The growing swell of e-reader and tablet devices has reached deluge proportions—and if the population at large didn’t know it, Apple’s iPad debut will help mainstream the concept. Yet the platform is still very young, not yet driven by consumer preferences. Manufacturers and publishers alike are testing the waters even as the technology rapidly develops beyond what has already been released. In the meantime, publishers are working with whatever they can get their hands on—as long as content production complexities don’t get out of control—all while keeping a close eye on usage metrics.
The driving factor for early-adopter publishers is if these devices catch on with consumers they want to be there when it happens. Again, it’s all about keeping up with the anywhere/anytime consumption privileges readers expect in a fractured media environment. “We’re fundamentally trying to make sure we’re on all the devices that people use to consume this content,” said Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations at The Atlantic. “We don’t want to guess who’s going to win or lose, we want to make sure you can read The Atlantic everywhere.”
The Atlantic, which, said Havens, has about 10,000 readers of the magazine on the Kindle, recently started selling short fiction on the device as well. The magazine will also begin testing a paid model for blog content, too. Havens has also done deals with Plastic Logic, developer of the Que, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and the Sony Reader.
How the Content Gets Produced
Infrastructure is a potential pain point for publishers. Right now, the process of feeding content to e-reader and tablets involves setting up a feed to the provider. Havens set up an RSS XML feed for Amazon that’s built according to the retailer’s specifications and files get pulled directly out of The Atlantic’s CMS.
Other manufactures use a middleman to reformat PDFs into a proprietary format. Sony and Barnes & Noble, for example, use an outfit called LibreDigital for file conversion. There is no fee to the publisher, said Havens. The device manufactures pick up the tab.
While this might sound straightforward, there is no common file format among the devices, which makes publishers nervous—even as they’re eager to sign up with whatever device comes their way. For now, this is solved by shipping hi-res PDFs. “Most of the partners we deal with use a third-party that does the more challenging production work,” said Stephan Scherzer, EVP and GM for IDG’s PCWorld and Macworld group, who relies on his print production team to traffic the files. “I send them a hi-res version and they turn it into whatever format they need. As long as we just need to send out PDFs I’ll adopt as many platforms as possible. This could scale, but it will only make sense if we don’t have to do a lot of customization.”
Gil Fuchsberg, president of Skiff, which has developed its own platform and device technology, said that well-formed XML will put the publisher ahead of the game, but PDFs work well too. The company works directly with the publisher to create a format and layout that can range from a straight rip from a PDF to a more hands-on approach. “We’re marrying the digital assets with a set of design goals that are agreed on and driven by the publisher. So, there’s some flexibility. We want to make it easy to participate, so we have a turnkey approach and there are others where they can get more involved.”
There’s an App for That
In the meantime, publishers have also been porting a growing supply of content as apps to Apple’s iPhone platform, all of which will be readable on the company’s new iPad tablet. Publishers will nevertheless be working to upgrade their content to take advantage of the iPad’s larger 9.7-inch touch screen and interactivity.
Conde Nast is a bit ahead of the game after debuting a full issue of GQ last November. The December issue was downloaded just over 6,000 times, and the January issue was double that. The apps cost $2.99, but usage metrics appear very promising.
A Conde Nast spokesperson said readers averaged 83 minutes with the apps, which is remarkably high—higher even than the 73 minutes MRI measures for the print edition.
A spokesperson said the 83-minute average was pulled from actual metrics, not from a survey-based method.
Yet digital edition providers such as Nxtbook Media, which have already had iPhone reader applications available, are seeing much different usage metrics.
Marcus Grimm, marketing director for Nxtbook, said iPhone users spend the most time with digital editions—more than three and a half minutes. “Blackberry readers were next a just over two and a half minutes,” he said in an email to FOLIO:.
From there, the number of pages viewed varies widely, said Grimm. Factors that influence those metrics include how often the publisher markets the content and what percentage of its audience is on one of these devices. “The single best performing title I found was one that has received seven percent of their page views from mobile devices since November of last year,” he said. “This is a publisher who receives about 3,000-5,000 digital magazine readers per issue. We would expect this number to grow quite a bit in the [coming] months.”