Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Wal-Mart 1,000

Below is an editorial I wrote in the March 2008 issue of The Commonwealth magazine, in which I describe how I think the magazine industry will – or at least should – evolve. What I don't go into is the other part of this solution: such drastically reduced printing/distribution costs enables even consumer magazines to adopt some controlled-circulation concepts from the business-to-business magazine publishing world, and that completes the circle of the new business model.

The Wal-Mart 1,000
By John Zipperer, Editorial Director, The Commonwealth

Here's one big business list that magazine publishers don't want to be on: The list of 1,000 magazine titles that retail giant Wal-Mart announced in January it has decided to stop selling in its stores. That number is dismaying, because, as the New York Post noted, Wal-Mart "is believed to be responsible for generating more than 20 percent of all retail magazine sales in the U.S."

One publisher recently said that he's lost 50 percent of his newsstand outlets each year for the past few years. We seem to be in a very brutal era of shakeout in the periodicals business, where investors, distributors and retailers are all assuming that print is dead and online media is king. I think publishers – and the investors who back them – are putting the cart before the horse. There are things that work better online than in print, such as multimedia, breaking news and (relatively useless) instant opinion posts. But there is still plenty of money to be made in print magazines; publishers just need to realize they are publishers and not printers. Many magazines, including The Commonwealth, are now produced in digital versions that include the entire contents of the print version and are viewed online or downloaded to a local printer. Meanwhile, they continue to be produced in paper versions. That's because the shape and form of a magazine is perfect for performing the function of delivering information and design to a reader. You can read it sitting up, standing, walking (though I wouldn't recommend that) or lying down. Even the thinnest of digital viewers provides a different reading experience – and magazines don't generally get warmer the longer you use them.

So magazines like this one still have a great mission. The challenge is getting around the ever-increasing costs of paper, printing and mailing. What will save us all, I believe, is continued – and, I hope, accelerated – development of home printer technology that will let you, at home, print out a magazine that has just as good resolution, paper quality and binding as a magazine that you purchased at a store.

Home printers have been improving by leaps and bounds over the years, and when they get good enough, then it will be a whole new economic ballgame. You won't have to get a grainy printout of your copy of The Economist or Sports Illustrated; it'll look just as good as what you buy today. And publishers will save a lot on the printing, paper and postage costs that are some of the biggest components of their budgets.

Hmm, wouldn't it be great if there just happened to be some world-class printer manufacturers in the Bay Area who could fuel this next evolutionary step of the publishing industry?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, R.I.P.

The news just broke that Arthur C. Clarke has passed away at the age of 90. Clarke came up with the idea for the geosynchronous satellite, wrote tons of books (most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's End). He was also an outspoken champion of science and rationalist thought.

You might want to check out his Clarke Foundation, which he set up to spread his ideas.

And read the Clarke remembrance by Kerry O'Quinn, an old friend of Clarke's.