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Memo to the Publishing Industry: Forget About the iSavior

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It’s hard not to be seduced by the visions of tablet-powered bliss that have been popping up all over the Intertubes lately: there’s the video of a Sports Illustrated prototype with full color and even moving images, the somewhat amusingly named Skiff tablet from Hearst and of course, the Kindle (s amzn). They all look a bit like those futuristic newspapers that Popular Science magazine assured us we’d be reading each morning before hopping in our jet-cars to fly off to work.

The grandaddy of them all is the much-hyped Apple (s aapl) tablet, which is supposed to be unveiled later this month, and which TechCrunch writer Paul Carr wishes everyone would just stop talking about. Fat chance. If you’re in the consumer technology business or the media/content industry, the Apple tablet is the sun, the moon and the stars. And if you’re a media entity that is struggling to figure out how to make online work for you — i.e., a newspaper, magazine or book publisher — then it looks like it might just be the biggest thing since the invention of pull tabs on beer cans.

To take just one example, in a recent piece entitled “A Media Savior In The Form of A Tablet,” NYT media writer David Carr gushed that the iTablet would represent “an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer,” and that while he didn’t know what the business model would be exactly, “somewhere between the iTunes model and the iPhone app store…there may be a model for print.”

So is the iTablet, or any tablet for that matter, really going to be the savior of the traditional newspaper, magazine or book? In a word, no. In fact, rather than being the holy grail for the media industry, it could wind up being what desert wanderers used to call a “fata morgana” — a vision of a lush oasis shimmering on the horizon that turns out to be a dangerous delusion and leads travelers to their deaths.

In a smart piece responding to Carr’s love note, Slate writer Jack Schafer said tablets “can’t possibly save magazines and newspapers,” and compared the industry’s infatuation to earlier dalliances with interactive CD-ROMs and online portals such as Compuserve and AOL. In a somewhat pithier response, the former editor of recently compared the iTablet to the Tooth Fairy.

The uncomfortable reality for newspapers, magazines and books — and for music, movies and television, for that matter — is that there is no holy grail, no silver bullet, no iSavior that will bring profits and happy readers by the truckload. Will more people subscribe to newspapers or magazines, or buy books and other content with a tablet? Experience with the Kindle seems to indicate that they will and the concept of “in-app sales” might help break down the barriers to paying. But will it be enough to “save” the entire business model of existing newspapers and other publishers? Not even close.

As Om noted in a post about the Kindle HD, everyone talks about the iTunes model and the iPod, but while those devices have been phenomenally successful for Apple itself, the music industry as a whole is still a complete mess. A single device, however powerful or magical, can’t change the entire cost structure of an industry. The publishing industry should spend more time thinking about how their business is changing fundamentally — regardless of what platform the content appears on — and less time thinking about how to make a Hail Mary pass to one specific platform.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user lakewentworth; in-post image courtesy of Flickr user Photo Giddy, who credits Flickr user

14 Responses to “Memo to the Publishing Industry: Forget About the iSavior”

  1. Mathew,
    I agree with your conclusion 100%. As far as I see it, the next generation of i-tablets brings quite a bit of excitement with it, but for newspapers, it’s probably a distraction more than anything else. If anything, it signals an accelerated move to online/mobile content consumption, a segment most publishers have not mastered. So, if they relegate distribution power to Apple or other smart aggregators, they are being pushed even further down the value-chain.

  2. “A single device, however powerful or magical, can’t change the entire cost structure of an industry.”

    That’s funny, before iTunes (arguably a service more than a device, to be fair) I never would have considered buying a song for $1.

    So while the publishing and music industries are quite different, I wouldn’t write off the sea-changing power of Apple just yet.

    • Well, the music industry is in fact able to make a living on iTunes, but is it the living they made on vinyl or CDs? Nope. Sit on the beach and hope for that sea change! I would keep an eye on the numbers however.

  3. With physical artifacts being the primary component of publishing companies (90%), content in general is still a small part of the business. Either these companies have to generate revenues to substitute for that missing 90% of expenditures or they have to reduce the size of their organization. Good luck with that! Operating a company on the downward slope is hard enough, let alone producing excellent product while in transition.

    • Bastian Nutzinger

      Yes, my thought exactly. The big newspapers control the whole product cycle from chopping down a tree somewhere all the way to delivering the newspaper on your doorstep.
      The worst part is: since the majority of subscribers still receive (and want to receive) their printed newspaper the publishers can´t just sell those parts of their business. At the same time more and more people will switch to the digital subscription which greatly increases the costs of the print process (scaling effects are huge in this sort of business). Figuring out when and how to get rid of this “paper infrastructure” is going to be very important for any publisher who wants to survive.