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What do readers think when publishers go digital?

August 30, 2011
the happy face of publishing?

The future of publishing when it doesn't talk to readers? Reader interaction is crucial to success.

Converting a print offering to “digital only” is a big ask for magazine publishers and runs huge risks in terms of reader loyalty – it is often said, for example, that many subscriptions survive by consumer ennui. But there’s more to it than this.

This interesting Folio article by Matt Kinsmann provides a fascinating case study into how a magazine (in this case Linux Journal, a computer magazine) manages its transition from print to digital-only. Readers, apparently, are very important…

Many publishers I speak with are often terrified of the consequences of transition:

  • loss of subscribers in the transition
  • loss of subscribers once in digital-only format
  • loss of traditional advertising revenue
  • demand from advertisers for advertisement stats to validate their investment
  • publishers’ fears of losing their job if the change goes “belly up”

All these fears relate to reader response in terms of subscribing (i.e. a cynical relationship between subscribers and revenue) and advertising revenues. Yet, step back a minute. What about what readers actually want, use and enjoy? Surely this is the way to generate a healthy and reliable subscriber base and happy advertisers?

The article to me highlights a major conceptual problem which tends to replicate itself across publishing companies: somehow readers will expect product “features” when a product goes digital. Apparently, “bells and whistles” are more important than content to keep subscribers loyal.

However, it seems to me that  whether it is sound effects in e-books (as announced this week in the UK’s Sunday papers) or a “fully searchable online archive”, the jury is still out on whether these features hold any benefits for the reader. Publishers (often stale) “ideas” for a product appear more important that reader needs. If it’s digital it must somehow be fun…

Reading the consumer comments in the Folio article, we really do get a sense that for those who pay for information (rather than the poor souls whose sole purpose in life is to be part of a controlled circulation database), the need for the special features which digital provides is questionable.

Yes, there are some readers who want the digital experience but in the comments by respondents in the article are real reflections on what customers think about electronic offerings. Who wants an app that doesn’t do anything? Who wants yet another tired PDF (although some people DO)?

Some readers are bored with what publishers seem to think are interesting electronic features – they want information they can use. Now, there’s a surprise…

I find this fascinating. Not just for magazines and subscription-based products but also for publishers of e-books. The sad state of the books market today is such that book publishers are now following the marketing strategies of big third-party players like Amazon, rather than strategically developing their own futures.

Book publishers have failed to leverage the one core value of e-publishing they really need: a relationship with their readers. The Folio article shows what a publisher can learn when it talks to its readers – when products have direct consumer relationships.

Alas, for decades, many book publishers have spurned a direct relationship in favour of the Holy Grail of volume sales through the trade. It could be said that book publishers, as a somewhat misogynistic maths professor once said to me on graduation when talking about arts graduates: “are like pregnant schoolgirls – they’ve had their fun and now they’ve got to take the consequences“…

So let’s answer the question about what readers think when publishers go digital. If you’re a subs-based product you can find out. If you have a portfolio of e-books and fail to have a connection with your readers you’ll never know.

More’s the point, you’ll invest (or waste) thousands of pounds or dollars investing in “features” which you’ll have no way of knowing are of any value – until it’s too late.

Customer relationships are, more than ever, the key to strategic survival. Nothing new in that. Is there?

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