Publishers and the iPad: No Future in Control

Control. Magazine publishers love it. Especially B2B publishers (why do you think they call it “controlled circulation”?).

Or at least they love it until someone else has it. Then it’s evil.

To a cynical eye like mine, this seems to be the back story to the ongoing tussle between periodical publishers and Apple over the management of magazine app subscriptions. The publishers want to control the subscription process and have full access to subscriber data; Apple wants to keep that control to itself, skim off 30% of the subscription price, and give publishers limited access to the data. As aptly summarized by Peter Kafka, “Magazine publishers used to salivate over the iPad. Now they’re a lot more reserved. ”

What was it that got publishers drooling in the first place? The opportunity to reassert control.

Let’s face it, most publishers have never really embraced the Web. Its openness is a direct challenge to their traditional models of operation. It makes it too hard to control who gets their product, how much they can charge for it, and who they have to compete against. The iPad seemed to offer them a chance to grab back a big chunk of the control the Web was taking away from them. It gave publishers, as Cory Doctorow put it, “a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff.”

Of course, daddy figures have a downside: if you want complete control, you probably shouldn’t do business with them.

So should publishers turn their back on the iPad? Or should they simply accept Apple’s conditions? Not necessarily. The iPad and other tablets are really distinct new forms of media that offer users a new way of experiencing content, and to the extent that Apple is putting up hurdles to that experience, publishers are right to fight back.

But the future of publishing is openness, not walled gardens; sharing, not limiting. If their main motive for battling Apple is simply to increase their control, publishers may ultimately find they have no future at all.

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