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IDG: e-magazines 'not good value'

'Sometimes discouraging'

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One of the most successful publishers in the e-magazine market has warned his rivals that the technology is not proven to be good value. Patrick Kenealy, CEO of IDG, told the Quvu e-magazine publishing forum in New York last week that for many titles, the effort of producing a digital edition of a successful magazine, was not worth the cost.

"Digital distribution of magazines is a business which is sandwiched between the Internet, where readers and advertisers are convinced there is value, and print where we come from," said Kenealy, keynoting the forum in the New York Hilton hotel.

"It's like 8-track, a technology which was squeezed between reel-to-reel and cassette," Kenealy said. "We feel we have to invest in the web and defend our turf, and there's much debate internally about whether this is another small distribution idea like CD-ROM or bind-in tape, or something huge like the Internet."

In his presentation, Kenealy warned that he was going to do a "dangerous thing, and tell the truth, mentioning real numbers, sharing some success, and reporting some challenges". What he had to say was not always entirely welcome in a forum where several companies like Texterity and Qmags and Zinio, market leaders in e-mag publishing software, were hoping to increase the hype, rather than deflate their fledgling industry.

Kenealy drew a sharp distinction between true e-magazine publishing - sending a replica of a paper magazine to subscribers who chose digital distribution over postal delivery - and "putting a title on its own website". He said: "If you think having a website for a title is a form of e-publishing, then we're very successful at it. But we've done a big internal survey of true e-publishing, and it's sometimes discouraging."

When it works, Kenealy said, it brings real benefits. Benefit one: quick delivery, with the new subscriber not having to endure a four-eight week wait for their first issue with instant delivery as you order; and benefit two: for international subscribers, who normally don't get their issue on time, "they love getting [an] early edition."

But the response to a trial by a business-to-business title like ComputerWorld was less encouraging, he said. "We served 822 copies per week for 21 weeks via Qmags between May and September. A total of 17,262 copies were sent to free qualified subscribers - people we acquired via telemarketing, and who were in addition to the rate base."

People signed up to receive these copies, and yet, Kenealy said regretfully, download rates were low, never higher than 26.5 per cent and as low as 8.3 per cent; 44 per cent never downloaded. Only 35 subscribers downloaded each of the 21 issues. "It was clear that we could do a lot of things better than we were doing," he admitted, but even so, Kenealy was clearly sceptical about the value of extending this.

He showed figures, which were not a tribute to success. Download percentages are the number of people who signed up, received an email notification that their copy was ready for download, with a URL to click on - but who simply never clicked. These download percentages started at 26.5 per cent, then dropped steadily, down to 8.3 per cent at the end of the experiment.

Other titles were very encouraging, however. "We did this testing with 6-7 other IDG cc magazines. With Network World we had a slightly different offer, and there the top download percentage is 76 per cent and bottom is about 50 per cent - a wide variation. But with ComputerWorld, 44 per cent of the people who filled in a complex qualification form with 12 questions in order to get it ... never downloaded a single edition!"

But despite seeing lukewarm to chill response from magazine publishers in the group, Kenealy felt the experiments would continue.

The technology, he felt, is still "only just about acceptable" he said frankly. "The current user interface: it's spectacular on my 25-inch wide office flat-screen monitor. But at home on my 17-inch CRT it's not spectacular - especially with portrait lay-out - it is hard to read."

But if it's not ready for mainstream deployment, digital distribution appears to be of most interest to users with specific needs - international markets, particularly, Kenealy felt.

He pulled no punches: "The technology is being over-used by a few. Digital rights management (DRM) issues have not been resolved; and this is a big deal for PCWorld and MacWorld titles, who want to be clear about rights. Also, there are developments like geolocation software, credit card software, integration of all that is happening in the Internet world at lightning speed... it's slower in this world. The support tools around digital magazines are getting scarcer, and around the Internet, they are increasing."

For the future, he echoed the predictions of a recent media survey by AFAICS Research, whose report "Developments in e-book and e-magazine reader technology" pointed at the emergence of data format standards as the key development of the future: "We make the general observation from afar: that the reader base is going away from individual readers to browsers and Acrobat."

Fighting about standards, he said, was proceeding very much as the industry fighting about laser printer standards 10 or so years ago. "That could be messy for a decade," he said.

Kenealy concluded that the vendors should get together, and promote some "real research" figures - not "organised crime" - internal figures. And he encouraged publishers to persist, especially for international sales - "and don't buy into vendor research figures!" ®

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