Magazines on Demand

A couple of months ago I wrote about storing your data “in the cloud.” Now Hewlett-Packard wants publishers to store magazines in the cloud and make them available on demand. These days, a “publisher” is anyone who posts content online, so that means you.

Thanks to colleagues in the Northern California chapter of the National Speakers Association (NSANC), I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on MagCloud at HP Labs today. NSA member Ian Griffin used MagCloud to create the first issue of Professionally Speaking” and send it to NSANC members.

MagCloud prints on heavy 80-lb matte stock rather than the flimsy paper used by most magazine publishers. I compared “Professionally Speaking” with the assorted business magazines piled up on my desk and with the Better Social Media Communication Results newsletter my colleague Lee Hopkins published on an offset press. The MagCloud product compared favorably to both, particularly for printing photos.

The text didn’t seem as crisp or black as that in the BetterComms newsletter, but that may be a function of the resolution of the PDF file uploaded to create “Professionally Speaking,” or perhaps the font color or style, because the body text in HP’s own MagCloud Publisher Guide is as clear and sharp a black as anyone could wish for. (You can download a free PDF version of that to help you set up your own MagCloud publication.)


HP Indigo Printer (cutaway view) MagCloud Publisher Guide

Many POD book publishers use the same HP Indigo printers that produce MagCloud’s magazines. We looked at an Indigo 3000 in the Color Lab, but that’s already been superseded by newer, faster models that push the break-even point versus offset printing to 5,000 copies. (That means that unless you’re printing 5,000 or more copies, HP Indigo technology, and by extension MagCloud, is more cost-effective than offset printing.) Even the older model is impressive—more than seven feet tall, yet amazingly compact and tidy for industrial production. Ordinary inkjets, laser printers, and even offset presses use 4-color printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (abbreviated “K” for reasons I can’t remember). The Indigos use six colors, either the standard CCMMYK of photo printers like my Epson Stylus Photo 1280, or Pantone spot colors. They’ll print on practically anything, including plastic cards, and the samples we saw were beautiful. I don’t think I will add one to my “covet” list, though: the PG&E bill would go through the roof, and the fan noise would keep me up at night.

Serial Typography

Until now, the burgeoning print-on-demand industry has focused on publishing books. Magazines are actually better candidates for POD, which allows for timely production and reduces wastage. (Some 50% of magazines sent to newsstands are never sold and get pulped.)

The defining characteristic of magazines is recurrence. When you sign up as a MagCloud publisher, you’re asked to enter a title and subtitle for your magazine, and then create your first issue. During the private beta, you’ll need an invitation in order to get a publisher account, and they’ve already had more than a thousand requests, so you may have to wait a while before you can try it out.

Many other print publications also lend themselves to this multiple-issue format: newsletters, annual reports, membership directories, course materials, and the like. So do e-zines and blogs. You might not really want to start distributing your e-zine in print format to all your subscribers, but having a print version to hand around at networking meetings could be useful, and it’s possible that a few of your readers will actually want to order one.

If all you want is a short run of a short-format document, however, you may want to consider another POD service, because right now MagCloud offers you one trim size, one binding, and one text stock. (Cover and text stock are the same.) Other features, like templates to allow non-designers to lay out their own magazines, are still in an extremely rudimentary phase. And MagCloud is not (yet?) in the business of selling ISSNs. (That’s like an ISBN, but for magazines; I remember getting one for my electronic journal in 1994, and if you ever want your magazine sold in stores, you’ll need one.)

If they can find a way to import RSS feeds easily MagCloud will attract bloggers in droves. Right now Blurb’s “blog slurping” function only works with hosted blogs, which is no use to those of us who publish our blogs from our own servers. If Windows Live Writer can access and import from all my blogs, I don’t know why BookSmart can’t.

Pricing Structure

MagCloud’s own business model is to charge US$0.20 per full-color page. That’s one side of an 8.5 x 11 sheet, the same as one page in a word-processing program or one page as a copy shop would charge you. This represents a comfortable but not extravagant markup over HP’s costs. It’s less than you’d pay for color photocopies and probably less than it would cost you in ink to print the magazine yourself on an inkjet printer (assuming you have a duplex printer that handles tabloid format sheets, which most people don’t). Publishers add their own markup on top of this base price.

Magazine length is based on a unit of 4 pages, up to a total of 60 pages. (This is short by comparison with most commercial magazines, but much longer than most corporate newsletters.) A 60-page magazine would have a minimum cover price of US$12 plus shipping—steep compared with what you find on the newsstands. And that’s assuming the publisher doesn’t want to make any money on it.

There is no set-up fee for publishing a magazine if your PDF is ready to go.

Magazines 2.0

Because of the Indigo technology’s advantage in short-run printing, the MagCloud team is focusing its efforts on niche publishers like NSA or the Palo Alto flying club. One person at today’s presentation described MagCloud as “iTunes for magazines.” MagCloud has a lot in common with blogging, podcasting, and niche networks created with Ning. While print magazines already exist to serve a phenomenal variety of specific interests, those magazines also cease publication with alarming frequency as subscriber numbers and advertising revenue drop off and distribution costs increase.

A New Model for Print Advertising

Print advertising is the oldest form (apart from yelling at passers-by in the open market, anyway), and it has long-established conventions that simply aren’t appropriate for MagCloud’s niche publications, any more than they suit most podcasts or blogs. Advertisers buy print and broadcast ads based on something called CPM, which means “cost per thousand.” So for every thousand readers you have, you get X amount.

Naturally, if you only have 500 subscribers—or 50—CPM is a rotten model. Traditionally-published magazines give away free subscriptions to “industry professionals” (meaning anyone who signs up): it helps them keep their circulations numbers high. If you’ve ever had one of these free subscriptions and tried to cancel it, you know how difficult it is to stop magazine publishers from sending endless issues of dubious relevance.

MagCloud publishers who want to subsidize their printing costs with advertising (an established revenue model and one not yet much used in book publishing) can learn important lessons from online content creators. Highly targeted audiences are more valuable than sheer numbers. If the advertiser’s product matches the interests of a magazine’s readership closely enough, sales are guaranteed. For some groups (like the wine geeks who listen to Grape Radio), the revenue per order may be quite high and the return on investment in a niche publication very enticing.

This won’t work for all niches, and finding an advertiser to match the interest of your readership might be a challenge. But MagCloud has some ideas about that, too.

Community Vision

Many POD houses make more money by selling design and editing services than by printing and distributing books. Rather than selling design services directly and overtaxing its creative department, HP Labs wants MagCloud to become a community marketplace where content creators can hook up with (and rate) designers, and publishers seeking content can find writers to produce it. In this vision, subscribers could create their own magazines from individual articles in other MagCloud publications. An advertiser could post “I’m trying to reach Baby Boomers in the financial industry” and publishers could respond with their reader demographics and psychographics.

So far the crowdsourcing and social networking aspects of MagCloud are only at the “vision” stage, however. Users of the MagCloud site have two options: to sign up as subscribers, and to sign up as publishers. Eventually, one presumes, it will be possible to sign up as a designer, a content creator, or an advertiser.

Even in its pre-release state, MagCloud offers fascinating possibilities. Like all great ideas, magazine publishing on demand prompts the question “Why hasn’t someone done this before?”