Most publishers will unashamedly admit that their initial efforts to produce digital editions were simply to port the print magazine directly to an electronic platform and economically expand distribution.

Now, however, both vendor and publisher are preparing for the next wave of digital magazine formats‚ primarily mobile platforms, but also a general evolution away from a literal translation of a magazine in digital format.

Fundamentals of Format and Performance

Mike Alic, VP of Advanstar’s electronic media group, says his company dipped its toes in the digital edition space by producing their own homegrown products. That was in 2003. Advanstar has since switched to Nxtbook, but has kept costs low and distribution a high priority. Alic says Advanstar now has about 37 brands in digital editions with circ ranging from 15,000 to 150,000. "Our main determinants were cost and we didn’t want to require the user to download anything," he said. "We initially wanted to take the magazine layout and put it online. We just wanted to be able to do it at a low cost and extend our reach into ancillary and international markets. For now, we’re using the standard options that are available."

Amy Coronato Osborn, executive director, digital media, at Questex Media, says her company’s publishers can choose their own digital edition vendors, there’s no common platform. Nevertheless, Texterity and Nxtbook have been the two primary suppliers supporting about 25 magazine brands that average about 25 percent of total circulation. But Osborn echoes Alic’s preferences for simple, reliable performance. "It initially came down to cost, loading speed and clarity on screen. But the loading speed is probably the number-one thing I hear from the publishers."

U.S. News and World Report made a splash in January when it launched its U.S. News Weekly digital edition. Currently, the product is about to break the 100,000 subscriber barrier‚ with a mix of print subscribers who get the digital edition for free, and subscribers paying $19.95 per year.

Executive editor Margaret Mannix said they decided to build a PDF product in-house rather than seek out a supplier, mainly to maximize opportunities for adjusting content and design on the fly. Mannix said editors and designers are closely watching reader reaction to the product and tweaking editorial and layout as consumer demand dictates. "We found that the format allows us to change features and formats and make it easier to read, and also give readers content quicker."

However, the layout is based on a horizontal, landscape format. "We noticed it had a very nice feel to it as you read across the screen," said Mannix. "It allows us to do many things with the grid. We’ve templated the stories and can put it together very quickly."

What’s Next

Going forward, Mannix said U.S. News is working on a mobile format for the weekly edition that will also be paid. Advanstar’s Alic says Nxtbook is also exploring ways to take digital editions to the next level. "Our vendor is thinking about the next generation of their platform and to break away from the literal translation of a magazine online, and I think that’s worthwhile."

And it’s looking like that "next generation" of digital editions will attempt to provide a seamless transition from device to device. The crux for vendors however, is maximizing format portability for anywhere-anytime availability while servicing a publisher’s need to keep costs low. "Our challenge here is publishers want to keep costs down," said Keith Nichols, SVP technology at digital edition provider Zinio. "As we all begin to implement a multidevice strategy, we’re working with publishers to standardize content input while dealing with all the technical implications of what the devices can support."

In the meantime, says Nichols, consumer demand is quickly forcing the hand of publishers and vendors to match content for both the device and experience the user wants. "You’re reading a magazine for a certain purpose," he said. "When you have that same publication on an iPhone or Blackberry or any other handheld device, you’re not looking for flipping pages‚ you want to finish a specific article. Readers are engaging with microbursts of information, not enjoying the entire document."