Apple’s iPad May Help Save Publishing, But Not This Way

iPad from Apple Inc.Of all the publishing-industry reactions to the debut of Apple’s iPad so far, the strangest may be a suggestion that the iPad and other e-readers will allow magazines to give up the Web. In a brief blog post on Folio: today, Donald Seckler proposes that as e-readers soar in popularity, they will offer an attractive alternative to the Web. Rather than give away content free on your Web site, he says, offer it only on e-readers. And of course, charge a bundle for it. Print-publishing saved, case closed.

Seckler’s post appears to arise from a traditionalist print-publisher view of the Internet as a refuge for thieves and brigands, who “easily grab and reuse your content.” So the obvious solution is to “take away the free content” on the Web and make sure that “there is only one place for people to turn for your brand’s expert content.”

Seckler doesn’t share his views without trepidation. “I know that sounds a little crazy,” he says. “OK, a lot crazy.”

No, Donald, not crazy. Just dumb. A lot dumb.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let’s quickly review a few key precepts of the new-media reality:

1. The economics of scarcity no longer applies to publishing. Before the Internet, when it cost a bundle to print and distribute information, publishers could control access to that information. But as Kevin Kelly has observed, “plenitude, not scarcity, governs the network economy.”  Attempts to create an artificial scarcity by limiting distribution, locking down content with DRM, or erecting pay walls simply won’t work. This leads to point 2.

2. The reader, not the publisher, is in control. When you have lots of choices for where to find content, you’re in the driver’s seat, not the content producer. Jeff Jarvis puts it this way:

The days of doing business by telling customers what they cannot do are nearing an end. If your customers want to watch your shows, listen to your songs, read your news, or play your games, can you still get away with telling them they cannot unless they come to you and use your devices, pay your fees, and follow your rules? That could work in a scarcity economy in which you owned all the stuff and the means to get it. But no more. Business isn’t about control any more.

3. Consumers demand content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. When the readers are in control, publishers make money by giving them what they want, not by trying to limit their choices. Many readers will want to read their magazines on the iPad, and publishers should offer that choice. But the same readers, at other times and in other circumstances, may also want to access the same content on the Web or in print. Publishers who want to survive will give them those options as well.

In support of his argument, Seckler says that “Apple has already shown with music and apps that people will pay for content they want.” But the iPod and iTunes didn’t succeed by limiting availability or attempting to create scarcity. They succeeded by offering a convenient option for downloading and playing music. Every song on iTunes is available for free somewhere else, legally or not. But users prefer the greater convenience and ease of Apple’s system, and are willing to pay for it.

Products like the iPad will give magazine publishers and readers an exciting and valuable new way to experience magazine content, one many readers will gladly pay for. But it should be another way, not the only way. The salvation of the magazine business won’t lie in rejecting one medium of distribution in favor of another, but in embracing them all.