The Trouble with iPad Magazines

Vanity Fair’s June 2011 iPad Issue | Source: Vanity Fair

NEW YORK, United States — The iPad is one of the fastest growing consumer electronics devices in history. According to figures released by Apple, the number of units shipped in the first three quarters since launch left the company’s highly successful sibling products, the iPod and iPhone, in the dust when compared to the three quarters following their respective launches. And although recently reported component shortages and production problems may limit sales figures over the coming quarters, analysts have estimated that Apple could move 45 million iPads in 2011, on top of the 15 million they sold last year. To put that figure in perspective, this would make the iPad the second best selling album of all time following Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which sold 110 million copies, despite the fact that even an entry level iPad costs almost 50 times more than the average record.

The aesthetically appealing iPad has also found particular resonance with both fashion consumers and industry insiders. “Pictures and videos look amazing on the tablet,” said founder and editorial director of Dazed Group, Jefferson Hack. “Photographers, stylists, art directors and designers are all showing their ideas, inspirations and finished work on [Apple] tablets.”

But in stark contrast to the overwhelming success of Apple’s tablet, iPad magazines have yet to take off. Indeed, for many of the world’s largest publishers, who have poured millions into developing digital editions for a device that has often been declared “the saviour of magazines,” iPad apps still account for a tiny percentage of total circulation.“In the long run, it is certain that tablet ownership and readership of magazines on tablets will expand,” Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and president of Condé Nast International, told BoF. But figures released a few months back by the Audit Bureau of Circulation in the US show that despite rising iPad sales, average monthly downloads of iPad magazines slumped towards the end of 2010 after an initial surge of interest, indicating that consumers are giving the magazine app experience, as currently conceived, a collective thumbs down.

What went wrong?

The absence of digital subscriptions — meaning users had to manually purchase individual magazines, at costs that were far above normal subscription rates — has often been cited as the primary reason for this failure. But with a series of recent deals between Apple and major publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst allowing consumers to sign up for digital subscriptions inside magazine apps (publications like EsquireOAllureGlamour, and Vanity Fair already, or will soon, offer in-app subscriptions), this theory is about to be put to the test.

“I think the real problem is that people just aren’t interested in these apps,” said Khoi Vinh, former design director of That’s because most iPad magazines are nothing more than delivery mechanisms for print content — what Condé Nast calls “digital replica editions” — built on the false premise the what works in print will work in digital, with slight modifications.

“Many publishers would probably agree that this is a broken premise,” said Vinh. “But I think what’s happening with a lot of these apps is that publishers have convinced themselves that what they’re doing is not just a regurgitation of print and that they’ve added enough bells and whistles to these apps to somehow make them different,” he continued. “In spite of all the added video and three-dimensional rotations and other nonsense, the core thinking behind a lot of these apps is still very, very print-centric.” As such, they are fundamentally out of sync with the way people engage online.

“Pretty much all of the major publishers are creating what I call ‘paper for the screen,’” said Remi Paringaux, creative director of the experimental iPad-only fashion magazine POST. But the internet is completely different to the print medium which preceded it. While print is a monologue to a passive audience, digital is a conversation that’s inherently active and social.

“Publishers should not rest on the assumption that readers want to be merely readers,” said Jeff Jarvis, highly respected media thinker, journalism professor and author of What Would Google Do? who spent ten years as president and creative director of, the online arm of Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast. “They have proven a will to create and share,” he continued. “What makes the tablet special is that one can interact with content and with fellow readers — just presenting content is lazy.”

The iPad provides tremendous opportunity for publishers to experiment with new interactive experiences. But today, the most interesting magazine apps are personalised, social magazines like Flipboard — compiled in realtime from a user’s favourite websites and the things their friends are sharing on services like Facebook and Twitter — and useful services like Net-a-Porter’s iPad magazine, which closes the gap between editorial inspiration and retail.

At major media companies, rather than saving magazines, the iPad may actually be deluding publishers into believing that they can somehow avoid rethinking their products and business models in the face of a digital reality that presents fundamental challenges to both. “I think editors and publishers are fooling themselves into believing that the iPad returns to them the control over the experience, content, brand and business models that the web took away,” said Mr. Jarvis. “Sorry, but there is no going back.”

But there are signs that change is afoot, and magazine companies are beginning to think more creatively about how to use the iPad. “I believe there will be a strong market for these magazine ‘replicas,’ which will be a tablet version of the print product with added interactive features, like video,” said Mr. Newhouse. “But at the same time, publishers will produce a lot of completely new branded products for iPads, along with other tablet devices and smartphones.”

In order to earn a presence in the lives of today’s digital consumers, for whom the internet makes content abundantly available, these new products may have to be very different from magazines as we currently know them. “The best thing to do on tablets is to experiment: with form, with user interface, and with thinking of readers in new roles in new places and times,” continued Mr. Jarvis. “The tablet and the smartphone will merge and diverge in ways we can’t predict now.”

The iPad magazines of the future may look at lot less like the print-centric products we’re used to seeing and more like branded services that let users not just read about, but actively experience a stylistic point of view. Could a location-aware W app offer curated recommendations on nearby fashion and art? What might a Vogue shopping service look like? The possibilities are endless. But to seize this future, publishers will need to innovate in ways that may not be easy to accomplish from within.

“Maybe the best advice I can offer publishers is to disabuse themselves of the notion that a print staff can seamlessly start building successful digital products,” said Vinh. “As with the success or failure of any technology, it’s really about the people.”

Indeed, seizing the digital opportunity means completely rethinking the process of creating magazine content from the ground up, which requires a serious re-examination of the types of people a magazine needs, from the very bottom to the very top of the organisation. Perhaps more than anything, publishers need to seriously engage the start-up community, actively recruit from technology companies and search for new talent at forward-thinking university programs like New York’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and Stockholm’s Hyper Island.

Earlier this year, it was encouraging to see Andrew Siegal, senior vice president of strategy at Advance Publications, actively engaging the digital community at South by Southwest Interactive during a session called “Conde Nast in Start Up Mode.” But publishers need to do more.

Nobody knows what the ideal digital magazine experience looks like — or whether such a thing will even exist. But as publishers face the challenge of imagining the future and making up for lost mindshare, one thing seems clear. The iPad will not save magazines as they are. It’s magazines that must innovate in order to save themselves.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. oh yeah, i really wish that publishers (including dazed) did not just regurgitate their print content online. like you said, it’s a missed opportunity, because the ipad offers even what regular internet does not, is the ability to house high quality content in a large(ish) format.

    i think vanity fair does a good job with their ipad app, as does the nyt… but once someone really gets it with creating content for the ipad, i’m sure the medium will take off.

  2. I have to admit, when one writer grabs on to something you can be sure there will be a whole host of followers. Hence another “The Trouble with iPad Magazines” that leaves out or just totally misses some very important points.

    1. I’ve never heard one publisher.. not one declare the iPad “the saviour of magazines”. That came from the press. Yes publishers were excited at the potential… but it was the press that ran away with that “saviour” crap.

    2. Let’s not lump all iPad magazines together and let’s use better terminology. “Replica” editions tend to be nothing more than glorified PDFs in App format. The kind of editions you’d find in the Zinio app. While Wired was more of an “enhanced” magazine. It’s so easy to lump all of these publications together to prove a point but have you seen the early issues of magazines such as GQ? Horrible! There’s a reason they weren’t selling. Again, it’s way too easy to lump all of these publications together and then say “iPad magazines as a whole aren’t performing”. Wired and Project should even be mentioned in the same sentence as some of these other publications.

    3. The press made much ado about Wired drop off from it’s initial issue which sold 100k to an average of 23k – 30k a month and twisted that into some type of failure. Really? Wired was really the first to do it so a lot of the initial issue was sold to people who weren’t Wired readers but fed into all the PR hype surrounding it. Then it petered out which is to be expected. Wired sells about 98k on the news stands a month. They’re iPad readership is damn near a third of their print circulation. Take into account that there’s no printing, shipping and returns involved it’s amazing how the media has twisted that into some type of failure. They’re selling a third of what they sell on the stands on a device with only 5% household penetration.

    4. Let’s reiterate that point. As successful as the iPad has been… it only has a penetration of 5%. In the scheme of things… that’s a VERY SMALL NUMBER. Most of the writers who transcribe these type of articles totally neglect to mention that point. Let’s have this conversation again when penetration hits the double digits. Better yet how about if/when it reaches laptop penetration. Then we’ll have a conversation.

    5. Where things will really heat up on the iPad is when the smaller publishers (like us and others) enter the game. Already, from a publisher’s perspective, I’m reaching an international audience and my expenses are A WHOLE LOT LESS as opposed to when I published a print magazine.

  3. What a great idea. As I read this from my iPad I would love to see more magazines offer digital subscriptions with full social media integration.

    Sade Strehlke from Beverly Hills, CA, United States
  4. The real drivers require less hand wringing. IPad versions of magazines are created with Adobe Creative Suite software…actually re-formatted and re-sized magazine content. You won’t see much innovation on the magazine side because it is simply too complex to use content creation tools that are not integrated. Consequently, look for what Adobe integrates into the company offerings for clues or to partnerships with companies that create CS add-ons.

    The latest CS release creates HTML5 which solves the cross-device problem and should take away the PDF feel. Maybe we’ll see value-add next time around.

  5. This article is very interesting. The ipad has evolved even since the first model and the applications that you can have are almost limitless. I have read magazines on the Ipad and think they are very comprehensive and readable.

  6. I love reading digital magazines on iPads and iPhones. I use Other edition’s newsstand for reading digital magazines.

  7. Very interesting article to me, as I was thinking of cancelling my paper subscriptions and getting all my fashion on my Nook. I do hope the magazine industry will take this opportunity to rethink what they are publishing – as I posted in my own blog, I think Vogue and many other fashion magazines have gotten way too predictable. Every month, it’s a celebrity on the cover, and basically a book of advertising for LVMH and Gucci Group. There’s a token new designer or model, but I miss being able to read fashion magazines and get inspired. I think not only do they need to catch up to technology, but they also need to be more innovative with their content period – whether in paper or digitally.

  8. Elle magazine’s ipad version costs as much as a single copy (or more if you consider the loss of points/discounts from frequent shopper programs at many stores) and a 1 year iPad subscription to Elle is way more expensive than a 1year paper subscription (if you are in the US, it’s like $8/year sometimes on Amazon). But if you have a paper subscription, you get the iPad version for free. So I ended up getting the paper subscription to get the iPad version. Seems backwards doesn’t it?

    And Tablazines makes a good point about increasing international presence. I have bought the british vogue magazine the 2 times they have had ipad version as it’s not easy to get access to that magazine where I live (not NYC). Same with Elle Collection S/S 2011 as my bookstore does not carry that anymore.

    niche from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  9. I’d like raise attention to certain flow which, I think, can reveal a bit of what is is we’re looking for in those NEW kind of magazines that this text is discussing them only as a future possibility.

    A tip of this future is found in what I clumsily call ‘is-it-a-picture? is-it-a-video?’ format. I spotted it a in few various corners: the first one, I think, was I Love You magazine’s online-translation of their print editorial in issue #5, that dealt with re-imagining Henri VIII’s wives. The outcome: 6 short-as-hell, hypnotizing Vimeo clips (this – – is a favorite, but they’re all excellent).

    The second time I got that hypnotic, extremely modern feel, was the creations of maybe-the-greatest-tumblr the web hosts – ‘If We Don’t, Remember Me’ ( I think a quick look of his precise & aching gifs (which give a whole new interpretation to this infantile genre) will save you the time of reading my words.

    During February’s fashion week, I also saw the same kind of new-born attitude towards gifs over at this successful tumblr – – and lastly, and here’s where the circle is coming to an end for now, we have Self Service’s short clips that belong to their iPad version. As is the case with I Love You’s clips, they are an extension of a print shoot, but I truly think they are forgoing their ‘origin’ (here’s an example they uploaded yesterday: The fact that Self Service also looped these clips to eternity – or until you hit pause – also contributes to this elevation.

    All these examples deal with a very specific format, and each creator has its own way of approaching it. I think they all serve to show us that a new kind of content can and might be produced out of existing materials – but in order to light a true excitement, it has got to show us a NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS. Which might be considered an extremely trivial sentence, yet I believe that it isn’t the case in this context.

  10. I love my iPad magazines. I use Zinio and I disagree, I have had monthly subscriptions for awhile now. It’s great, you turn on your iPad you have a few new magazines each month.

    Also, I get international magazines (French Vogue and others) are way cheaper on the iPad. I guess because there’s nothing to ship to the US and maybe the tariffs are cheaper?

    Either way, I rarely buy paper.

    Deme from New York, NY, United States
  11. Forgot to mention, I love that it’s interactive. When you see an article about various items, you can usually click on the internet address and go straight to the page as opposed to a magazine.

    Deme from New York, NY, United States
  12. As a magazine veteran (Outside, MacGuide) in the early 1990s that went on to help get efforts like Netscape and IAB on their feet, the mad magazine love for the iPad feels exactly like the mid- to late-nineties.

    The iPad and mobile computing are about providing instant gratification, not content. Content is the tease but it is not fulfillment. Content does not service people. Content does not try better if at first it does not succeed brilliantly.

    Magazines have always been about a slice of life, a trusted advocate that you actually look forward to seeing. They can facilitate instant gratification if they stop thinking that the experience is content and instead start getting ambitious about fulfillment.

  13. An excellent pieces. Congrats!
    I like the reminder (to publishers and writers) that digital and especially digital PREMIUM (or paid) content must be different than its paper sibling. From the title to layout to added interactivity — nearly all has to be different. Many publishers do not understand that and they simply copy print article, or even worse, publish pdf-version online and call it digital.

    As for iPad, it is cool but very expensive and rigid. There are better solutions, cheaper to the publisher, platform agnostic, and thus more universal, and payments can be made with two clicks, also on-demand for each article or even a picture, if it makes sense.
    Check out

  14. I’m not sure I see a significant difference between an iPad “magazine” and a website, other than the constraints that seem to be arbitrarily applied to the former (e.g. periodic release schedules).

    What can one of these “magazines” do that a website in a browser on a desktop or laptop computer can not? If nothing, magazine publishers are struggling with the same old problem — how to get customers to bite on pay-walled content.

    Good luck with that.

    Unfortunately, after far too long enjoying a monopoly on content distribution in the pre-internet days, too many publishers have failed to muster a product that is competitive with what countless people are now willing to provide for free on-line, at least in terms of value-for-price.

    Publishers can fiddle with the “experience” all they want, content is still what magazines are about, not accelerometers and touch-screens. There is a place for social media, location awareness etc., but that place is not locked up in some magazine “app”.

    Jiheison from Sandy, UT, United States
  15. The success of publications in the digital space has less to do with the magazine business model/experience and more to do with the fact that so very few people own an iPad (regardless of the iPad’s unprecedented success)

    I look at the publication industry the same way I look at the music industry. People simply don’t want to pay for your content anymore, or if they do, they don’t want to pay the prices your business is used to.

    I can tell you first hand that if you’re going to start a profitable magazine today, you’re going to have to diversify your revenue because there just isn’t the kind of audience willing to pay for your content anymore.

    People aren’t paying to for rich digital experiences online, so why in the world would they pay for it on the iPad? They won’t.

  16. I completely agree with the premise of this article. Not only do I see more opportunity for brands to start thinking about how to digitize their content, they cannot just turn their print edition into a PDF, make it flip and call it digital. Another misconception is the fact that if you want to make a digital version of your magazine that you have to make a magazine app. You do not have to make an app at all – don’t forget browser-based! I wrote this blog on our site about the 5 problems with a decision to make a magazine app

    Also take a look at this browser-based digital magazine. I think this is an excellent example of how to ‘do’ digital the right way and works across all devices.

  17. Owning both a Kindle and an iPad, I’ve found that the iPad App for the Economist is as good as the paper edition, if not better. Yet, I prefer reading the Wall Street Journal on the black & white screen of the Kindle. Possibly, the ambient light of the time I read during the day is a factor. I also regularly read the Fashion section of Zite Magazine on the iPad, but I’m not sure this ‘personalized’ e-zine recognizes my distaste for celebrities who overnight become couture mavens and perfumers. Or am I expecting too much when I give these articles the ‘thumbs down’?

    Tom Marshall from Hackettstown, NJ, United States