Monday, July 23, 2012

Next Issue: a Magazine Stand a la Netflix

Now on the iPad (after an initial launch on Android tablets), Next Issue gives you access to several popular magazines for one monthly subscription fee. It's a sort of Netflix for magazine readers.

It reminds me of the days when I went to the bookstore every week on Thursday to browse the new issues on the newsstand and bought single issue copies of any of several titles that interested me. I didn't want to commit the time and money to a full annual subscription to most of the magazines, but some issues were interesting some of the time.

What do you get from Next Issue? For about $10 or $15 monthly, recurring until you cancel, you get access to 34 monthly titles (from publishers like Conde Nast, Time, Hearst, Meredith, and Hachette; News Corp is also listed, but I could not find any of their publications) in the basic plan, or 39 total by adding 5 weekly titles (Time, People, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly) in the premium plan. All of the magazines are presented using the Adobe Digital Publishing platform, so they are uniform in navigation style and in a single library. For each title, all of the 2012 issues are available for download. Single issues can also be purchased if you do not opt for a subscription. Some magazines allow print subscriber access at no additional cost.

I've been trying it out for the two weeks since it was released for iPad. You sign up at their Web site, and provide a credit card number; you may select the basic or premium unlimited plans for a 30-day trial. You download the app to iPad and sign in. This model allows Next Issue to avoid payments to Apple, since there is no in-app purchase. Within the app, you select which magazine titles to add to your library. You must also select which issues to download and "pin" to your library. There is no automatic download, which is ok, as your iPad memory could quickly become exhausted. The issues are not small! And they take quite a while to download over WiFi, as well.

I've selected 12 of the 39 magazine titles for my library. This represents all of the titles I might ever want to read. Many of the other titles are oriented to women or "lifestyle" topics (e.g., golf) in which I have no interest. Four of the titles I selected are ones I've subscribed to in the past on paper or electronically. One, The New Yorker (TNY), is a current iPad subscription I have via the Apple Newsstand.

In a direct comparison of speed, the Next Issue app took 3 minutes to download versus 2 minutes for the stand-alone app from the Newsstand, when downloading the June 25, 2012, issue of TNY (141 MB). It also took 4 seconds to open the issue versus 3 seconds. Deleting an issue took 6 seconds versus 2 seconds. Times for other titles, such as Wired, were similarly longer than for the stand-alone app, depending on size of the issue. Most issues are a few hundred MB each, up to as much as 1 GB.  Downloading actually takes place in three phases: "Preparing download", "Downloading index", and "Downloading issue", each with a separate progress bar. The July 2, 2012, issue of TNY, 155MB, took a total of 3:39 to download, 20 seconds "prep", 1:12 "index", and 2:07 "issue" (vs 1:43 total for the 148MB stand-alone issue). As soon as the index was loaded (after about a minute and a half), the issue opened for reading of the front part, while the downloading continued in the background. This progressive download is a feature of the Adobe DP system and also applies to the stand alone app.

How do the economics stack up? It depends of how much and what you read. I'm going to ignore print + digital or "all access" pricing options. For the 12 magazines I'm interested in, I prepared a spreadsheet with single copy, monthly, and annual subscription prices, an estimate of the number of issues per year I'd download and read for each title (typically 1, 2, 3, or 4 issues), and the monthly cost to do that. Setting aside TNY, to which I already have an annual subscription that can't be cancelled/refunded under Apple policy, the other 11 magazines would cost me $240 for annual subscriptions (or $20 per month). The Next Issue subscription would be $180 on an annual basis, paid $15 monthly. If however, I bought only the issues I'm likely to read to the 11 publications at single copy prices, I'd paid only about $170 over the course of the year (that's just over $14/month). And if I was careful (remembering to cancel after subscribing before the recurring charge kicks in) and bought the 34 separate issues I'm likely to read at monthly subscription rates, I'd pay only $94, or just under $8 a month. If I omit the premium (weekly) titles and compare to the $10/month basic plan, I'd get 18 issues from 9 publications for $171/$14 (annual total/monthly) for subscriptions, $88/$7 for single issues, or $40/$3 for managed monthly subscriptions. Even if I included TNY, my monthly managed cost would be only $13 vs $15 for the premium plan. Your mileage may vary.

It's clear that you'd have to read a lot of issues of several magazines to make the Next Issue subscription cost effective. However, it may be convenient, as are most "unlimited" plans. But the price of convenience is not too great, if you read even a few titles regularly. And if you have 5 or more monthly or 3 or more weekly subscriptions, or a combination, the break-even point will be matched. The publishers probably like it, as it avoids the "Apple cut" and allows them to build a customer database. More titles are promised, but some might disappear, too. I wonder how many back issues will be available as time goes on?