On a family vacation in Florida when I was a boy, there was this gaudy, colorful building sitting off by itself on the side of the road. I think it had a big “free admission” sign on it, because someone remarked on it to my father, and Dad said, “It’s free to get it, but it’s not free to get out.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. To tell you the truth, I’m still not exactly sure.
I thought of that today when we got a customer service complaint from a customer who had downloaded an app from iTunes that he thought was from us. It reminded me of situations where “getting out” might not be easy.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a digital magazine skeptic. Despite all the hoopla and excitement about digital magazines, actual experience has been underwhelming. There are only a small number of people who want to read magazines on their tablet, and in general, converting a print magazine into a digital magazine is a fool’s errand. A print magazine is simply a different animal than the digital … whatever it is.
Whether the digital edition is a “replica” or some other version specifically designed for a digital device, it’s a different product than the print magazine. And just as you can’t expect that apple buyers will buy oranges, I don’t see any reason to believe that magazine subscribers will want to buy this digital whatsit. And it’s not just a question of doing it well. It’s a different product for a different market.
The stats support my skepticism. While everybody reads (and plays games and socializes) on devices (almost all the time), digital magazines have not caught on. They make up a pitiful percent of magazine subscribers.
So I’ve not been a fan of making the investment to convert a print magazine into a digital … something. If you want to serve your audience on digital devices, I think it’s much smarter to throw away everything you believe about magazines, start from scratch and make a new product specifically for digital devices. Don’t call it a digital magazine. It’s something else entirely.
But I digress. I was intending to talk about this customer, his poor experience, and the business lesson that comes out of it.
You need to know a little background. The company I work for doesn’t actually have any apps in the iTunes store, although some magazine vendors have created “branded apps” for us — with our title and our name.
I know that sounds like a strange distinction, but here’s how it works. A company like Zinio, Magzter or Picsean — that provides digital editions of magazines — approaches us (and other publishers, of course) and asks to convert our magazine into their format so that they can sell it in iTunes. They include the magazine in their own storefront, but they also include an app under our name.
The consumer doesn’t know any of this. He simply sees an app that is apparently from us, and he has a lousy experience with it.
Let’s say that we take a look at the app and agree with the customer that the app is no good, so we decide to end our relationship with the vendor. Here’s where “free admission” might have the kind of trap my dad was talking about.
Subscriptions are a rolling thing. It’s not as if everybody starts Jan. 1 and ends Dec. 31. So there are people out there who bought a subscription to our magazine through this (apparently) crappy app, and expect to get their year out of it. If we were to simply stop publication — even if our contract allowed that — then the subscribers would be owed refunds for the unused portion of their subscription.
Who pays for that?
A common option in this situation would be to stop all new subscriptions and serve out the remaining terms of the people who have already purchased. But does our contract with the vendor include that sort of provision?
Or, what if we decided to build our own app, and we wanted to transfer everyone from the lousy app to ours? Once again, does the contract allow it?
The larger point here is that it’s easy to get into these sorts of relationships, but when you’re dealing with subscriptions and recurring revenue, it’s not always easy to get out. It’s important to make sure you have an exit plan before you go through the gaudy pink door.
If you’re interested, here are some of my other articles on the subject of digital magazines:
- Why print books are better than digital, and my recommendations for eBook readers
- It was the issue with the tiger on the cover
- Why the cool kids misunderstood the actual kids
- Navigating print v. digital prices, and should publishers push either print or digital?
- Congrats on your old-fashioned tablet app
As always, please feel free to share or recommend this to anyone you know who might be interested.