Expanding Choice with Print-On-Demand

It is, or should be, a basic new-media mantra that people want content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. The rise of new media does not mean that print is dead. Rather, it means that print is just one of many ways people will choose to get information, depending on their preferences and circumstances.

This point was reiterated for me by today’s announcement that new-media icon Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has made a deal with Hewlett-Packard to use its MagCloud print-on-demand service for his commercial wiki network, Wikia. The concept, in brief, is that a user can assemble content from a Wikia wiki into an electronic proof of a custom magazine and then use Magcloud to print, bind, and mail one or more copies. The Wikia magazines won’t win any design awards, to judge by the example provided , but it gives the user another option for how to format and use content.

A more traditional approach to using Magcloud’s service comes from the Atlantic magazine, which has created a special 60-page issue of archived articles by “the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and Vannevar Bush” for a price of $6. Each issue is printed on demand, so the expense to the Atlantic is limited to the cost of creating the layout PDF.

The economics of Magcloud’s service may not yet be suited to many publishers. Despite the initially optimistic calculations of Bnet.com blogger Catharine Taylor that the Atlantic might have “a profit margin of close to 100 percent,” it didn’t take her readers long to catch her error. In fact, MagCloud ordinarily takes a cut of $0.20 per page, which would have put the magazine $6 in the hole for every issue. But MagCloud has teamed with the Atlantic, per a comment by MagCloud’s Andrew Bolwell, to provide “this first issue at a special rate to help put this magazine in interested consumer’s hands.”

For the right content, though, the cost to the publisher could be insignificant. A 60-page market research report, for instance, might be priced at $195, and offered in either PDF or paper formats, depending on the buyer’s preference. Granted, that’s not revolutionary in itself. The point is the ease with which you can give your audience a multitude of choices for how to use your content.

It’s a hopeful sign that MagCloud seems to understand the new-media mantra of choice. As quoted in an interview last year with Folio:’s Dylan Stableford, Bolwell gave the right answer when asked if print on demand is “the future of magazine publishing”:

Not sure if it’s the future, but it’s definitely a future of publishing, where online and print publishing coexist and complement. We believe that publishing is going through a fundamental socio and technologic shift—publishing is being democratized, print is becoming personal, users are demanding choice in what content they consume and how they consume it, and fulfillment is on demand. Digital printing is an enabler for this, and we see MagCloud as an example of a Web service that enables these new publishing models.

So will services like MagCloud save print? Wrong question. The real question is whether readers will choose to save it. Our role—made easier by services like MagCloud—is to give them that choice.