Jim Foster on the world of ePublishing

By Jim Foster

I was walking through the rainy Rutland countryside with my other half over the August bank holiday weekend when conversation, to her undoubted chagrin, was turned by me from sloe berries (interesting to her, as they involve gin) to digital editions (not so interesting to her, as they don’t).

Her reaction to this somewhat random shift in conversational subject matter was similar to that of the publishing industry to the release of the digital ABC figures for the first half of 2015. That is to say, one of subdued disinterest, largely.

Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but it does seem on occasion that I am fighting an uphill battle trying to advance the cause of digital edition sales and awareness. It seems to me that we’re always concentrating on the negatives rather than working hard to try and advance our industry.

Following the ABC release, the Guardian pronounced loudly that consumers were ‘shunning’ digital editions. I found that headline disappointing and ironic, if only because the Guardian as a business loses so much money each year, I wouldn’t mind betting that digital editions in some format or other will be going strong long after The Scott Trust finally runs out of money.

Yes, the Guardian was technically right in that there were titles that didn’t do so well digitally in H1, 2015. But those were the headlines they decided to concentrate on, as opposed to the success stories. Which, frankly, is not what the industry needs from its own.

There are many ways of interpreting stats (cue the ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ quote popularised by Mark Twain) and I would urge the publishing industry not to announce the ‘failure’ of paid-for digital editions just yet. Or indeed, sink into a mire of digital negativity which can have only one long-term outcome.

If you look at the 2015 ABC stats year-on-year, you’ll see that digital edition circulation across the board is up 10 per cent. That’s not ‘shunning’! Can the same be said for print? Yes, some titles saw a minor or moderate decline period-on-period, but in any new industry, you’re going to get erroneous patterns and trends. Let’s not forget that digital editions only really came to the fore three or four years ago. This part of the industry is still in its infancy.

Fortunately for my immediate career prospects, Bauer’s digital figures and market share is showing growth. Slow growth, granted, but consistent growth all the same.

As with most publishers, we’ve not got it right yet. But the strategies and marketing we have planned for the next eighteen months or so are exciting and our performance to date will provide a solid base to keep that growth (and profitability, I may add) going.

If you do get the formula right, the rewards are there for titles that suit a digital audience. Look at the Economist, which offers a brilliant yet simple mobile solution for a market crying out for content on the smartphone. Their app has a fantastic UX/UI that’s easy to understand with nothing outrageous in terms of functionality.

Keep it simple

You don’t need clever-arse apps to be successful. What you do need is simplicity, free content tasters and, most importantly, reliability and great content, along with the facility to read offline. The Economist offers these. Hence a massive 226 per cent increase in sales year-on-year. That isn’t a fluke – it’s good work and I’d expect to see them clean up at the various forthcoming digital magazine awards.

Though I have many talents (tongue firmly in cheek) it may surprise you to know I can’t see into the future. But if I was to put my money on print or digital long-term, I know which I’d opt for.

One of the reasons Empire hasn’t showed the growth we’d like so far this year is because we’ve been working on taking the brand’s app offering to the next stage. As such, we’ve kind of stayed static with a tablet-first approach rather than adapting to mobile. But that’s changing and by the time this article is published, the chances are we’ll have released, or will be about to release, a new smartphone version to complement the fully-interactive tablet editions. There are literally hundreds of thousands of unique iPhone users on the Empire website. The successful conversion of a fraction of them will lead to good growth.

And how will our smartphone version work? Similarly to the Economist: by putting reliability and simplicity of UX top of the priority list, displaying content on phones in a manner that really is easy to understand for the user. Attention to detail will be key, like putting Empire’s film star ratings at the top of the page, as opposed to the end of a long-old scroll.

The real beauty of our new smartphone tech is its flexibility. It will be transferable onto other titles operating the same software. Indeed, it should be transferable to other titles on different softwares, also. And it won’t cost the world. Empire first, the rest of the Bauer portfolio next, one step at a time. A fully mobile-prioritised digital magazine portfolio should, in my eyes, futureproof our immediate growth potential.

As we do this, we’re also considering workflow and impact thereof on editorial and production teams. This merits a comment piece in its own right, but here’s the aim: we want one CMS where content is procured, managed, edited, archived and distributed.

Where possible, digital magazine content distribution should be automated as opposed to created all over again from scratch. Select the content you want. Choose the template you want it in. Click a button. Content then populates the template automatically, workflow is clear and simple. If editorial staff wish to add bonus content via video or picture galleries, they can do so quickly and easily.

Meetings I have with teams from across Bauer often end with the phrase, “We’ll get there”. But I’m not a fan of that phrase. In digital, you never ‘get there’. Not really. You just advance to a point you wanted to get to a short while ago, by which time, something better and more efficient is available to advance to again. So off you go once more… and so the process repeats and repeats. Maybe we should say, “We’ll evolve”, as that would be more accurate. Darwinism in publishing, if you will.

Now, does anyone know a digital magazine dedicated to gin? I need to get some sloe berries. There seems to be a glut of them in Rutland this year…