UPDATED: UK magazine publishers quick to adopt Apple’s ‘newsstand’ but face angry backlash from iOS readers

Three of the biggest publishers of the UK have just launched almost 100 of their biggest brands in to the iOS Newsstand in one go - is this a triumph for digital publishing, or is it recipe for disaster? Does the reception that some of the bigger 'household names' have been getting in the app store suggest the latter?

Cosmopolitan UK Apple iOS Newsstand

This piece has been updated to include a statement from Damian Butt, one of the founders at Imagine and Group Managing Director at Imagine Publishing Ltd.

Apple’s iOS Newsstand has seen considerable uptake amongst the big players in the UK magazine industry. With Future Publishing bringing 55 titles to Newsstand, The National Magazines company 21 titles, and Imaging Publishing brining a further 20 to the party, it looks promising – an indication surely that the magazine industry in the UK is serious about offering it’s content electronically – harnessing new mediums like the iOS platform. You’d certainly be forgiven for assuming this although a closer look at what is being released on the app store is disappointing to say the least.

But despite Future Publishing, for one, racking up two million downloads in four days – you only have to look at the App store reviews to get an impression of what format these magazines are taking. Besides – are these figures even surprising? Especially given that the iOS editions of all of their magazines are ‘free’ with in-app purchases; how many of these downloads will be downloaded only to be opened once – only to become part of a statistic?

UK Magazines iOS Newsstand

Together, the three big publishers in the UK have released almost one hundred of their household brands in Apple's iOS Newsstand

A number of issues have been expressed – namely the pricing of the magazines being the same as, and in some cases well in excess of the physical magazine or physical subscription price. The experience isn’t worth the money either – aside from not receiving the free gifts, cover discs or other perks that you might get with a physical magazine, the apps all lack any interactive content. In fact – it appears that the publishers are just pushing the same PDF they send to the printers, on to the screens of their iOS subscribers. The reader experiences nothing more than a static image or ‘scan’ of the magazine itself and this raises real usability issues.

One of the magazines which has faced the most criticism is National Magazines’ Cosmopolitan UK. ‘Skattebul – one of many negative reviewers in the App store expressed their disappointment - ”Stop ripping us off Cosmo. This should cost less when you factor in all the resources you save on:”  Anne Byrne took things further - ”…thought a digital copy was going to be less expensive, put me off purchasing” whilst Lauren France again, raised issue with the price ”£3.99 per issue? Half the magazine is normally advertisements anyway, what a useless app”. Maewen pointed out that “This months issue has a big £2 sticker on, why does this cost me £3.99? – and the magazine even has freebies”, whilst reviewer Emma reiterated the same sentiment “£3.99 per download edition when it’s only £2 in-store physical copy? No way!”

Cosmopolitan UK Newsstand Reviews

Negative comments adorned Cosmopolitan UK's reviews page in the iOS app store just days after launch

To add insult to injury, other reviewers picked up issues aside the price being twice as much as the physical magazine. Susie added “Print too small, cannot enlarge”, whilst Chloe Kirton, went further – “…not only are the issues expensive, the actual experience of reading the material is just terrible! Just a PDF shoved in bad quality on my screen. Why put no effort in to making it work on my phone?” “…and the content of the free issue is a complete insule to women in general” Others noted that there were no interactive elements to the iOS version of the magazine, with reviewer Emma noting that “The magazine claims it offers “loads and loads” of interactive qualities – but users report there are none whatsoever.” iPhone user Mel even went as far as saying “I don’t actually want to buy this magazine anymore as they just want to rip us off”, and a further review said ”E mag management resign, as your stupid brains damage cosmo image”.

Whilst this could be taken at face value and easily dismissed – one can glean real issues for this. Does releasing a sub standard ‘app’, or poorly produced digital content potentially damage a brand? Could this genuinely impact their brand identity, and sales of their physical magazine? If they aren’t willing to invest in proper time and money in to producing a high quality digital version – is it worth holding off for the time being?

Cosmopolitan UK was not alone in attracting frustration, anger and confusion. Popular mens magazine Esquire met similar criticism. One reviewer was seeing drawing comparisons to US offerings “…charging more than double the cost of a print subscription over a year or the same per issue for a barley altered scan of the magazine, what an absurd con, especially in comparison to the excellent US Esquire iPad offering“, whilst Pete echoed what is being said across the board amongst almost all UK magazines from Imagine, Future and National Magazines – “I should have read the reviews, this magazine is basically a PDF of the real one, no extra content or interactivity”, others even said they didn’t renew their print subscirption because they were anticiparting a good iPhone or iPad version – but said  now they will simply make do with competing magazine ‘GQ’.

Guardian Wired iOS Newsstand

The Guardian and Wired Magazine are noted as two publications in Apple's Newsstand doing things right

Readers of Mens Health again raised issue with the piece, saying “surely the money they save selling the magazine electronically should be passed to the consumer” – it seems there is a widespread perception that a digital version should be significantly cheaper than the physical edition. Robert brown summed up the opinions of many – “I can buy the paper copy for the same price as this paper copy, but at least I get something of value”, and Alicja Stachura had similar comments about ELLE Magazine (not to be confused with ELLE US) – “You don’t need a paper, you don’t need ink – make this app cheaper than your magazine!”  The same bad reviews were also seen for Total Film Magazine. The criticism stem clearly from the perieved lower overheads, with no printing, distribution, postage costs, and have an expectation that digital content should be priced less. It does appear however that where more interactivity is offered, the publisher can easily get away with pricing it the same as the print edition – one only has to look to the Economist or The Guardian for instance to see how successful adding even the simplest forms of interaction have been, but perhaps it isn’t the ‘interaction’, but more bothering to produce something which is bespoke and produced for the iOS device instead – as opposed to placing what is essentially a static image of the print magazine in front of viewers – the same format, the same layout and absolutely no changes. Judging by the reviews in iOS app store, it would appear that people are willing to pay a premium for a well designed, fully featured and interactive app – one which feels as if time and effort has gone in to it – and where the reader feels valued and thought about.

Criticisms were, as one would  expect, far longer winded and profound when  gaming magazines, or technology magazines were concerned. Readers of The Official Xbox 360 Magazine said that “…this is very dissapointing, especially for a magazine that discusses cutting edge technology”, continuing to say that “Empire magazine charges the same as the print edition but it is thoroughly worth it with interactive trailers – but all this is is the PDF that they send to the printers!” Duncan Bailed added “Everything considered, if I want to read OXM, it won’t be through newsstand”

Edge Magazine Apple iOS Newsstand

Popular games magazine Edge is just one of many well established and widely recognised magazines now appearing on iOS in this format

Reader of premium gaming magazine EDGE Kotatsu Neko commented that “the lack of effort shown in porting this to iOS is truly stunning, all Future have done is dropped each magazine page into newsstand as a jpg – contrast this with The Guardian who have built a beautiful and highly interactive and fully reformatted newsstand implementation” [launched just five days ago, and priced at £9.99 per month] going on to say “…this is a farce and Apple shouldn’t allow such staggeringly lazy stuff on the newsstand”. Others added that “This is just a series of images of the print edition – The publisher should take a look at other amazing apps like National Geographic, and The Economist.”, whilt Chris Wales pointed to Wired and GQ who seem to be doing things right – continuing to say that “Simply giving us  ascanned in version of the full magazine is not enough and cramming the existing format in to a much smaller surface area just does not work” Stephen Bell summed it up well – “Future Plc seem to be very lazy with digital versions of their magazines”.

So what are the wider implications of this? If the big players UK Magazine industry can’t pull itself together and provide proper digital editions for even some of it’s magazines – what does this mean for development of digital publishing as a whole. If these leading UK publishers can only offer something that is frankly, insulting to the reader – then is flooding the app store with this substandard content bad for digital publishing? Should Apple be tighter in it’s approval of such applications and should it disallow straight static ‘PDF’ copies of magazines in to the App store, to retain the integrity of the Newsstand? Otherwise – could this lead to fast demise of the ‘Newsstand’ – or is Apple just interested in the money right now - comprising quality for having these ‘big names’ on board? And what of these well established household brands (including Future’s Total Film, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, .net, Edge, Procycling, Digital Camera and X360: The Official Xbox Magazine, Imagine’s How it Works, Digital Photographer, iCreate, games™, SciFiNow, Photography for Beginners, Retro Gamer, Web Designer, Total 911, Apps Magazine, Play, PC GamerPhotoshop Creative, 3D Artist, Smartphone Essentials, Advanced Photoshop, Digital Artist and Linux User, and Hearst’s ELLE, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar; Luxury titles such as Country Living, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, Coast, Prima, Prima Baby, Psychologies; and  Cosmopolitan, Company and Zest) – all of which are arguably now considered as poor offerings compared to other, more ‘interactive’ newsstand apps in the store.  Is releasing something so poor potentially damaging to 100+ titles from thee three big publishers – not to mention insulting to the writers, contributors and readers?

Imagine Publishing responds: Publishers quick to adopt Apple’s ‘newsstand’, face angry backlash from iOS users

UPDATE: We put the some questions to  Damian Butt (@ImagineMD on Twitter), one of the founders of Imagine and Group Managing Director at Imagine Publishing. His responses are published below, in their entirety.

Damian Butt Imagine Publishing

Founder of Imagine Publishing - the UK's fastest growing consumer specialist magazine publishers with 20 print magazines, 29 iPad apps and 27 websites.

We asked for responses from Damian Butt on a number of the issues raised in this piece, to which he responded

“One star reviews on the Newsstand Store are generally being left by people who do not realise that ALL magazine apps within Newsstand are being marked as “Free” by Apple as part of its policy for Newsstand. This is not being set by the publishers, who would prefer to charge for the Newsstand apps and then give away a free issue within it. This is how Imagine operated for over a year before Newsstand was launched, and it worked well.

The large number of one star reviews do not in any way reflect people’s feelings about the magazines themselves, just the way they are displayed in Newsstand. Given that these magazines are in some cases being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, the number of one star reviews is a tiny proportion of people who don’t understand how Newsstand works.

He then answered more specifically on three issues which we highlighted:

1. The magazines in ‘newsstand’ are criticised as being significantly overpriced – more expensive, or at least very similar to the full price of the physical magazine, despite nothing more being offered… 

“This is not true, Imagine’s digital magazines on Newsstand offer a significant discount on the printed editions, usually around 40%.”

2. The magazines offering no interactive content, no iOS exclusive content – and just being a static PDF which has hard to read and offers bad user experience

“Simple magazines in digital form do not offer a bad user experience – they are quicker to download, simple to use, and in our research, preferred by our readers, especially  when compared to 500Mb downloads with pointless movies they are never going to look at. People who argue that digital editions must feature ios content or interactive content are missing the point, and many publishers are now reverting back to the simple format because it is preferred by readers.”

3. The magazines are very hard to read on the iPhone…

“Not true if you zoom in, but then what do you expect with such a tiny screen? The iPad is much better. Imagine’s magazines were the first to be available on iPhone and we have not received any complaints of this nature.”

He then continued to say that…

“Millions of people worldwide have been enjoying Imagine’s magazines on iPhone and iPad since early 2010 and we have received nothing but positive feedback on the simple format and the quality of the publications. There is no negative perception associated with the apps not being bloated with ill-judged interactive content, because people just want to read and enjoy quality content without unnecessary bells and whistles. Sometimes simpler is better.

You will also note that many of our competitors have now moved away from the bloated app model to a more simpler approach.”

What do you think of this response? Share your views below…