copy to the Kindle people to get their reaction. I'll let you know what response, if any, I receive from any of these parties.

Action taken now can avert the possibility of worlds colliding. That will be a clear benefit for all concerned.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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Amazon and Digital Magazines

Posted on Monday, September 19, 2011 at 2:05 PM

In the news: Will Amazon try to drive magazine business away from the iPad 2?

Amazon, long associated with discount books and the Kindle, is charging full speed ahead into the tablet market. In November, the online retail giant will release its answer to the iPad 2 in the form of a Kindle tablet. Like Barnes and Noble's Nook Color, the Amazon tablet will be a tablet/e-reader hybrid. Users will be able to download Kindle e-books to their devices, surf the Internet, and e-mail-all for an attractive, competitive price of about $250.

But Amazon isn't stopping with e-books. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is currently exploring its options in the magazine and newspaper industries in hopes of offering subscriptions and single copies of various publications. If successful, this venture could challenge Apple's steep publisher fees and device prices. Read more here and here.

Also Notable

Three-Dimensional Reading

Last month, Precision Media Group president and magazine industry veteran Bo Sacks discussed the new world of three-dimensional reading in our sister newsletter, Editors Only. In his article, Sacks discusses how information retrieval and the act of reading have changed. He believes that the next generation will be able to "think in 3D . . . They can be reading and clicking hither and yon, while learning and jumping from topic to topic in a system that linear people of the world can never truly understand." Read more.

This Decade in Newsstand Sales

MediaPost recently published the findings of its analysis of Audit Bureau of Circulations newsstand sales data. According to their findings, "combined newsstand sales of 68 major American magazines declined by nearly half [from $22 million to $11.5 million] between 2001 and 2011. All but ten of the magazines saw revenue declines, and the lucky ten generally saw modest growth. Perhaps most jarring, MediaPost finds that sales of many women's magazines (including Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart Living) fell by over 60 percent. Read more.

When Magazines Digitize

More and more magazines are becoming digital-only, says Matt Kinsman in a recent Foliomag.com article. Recently, Linux Journal released its final print issue in response to rising print and distribution costs. Readers of the computer industry magazine have mixed feelings. Some outright reject the abandonment of print, citing clunky formatting of PDF editions and limited value of the digital edition. Others look forward to the magazine's digital future, citing the potential for more interactive content. Read more.

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